Terrorism: the Afghan war redrawing Central Asia ‘Silk Route of Terror’ (part 2)

LONDON (TCA) — Some attempts have been made to draft a rough sketch of the “Silk Route of Terror” but mapping it proves a bit hard. Besides, that map could fundamentally change if somehow the Afghan government manages to forge a compromise with the Taliban rebels. Presently there are two itineraries for Central Asian would-be terrorists. Either they move from their home country in Central Asia to Turkey, from there to Syria or Iraq, then to Afghanistan and back home enriched by experience and evil plans, or from Central Asia they pass into Afghanistan, from there to the Near-East battleground and back, through Turkey or directly. In both cases, the significance of Afghanistan as a transit hub and training ground is on the rise.

In an interview given to China’s state news agency Xinhua by the Afghan ambassador to Islamabad Omar Zakhilwal, it was revealed that Kabul is preparing the ground for negotiations with the Taliban. It is well known that the Taliban, although dominated by Pashtun tribes from the south of Afghanistan, also include an important number of ethnic Uzbeks, Tajiks, Kyrgyz, Kazakhs and Turkmens as well. The Afghan government has remained mute on the news. But as in Syria, an eventual compromise will not lead to peace but to the next war: all against ISIS and Al-Qaeda. This is what Russia and China would like to see, in order to keep their own troops in the barracks and let others fight it out on the battlefield.

Terror cells

Central Asians on the ground include minorities living in Afghanistan but also “volunteers” from their respective former Soviet republics to the north. In particular the last group is thought to be joining IS leaving the Taliban, with some of them to undergo training in Afghanistan, while others have had training in Turkey and fighting experience in Syria or Iraq. For their countries of origin, these are the most dangerous of them all, not in the least because they have no lack of fifth columnists where they come from. On January 18 this year, a specialized newsreel focusing on anti-terror combat in Central Asia, called Caravanserai, reported how a gang in the north of Kazakhstan was dismantled in late summer last year, and the culprits brought to justice recently. Authorities fear that the overall trend the group represents is far from exceptional. Young people anywhere between Dublin and Vladivostok are getting stuck in frustration with outlooks of “proper” education, a “proper” career and all other aspects of an entirely predictable suburban life ending on a suburban deathbed.
One example is the story of a stranded terrorist movement apprehended by the law in northern Kazakhstan in late summer last year, as reported recently by Caravanserai. “The convicted militants met in two venues to plot attacks — a schoolyard and an apartment, the court found,” the report reads. “They had in their possession two hunting rifles and ambitions to attack police, nightclubs and shopping malls. The group began holding meetings August 19 with Sagynysh Kudaibergenov as its “emir” and Yeleman Baltabayev as treasurer. The court said Kudaibergenov even had ambitions to strike abroad. Abilkhair Zhalgas and Nurzhan Sabitov, also convicted, agreed to join the group and participate in committing terrorist acts. Its operating life was short, though: police arrested seven members of the group August 28-30.”

A more advanced terror cell was dismantled shortly before. “On June 26, in Balkhash city and the village of Gulshat … authorities thwarted a radical group that planned to commit terrorist attacks with improvised explosive devices,” the Kazakh National Security Committee (KNB) was quoted by Caravanserai as stating. “When authorities in the province were rounding up the suspects, one blew himself up. Police arrested the remaining five suspects. All of them are local residents and Kazakhstani citizens, KNB Chief Vladimir Zhumakanov said at a news conference in Astana June 30.” In similar interventions, security forces dismantled several similar groups through the summer in Karaganda and in western Kazakhstan.

Socioeconomic constraints

“The Kazakhstani National Security Committee (KNB) has prevented 27 terrorist acts since 2013,” Caravanserai reported on February 9 this year. “The KNB prevented eight terrorist attacks in 2013, three in 2014, four in 2015 and 12 in 2016. It also stopped 546 Kazakhstanis from travelling to war zones like Syria and Iraq, according to the document. During that time span, 79 Kazakhstanis returned, either voluntarily or against their will, from terrorist training camps and other terrorist sites abroad, according to the KNB. Thirty-four of them were prosecuted in connection with charges of terrorism.”

