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Analysis of the Drivers of Radicalization and Violent Extremism in Kyrgyzstan, including the Roles of Kyrgyz Women in Supporting, Joining, Intervening in, and Preventing Violent Extremism in Kyrgyzstan

By Anne Speckhard, Ph.D., & Chinara Esengul, Ph.D. Candidate

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Executive Summary

This article reports on field research undertaken in Kyrgyzstan during November 2016. It explores radicalization to violent extremism in Kyrgyzstan in general as well as women’s roles within Kyrgyzstan both in becoming violent extremists and in preventing and countering violent extremism.

Relatively recent inter-ethnic clashes in the south of the country, high unemployment, rapid shifts and changes in ideological, economic, and political structures following the collapse of the Soviet Union, an inpouring of Arab and Central Asian ideologies and funding that favor a strictly conservative practice of Islam, proximity to Afghanistan, the rise of global ultra-conservative traditions and jihadi narratives—against a backdrop of the Iraq and Syria crisis—and the increasing anti-government sentiments, especially on the part of ethnic minorities and marginalized populations, are found to serve as important internal and external radicalizing factors in Kyrgyzstan.

Kyrgyzstan ranks first among the Central Asian republics in terms of both total and per capita contributions of foreign fighters and travelers to the Syrian and the Iraq conflict, with many primarily joining ISIS. The majority of the foreign fighters have traveled from the predominantly Uzbek-populated south of the country. ISIS in Syria and Iraq and its local affiliates are the primary groups operating and radicalizing Kyrgyz people into violent extremism. However, nonviolent, but seditious, groups in the country may also function as “conveyer belts” into violent extremism.

While extremists in Kyrgyzstan include both men and women—far more men than women—the largest manifestation of them is from among the pool of those who have traveled to Syria. Kyrgyz female involvement in violent extremism is less than males, but still significant, with 22 percent of those having traveled to Syria and Iraq including females. While counter-terrorism officials often spoke of women as having little personal agency in their decisions to travel to Syria and Iraq, this report will present counter-examples of women taking the lead role in radicalizing family members, being Internet recruiters themselves, and showing a great deal of personal agency.


The Kyrgyz State Commission on Religious Affairs identifies nineteen illegal groups in Kyrgyzstan, sixteen of them as terrorist groups and three as extremist groups. The primary groups operating and radicalizing Kyrgyz people into violent extremism are militant jihadi groups operating in Syria and Iraq, primarily ISIS and its local affiliates. However, nonviolent, but seditious, groups may in some cases function as “conveyer belts” into violent extremism. Concerns exist over groups such as Hizb ut-Tahrir (HT), which is illegal in Kyrgyzstan, as well as dawa religious versus political groups, such as Tablighi Jamaat (TJ), which are concerned with spreading a conservative Deobandi version of Islam and some Salafi groups with teachings close to Takfiri groups (i.e. condemning and punishing all others, including Muslims, who do not adhere to their strict and violent interpretation of Islam).

Kyrgyz extremist national groups also exist and have become increasingly powerful in recent years, although this report is limited to studying the primary forces of violent extremism among Kyrgyz coming from groups operating out of Syria and Iraq or on the ground in Kyrgyzstan that provided ideological support or actual cooperation with groups like ISIS. It should, however, be noted that the nationalist extremist groups operating in Kyrgyzstan and abroad use violence and extreme humiliation to target female Kyrgyz migrant workers abroad, as well as Kyrgyz girls with boyfriends of another nationality, sexual minorities, and sex workers within Kyrgyzstan. Some human rights defenders and organizations argue that nationalist extremist groups operating within Kyrgyzstan, such as the “Patriots,” “Kyrk-Choro,” and “Kyrgyz Choroloru” are government created and funded organizations.[1] Former migration minister, Aigul Ryskulova, stated “it should not be excluded that these nationalist groups abroad are supported by nationalist-politicians and nationalist radical groups in Kyrgyzstan; therefore, these guys (Kyrgyz male migrants) engage in such actions, which allegedly aim to protect honor and dignity of the nation.”[2]

Of the nineteen illegal extremist groups identified by the State Commission on Religious Affairs of Kyrgyzstan, the fifteen designated as terrorist groups include: ISIS, al-Qaeda, Jabhat-al-Nusra, the Taliban movement, Islamic Movement of Eastern Turkestan, Islamic party of Turkestan (Islamic Movement of Uzbekistan-IMU), Eastern Turkestan Liberation Organization, Jihad Group, Jaish ul-Mahdi, Jund-al-Khalifat, Jamaat Ansarullah, at-Takfir val-Hidjra, Imam Bukhari Jamaat, Jamaat Oshihklari, and the Kurdistan People’s Congress. In addition, materials and propaganda of Hizbut ut-Tahrir, Said Buryatskiy, Akromiya, and Moon Church are designated as extremist in nature by law enforcement. [3]

Upwards of 38,000 foreign fighters are estimated to have joined Sunni militant groups in Iraq and Syria, including ISIS and al-Qaeda, since the start of the Syrian conflict in 2011.[4] Central Asians are well represented as foreign fighters, with the region being the third largest point of origin for foreign fighters in Syria and Iraq. While many of the Central Asian countries do not report official statistics on foreign fighters traveling to Syria and Iraq, the counter terrorism bodies in Central Asia estimate the numbers at two thousand six hundred foreign fighters.[5] Others estimate the numbers higher, at four thousand foreign fighters to have originated from Central Asia since 2012, with two thousand five hundred reportedly arriving in the 2014-2015 timeframe alone.[6]

Using the available data for comparisons in the Central Asian region, Kyrgyzstan ranks first in terms of both total and in per capita contributions (per million of its citizens), with Uzbekistan coming in second. (See Figure One). Counter-terrorism officials in Kyrgyzstan reported figures of 863 total foreign fighters between 2010 and June 2016, with 188 of them being women.[7] One hundred and thirty-five of the travelers are underage, with 91 departing with family members. The majority of foreign fighters (77.5%) traveled from the south of the country, predominantly populated by ethnic Uzbeks.

Multiple radicalizing factors and vulnerabilities exist in Kyrgyzstan. Relatively recent inter-ethnic clashes in the south of the country, high unemployment, rapid shifts and changes in ideological, economic, and political structures following the collapse of the Soviet Union, an inpouring of Arab and Central Asian ideologies and funding that favor a strictly conservative practice of Islam, proximity to Afghanistan, the rise of global ultra-conservative traditions and jihadi narratives—against a backdrop of the Iraq and Syria crisis—and the increasing anti-government sentiments, especially on the part of ethnic minorities and marginalized populations, continue to serve as important internal and external radicalizing factors in Kyrgyzstan. These appear to be the most salient radicalizing factors for men and women in recent years and are discussed in detail in this report.

Figure One: Central Asian Foreign Fighter Breakdown by Country

Source: ICSR and INSS (2015).[8]

This report explores radicalization to violent extremism in Kyrgyzstan as well as women’s roles within Kyrgyzstan both in becoming violent extremists and in preventing and countering violent extremism.

This report is divided into three sections. The first section consists of an examination of drivers or radicalization, including radicalization leading to violent extremism, in Kyrgyzstan. The second section introduces a discussion on Kyrgyz women’s specific vulnerabilities and roles in violent extremism. The last sections offer specific policy recommendations.

Defining Violent Extremism

This section briefly covers constructs such as radicalization and violent extremism. To fully understand policy implications of the intended research, the readers must become familiar with the constructs that form its foundation. The terms such as radicalism, radicalization, and violent extremism remain poorly defined and understood. While some authors equate radicalization with terrorism, radicalization is often a precondition to terrorism,[9] while others point out that it is not always the first step toward terrorism or violence. [10] In either case, radicalization represents a “process by which individuals are introduced to an overtly ideological message and belief system that encourages movement from moderate mainstream beliefs towards extreme views.” [11] Radicals are the ones who challenge status quo, though not necessarily through violent means and can also be positive forces in society. While the term radicalization is often equated with

the term extremism, there are significant differences between the two. There is a distinction between “open-minded (radicals) and close-minded extremists.” [12] Many government agencies in the West tend to make a distinction between “violent” and “non-violent” extremism, the latter often referred to as “cognitive” form of radicalization,[13]with the former being a form of radicalization that endorses violent solutions to political problems, including at times terrorism.

According to the Federal Bureau of Investigation (FBI), the term violent extremism is defined as “encouraging, condoning, justifying, or supporting the commission of a violent act to achieve political, ideological, religious, social, or economic goals.”[14] The term violent extremism is often intertwined with the term terrorism, meaning it is used synonymously with the term terrorism, and there is a lack of a precise definition of violent extremism and its relationship with terrorism. However, the UN Security Council Resolution S/RES/2178/2014, stresses the “link between violent extremism and terrorism”[15] and the need to prevent “violent extremism, which can be conducive to terrorism.” [16] While there are literally hundreds of competing definitions of terrorism, for the purpose of this report we are opting for a simple definition: political violence carried out by non-state actors and aimed at civilians for the purposes of influencing or achieving political, ideological, religious, social, or economic goals.


