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The Return of Foreign Fighters to Central Asia: Implications for U.S. Counterterrorism Policy

By Thomas F. Lynch III, Michael Bouffard, Kelsey King, and Graham Vickowski | Strategic Perspectives 21 | October 29, 2016

Executive Summary

Strategic Perspectives 21

Central Asia is the third largest point of origin for Salafi jihadist foreign fighters in the conflagration in Syria and Iraq, with more than 4,000 total fighters joining the conflict since 2012 and 2,500 reportedly arriving in the 2014–2015 timeframe alone. As the Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant (ISIL) continues to lose territory under duress from U.S.-led anti-ISIL coalition activities, some predict that many may return home bent on jihad and generating terror and instability across Central Asia. Yet several factors indicate that such an ominous foreign fighter return may not materialize. Among these factors are that a majority of Central Asians fighting for ISIL and the al-Nusra Front in Syria and Iraq are recruited while working abroad in Russia, often from low-wage jobs under poor conditions making the recruits ripe for radicalization. In addition, many of those heading for jihad in Syria and the Levant expect that they are on a “one way journey,” some to martyrdom but most for a completely new life, and do not plan a return.

Most Central Asian states face their greatest risk of domestic instability and violent extremism as a reaction to political repression and counterterrorism (CT) policies that counterproductively conflate political opposition and the open practice of Islam with a domestic jihadist threat. If improperly calibrated, greater U.S. CT assistance to address foreign fighter returns may strengthen illiberal regime short-term focus on political power consolidation, overplay the limited risks of foreign fighter returns, and increase the risks of domestic unrest and future instability. The United States has few means to pressure Central Asian regimes into policies that address the main drivers of domestic radicalization, such as political inclusion and religious freedom.

Although an imperfect instrument, U.S. security assistance—and the specific subset of CT assistance—is a significant lever. U.S. CT assistance for Central Asia should eschew additional general lethal assistance and instead scope security attention toward border security intelligence and physical capacity enhancements. This CT aid should be paired with important, complementary socioeconomic programs that help with countering violent extremism, including greater religious and political openness along with support for the Central Asian diaspora.