Argument

Jihadist Networks Dig In on Social Media Across Central Asia

Almost 500 extremist channels on Telegram, VKontakte, and other networks spread propaganda and vie for recruits. Most of them have ties to the Islamic State.

A man leaves flowers next to portraits of victims in front of the Reina nightclub where an Uzbek gunman acting on behalf of the Islamic State killed 39 people, in Istanbul on Dec. 31, 2017.
A man leaves flowers next to portraits of victims in front of the Reina nightclub where an Uzbek gunman acting on behalf of the Islamic State killed 39 people, in Istanbul on Dec. 31, 2017. YASIN AKGUL/AFP via Getty Images

Central Asia was long a digital backwater. Over the past decade, however, the region’s five republics—Kazakhstan, Kyrgyzstan, Tajikistan, Turkmenistan, and Uzbekistan—underwent a rapid digital transformation. High-speed fiber connections, mobile phones, and social media are widespread, while online services and tech hubs are proliferating. Yet the internet, as always, is a double-edged sword: As more Central Asians get online, they are being exposed to sophisticated extremist content in their native languages—and facing serious risks of radicalization.

Global jihadist movements have established a foothold in the region. Terrorist cells with links to Central Asia were purportedly behind attacks in New York and St. Petersburg in 2017, Stockholm in 2018, and Istanbul in 2019. Central Asian governments have struggled to contain organized terrorist activities, especially after several thousand battle-tested foreign fighters returned from campaigns in war-torn Afghanistan, Iraq, and Syria. Part of the reason they are so hard to control is because many Central Asian extremists have migrated online.

Central Asia’s new generation of digital extremists are working on fertile soil. They can target huge youthful populations facing a dismal future with dim educational opportunities, limited job prospects, and little social mobility. The region’s mean age is just 27 years compared with 38 in the United States and 44 in Western Europe. Authoritarian police states leave few outlets for meaningful political expression. To make their grievances heard, frustrated young men are turning to increasingly radical movements, which they can ever more easily find via social media or other online platforms.
Central Asia’s new generation of digital extremists are working on fertile soil.

While often home-grown, many of Central Asia’s violent extremists are connected to al-Qaeda, Islamic State, and Taliban networks. Their alliances are often fluid and motives wide-ranging. And they are not only trolling the internet for new recruits in Central Asian nations, but also casting out to a growing diaspora as unemployed young men seek their fortune elsewhere in the region, including neighboring Russia.

In Syria, for example, most Central Asian fighters operate under the umbrella of Hayat Tahrir al-Sham, a Salafist militia fighting the Assad regime. They include two essentially Uzbek groups, Tavhid va Jihod Katibasi and Katibat Imam al-Bukhari. These Uzbek groups also operate in Afghanistan, where they collaborate with the Taliban. Hayat Tahrir al-Sham is also active in Russia’s northern Caucasus region and includes jihadist groups such as Imarat Kavkaz and Liwa al-Muhajireen wal-Ansar. Their primary aim is to liberate Chechnya, Dagestan, and Ingushetia from Russian rule and they are busily recruiting from a large pool of Central Asian labor migrants in Russia.

There are also a handful of terrorist groups affiliated with the Islamic State that remain active in Central Asia itself, which typically use Uzbek, Tajik, and Russian. For example, Islamic State Khorasan, a group which takes its name from the historical region encompassing modern-day Iran, Afghanistan, and Central Asia, says it represents the terrorist network in those countries. According to SecDev Group’s online research, the organization claims it has operatives in Afghanistan, Pakistan, and Tajikistan.

What unites these and other ideologically disparate extremist factions is their reliance on social media to reach out to followers and sympathizers. SecDev has identified almost 500 separate channels used by Central Asian extremist organizations on Telegram, as well as Facebook, Instagram, Twitter, Youtube, and the popular Russian platforms VKontakte and Odnoklassniki—many using Russian, which is still the region’s lingua franca, but also Uzbek, Tajik, and Kyrgyz. There are more than 174,000 subscriptions to these channels and the total audience is estimated to be in the millions.
Tensions between Russia and Turkey are another prominent theme, often coupled with a call to arms in support of Muslim-majority Turkey.