The report relies on field research undertaken in Kyrgyzstan between November 24 and Dec 4, 2016. An exploratory and qualitative research design was utilized to map unknown territory in Kyrgyzstan—that is, map the roles of women in extremism as well as examine the extent to which women are recognized and used by the government and non-governmental actors to prevent and counter violent extremism in Kyrgyzstan. The authors first engaged in a review of policies, strategies, and programs on countering violent extremism in the country. The focus was on understanding the extent to which current Kyrgyz governmental policies and programs integrate gender perspectives. Such approach, alongside consultations with the UN Women’s Office in Bishkek and use of an in-country UN Women’s hired consultant, led to identifying key participants who became subjects of the research. Interviews served as the primary data collection method, along with the collection of existing and in-draft policy reports. Semi-structured and open-ended interview questions were employed to allow research participants to identify and elaborate on problem areas, explain who could be trusted for solutions, and identify key gaps and opportunities for effective interventions and solutions.

Interviews were conducted with government officials, members of international and non-governmental organizations, embassy officials, community leaders, religious scholars, teachers, judges, NGO leaders, students, and ordinary citizens. Interviews were also conducted with extremists themselves and their family and community members in prison and the community. Although interviews served as a primary data collection method, the authors also relied on secondary sources and secondary data analysis, including key economic, employment, social, and health factors that may contribute to radicalization and violent extremism Likewise, all available credible reports on the phenomena generated by government, international organizations, and NGOs were collected. The entirety was then analyzed to understand better the roles of women in violent extremism, their vulnerabilities and motivations for joining such groups, as well as the potential to involve them in prevention and intervention efforts from the side of government, nongovernmental, and community interventions.

The following groups of respondents were interviewed:

  • State police (Ministry of Internal Affairs Central and Regional)
  • National security representatives (GKNB Central and Regional)
  • State civilian representatives
  • Representatives of national and international organizations, including non-governmental organizations with experience and knowledge about issues of violent extremism in Kyrgyzstan (e.g. UNDP, Female Breast Cancer NGO director, Search for Common Ground, etc.)
  • S. Embassy representatives
  • University professors and subject matter experts
  • Islamic leaders/teachers, including women Islamic leaders/teachers
  • Madrassa and Islamic preschool teachers and directors
  • Madrassa students
  • Community groups
  • Select UN agencies (e.g. UN Women and UNDP)
  • Human rights legal advocates
  • Judges
  • Ordinary citizens.
  • Convicted extremists (i.e. those in prison)
  • Community and family members of known extremists, including those departed to and deceased in Iraq and Syria

The authors traveled to Bishkek, Osh, Jalal-Abad, Aravan, Issy- Kul, and Bokombaevo village to interview and gain primary and secondary data from police, State Committee for National Security (GKNB) officials, NGO leaders and actors, students, lawyers, judges, religious leaders, university professors, and actual extremists and their family or community members. The researchers also gained permission to enter a female prison facility near Bishkek, located in the village of Stepnoe, to interview five convicted female extremists, two with ideological ties to a group aligned with ISIS. Interviews were aimed at having a good balance between secondary sources (e.g. government, NGO, international organizations, etc.) and primary data sources (e.g. actual extremists and their community and family members) to learn about female roles in violent extremism and how females can also be activated and supported to aid in prevention and spread of extremism in Kyrgyzstan.

Some Internet content about those involved in violent extremism, posted in their own words (e.g. on their social media accounts), was also collected after returning from Kyrgyzstan to enhance primary data collection. Data collection methods also consisted of building upon a two-decades career of interviewing and studying extremists and terrorists around the globe, and a thorough knowledge of existing literature and data on extremists and terrorist groups, such as al-Nusra and ISIS. Likewise, given that the first author spent the last year interviewing ISIS defectors globally, she was quite knowledgeable about their methods of recruitment, indoctrination, networks of funding, and travel, and was able to interview explicitly on these topics with all subjects who were able to divulge information of this type. Guiding questions for the field research were sent to the UN Women’s Office in Istanbul to help with the mission preparation.

Trajectories into Violent Extremism and Terrorism

Four factors are usually necessary to create a violent extremist/terrorist: a group, its ideology, social support, and individual vulnerabilities, which tend to break out by non-conflict and conflict zones. [17] In the case of Kyrgyzstan, groups like ISIS have been relying on a massive Internet-based propaganda campaign and face-to-face recruitment networks in Kyrgyzstan. Recruitment also occurs in places where Kyrgyz citizens migrate for work, all in an effort to bring the conflict zone to those outside of it and to draw Kyrgyz nationals into it. According to the police and security officials interviewed, the Internet based propaganda reaching out via the Internet and face-to-face recruitment were instrumental for the first wave of Kyrgyz citizens who became foreign fighters and also joined homegrown groups for attacks. For instance, the July 2015 shootout in Bishkek involved Kyrgyz and Kazak citizens who were members of a terrorist group affiliated with ISIS. They were shot dead in an incident where a number of security officers were also injured.[18]

According to police and security officials, Kyrgyz citizens who traveled to Syria generally joined ISIS rather than competing groups. The first wave of recruitment targeted the South of Kyrgyzstan, where Uzbek ethnics reside, many of whom feel blocked from participation in government employment and perceive or experience actual marginalization and discrimination. Recruitment was also aimed at Kyrgyz migrant workers in Russia and Turkey, who are often separated from their families, work long and hard hours, and are vulnerable to recruitment. The second wave of recruitment built on the first wave’s successful methods but also extended to making use of friends and relative’s networks of those who had already gone to Syria, using their positively offered experiences as a means to seduce their friends and family members into also joining ISIS.

Internet-based propaganda has been used to seduce many Kyrgyz into travel to Syria, urging them to extend support to their Sunni brothers and sisters under attack from Assad—and in some cases as a form of hijra (migration to Islamic lands) to help build the Islamic Caliphate and to take part in militant jihad (holy warfare). Internet-based propaganda and family and friends’ recruitment networks portrayed ISIS as a wealthy organization capable of paying competitive salaries and providing housing, as well as offering just and conservative Islamic living and a chance for success. Economically challenged individuals who were also religiously conservative and sensitive to perceived or actual, injustices were, according to police, particularly susceptible to this type of recruiting.

Hizb ut-Tahrir (HT) groups inside Kyrgyzstan have not carried out face-to-face recruitment or facilitated travel to Syria, according to law enforcement and intelligence officials, but have supported the idea of travel to Syria. For instance, in Issy- Kul, we were told by intelligence that HT leaders have clandestinely shared their sympathies for ISIS with their members, specifically stating, “Here we only talk about establishing the Caliphate. In Syria, our Islamic brothers are already fighting for it. We should support them.” In this regard, the banned HT group, as well as the openly operating Tablighi Jamaat (TJ), support a sense of working towards an Islamic “Caliphate,” which may also lay the groundwork for receptivity to ISIS recruitment.

In Kyrgyzstan, the groups recruiting for travel to Syria have primarily found resonance in Kyrgyz nationals that include the following individual vulnerabilities and motivations:

  • High unemployment
  • Minority ethnic status
  • Perceptions, and actual experiences, of ethnic discrimination and marginalization (i.e. injustice)
  • Material benefits of joining terrorist organizations—free housing, joining bonuses and salaries, food, and propane allowances
  • Desire for purpose and personal significance in the face of underemployment and unemployment, long and arduous working conditions, and boredom and dissatisfaction among youth
  • Concern for victims of Assad’s government
  • Recruitment into Salafi, TJ, or HT groups that lay the groundwork for recruitment into groups like ISIS that claim to be building the “Caliphate.”
  • Desire to build and live inside an Islamic Caliphate and under Shariah law
  • Desire and need (i.e. financial dependency) to keep familial ties intact when one member of the family is convinced to go to Syria
  • Offers of marriage and potential for adventure for women living without many possibilities
  • Calls and reassurances of safety; material rewards and spiritual righteousness from family members and friendship networks

While extremists in Kyrgyzstan include both men and women—far more men than women—the largest manifestation of them is from among the pool of those who have traveled to Syria. There are also extremists operating on the ground who are determined to attack locally, as evidenced by shoot-outs between terrorists and police and security officers in Kyrgyzstan in January 2011 and July 2015; the prison escape of nine prisoners convicted on religious extremism and terrorism related charges in October 2015; and the recent attack on the Chinese Embassy on August 30, 2016, organized by Uighur terrorists affiliated with Syrian Jabhat-al-Nusra. [19]

With ISIS likely losing its ability to hold significant territory in Syria and Iraq, coupled with evidence that it increasingly calling for attacks at home, alongside the return of ideologically and weapons trained foreign fighters, the levels of extremism in Kyrgyzstan may in the near future become more of a local problem versus one of foreign fighter recruitment.

Foreign Fighter Data

As of June 2016, The Kyrgyzstan Counter-Terrorism Police estimate the number of foreign fighters from Kyrgyzstan to be 863. One hundred and eighty-eight, or 22% percent of the total number, are believed to be women. One hundred and thirty-five (135) are under-age, with 91 of these having departed with family members. The majority of foreign fighters traveling to Syria and Iraq (76%) are from the south of the country and of Uzbek ethnic background.[20] Some cases are never reported to the government; thus, the numbers may be underestimated of the actual cases involved. While travelers to Syria and Iraq are labeled as foreign fighters, not all Kyrgyz travelers went to Syria to be fighters. Some believed they would join the Islamic State as support workers and live what they believed to be an Islamic life under the ISIS “Caliphate.” Likewise, some had children born there or traveled with children young enough to have no knowledge of their home country, language, or culture. We learned of some stopped from traveling, some of these women with small infants.