In a region of the world where a large majority does not have the financial means to let the good times roll, money does play a role in the formation of terrorist groups. In a separate report posted a month earlier, the media outlet related: “The KNB has thwarted attempts by some Kazakhstani citizens to finance terrorist and extremist activity. Money transfers varied from 5 million to 76.6 million KZT (US $15,000 to US $230,000), according to the KNB. […] Meanwhile, the KNB is working to identify a Kazakhstani native with the alias Abu Fayza, who allegedly embezzled US $1 million (333 million KZT) [with the aim to co-fund] the ISIL in Syria.”

In Kyrgyzstan, where socioeconomic constraints are much heavier than in oil-rich Kazakhstan, youths join terrorist gangs more easily accordingly. Thus, in June 10 last year authorities in Bishkek detained four suspected members of Jaish al-Mahdi (JAM, Army of the Righteous Redeemer of Islam), including the terrorist group’s suspected leader, a 36-year-old man called Beknazar Mamytov, described by authorities as a “hardened ex-con”. “All four are accused of committing crimes to promote extremism and of recruiting young Kyrgyz to join ISIL in Syria. They face charges of carrying out a number of robberies and participating in extremist and terrorist acts,” Caravanserai reported at the time.

Central Asia militants

In Afghanistan, where government forces are engaged in combating a strange brew of local “Islamic” fanatics (Taliban) and “imported terror” in the form of Al-Qaeda and Daesh (ISIL), they recently bumped into alarming numbers of “foreign” activists in arms entrenched in various parts of the country. “Tajik and Afghan authorities are warning of an ominous build-up of militants on Afghan territory just across the border from Tajikistan,” Caravanserai notes in the same report. “The various militant groups represented contain Tajiks and other foreign fighters, Tajik Interior Minister Ramazon Rakhimzoda said at a Dushanbe news conference on January 20 attended by Caravanserai. According to our information, the number at the … border varies from 10,000 to 15,000, he said. This situation is arousing our concern.”

Similar concerns are keeping the authorities of neighboring Uzbekistan busy. “About 1,000 natives of Uzbekistan are fighting alongside ISIL in Syria,” Caravanserai reported in mid-January this year quoting an unnamed Uzbek security source. “Uzbekistanis in Syria represent a mix of some who joined the Islamic Movement of Uzbekistan (IMU) and Hizb ut-Tahrir 20 years ago and others who became radicalized in recent years through the internet, he said, adding that other Uzbekistani militants are fighting in Afghanistan.”

Turkmenistan, whose authorities remain mute when it comes to details about its “fighters” alongside terrorist armies in the Near-East, is in a particular position here. The Turkmen diaspora, descendants of the Selyouq campaign’s troops from the Altai to the Levant in the XI Century, are spread over northwestern Afghanistan, northern Iran, the central-east of Iraq and the east of Syria. Most of them are fiercely anti-Daesh, while some of them are supported by Turkey in attempts to mobilise them less against Daesh than against the Kurds. “Turkmen officials and members of ethnic Turkmen anti-Taliban brigades in Afghanistan are conferring for the first time in decades,” Caravaserai reported last summer. “The Arbeki militias, based in the Faryab and Jawzjan provinces of Afghanistan, have been defending their villages from the Taliban and tying down Taliban units that otherwise could menace nearby Turkmenistan. Until now, Turkmenistan had done little to acknowledge the Arbeki militias officially. However, news broke in June about Arbeki commanders coming to Ashgabat for consultations with the Turkmen government.”

Governments warned

Local experts in Central Asia have repeatedly warned the governments of various Central Asia countries of the danger lurking in Afghanistan. The New York Post reported recently that “Al-Qaeda, meanwhile, has built massive new terrorist training camps — including one 30-square miles in size, the largest training facility the Pentagon has seen since 9/11 — signaling the group is gearing up to repeat its pre-9/11 horror of exporting terrorism from Afghanistan.” A new Pentagon report reveals that 20 terrorist groups, including ISIS, are now operating in Afghanistan. If with the support of China and Russia, the Afghan government and the Taliban find common ground against Daesh, fears could be grounded that this will change the civil war in the country from a politico-religious one into an ethnic one, with the Turkic minorities fighting with their back against the wall. This will require an entirely new approach by the governments of the republics to the north. For the moment, the prospect may well look imaginary, but they should nevertheless get prepared for it.