American media and ISIS have this much in common: They agree the next great jihadist recruiting ground could be central Asia. The region, at first glance, contains all the trappings for Islamist extremism. Its countries are Muslim-majority, slung under dictatorial regimes, and suffering through busted economic models. ISIS has made a continued, concerted effort to recruit in the region—playing into the hands of local dictators receiving massive American arms donations—and has made it clear that central Asia falls within the reach of a plotted caliphate. Vocativ, meanwhile, splayed a map of ISIS’s black flag across the whole region but for Kyrgyzstan, claiming Bishkek is the last domino to fall to the group. And the Washington Post recently ran a graphic that claimed more than 1,000 central Asians had joined ISIS’s ranks over just the past few months. Fortunately, these analyses ignore or misinterpret existing figures—and the fact that central Asia’s legacy of secularism and forms of Islam have helped staunch whatever designs ISIS originally had on the region.
This week, though, a trio of central Asians—two Uzbekistanis and one Kazakhstani—were picked up in New York on charges of attempting to aid ISIS efforts near and abroad. Before the next round of hyperbole, let’s take a breath. These latest would-be jihadists are outliers. Quite separately from nearby Afghanistan and Pakistan, central Asia, it turns out, has a strong immunity to Islamic extremism. And contrary to any facile, first-blush analysis you may have tweeted since the arrests, black flags won't be unfurling over the steppe any time soon. These former Soviet republics, now a quarter-century into their independence, have proven more hostile to ISIS than even the terrorists might have expected.
When I began seeing central Asia painted as a burgeoning cradle of radicalism, I thought back to the secular Muslims I know in Kazakhstan who have helped make the region a dry hole for attempted jihad. They’re the ones who have lived through a Soviet legacy of secular inertia—surrounded by Muslims whose religion during the Soviet period, when it was allowed, remained confined to state structures. The devout stood by the state, infusing their faith with a secular streak that remains widespread. There’s a reason you can find yourself in a small mosque in northern Kazakhstan, as I did not long ago, where an elderly man teaches you the proper procession of namaz before asking whether you’d like to split a bottle of vodka and plate of kielbasa. Piety can't trump the earthly pleasures of booze and pork.
The region has consistently greeted ISIS with disinterest and disgust; central Asian nationals constitute far fewer ISIS jihadists than Western Europeans. The legacies of animistic religions, those predating the arrival of the first Muslim, have infused regional Islam with a less literary, less messianic vision than that which ISIS espouses. Salafists and Wahhabists haven’t gained nearly the foothold they’ve found elsewhere. And the region isn’t anywhere near accustomed to the forms of violence that have beset, say, the North Caucasus. There’s no evidence a recent ISIS video featuring a Kazakh child (apparently) executing a pair of spies increased recruitment—and it almost certainly added to the litany of beheadings and mutilations that have dissuaded possible recruits. A Turkmenistani national told me this week that ISIS is little more than a gang, albeit one that operates under the banner of religion. And while the apparent Boston Marathon bombing Tsarnaev brothers hailed from central Asia, all evidence points to their radicalization coming long after they’d left the region.
So why the hyperventilation? For one, the region is distant and amorphous enough that America engages it, if at all, via pure guesswork. Witness The New York Times recently inventing the nation of “Kyrzbekistan,” and following quickly with a correction. And last fall, there was Director of National Intelligence James Clapper singing the dangers of the Al Qaeda-affiliated Khorasan Group, which took its name from a historic reference to part of central Asia as well as from ISIS’s descriptor for the region. “In terms of threat to the homeland," Clapper said, "Khorasan may pose as much of a danger [as ISIS].” Naturally, Khorasan has barely been heard from since. The overheated analysis has avoided scrutiny, largely because it involved a region whose immediate associations in the West are Muslims and “-stan" and not much else.
If the Brooklyn trio are found guilty, they would constitute the first public instance of central Asian nationals attempting to use ISIS, or ISIS connections, to attack the United States. But let the full complaint read as further evidence that ISIS poses no existential threat either to or from central Asia. According to the feds, one of the Uzbekistanis, 24-year-old Abdurasul Juraboev, began reaching out to a pro-ISIS website in early August. “Greetings!" he wrote. "We too wanted to pledge our allegiance and commit ourselves while not present there. I am in USA [sic] now but we don’t have any arms. But is it possible to commit ourselves as dedicated martyrs anyway while here? What I’m saying is, to shoot Obama and then get shot ourselves, will it do? That will strike fear in the hearts of the infidels.”
To call these three bumblers more aspirational than operational is to state the obvious. Yet even in their arrests, they may be ISIS's greatest success story in recruiting central Asian nationals, only because they garnered international press. This doesn’t mean ISIS has stumbled upon some novel appeal to central Asians—their methods of recruiting the three were similar to other methods ISIS has attempted with central Asians elsewhere. It means their bar for demonstrated success is thankfully quite low.
Hyping ISIS’s threat in central Asia does a disservice to all involved. Salafists and Al Qaeda have gained few adherents in the region. This is an area as far from falling under a black flag as Brooklyn. Central Asia, indeed, presents one of the strongest arguments for avoiding the knee-jerk conflation of Islam and ISIS. And if you believe otherwise, I know an old Muslim in northern Kazakhstan who will explain why over a spread of liquor and sausages.