Demographic data on Kyrgyz foreign fighters are either lacking or are incomplete. Some may be hidden from authorities by covering their travel to Syria as work migration or other travel, or simply having gone unnoticed by authorities and unreported by their families and community members who may fear the repercussions for them should they return to Kyrgyzstan—ISIS returnees are usually sentenced between 3 to 20 years, depending on circumstances and consequences of criminal acts.[21] While official data are lacking, the interview data suggest that the age range of foreign fighters from Kyrgyzstan is generally between 22-27 and most, if not all, fall into four categories of underemployed or unemployment status: never had a permanent employment, were unemployed, were employed part-time, or are still students. A majority of them come from below average or poor financial and economic backgrounds. Many are married with children.

Discussion and Analysis

Motivational Sets and the Call of the “Caliphate”

As discussed in the preceding sections, factors such as high unemployment, minority ethnic status, material benefits of joining, and desire to build and live an Islamic State Caliphate and under Shariah law highly resonated in the case of Kyrgyz nationals who joined the conflicts in Iraq and Syria.

Since it declared its “Caliphate” in 2013, ISIS began promoting it as an ideal, utopian state where justice and prosperity would ultimately reign. In Kyrgyzstan, this played into a groundwork that HT activists had been laying for years. ISIS also began announcing and promoting their “Caliphate” as a place where Muslims of every race and ethnicity would be included and given significant roles, and where good salaries would be paid and housing and wives provided to foreign fighters, which created an unprecedented response, not only in Kyrgyzstan but also worldwide.[22]

ISIS propaganda very strongly promotes the individual responsibility of all Muslims to take hijra (migration to Islamic lands) as well as the individual duty to fight jihad (fard al-ayn). The group also preaches End-Times prophetic theology, citing the coming battles in Dabiq (Syria) and inviting all Muslims to join the ultimate apocalyptic battles. The ideological call is made to invoke a sense of duty while also promising materialistic benefits (e.g. free housing, cars, food, wives, slaves and propane allowances) alongside the chance to live by what ISIS proclaims as a truly Islamic lifestyle under Shariah law.

The terrorist groups’ propaganda and appealing narratives spread prolifically over the Internet, showing both the atrocities of Assad and the appeal of joining the End Times prophetic battle and building the ISIS “Caliphate,” along with the spiritual and materialistic benefits accrued by doing so, creating a powerful worldwide appeal. In Kyrgyzstan, the presence and widespread influence of TJ and HT teachings had already laid a fertile ground for ISIS recruiters to appeal to come join their “Caliphate.” Networks operating on the ground in Kyrgyzstan, Russia, and Turkey (where Kyrgyz migrants work) that provided financing and logistical support to travel to Syria also easily facilitated the movement of Kyrgyz into the conflict zone.

The ISIS invitation to militant “jihad” was successful for numerous reasons, including the advent of social media and the ability to cast an enormous propaganda net with immediate feedback as to who liked, re-tweeted, and otherwise endorsed their materials, allowing them to make contact with vulnerable individuals and seduce them into traveling to the battleground. Among those Kyrgyz who have traveled to Iraq and Syria during the last two years, or are currently engaged with terrorist groups in Iraq and Syria, specifically those who we were able to access for interviews directly or indirectly through relatives as well as gain information through data from police reports, we learned that the most common methods of recruitment were Internet-based. The primary motivating factors for joining included: religious and ideological motives that invoked the struggle as jihad in the name of Allah, protection of all Muslims by non-Muslims, and the creation of an “Islamic State” and establishment of a Caliphate, alongside strong economic motivations—that is, the lack of employment, under-employment, poor salaries, and demanding slave-like conditions facing migrant workers in the face of promises of much better salary and housing conditions under ISIS.[23]

Muslim Identity and Duty as a Vulnerability and Motivating Factor, alongside the Spread of Islamic Ideologies and Failures of Government Institutions and Previous Government-backed Ideologies

The majority of Muslims in Kyrgyzstan practice the Hanafi school of Islam, a traditionally liberal and moderate version of Islam, although Wahhabi influences starting in Uzbekistan over the past decades have spilled over slowly into Kyrgyzstan as well. The Chechen militant jihadi movement and their transition into the wider “Caucuses Front” also spread Wahhabi influence in the region. However, the most changes came with the fall of the former Soviet Union, when Turkey and Gulf country influences and large amounts of money and conservative religious materials quickly entered Kyrgyzstan, with many actors intent on building mosques and spread their versions of Islam. The later introduced Salafi and Wahhabi streams of Islam into the country, creating identity confusion for some Kyrgyz. Salafi Islam can be protective against militant jihadi ideologies of groups like ISIS and al-Qaeda if taught in ways that denounce their call to violence in the name of “jihad” and condemn Takfiri extremes (i.e. denouncing and allowing for killing Muslims who do not adhere to their strict interpretations of Islam). However, if it is not taught in this manner, Salafi streams of Islam can also provide a ready gateway into more extremist Takfiri streams of thinking and acting endorsed by groups like ISIS.

In the case of the former Soviet Union countries, the long established and functioning state apparatus and Communist ideology was suddenly dismantled, making way for governance that in many cases failed to provide fairly and well to the Kyrgyz people who experienced spiritual yearnings during and under the atheist Soviet regime. Educational institutions weakened, and literacy rates fell. Employment and provision of basic services were no longer guaranteed. Likewise, ideological indoctrination into Communism, starting with Pioneers to Komsomol to Party membership, no longer was part of the Kyrgyz and Soviet identity formation. As trust in government institutions lessened and governance was viewed as corrupt and failed in many regards, religious groups and leaders emerged as providing a new trusted ideology and paths for finding success in this life and the next. Salafi groups emerged, and with small infusions of foreign money were able to buy attractive meeting spaces, support Salafi teachers, and create communities where mutual support, both financial and spiritual, proliferated. It is within such a societal context that ISIS emerged, promoting extremist black and white thinking and promising clear Muslim identity to those who travel to join and live under their “Caliphate, “thereby removing any questions in those searching for their Muslim identity and believing that ISIS could lead them to find their way living as true and good Muslims.

The ISIS ideological narrative is that Muslims, Muslims lands, and even Islam itself are under attack and that all Muslims have a duty to migrate and come to fight jihad. Likewise, the Islamic ummah is considered one big family, promoting the idea of “fictive kin” ties to all other Muslims and the duty to support. Assad’s atrocities certainly supported the narrative of Muslims under attack, which led to some Kyrgyz traveling to Syria. In Batken, the most radical Muslims separated from the Tablighi Jamaat to form the Yakyn Inkar group,[24] and those who went to Syria from there expressed a desire to support their Muslim brothers in Syria.[25] Uzbek and other minorities may have been particularly susceptible to ISIS claims of providing a clear and good identity, as discussed in the section below.

Minority Status, Perceived Injustice, and Desire for Freedom from Discriminatory and Repressive Government Polices and Islamophobia

ISIS heavily promoted their “Caliphate” as a place where Muslims of every race and ethnicity would be included and given significant roles—promises of equality and inclusiveness that were particularly attractive to Uzbek ethnic Kyrgyz citizens who frequently perceive and complain of injustices, discrimination, and marginalization. Perceived and actual discrimination and marginalization for Uzbeks does appear to play a strong role in radicalization, as Uzbeks in the south of Kyrgyzstan are overrepresented as foreign fighters. According to the MIA 10th department’s data for the period of early 2010-June 2016, 863 Kyrgyz citizens left to Syria, among them, 658 are Uzbeks (76%). Statistics by province are as follows: Osh province – 407 (389 Uzbeks); Batken province – 93 (64 Uzbeks); Osh city – 105 (102 Uzbeks); Jalal-Abad province – 111 (97 Uzbeks); and Issyk-Kul province – 47 (1 Uzbek).

Most Uzbeks interviewed for the project expressed strong perceptions of discrimination. They cited examples of having to pay bribes to get health care and official documents. Planting of HT materials on persons in their communities by police and subsequent arrests, etc., which are also made by some Kyrgyz respondents, were also cited. Objectively, based on our research, it can be inferred that Uzbeks minorities are underrepresented in government jobs, and when working in government are less likely to hold higher or leadership positions. However, many respondents interviewed noted that Uzbek ethnic subculture inside Kyrgyzstan also encourages opting out of military service with health excuses. It also encourages for men the pursuit of business and agrarian activities not requiring higher education, as it does early marriage, settling down close to families, etc., and staying at home in domestic roles for women, which may serve as alternative explanations for the objective differences in Uzbek and minority representation in government jobs.

