The Radicalisation Enigma: The Question of Islamic Migrant Extremism in Russia and Central Asia
Updated: Jun 1, 2020
The predisposition of Central Asian migrant workers to radicalisation has long been debated. Leaving their home countries for the comparatively lucrative labour opportunities in Moscow and other Russian cities, the final destination for thousands of these migrant workers has in fact been Syria, where they have been integrated into the structures of the Islamic State. Often young, alone and without a sense of belonging, the vulnerability of Central Asian migrant workers in Russia has made them prominent targets for Islamic extremist recruiters for over half a decade. Various arguments have been made as to the causes of this problem, with many suggesting that repressive conditions in Central Asia – economically, religiously and politically – have pushed some citizens towards Russia and, by extension, into the hand of extremist recruiters.
The specific reasons for turning to extremism vary from one individual to another. The most popular argument promotes governmental oppression and limited opportunities in Central Asia as the overarching cause, but little work has been done to account for discrepancies between different trajectories of radicalisation. The Institute of Oriental Studies of the Russian Academy of Sciences (IOS RAS) has conducted extensive research on this, looking into the details of individual incentives, structural motives, enabling environments and migrant resilience as elements which can determine one’s vulnerability to extremist enticements.  Such a thorough system of analysis is useful for avoiding blanket explanations for migrant radicalisation, placing importance on more specific factors such as a migrant’s desire for status or their access to online extremist forums.
Importantly, the radicalisation of Central Asian migrants in Russia is a bilateral process, something which is too-often overlooked. The extremist recruiters themselves play a key role as intermediaries between the migrants and extremist organisations such as IS and are trained specifically to this end. The IOS RAS has headed some interesting research on extremist recruiters, highlighting how they, ‘like experienced psychologists, identify those … in a difficult financial position or a hopeless situation, and begin to purposefully and skilfully cultivate their victim.’  For example, recruiters seize upon the lacking social services made available to migrant workers in Russia, and thus incentivise them by advertising the childcare, education and welfare support for vulnerable families allegedly offered by IS. Interviews with ex-migrant workers in Moscow have revealed that Chechen recruiters would frequent their construction trailers and mosques, using persistence and intimidation as radicalisation strategies. 
It is also worth noting that in our increasingly interconnected world, the internet has its role to play in the process of migrant radicalisation in Russia. Rustam Urinboyev has written compellingly on how Uzbek migrants use the internet to create communities, or “mahallas” in Moscow.  He is not an expert on radicalisation, but his research demonstrates both the accessibility of the internet to migrants, and their desire to belong to a community away from home. For some, these communities are harmless and offer stability and camaraderie, but others have taken paths into darker corners of the internet which have the ability to push them towards extremism. However, the internet must not be viewed exclusively as a potential trap for migrants; it can also work to the opposite effect, building migrants’ resilience to radical enticements by helping them to combat loneliness. Albeit virtual, an online community can ‘serve as a main social safety net and risk-sharing institution for Uzbek [and other] migrants whose rights and needs are not addressed by the Russian or Uzbek governments.’  In this way, the internet can pose opportunities both for radicalisation and for avoiding it; what seems clear though, is that it can play a significant role in the migrant radicalisation process depending on how and why it is used.
But what threats do radicalised migrants actually pose to the Central Asian states and Russia? It might seem obvious by now that there is no simple answer to this question. However, what does seem clear is that the perceived threats they pose, whether real or imagined, largely revolve around their return from abroad. This concern has largely been driven by prominent Central Asian figures defecting to extremist organisations and pledging the establishment of a caliphate in the region. A prime example is Tajikistan’s former Special Service Chief, Gulmurod Khalimov who joined IS in 2015 and has since released multiple videos in which he threatens to return to Tajikistan and bring “slaughter”.  Governments are particularly fearful that radicalised migrants would be naturally attracted to authoritative figures such as Khalimov who are able to rally them around a cause allegedly devoted to their God. However, as political analyst Anna Gussarova has discussed, returning migrants can also operate inconspicuously, ‘[remaining] active in recruiting, fundraising and facilitating for terrorist groups.”  This activity is no less worthy of attention and can often be even more important in rationalising the harsher counter-extremist measures taken by Russia and Central Asia. As history has shown us, totalitarian governments are often most tormented by the idea of being destroyed by people from within their countries who have successfully avoided the attention of the authorities.
It is these fears which have driven the most widespread response to migrant radicalisation in Central Asia: one of religious oppression and crackdown. A partial explanation, but not justification for this might lie in the communist education of today’s Central Asian leaders. Under Soviet rule, piety was largely forbidden, and the evidence suggests that this mindset continues to carry weight in the contemporary regional governments. This has resulted in a Central Asian leadership which fails to engage with the appeals of religion and has consequently associated it more with extremism than innocent expressions of piety. Uzbek and Tajik measures stand out as particularly severe, with forced beard shavings, the closure of Muslim-run restaurants and bans on Islamic-dress all being commonplace.  However, these policies are undoubtedly linked to power politics as well as to counter-extremism. By generating an atmosphere of oppression, states are attempting to create docile populations which are not only resistant to the lures of radicalisation but are also unlikely to threaten the regime’s stability. This also applies to official political opposition with confessional backgrounds such as the Islamic Renaissance Party of Tajikistan. As Central Asian expert Noah Tucker has explained, there has been a ‘concerted effort’ by the Tajik government to conflate the party with IS in order to destroy its credibility and thus popularity.  By linking all Islamic expression to extremism, whether it be cultural, political or religious, Central Asian states have alienated their devout populations who typically share no links with radical organisations whatsoever.
