False Claims but Real Threats: the ISKP propaganda campaign in Central Asia5 min read
On April 18, the Islamic State-Khorasan Province (ISKP) claimed that it had fired ten rockets at a military base in Termez, a city located near the Afghan-Uzbek border. While none of these rockets landed in Uzbekistan, this act of aggression has put the very real threat that the organization poses in Central Asia on full display. Before the assault, the ISKP had already launched several recruitment campaigns in the region and began publishing works in local languages, primarily Uzbek and Tajik. This latest attack seems to be another ploy to attract new members or at least an attempt to make their intentions clear to the Uzbek government. As these efforts by ISKP begin to ramp up, keeping tabs on these militant groups is becoming increasingly vital to ensuring future stability in the region.
The ISKP was established in 2015 as an off-shoot of the Islamic State in the Khorasan region, which comprises territories located in Iran, Central Asia, Afghanistan, and Pakistan. The organization aims to create a modern caliphate that would unite all the current nation-states of the region. In the beginning, most members were Pakistani militants. Today, it has far expanded its reach and holds a strong contingent of members in northern Afghanistan, where there are many ethnic Tajik and Uzbek enclaves. The ISKP has successfully recruited members from these communities by framing the Taliban as a Pashtun ethno-nationalist organization. Many of these groups, however, likely did not require much pushing as they fought against the Taliban during the war; mostly notably in the Tajik-majority Panjshir valley, the last region to hold out after the US pulled out of Afghanistan.
The organization has also gotten a stronger foothold within the rest of Central Asia after the Islamic Movement of Uzbekistan formally joined after breaking its ties with the Taliban in 2015. Since then, the ISKP has deployed several propaganda campaigns in the region through social media and publications. These campaigns have been led by Al-Azaim, the ISKP’s main media outlet. Many of the materials focus on the Taliban and have peddled ridiculous conspiracy theories, among them that the Taliban are agents of China, Russia, the US, Pakistan and Turkey. After the alleged attack on April 18, the organization published a video in which two armed men appearing in front of an ISIS flag declare it the beginning of a “great jihad to Central Asia.” In response, the Uzbek government announced that it would not succumb to any provocations; however, based on the ISKP’s current recruiting efforts, it does not appear this will be an isolated incident.
Despite the failure to launch the rockets into Uzbekistan, the ISKP has carried out over 100 successful attacks in the region over its seven-year history. Most of the attacks took place in Pakistan, including a suicide bombing in a Shi’ite mosque in Peshawar last month, which resulted in 58 dead and over 200 injured. They have also launched several attacks in Afghanistan, even before the country fell to the Taliban. One of the most significant was in August 2020, when the Islamic State attacked an Afghan prison and released nearly 2,000 prisoners, many of which belonged to the ISKP and the Taliban. However, there have been very few attacks within the post-Soviet Central Asian States to date. Among them was an attack in July 2018 when four cyclists were run over, stabbed and shot by an Islamic State militant. No attacks in the region have reached the scale of those carried out in Afghanistan and Pakistan, although there are fears that this might not always be the case.
There has already been discussion among the international community over how to respond to these security threats. The ramp-up of attacks carried out by the ISKP was in part due to US troops pulling out of the region. In the same month as their withdrawal, the US launched a targeted drone strike against the ISKP. However, this does not appear to have developed into a long-term strategy for combatting the organization with the country now under Taliban control. So far, the US has only set a reward for the location of the ISKP’s leader in Afghanistan, Sanaullah Ghafari, but has yet to carry out any more direct attacks.
Russia has also been very vocal about its concerns over the ISKP but has yet to take any measures to reduce the threat it poses to the region. According to Eurasianet, Russia’s Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov has voiced“particular concern” over the Islamic State’s plans to destabilize Central Asia “and export instability to Russia”. Despite this impassioned speech, how the country intends to turn these fears into action is unclear. Many experts are concerned that given the war in Ukraine, Russia would not be able to extend any military support to the region if it did eventually become necessary. This concern has been stoked by Uzbekistan’s condemnation of the war in Ukraine, which could potentially lessen Russia’s desire to aid the country.
Given the response to the missile attack in April, it appears that many in Central Asia do not consider the ISKP a large threat to the region. However, economic struggles brought on by fallout from sanctions on Russia, COVID-19 and political upheaval in the region has provided a lot of ammunition for the ISKP’s propaganda campaign. As the organization continues to expand its presence in the region, it is going to be increasingly critical to track its activities and plan for the possibility of more effective attacks within the borders of other Central Asia countries.