Government surveillance and repression may also be a motivating factor for those Kyrgyz following the outlawed HT groups and to a lesser extent those practicing Salafi Islam and perceiving government repression or Islamophobia for how they chose to express their beliefs. The desire to practice Islam and live by Shariah practices without government surveillance or interference, or suffering from Islamophobic attitudes by moderate or secular Kyrgyz, may have been a motivating factor for some, although no one shared this as a primary motivating factor for travel to Syria. HT teaches that the Islamic Caliphate should be built, although through nonviolent means, yet it lays a fertile ground to transition further into supporting ISIS in their violent pursuit of their Islamic “Caliphate.”

Interestingly, the lack of government repression could also play a role in Kyrgyz representation in ISIS ranks. Neighboring countries have outlawed TJ and HT, and have limited the preaching and influx of Saudi teachers and money. Karimov’s Uzbekistan was credited with gruesome torture and executions of HT members. Yet, with this high level of repression, Uzbekistan has a similar number of foreign fighters as Kyrgyzstan, although a much higher population, so the per capita rates are much lower. While difficult to interpret, it but may be that open government policies also contribute to ideologies and groups to more freely enter the Kyrgyz dialogue and provide fertile ground for recruitment, whereas highly repressive policies in neighboring Uzbekistan fuel the movement of fighters from Uzbekistan into Syria, as well as migration of Uzbek ideologues and HT members into Kyrgyzstan.

Repressive or Dysfunctional Family Dynamics

The ability to escape dysfunctional, overly strict, and conservative families and their expectations motivated others to break loose by traveling to Syria. Arranged marriages are still widely prevalent in Kyrgyzstan, and even bride kidnappings still exist. Young wives leave their families to live with their extended family members, often essentially becoming slaves to their in-laws with little redress if they are unhappy, as some respondents explained. Some families force their female in-laws into migrant work, separating them from support networks, and even their children, sometimes with their husband staying unemployed at home. In migrant status, they are then deeply vulnerable to seduction into extremist groups.

Many Uzbek respondents stated that husbands are often oppressive and overrule their wives quiet easily. Second unofficial marriages, including to second wives and underage girls, are often religiously approved. Women who become financially dependent have very little say in their homes, and may fear standing up to their husbands for fear of abandonment, priority given to a second wife, or threats of, or actual violence. This all contributes to making them acquiescent to recruitment by their spouses. Police and security officials frequently referred to this phenomenon as “zombification.”

Men and women in migrant status were said to frequently take lovers and have illicit relationships while abroad, creating vulnerabilities for both those who stay home and those who migrate. Uneducated women in Kyrgyzstan who remain dependent on their working migrant husbands often feel that they must put up with any demands, as they can easily be replaced by lovers and second unofficial wives taken in migration status or at home.

The legal age of marriage is 18, unless a girl is pregnant, in which case she can legally marry at age 16. Despite this, Kyrgyz respondents said that Uzbek girls can be married as young as 13 in unofficial marriages in which the marriage contract (nikah) is presided over by local imams. Government training for imams is said to have curtailed this practice significantly, as they have become aware of the illegality of providing a marriage contract for underage girls.

Human rights advocates and a judge pointed out that Kyrgyz women are frequently beaten, and that rates of male alcoholism have been steadily growing. [26] Women who are in dire circumstances and facing violent spouses who do not consistently provide for their families easily become migrant workers, and are vulnerable to recruitment in migrant status and as well as at home as they need money, shelter, and may desire escape at any cost.

Unemployment and Poor Economic Conditions as Vulnerability

Poor economic conditions and high unemployment and under employment among the predominantly young makes Kyrgyz citizens particularly susceptible to radicalization, including radicalization leading to violence. This is credited by many as a major vulnerability for Kyrgyz citizens falling prey to recruitment to traveling to ISIS in Syria, where salaries and free housing are offered. Fifty-eight percent of Kyrgyz migrant workers travel to work in Russia, and 3.5% choose Turkey as a destination.[27] According to the Federal Migration Service of Russia, by the end of December 2015, 1,880,547 citizens of Uzbek origin (1,520539 male and 360,008 female), 670,200 citizens of Kazak origin (398,483 male and 271,637 female), 542,928 citizens of Kyrgyz origin (327,982 male and 214,946 female), 896,159 citizens of Tajik origin (735,672 male and 160,487 female) and 24,724 citizens of Turkmen origin (15,679 male and 9, 045 female) were working in Russia.[28] Migrant working conditions are often difficult and dangerous, and work requirements can include long hours and working everyday, combined with crowded and uncomfortable housing. Male migrants avoid Moscow as they can be subjected to “skin head” attacks whereas females feel safer working in Moscow often in restaurants where they are thought to be Japanese. Females who migrate unaccompanied by spouses to Turkey can be subjected to sexual harassment, and even rape, by coworkers, bosses, and neighbors who see them as easy prey. Those who are left behind by migrant spouses are frequently aware that migrants get entangled with lovers and second unofficial wives.

Official statistics on youth unemployment show a 14 % unemployment rate in Kyrgyzstan; however, many believe these figures are far underestimated and likely double or higher.

Youth Unemployment (as % of total labor force, ages 15-24, modeled ILO estimate)

Country 2010 2011 2012 2013 2014 2015
Kazakhstan 6.0 5.3 4.6 4.1 3.5 NA
Kyrgyzstan 16.6 15.9 16.6 15.3 14.7 NA
Turkmenistan 20.6 21.0 20.7 20.6 20.2 NA
Tajikistan 17.3 16.4 15.4 15.7 15.5 NA
Uzbekistan 20.6 20.6 20.6 20.5 20.3 NA

Source: The World Data Bank, World Development Indicators[29]

When one studies the chart above, it must be noted that unemployment alone is not a sufficient motivator to join violent extremist groups; exposure to terrorist groups and their ideologies, alongside social support for taking part in extremism, clearly plays a role in who becomes a foreign fighter or terrorist. Strong resonance in Kyrgyzstan with Islamic terrorist groups’ demands that one must fulfill duties to the Muslim ummah and fight jihad clearly exists much stronger in Kyrgyzstan than in other countries where the population are primarily Christian, although one can see a similar alarming youth unemployment rate. Thus, it is important to understand that while high youth unemployment is an important vulnerability leading to radicalization and movement into terror groups in Kyrgyzstan (as elsewhere affected by terrorism), it still requires exposure to a terrorist group, their ideology, and social support to exploit this vulnerability for violence and terrorism.[30]

Material Benefits of Joining

ISIS foreign fighters are promised salaries, free housing, food and propane allowances, the possibility of cars, arranged marriages, and sex slaves. The group sends out pictures of large homes with swimming pools as possibilities—so seductive that one UK thirteen-year-old being groomed for travel to ISIS reported that she thought she would be traveling to ISIS Disneyland if she joined.[31]

Kyrgyz salaries range from 1060 to 30,000 soms per month for agriculture-related low-paid jobs to the financial consultancy correspondingly, while the cost of living in Kyrgyzstan as of early January 2016 reaches up to 5377 soms.[32] This salary range is from $15 to $433 whereas ISIS defectors informed of us salaries above the $200 range per month, with thousand dollar bonuses paid for involvement in raids and the ability to loot homes and steal thousands of dollars with impunity.[33] Clearly, the salaries in ISIS were, until recently, highly competitive with Kyrgyz salaries.

Women who work or stay at home are reported by our respondents and themselves to be expected to be “slaves” to their husbands and families and are expected to work long and hard hours without question. Likewise, migrant workers often are demanded to work long hours on a daily basis. In contrast to local Kyrgyz salaries and work expectations, ISIS salary offers were reported as ranging from $100 USD to far more than that, with some respondents reporting signing bonuses as high as $3000. A Kyrgyz woman who literally works as a “slave” in her home, or in a migrant job, could compare her situation to what was promised by ISIS—a nice home, food and fuel allowance, the possibility of having a slave, versus being one, and a good salary. In addition to salaries, many ISIS defectors have reported to the authors, supplementary income in the thousands of dollars derived from looting houses in territory that ISIS overtook or in bonuses for taking part in ISIS raids.[34] The brutality of ISIS, the demands upon women to remarry if their husbands are killed and the dangers of living in a conflict zone, all counter balance the material rewards, but little may have been known about this side of the equation for those who went to join ISIS.

Unmarried men and women with poor prospects of marriage also might find the allure to ISIS powerful propaganda. Unemployed men in Kyrgyzstan whose families cannot provide for their new family may find it hard to obtain wives but are promised them inside ISIS, as are women promised husbands, and free housing and the ability to practice a traditional Islamic lifestyle.

Desire for Personal Significance

Underemployment and unemployment creates a vacuum of personal significance and life purpose. ISIS, by contrast, promises men in particular the possibility of significant leadership roles in what appeared for some time to many vulnerable persons as a realistic emerging “Caliphate.” Foreign fighter wives also enjoy high status if they decide to join the ISIS hisbah.[35]

Familial Ties

Females who traveled to Syria from Kyrgyzstan, as discussed in the ensuing sections, were nearly all married, although single women have both gone and been stopped from going by the police. While Kyrgyzstan police and intelligence officials interviewed (all men) depicted wives who traveled to Syria as traditional wives obedient to their husbands and without any personal agency, our research shows that such claims may hold ground in some cases, but not in all. Women whose husbands go to ISIS fear disobeying their husbands, abandonment, financial harm, and violence. There is also a desire and financial need to keep family ties intact when one member of the family was convinced to go to Syria. In some cases, entire families traveled together to Syria while in others the instigating family member was a woman.