John Heathershaw and David W. Montgomery have referred to this process as ‘the myth of radicalization’, wherein states exaggerate the extremist threat in order to secure the regime and to suppress opposition.  They raise the critical point that in doing so, they actually exacerbate the issue of radicalisation by encouraging pious citizens to seek religious community elsewhere. Coupled with recruiters who are trained to seize on this vulnerability, it does not seem far-fetched to argue that Central Asian regimes are driving something of a vicious cycle. Within the context of migrant workers, oppression at home can be a major factor in pushing them towards labour in Russia which, in turn, can expose them to radicalism. The idea that Central Asian states are actually partially responsible for driving radicalisation is becoming increasingly popular and must continue to feature in human rights discourses if the international community hopes to encourage positive reform in the region.
On the other hand, a certain initiative launched by the Kazakh government in late 2019 offers some nuance to this otherwise troubling situation. Despite providing its fair share of oppressive policies, Kazakhstan has also launched “Operation Zhusan”, a unique repatriation programme designed to reintegrate women and children formerly living with IS into Kazakh society. Known as The Rehabilitation Centre of Good Intentions, it offers meals, childcare and mental and physical healthcare to these individuals, pursuing a ‘soft touch approach to people affiliated with a terrorist group.’  Special UN Rapporteur Finnuala Ní Aoláin has argued that the initiative “shows much needed leadership on this critical global issue”, setting Kazakhstan apart from its neighbours in the fight against migrant radicalisation, and extremism more generally.  Despite this progress, it remains valuable to situate Kazakhstan’s efforts within the political agendas of its government, specifically its national image promotion campaign. The repatriation programme has been advertised excessively via various major news channels such as The Astana Times, whereas more oppressive anti-radical measures have been kept in the shadows.  For instance, Article 257 of the Kazakh Criminal Code involves harsher punishments for those with religious affiliations, demonstrating clearly that religious discrimination lives on in the country.  Thus, whilst the Kazakh response is mixed, practising Muslims continue to experience hostility which is keeping the risk of radicalisation alive.
The Russian response to migrant radicalisation is also significant, having provided the territory in which defections so often take place. There have been several proactive measures taken by the Russian authorities, such as the establishment of The Safe Internet League, designed specifically to limit digital radicalisation. By means of an accessible system through which internet users can report dangerous content, the scheme certainly suggests an awareness of digitally spread extremism as well as its on-the-ground counterpart.  In the same vein, Moscow authorities have recently introduced the “Migrant Workers’ Guidebook”, geared towards improving the integration of new arrivals in the city.  For instance, a double page spread reads: “основные правила трудоустройства в
городе москве”, meaning “Basic rules of employment in the city of Moscow”.  The following information explains various technicalities such as the acquisition of work permits, which migrant workers have regularly described as a complex process in interviews about their Russian experiences.  However, as with Kazakhstan, there are undoubtedly political agendas driving the promotion of such encouraging measures. The video marketing the guidebook was published by Ruptly, an offshoot organisation of the RT news network, run by the Russian government.  Despite the apparent progress being made in Russia to prevent migrant radicalisation, discrimination against migrants by Muscovite locals remains pervasive. This has led to an environment which detracts from the migrants’ ability to integrate, therefore increasing the chance that they may seek community in more dangerous groups.
A “one-size-fits-all” solution is unrealistic within the Russian and Central Asian contexts due to discrepancies in the economic, political and religious conjunctures of the region. However, recommendations are possible, and it seems clear that states must look inwards to tackle failures in their own governmental policies and to combat religious discrimination at its core in order to quell radicalisation. Only within these circumstances can positive measures flourish and religious expression become an unremarkable fact of everyday life. In the current geopolitical climate, however, discourses have recently moved away from the threat of radicalisation due to the pandemic, Covid-19. With the inevitable economic, demographic and political fallout it promises, it is highly likely that moves to thwart migrant radicalisation will remain dormant for the foreseeable future, as states look inwards to manage the health crisis. The effects of the pandemic must nevertheless be monitored carefully to ensure that an exacerbation of radicalising factors is avoided both now and in the years to come.
At the time of writing, Issy Williams is an MA student at SOAS University of London, where she studies Intensive Arabic with Near and Middle Eastern Studies. Her main interests involve contemporary power politics in Russia and the Middle East. This article was based on one of her recent academic submissions to SOAS.
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Cover image from Gabriel Domínguez, “Thousands from Central Asia joining ‘Islamic State’: Report,” Deutsche Welle, 21st January 2015, https://www.dw.com/en/thousands-from-central-asia-joining-islamic-state-report/a-18203785 (Picture-alliance/abaca/Yaghobzadeh Rafael).