At present terrorist activity in Kyrgyzstan is minimal, as Kyrgyzstan is neither a main target or an exporter of terrorism, however it is reported that around 500-800 Kyrgyz citizens are fighting in Syria and Iraq. The groups that have an influence in Kyrgyzstan, the IMU, ETIM, IJU, ISIS and Hizb’ut-Tahrir, are primarily using the country as a source of recruitment. However as only Hizb’ut-Tahrir has any meaningful presence in the Kyrgyzstan, terrorist groups ability to conduct an intensive recruitment drive is limited. Nevertheless the ethnic tensions between the Kyrgyz majority and the Uzbek minority and the latter groups disenfranchisement appears to be a productive source of recruits. It has been reported that the majority of Kyrgyzstan citizens travelling abroad to join terrorist groups are ethnic Uzbeks. These revelations made by the Kyrgyz’s government, although not a surprise due to the neglected status of Uzbeks in Kyrgyzstan, has further exacerbated tensions by making it an ‘ethnic problem’ rather than a security or societal issue. Kyrgyzstan also provides another advantage for terrorist groups, financing. As the drug trafficking activity in the south of the country, in Osh and Batken provinces, is a potentially lucrative source of funding for terrorist groups.
Kyrgyzstan has a Sunni Muslim majority like the rest of Central Asia. However, the country has a tolerant stance on religious practice, meaning that the vast majority of Islamic practice is moderate and tolerant. Nevertheless, there has been reports of overzealous arrests made by Kyrgyz police against practising Muslims. However, these incidents remain very limited and not part of a coordinated strategy.
Due to the governments limited resources to combat an active insurgency, if pressure is increased on ISIS forces in Syria, Kyrgyzstan with its mountainous terrain and poor border control could prove a suitable safe haven. Kyrgyzstan jihadists have been returning from Syria since 2013, but their numbers are limited. However, Kyrgyzstan’s moderate Islam makes it a less achievable target than other countries in the region that have a history of Islamic unrest, such as Tajikistan and Uzbekistan.
Although the threat of terrorism in Kyrgyzstan is limited, the government and media have taken to reporting an upsurge in terrorist activity over the last few years. On greater investigation a lot of these incidents appear to have been exaggerated. On multiple occasions the stories facts have proved inconsistent and seem to involve criminal elements rather than radical Islamists. However, as the authenticity of terrorist activity cannot be fully ascertained, it is wise to be vigilant when in public places particularly in areas near public buildings.
The current threat of terrorism in Kyrgyzstan is low and this looks set to continue. However due to Kyrgyzstan’s mountainous areas particularly along it's porous borders there is a concern that Kyrgyzstan could become a potential terrorist safe haven. At present this seems unlikely.
However, there are legitimate factors that could heighten the terror threat. Firstly, if the economic situation continues to deteriorate in Russia and Central Asia it will cause greater instability and unrest. Which would provide perfect conditions for the growth of terrorist activity; particularly those with Pan-Islamic objectives, as they could use the populaces economic desperation to recruit followers as well as increase anti-governmental feelings.
Secondly, a change in the dynamic of current conflicts in Syria and Pakistan/Afghanistan. As international pressure comes to bare on ISIS they may look to expand into other areas and build a base away from direct pressure. This is particularly true of the Pakistan tribal belt as recent attacks by insurgents have targeted the Pakistani state. As a result Pakistan has become less tolerant of the use of the tribal belt as a safe haven for extremist groups. This may mean that mountainous Kyrgyzstan could become an attractive base of operations if a consolidated effort was made to disperse the extremists from the tribal belt.
Thirdly, if Kyrgyzstan becomes embroiled in another political crisis that leads to widespread unrest, it could quickly divide upon ethnic grounds. This would provide a perfect opportunity for terrorist groups to exploit. Although at present Kyrgyzstan’s politics is far from predictable the situation seems fairly stable.
State Counter-Terrorism Apparatus
Overall Kyrgyzstan counter-terrorism strength is improving. However, the systematic problems caused by internal rivalry, limited budgets, corruption, low salaries and an inefficient bureaucracy fundamentally weakens Kyrgyzstan counter-terror abilities. However, as Kyrgyzstan has powerful international support from both the west and Russia the momentum going forward will be towards improvement.
The Kyrgyzstan government has a strong will to combat terrorism. The State Committee for National Security (GKNB) is Kyrgyzstan's main state organisation for fighting terrorism. The GKNB and Kyrgyzstan has been receiving support from Russia’s CSTO, Europe’s OSCE and the US. This support has been in the form of anti-terrorism drills, education (radicalisation process etc.) equipment and financial support.
Although there has been marked improvements in certain areas, such as response times to bomb and insurgent threats. The lack of full cooperation between the security agencies, bureaucratic issues and limited equipment remains a serious concern. Further weaknesses are the lack of a terrorist screening watch list and the inability to properly vet subjects at the countries entry points, in addition to lacking the ability to conduct background checks and facial recognition. Another more significant weakness is the lack of intelligence sharing between Kyrgyzstan and its neighbours and other key security partners. Information is rarely swapped and when it is its usually only in the context of human trafficking or organised crime. However, since the crisis in Syria, Kyrgyz-Turk security cooperation has been improving, which is important as Turkey is the main entry point for Central Asian extremists into the Syria.
One of Kyrgyzstan’s greatest counter-terrorism weaknesses is its lack of inability to target money laundering or other terrorist fund raising activities. However, this is not due to lack of will, it is due to lack of expertise. Nevertheless, there has been a slow improvement since 2014.