In summary, the trajectories into violent extremism and terrorism in Kyrgyzstan share commonalities with other theaters, but as research have shown in multiple other venues, the individual motivations and vulnerabilities for terrorism are always contextual. That said, the lethal cocktail of terrorism nearly always involves exposure to a terrorist group, it’s ideology, and some level of social support for endorsing both. Vulnerabilities and motivating factors alone are not sufficient to make a violent extremist.[36]

Legal Infrastructure: International, Governmental, and Non-Governmental Response

Counter-Terrorism Legislation

To combat violent extremism and terrorism in the country, the Kyrgyzstan government has not yet developed a comprehensive and coherent program on countering violent extremism. They have, however, adopted the Law on Counterterrorism, enacted in 2006. In January 2014 President signed the law on changes and amendments to the law on counterterrorism, intended to strengthen counter terrorism related measures.[37] In July 2015, amendments were also made into the Criminal Code, such as article 226-4, which made participation in foreign conflicts a crime punishable by 5-8 years in prison in case of the absence of the previous preparatory actions and wage earning intent, while when it is organized by a group or with previous preparatory actions, it carries 8 to 12 years of imprisonment.[38]

Discrediting and Preventing Violent Extremist Recruitment

While most experts agree that raising the voices of ISIS defectors to denounce the group is one of the most credible forces to discredit ISIS, Kyrgyz officials are already thinking and working along those lines.

National Counter-terrorism regarding ISIS Foreign Fighters and their Potential Return

The issue of foreign fighters and their involvement in the Syrian and the Iraq conflict, including the expectation that returnees from the Syrian and the Iraq conflict may soon return and plot attacks in their home countries, has created concerns at the highest levels of the Kyrgyz government and prompted important changes in legal reforms and legislation. In this regard, the government of Kyrgyzstan has introduced a set of amendments to the relevant legislation in order to upgrade normative measures for countering religious extremism and terrorism. On August 2016, President Atambayev signed the law that allows denationalization of those citizens who are found guilty of extremism and terrorism. Administrative and criminal punishments were also introduced for those who publicly support extremist and terrorist materials in the media including, over the Internet.[39] Some other changes in legislation relate to the Law on Freedom of Religion and Religious Organizations. The law was adopted on December 31, 2008, with amendments introduced on December 7th, 2012. In 2015, the State Commission on Religious Affairs proposed additional amendments to the law. If adopted, the law would have restricted the right to freedom of religion and belief, for example, by requiring additional licensing and re-registration requirements of religious workers. The alternative report submitted to the implementation of the International Covenant on Social, Economic, and Cultural Rights (ICESCR) stated that the law violates the state obligations on the ICESCR by including a number of limitations related to civil and political rights and freedoms.

Law on Countering Extremist Activity. The original law was enacted in 2005, however, a set of amendments was recently proposed by the Ministry of Transport and Communications. In November 2015, Article 19 led to an analysis of the Kyrgyz Law on Extremism Activity, which was prompted by a recent proposal for amendments to the law. The amendments primarily referred to blocking Internet resources containing materials of an extremist nature. As concluded by Article 19, the language of the draft law is rather vague, which allows for disproportionate restrictions to be imposed on freedom of expression, freedom of association and assembly, and freedom of religion.[40]

Another strategic document in the religious field is The Concept of the State Policy of the Kyrgyz Republic in the Religious Sphere for 2014-2020, which defines the principles, priority areas, and implementation mechanisms for state regulation of the activity of religious organizations and unions. It is based on the constitutional principle of a secular state. The document was developed by the State Commission on Religious Affairs in pursuance of a February 3rd, 2014, decree by the Defense Council of Kyrgyzstan and adopted by the Presidential decree (No. 203) made on November 14th, 2014. An inter-agency working group, comprised of representative of state structures and civil society organizations, was formed for the development of this concept. There is also an action plan to implement the concept, which lays out a detailed plan of 88 activities. The State Commission on Religious Affairs, in cooperation with the working group of the Defense Council on the reform of state policy in the religious sphere, were given the task of ensuring cooperation with the media and other civil society institutions in providing public and religious organizations with comprehensive information on the basic framework of the concept and the progress of its implementation. The action plan was approved in 2015, and a budget allocation was also made. The concept and action plan can be considered partially as documents containing Preventing Violent Extremism (PVE) measures; however, no separate government document called the PVE program exists to date.

Equally important, international bodies, such as UNDP, OSCE, EU, and others have undertaken varying roles in assessing the conditions leading to radicalization, including informing the country’s important national strategies and supporting various governmental partners in designing and implementing measures (policies and activities) to prevent violent extremism and terrorism.

The migration back to Kyrgyzstan of extremists, alongside frustrated desires to establish an Islamic “Caliphate” in Syria and Iraq, particularly in light of HT having advocated for years now for a Central Asian Caliphate, may increase the short and long-term dangers to Kyrgyzstan if prevention, intervention, and remediation efforts are not planned and carried out well in the coming years. This requires gaining a thorough understanding of the actors involved, their pathways into extremist violence, and understanding what their targets are both inside and outside the country. This will require taking effective steps to block such trajectories, specifically by stopping ideological preaching, discrediting terrorist ideologies, stopping face-to-face and Internet-based recruitment and terrorist finance networks and, most importantly, addressing the underlying factors that create both vulnerabilities and motivations in society for individuals to want to join such groups and support them on an ideological as well as operational level. Likewise, for those already on the terrorist trajectory, effective steps must be taken to reverse such trajectories and stop already radicalized individuals from seeding violent ideologies both in prisons and outside of them—spreading the dangers to Kyrgyz society. This requires thorough knowledge, monitoring, and good rehabilitation programs for those already deeply involved, and effective prevention and intervention practices for those being drawn into such groups. For those who cannot be rehabilitated, suitable prison practices must be put in place to keep them isolated from other prisoners vulnerable to being recruited.

The aforementioned reflect Kyrgyzstan and the international community’s resolve and simultaneous and complementary efforts to prevent the spread of violent extremism in the country. Despite strong and effective responses on the part of the Kyrgyzstan government and the international community to halt support for violent extremism and travel to Syria and Iraq, the current situation remains both dangerous and volatile. Foreign fighters in Syria and Iraq are expected to return home, and some who are not originally from the Kyrgyzstan may even choose to migrate to the Kyrgyzstan if they find that they can slip in and live under the radar of a government and security services, which is more liberal than some of their repressive neighboring countries. There is some evidence of ISIS returnees having migrated to northern Afghanistan or hiding in Russia.

Security officials stated that those who are known to the police would be arrested upon their return and subsequently convicted and imprisoned if deemed a threat to society. In addition, police and security organs are cooperating with their counterparts in Russia, Central Asia, Turkey, Europe, and the United States, including with Interpol, to be aware of travel out of Syria and Iraq back to Kyrgyzstan of their own citizens and those in possession of fake Kyrgyz passports. Likewise, both police and security were working in vulnerable communities to nurture trust and informants regarding returnees and unusual activity related to violent extremism. Open source Internet is also being monitored. It remains unclear, however, as to how well Kyrgyz security agencies are able to penetrate encrypted applications, such as WhatsApp and Telegram, over which ISIS members frequently communicate.

Police have posted ISIS defector interviews subtitled in local languages (produced in the Breaking the ISIS Brand—ISIS Defector Counter-Narrative Project by the International Center for the Study of Violent Extremism) on their official website and wish to use them for denouncing ISIS, training, prevention, and intervention activities.[41] The GKNB and police in Osh, Bishkek, Jalal-Abad, and Issy- Kul expressed interest in using such materials in prevention, education, and intervention work, and enthusiastically received ISIS defector videos produced in Kyrgyz, Russian, and Uzbek to use for such interventions. Prison officials did the same and expressed interest in using them both for training purposes and rehabilitating former extremists.

The Osh GKNB also shared their efforts at making videos about how those who go to ISIS impact their families and community members left behind and were very enthusiastic about collaborating on future videos. The State Commission on Religious Affairs has also produced videos, although more cognitive than emotional in nature, denouncing ISIS and other violent extremist groups. Many of the police and GKNB officials expressed strong interest in continuing to receive ICSVE’s Breaking the ISIS Brand ISIS defector videos subtitled in the three relevant languages, and also seeing Central Asian ISIS defectors as the main actors denouncing ISIS, or Central Asians appearing in the “b-roll” of such videos, to make a closer link to the Kyrgyz vulnerable populations.