Some extremist groups are more digitally active than others. For example, Islamic State groups including Islamic State Khorasan have the largest social media footprint in the region, with over 174 channels and more than 66,000 subscriptions to their various platforms as of July 2020. Hayat Tahrir al-Sham is not far behind, with 119 channels and almost 50,000 subscriptions. Other groups registered between 1,000 and 16,000 subscriptions. But it’s hard to know exactly how many extremists are active—and there’s a good chance they are being undercounted, since they increasingly use Telegram’s encrypted messaging platform to communicate.

Many posts from these disparate groups actively promote the use of violence to achieve political ends, including explicit threats and incitement to fight the “infidels,” wherever they might be. Graphic depictions of violence from Syria, Iraq, Libya, and other conflict zones, while less common than in the past, are still circulating. The channels also tend to link their own local causes to conflicts elsewhere in the world. As the fighting in Nagorno-Karabakh escalated this summer, for instance, SecDev detected increased chatter by Hayat Tahrir al-Sham-affiliated groups in Syria that supported Azerbaijan and Turkey. Tensions between Russia and Turkey are another prominent theme, often coupled with a call to arms in support of Muslim-majority Turkey. Much of this content is squarely targeted at Central Asian users.

Governments, internet providers, and social media companies are struggling to contain this torrent of violent content. The conundrum is familiar: As soon as a social media channel or account is blocked, new ones pop up again—ad infinitum.  And the more these efforts at content control are ramped up, the more violent extremist groups discover creative ways to bypass and circumvent them. Years of playing cat-and-mouse with the foreign and domestic governments have turned Central Asia’s extremist groups into experienced and agile online operators.

Most extremist groups are careful to retain rigid anonymity across their networks. They regularly use fake channels to throw off the scent of Russian and other intelligence services. In order to avoid becoming targets, extremist channels mingle run-of-the-mill religious and political content with more radical posts. Indeed, violent extremist content is often embedded in inoffensive videos, audio, and text. In short, it is often exceedingly hard to pin down. By now, these groups also know to rapidly distribute back-up hyperlinks and third-party channels when their websites are removed. Channel administrators often deploy bots and their own personal contacts to flood their subscriber accounts with hyperlinks before their channels are shut down.

Violent online extremists are also deftly removing content to keep the authorities from tracing it back to the source. For instance, SecDev detected a sharp drop in Telegram channels diffusing extremist content earlier this year. In recent months, there has been a modest, but perceptible, decline in the number of extremist channels across most platforms, which has led to dramatic reductions in subscriptions overall. This doesn’t necessarily mean the groups are shrinking—in fact, there are signs of groups resorting to back-up channels and encrypted communications to close the gap.
In order to avoid becoming targets, extremist channels mingle run-of-the-mill religious and political content with more radical posts.

Given these challenges, tackling digital radicalization cannot be achieved through online operations alone. On-the-ground investments by governments and civil society groups are key. One example of this is the comprehensive development strategy that the United States launched in 2019 to tackle the underlying risks of radicalization and extremism in the region. The strategy aims to stimulate economic growth through job creation, expand school opportunities for young people, strengthen the government’s ability to deliver basic services, improve the rule of law and respect for human rights, and provide assistance to neighboring countries such as Afghanistan that are magnets for foreign fighters. But the truth is that it’s just a drop in the bucket given the sheer scale of the challenges on the ground. What’s more, even the more successful programs are under threat of being derailed by Moscow, Beijing, Tehran, or Ankara.

Central Asia is at the center of a new kind of hybrid conflict in which the physical and digital worlds are blurred. In this kind of conflict, the disruption of violent extremist online content is just as important as counterterrorism, law enforcement, and development measures targeted at extremists and the societal conditions that lead to radicalization. Indeed, the process of radicalization intentionally combines virtual and physical interactions, using new tools to identify, groom, train, and deploy recruits. In this, governments, social media companies, and civil societies are facing a terrible challenge. Working together to fight the problem will be tricky, but the alternative is worse.

Kumar Bekbolotov leads SecDev Group’s Eurasia Program.

Robert Muggah is a principal at the SecDev Group, a co-founder of the Igarapé Institute, and the author, with Ian Goldin, of Terra Incognita: 100 Maps to Survive the Next 100 Years. Twitter: @robmuggah

Rafal Rohozinski is a principal at the SecDev Group and the editor, with Robert Muggah, of Open Empowerment: From Digital Protest to Cyber War.

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