In Osh, the GKNB told us that they were working on a “Safe Mahala” project and creatively videotaping members of the family members and communities of those who had gone to Syria to show other communities the repercussions in terms of social stigma and discomfort suffered by families of those left behind. The videos were, according to the officials, intended to be used for education and prevention to provide powerful examples of how families have been largely ostracized and left alone to deal with their grief and confusion when their adult children leave to Syria. A foreign consulting professional, however, cautioned that the “Safe Mahala” project also includes extremely repressive measures, including home destructions from the government to communities and families whose members travel to Syria. Whether this is true or not, remains unclear.[42]

Furthermore, Kyrgyz national police have implemented an anti-ISIS online recruitment group. They work together with university student volunteers to identify and block violent extremist YouTube videos and other online recruitment materials. The counter-terrorism police also learned to replace ISIS and other violent extremist recruitment videos, redirecting them to messages from the Kyrgyz mufti denouncing violent extremism. It was promising to find Kyrgyz national police and security officials already using creative and ingenious strategies that arguably are far ahead of their [many] Western counterparts to fight ISIS online and face-to face recruitment in the country. Kyrgyz officials should be strongly encouraged to continue in their creative and youth-culture oriented (that reach the most vulnerable populations) national counter-terrorism initiatives and strategies.

Interventions to Turn back and Rehabilitate Violent Extremist not Serving Prison Time

GKNB and national police also expressed deep concern for their citizens, and GKNB officials are already working well with faith-based NGOs, such as Mutakalim, to intervene in the cases of those identified as already well on the extremist and terrorist trajectory and those showing signs of radicalization. These faith-based nongovernmental and governmental partnerships appear to be yielding positive results, and should also be encouraged and lauded as well ahead of many other countries’ intervention efforts, although government should also be encouraged to explore and implement intervention and rehabilitation programs that do not necessarily have a religious agenda.

Concerning reports were made to us from numerous participants that foreign money enters Kyrgyzstan from Gulf benefactors, and that such funds are being used to promote virulent ideologies. This is said to occur both openly through charities and illicitly via cash payments smuggled into the country. While no one was reported to be receiving cash payments for participating in Salafi activities, as in other areas of the world where this also occurs (e.g. the Balkans), funds were used to build mosques, community centers, and train imams who spread a much more conservative version of Islam than the Hanafi form traditionally practiced in Kyrgyzstan.

Government-Sponsored Faith-Based Prevention Efforts

The State Commission on Religious Affairs in Kyrgyzstan has also established plans for, and has begun, implementing programs to test and train the 2,800 existing registered imams in the country on the basic practices of Islam and their knowledge regarding the Hanafi school of Islam, claimed by the commission as indigenous to the country. Already 1400 imams have been tested and half of these failed their examinations. Those who failed were invited to a ten-day training course carried out by theological faculties in universities in Osh and Bishkek, with the result of a university and religious certificate provided to those who pass their examinations. In addition, those who pass the exam are incentivized by receiving certificates from the State Commission on Religious affairs, and a stipend paid by the Foundation “Yiman,” starting from 5,000 Kyrgyz soms for imams and up to 15,000 soms for the mufti per month to augment their incomes.[43] These attempts to resist the Arabization or Salafization of Islam in Kyrgyzstan and promote a moderate stream of Islam are controversial but likely helpful.

Theological faculty members express concern that a ten-day training course is not realistic, and that it would be better for imam salaries to be raised so that four-year graduates of university theological faculties would be willing to become imams throughout the country. These individuals claim that those trained in four-year programs are trained to be critical thinkers, understand the various forms and schools of Islam, are highly resistant to being pulled into violent extremist thinking, and can prevent and protect their congregants against such ideologies. The problem, however, is of a financial nature—that is, whether national policies will support salaries that make it attractive to university theological graduates to take imam positions around the country. There is also political opposition and resistance from existing imams as well as strong territorial fights between Tablighi Jamaat, Salafi schools, and Hanafi schools over turf and power. It may also not be possible to drive more conservative religious views from the secular government’s position without violating freedom of religious expression.

While there is a broad, national-level discussion on violent extremism in Kyrgyzstan, particularly regarding the role of religious education as a potential protective factor, there is a limited discussion on the role of women as supporters, facilitators, and direct participants in violent extremism—one of the topics that this research and report addresses. More specifically, there is limited policy or programmatic discussion on the role of women in preventing violent extremism and their use in religious ministries. The State Commission on religious affairs, for instance, has no plans to train or make use of female “imams.” There were discussions by the GKNB to make use of female NGO leaders who have regular access to some of the most vulnerable religious populations of men and women, but little other discussion of how to empower women in prevention roles.

Prison Extremist Housing & Rehabilitation Programs

 Kyrgyz prison officials made it clear that plans are already underway to construct separate prison cells to house male and females convicted of terrorism and extremism related charges, and rehabilitation programs for such prisoners are already well underway. During interviews with the female prisoners housed in the prison N2 located in the village Stepnoe, including discussions with prison officials there, we learned that psychologists, religious leaders, and prison officials are already working with imprisoned terrorists’ supporters and cell members who upon entry to prison were fanatical in their pro-ISIS beliefs, but now express regret and are more open to rehabilitation in preparation for their release back into society. It was clear that prison officials had already established a good working relationship with two such former terrorist cell members and had created an environment of strong rapport, mutual respect, and trust. While there is still a long way to go in their treatment, it was promising nonetheless given that many countries do not yet function on this level in terms of imprisoned terrorist cadres.

The Role of International Organizations in Supporting Government Efforts

The UN team in Kyrgyzstan has undertaken an active role in preventing violent extremism in the country by engaging in comprehensive assessments of the conditions leading to radicalization and providing stakeholder assessment of activities towards CVE. UN agencies have not yet implemented PVE projects and programs in Kyrgyzstan, and are currently in the process of designing PVE relevant strategies and programmatic activities.  Through the support of the Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe (OSCE), the government of Kyrgyzstan (Ministry of Internal Affairs) has also organized crime prevention centers in most communities that include representatives of local self-governance (LSG), female, and youth councils under the LSGs, local police, local imams, and the elderly.[44]

Effects of Neighboring Countries’ Policies

Uzbekistan has long been plagued by radicalization via the nonviolent, nevertheless extremist group Hizb ut-Tahrir (HT). HT preaches nonviolent overthrow of existing governments in the Central Asian region in favor of reestablishing a Central Asian Islamic “Caliphate.” Uzbekistan’s government under Karimov was particularly harsh and repressive to HT members, forcing many into exile into neighboring Kyrgyzstan, where the group was not outlawed until August 20, 2003. While HT does not, in general, incite violence, it very strongly instills the desire to replace existing secular governance with reestablishment of a Central Asian “Caliphate.” HT ideology thus very closely aligns with that of ISIS in regards to proclaiming the reestablishment and imminent global spread of the ISIS Caliphate, creating ideological resonance and vulnerability in Kyrgyzstan to those who fall under the HT dawa (call to Islam). Tablighi Jamaat and some Salafi groups operating as religious versus political groups also lend support to extremist ideologies of groups like ISIS in terms of supporting the reestablishment of an Islamic Caliphate, strict Islamic practices that reject secular governance and practices, etc. These groups, while not violent extremists, continue to thrive in Kyrgyzstan and appear to be involved in supporting travel to Syria and into ISIS.[45]

There is ample evidence of ISIS recruitment over the Internet, with much more limited face-to-face recruiting on the ground, especially among vulnerable Kyrgyz citizens living in Kyrgyzstan, and even more so of those living abroad as migrant workers. The operation of these groups will likely continue, despite the likely territorial defeat of ISIS in Iraq and Syria, as ISIS franchises already have sprung up in Afghanistan and elsewhere. Given that a quarter of foreign fighters to ISIS came from the Central Asian region, there is likely going to be continued activity in the region as many return to it. These factors, alongside socio-economic issues that create vulnerabilities to violent extremist ideologies, will likely make for radicalization as a continuing reality even if ISIS fails in their activities in Syria and Iraq.

Women’s Specific Vulnerabilities and Roles in Violent Extremism

Estimates are that of the 863 Kyrgyz who have traveled to Syria and Iraq to join Islamic State, around 188 are females and girls. These figures are underreported, however, as some parents and families do not report their foreign fighter relatives to the authorities for various reasons. It is also difficult to track the status of those on migration. Similar to many parts of the world, there is no single explanation for the motivations that drive women to join ISIS, which represents a challenge when it comes to seeking solutions to minimize the risk and recruitment of Kyrgyz women into violent extremism. However, all of the factors discussed previously, alongside those specific to women, are active among Kyrgyz females.

Female Migration

Unemployment in Kyrgyzstan is high, and job migration is common. In recent years, more females than males have been traveling to Russia for jobs. The reason being that the economic crisis in Russia has diminished the number of construction jobs for males, whereas female service workers (e.g. female nannies and restaurant employees) are still in high demand. Likewise, when they do migrate, as noted by several respondents, Kyrgyz males face possible violence and harassment in Moscow from “skinheads” whereas females do not. As a result, Kyrgyz males often avoid work migration to Moscow.

Female immigrants become particularly vulnerable to online and face-to face recruitment into violent extremist groups. Separated from their families and support structures, they may fall prey to recruitment for various reasons. Human rights lawyers informed that females in migration often face sexual harassment, and even rape, when unaccompanied by spouses or male relatives, particularly in Turkey. They may also have chosen work migration to escape abusive or alcoholic spouses or abusive in-laws. Long working hours, working every day, and living in crowded conditions are the norms of migrant labor. Despite harsh working conditions, women who may have been strictly controlled at home also find sudden freedom in migration. Both male and female migrant workers were reported to commonly engage in illicit sexual relationships while on migration. Females drawn into an illicit relationship may be vulnerable to coercion, blackmail, and terrorist recruitment. Likewise, the hardships of working as a migrant can be favorably compared by an ISIS recruiter to the financial and housing conditions offered by ISIS while dismissing dangers and brutality, making travel to Syria, until very recently, appear as a positive rational choice to someone lonely, naïve, feeling financially distressed, and suffering emotional despair.

Female Roles in Extremist Groups

ISIS limits women’s roles by encouraging them to be in traditional marriages and bear children for the cause. However, ISIS also encourages foreign fighter females to join the hisbah (morality police), and also allows them to teach, provide health care, and carry out other professional roles as long as these roles are segregated to interacting with children and other women. Some are put to the task of online recruiting.[46]

Similar to other countries (e.g. Kosovo) where numbers are available, the numbers and rates of Kyrgyz women returning from ISIS are lower than that of men. We learned of only three women who had returned, one in prison and the other two living free.[47] It is unlikely that so many more women were killed and thus not returning, but may point to the difficulties for women of escaping ISIS. The fact that women in ISIS are expected to marry, and those who are widowed when their fighter husbands are killed are expected to remarry, indicates that ISIS women almost continually live under the control of their ISIS spouses. In the brief time that some find themselves unmarried, they likely find it extremely difficult to escape ISIS, given that they may not have access to funds to hire a smuggler and cannot easily move about on their own, and if they place themselves in the hands of a smuggler, they may then be raped or have sexual favors extorted by the smuggler, a common story in our research with ISIS defectors worldwide. Thus, women in ISIS depend very heavily on their partners to be able to escape the group and men also find it hard to escape, risking their lives to do so.

Financial Motivations for Females

 While female agency in deciding to go to Syria and Iraq mostly likely exists in greater proportion than male police credit them with, females whose husbands were determined to go created both opportunities and vulnerabilities for Kyrgyz females. The chance to earn much more money was a strong incentive for females who left. One grandmother in Issy- Kul is credited with believing that ISIS would pay a $3,000 signing bonus per family member upon arrival and thus encouraged nine of her family members to travel with her. Later she managed to smuggle out her 12-year-old grandson with a message of hopeless despair that things were far different than she had thought, and that they would never be able to escape.

Imprisonment of Spouses and Social Stigma

The likely imminent return of foreign fighters to Kyrgyzstan occurring as the ability of ISIS to hold territory is diminished also means more terrorist convictions and imprisonments of married male foreign fighters where wives are often judged less severely and not imprisoned for traveling to ISIS. This means that spouses of imprisoned homegrown extremists and foreign fighters, or women whose husbands were killed in such activities, will live in communities likely experiencing social stigma and vulnerability. Two females we learned about who had returned from Syria were both living freely but did not want to speak about their ordeals, likely reflecting the stigma they experienced upon return. Likewise, imprisoned female extremists expressed concerns about the social stigma they would face and likely inability to remarry as a result when they would be released from prison.

Local Female Roles in Extremism

Females may also act as facilitators and encourage travel into terrorist groups. Police told us of two female recruiters active inside of Kyrgyzstan trying to recruit other women through the Internet.[48] In two other cases, we learned of females playing the lead instigator role in getting their extended families to join them in travel to Syria.

Family members often say they were blindsided by their sons or daughters leaving for Syria, yet we also found female community members in closed mahala areas in the south of Kyrgyzstan loath to judge their community members for having joined ISIS—preferring to say they did not support the “jihad” in Syria but could not possibly condemn their neighbors’ motives. In some ways, this may also condone their travel to Syria.

Current Women’s Initiatives and Additional Policy Recommendations

The government of Kyrgyzstan, civil society institutions, religious institutions, and international organizations have demonstrated their resolve in the design and implementation of national-level CVE strategies. However, Kyrgyz policy does not spell out specific objectives and specific institutions tasked with increasing women’s involvement in CVE efforts. That said, awareness campaigns and activities for the prevention of violent extremism that involve women as well as cooperation, training, and dialogue across government institutions, communities, municipalities, women’s networks, youth, religious networks, law enforcement entities, and NGOs reflect some of the insights from the country’s plans that informs national-level CVE strategies. However, most still remain to be fully implemented.

Women in Prevention Roles

In terms of prevention, female roles are still not fully activated in Kyrgyzstan, but could be. Female teachers, family members, intelligence agents, psychologists, social workers, health care workers, and clerics have yet to be worked into serious prevention roles and in sufficient numbers, to protect their Kyrgyz women from recruitment. The current government policies do not specify a priority on using females over males, even when dealing with females in many of these roles, leaving the question open. In terms of religious authority, there appears to be a strong preference for using male imams and denial that women could be used in a religious/prevention teaching capacity.

Community Policing and Community Engagement Efforts

Community involvement and community policing are crucial to fighting violent extremism in Kyrgyzstan. As also reflected in a number of participant responses, different actors across the governmental spheres are trying to act on the ideological aspect of countering violent extremism whereas those in the non-governmental spheres are involved in drafting PVE strategies that look at the role of the community in prevention and addressing vulnerabilities. Some pointed out the important role of community policing in building trust with local communities and addressing local needs, as opposed to just relying on communities for intelligence purposes without offering them much in return. In Issyk- Kul the police chief told us that crime prevention centers hold meetings that include representatives of local women’s groups as well as other community actors.

With the collapse of the ISIS caliphate, hundreds of returnees from Syria are likely, and most will be convicted and imprisoned. However, some may reenter Kyrgyzstan under the radar of government safety and security services. Some will be dangerous and still convinced of terrorist ideologies, others battle fatigued and simply seeking shelter. Community policing will be especially important to quickly recognize and act against any individuals or cells that form around returned individuals. Police and security officials made clear that they have been working to set up informants in vulnerable communities and they were also working on education and prevention efforts but needed tools and training to implement them well. Representatives of community police were enthused about the ICSVE Breaking the ISIS Brand video clips and asked for copies to be used and distributed in their communities.

Community policing is crucial for both raising awareness among communities about the threat of violent extremism and empowering communities to prevent its emergence and spread while helping the community to meet needs of those who are vulnerable to recruitment to redirect them to more productive paths. This is confirmed in Batken fully; there is a quite effective crime prevention center in Kyzyl-Kia city, which is known for its first supply of foreign fighters to Syria from Kyrgyzstan. These efforts to counter violent extremism are important, but measures should also be made to ensure that females are involved in direct proportion to males in education and prevention efforts which are also aimed at women.

It is important that females be involved in identifying youth at risk of radicalization and there be modes of reporting them that do not lead to repressive measures, and that there are rapid and effective responses occurring to disrupt young people from progressing on the terrorist trajectory. Helplines “manned” by trained female volunteers—mothers, teachers, and female “imams” can be powerful and effective tools for family members as well as those who are vulnerable to reach out for help. Although the next step is to also create rapid interventions, either run by voluntary teams or through government interventions as discussed above. Local lawyer groups already running helplines for domestic violence and advocacy for sex workers agreed that it would be simple to add responses for countering violent extremism, and lawyers might be the perfect first person to contact to ensure the callers rights were protected as they sought avenues of help for themselves or family members. It was notable that one of the violent extremists in prison who had previously been committed to taking a “martyrdom” mission for the group stated that when she became afraid of the seriousness of what she had involved herself in, she might have called a helpline for assistance in exiting the group if she had known of one. We were informed that there is currently a helpline being set up by the State Commission on Religious Affairs at the Bishkek level, but it will take three to four months until they have donor money to pay for those who work there as theologians, psychologists, etc.

Police Involvement in Mentoring Programs

Danish police in Aarhus have developed a good model of community policing that is similar in some facets to Kyrgyzstan’s in the sense that the police are active in the community, listening to grievances, actively identifying vulnerable persons targeted for recruitment, and working with all stakeholders in the community who can offer assistance. They might want to also think in terms of also engaging mentors trained from the community to guide those individuals (per the Aarhus model) to ensure that they do not enter or continue on the terrorist trajectory. Mutakalim members appear ready and already working towards providing a service like that to the GKNB and prison officials.

Prison Rehabilitation and Community Reintegration for Foreign Fighter Returnees

Those who are imprisoned will need rehabilitation in prison and special prison services that are not yet in place, but plans have been discussed to build such programs with UNDOC assisting in the plan for male prisoners only. As prison sentences are relatively long, it is important to isolate highly indoctrinated and weapons trained individuals from others they may indoctrinate and train, and they must be carefully dealt with before they are returned to their communities. And when they are returned, social stigma that may cause them further grievances contributing to their return to terrorism or a deeper commitment to it must be addressed. The discussion is currently ongoing on how to rehabilitate prisoners and move them safely and productively back into their communities, perhaps involving community police as bridges to help reintroduce and reintegrate them.

An overlooked area of concern is that it is only males that have been convicted thus far; however, if wives also return and are not imprisoned they also will face issues of reintegration and need for treatment. ISIS members, male and female, have been exposed to multiple traumas (e.g. beheadings, crucifixions) and violence and rejection of anyone not adhering to their violent Takfiri beliefs have become normalized for them. Women whose husbands are in prison also need special programs, as terrorist groups have repeatedly shown their willingness to recruit and use women in suicide missions, particularly when they are angry, desperate, or feel strong grievances, which may be the case for them. As ISIS loses its territory, it has turned increasingly to calling for and guiding on the ground homegrown terror attacks and may call such women into action. Women who have lived under ISIS, and women who are indoctrinated into its thinking and vulnerable while their husbands are in prison, may be the easiest to recruit into terrorist attacks or aid to recruit others.

Female Policing

Female-led police associations and female police officers that are representative of the population they are tasked to help and protect could also help with PVE efforts. While the Tenth Department of the National Police includes female officers, we did not learn of any initiatives using females in counter-terrorism roles. While female officers may be more responsive to females and their families affected by the phenomenon of radicalization by virtue of their gender, and vice versa, though the overall and individual skillset of an officer must be considered as well. Female police hopefully have fewer gender stereotypes applied to the women they are trying to protect than their male counterparts may have. UNODC data for 2014 reveals that 13% in the police system in Kyrgyzstan are women, but those who are certified as police are only 6.3%, which is too small to support much female involvement in community policing. So, there is another interrelated issue for females to be involved in CVE on the policing level, all in an effort to increase female qualified specialists to work as police.

Surveillance & Repressive Measures

Female community members can often be very useful in keeping tabs on the community and reporting suspicious activities, including leaving to and returning from ISIS. It is important, however, to elaborate on specific strategies that ensure that women in vulnerable communities are not recruited into counter-terrorism roles or as informants solely as security tools to spy on their communities, targeting specific individuals, which would likely create a backlash. It is rather more important to ask them to be more aware of what is happening in their households, communities, etc. and to intervene in a more natural manner with assistance, versus simply becoming informants. Trainings that could help them to become avenues of education and prevention are likely useful in this regard.

Moreover, future policies should clearly spell out the distinction between women’s integration in CVE efforts and counterterrorism efforts rooted in intelligence activities. This is especially important, as women who trust that the government is fully vested in fighting terrorist recruitment and is not simply repressive, will likely turn to it for help, but they may, on the other hand, become more insecure about participating in CVE efforts and not report themselves and their family and community members out of fear of arrests and police scrutiny. CVE efforts must prove themselves to women, and all stakeholders, as being truly protective of the community members, even those radicalizing, versus simply repressive, a problem that is common to all Western states grappling with terrorist recruitment on their soils. Failure to make such distinctions may prevent women from seeking access to important and available services—that is, it may discourage from accessing services for fear of exposing family and community members, and even oneself.

Silencing Dissenting Voices

A serious concern that was not adequately addressed in our inquiries into how violent extremism occurs in Kyrgyzstan was the threats and dangers that are posed to males and females that speak out against violent extremism, for instance, the case of Kadyr Malikov, a well-known male Islamic expert recently attacked by those who are affiliated with ISIS. Malikov argued that those who attacked him belong to the Takfiri group.[49] The state has an interest in protecting both religious freedoms and ensuring that voices that speak out against violent extremism do not become the victims of it.

Raising Awareness and Counter-Messaging Efforts

Many respondents agreed that mothers have a great emotional pull on their children and are therefore essential to creating effective counter- messaging. Emphasis has also been placed on including mothers, sisters, wives, and other female family members in counter-narrative messaging and equipping and training them to argue persuasively against terrorist propaganda. Yet, these actors need powerful tools to help them speak and act effectively against terrorist groups to delegitimize them inside their families and communities, such as ISIS defector videos and real stories of how ISIS did not come through on their promises.

Many parents are unaware of the terrorist propaganda that exists on the Internet or how to speak against it. Just like parents and schools equip youth with messages about safe sex and the dangers of drug use, the same needs to occur for terrorist ideologies—to inoculate youth against such ideologies. Short education modules to be offered in 8th- grade civics class, or earlier, on the current virulent ideologies that youth are currently exposed to and rational arguments to steer them clear of such groups are needed. Likewise, parents need to be equipped to guide their children through the morass of online terrorist propaganda that promises them significance, meaning, purpose, material benefits and the chance to live a religious lifestyle, albeit one that embraces rejecting, if not outright killing, those who do not adhere to their violent interpretation of Islam. While youth imbibe such poison, parents, particularly mothers, need to be equipped to be able to guide their children and guard them against believing the lies that such terrorist groups spread and the dangers of participating in these groups. Without easily accessible tools to do so, mothers are likely to fail in this task.

Mothers without Borders offers a good model of enhancing parenting skills and creating a pyramid of prevention efforts that can cascade through a large number of mothers. We recommend training mothers and educators on prevention efforts and perhaps even following a similar model in identifying key female figures from young university women, female clerics, social workers, mothers, police, and others to be equipped to act against violent extremism in vulnerable communities and throughout Kyrgyzstan through being equipped with adequate knowledge and readily accessible tools to fight ISIS and other extremist groups’ propaganda and training them to train others.

Tools to Counter Violent Extremism

The tools that mothers can use to have the “extremism” talk with their children before they encounter terrorist propaganda and recruiters do not yet exist in adequate forms to easily and fully equip mothers. Nor do they exist to adequately and quickly equip male or female teachers, police, university students, imams, etc. to effectively fight groups like ISIS.

Cogent cognitive arguments should be made against extremist ideologies. However, cognitive arguments are not enough, as clearly evidenced by the U.K.’s Prevent efforts that fell flat in the face of al-Qaeda and ISIS being extremely adept at using graphic images and emotions to seduce youth and propel them along the terrorist trajectory. Emotion based and graphic multimedia tools to counter violent extremist groups need to be developed to fight these groups.

As the current violent extremist groups operating in Kyrgyzstan are using the Internet- based multimedia tools that use emotions to capture the hearts and minds of youth, we recommend using the same—loading them to the Internet and making them available for offline use to facilitate discussions at home, classrooms, youth centers, mosques etc. These tools should adequately portray what groups like ISIS are and are not, and the ways in which extremist violence are illegitimate in Islam and generally. The stories of ISIS defectors denouncing the group with their inside perspective of how they fell prey to it are powerful examples of messengers with full information, enough to emotionally discredit this group. They are especially powerful if their stories are portrayed in video format; however, many schools and police districts and NGOs told us they would need the equipment to show the videos, or else they could be distributed as DVDs.

We focus-tested the Breaking the ISIS Brand defector videos made by the International Center for the Study of Violent Extremism (ICSVE) and found them to spark lively discussions with Kyrgyz counterterrorism professionals and youth. Such tools equip and make it easy to powerfully fight back for a teacher, security official, police officer, or mother who is trying to counter ISIS propaganda coming at youth over the Internet. We played them to various community leaders who also recognized their power and usefulness in fighting ISIS. Additional such materials are sorely needed.

Youth, females included, can be trained to be active, under adult supervision, on social media, identifying those who are endorsing violent extremism and countering them with opposing Internet-based materials. A recent Google project tested this concept of contacting individuals on Facebook who were endorsing extremist groups. It resulted in a fifty-eight percent response rate from those contacted. The dangers in doing such work are significant, however, as some of the responses were to try to talk the intervener into the extremist ideology. As the Kyrgyz police, in cooperation with university students, have already begun Internet monitoring and take-down efforts, we recommend training them to take this even further—to contacting those individuals who retweet, endorse, and like ISIS materials to provide them with countering ISIS online narratives.

Youth and adults, females included, can also be activated to take down violent extremists messaging through actively reporting it to social media companies. Youth, in particular, may be willing to work with police carrying out such efforts as it gives them a purpose and the possibility to work with adults they admire. Given that Kyrgyzstan police are already working on this, we recommend that such efforts be expanded.

We also recommend efforts be made to spotlight male and female role models, sports figures and other youth “heroes,” speaking out against violent extremism and to promote youth campaigns that undermine extremist narratives. These could also include counter narrative religious messaging spotlighting female (religious) models that could be accessed via the Internet or telephone immediately by vulnerable female populations if they need help.

There is a need for both government incentives and voluntary initiatives that could serve to further incentivize women’s engagement and help to shape effective counter extremist messages.

While encouraging the dissemination of counter narratives is crucial, it is equally important and necessary to provide authoritative and appropriate communication channels to assist in prevention and intervention efforts. The respondents identified some of them, including police, security, NGOs, religious leaders, and community leaders.

Another good tool is to use creative and community-engaging methods, such as “forum-theaters” with plays with a counter-terrorism theme performed by local community members. This could be done under the guidance and support of a professional director and with involvement by the audience in what the outcomes and consequence will be of important radicalizing questions raised in the production.

Role of Religious Actors in Counter-Messaging and Interventions

During the course of our interviews, including our research in other parts of the world, we learned that women are likely to work with religious authorities they trust. When working with vulnerable and religiously conservative women, it is necessary to involve women as facilitators of treatment, and often, religious women are the best equipped to reach vulnerable and religiously isolated community members that may fall prey to ISIS recruitment. We also learned that because a great deal of authority rests in the hands of male-dominated religious authorities and institutions, women may be distrustful of such authorities and not feel respected by them. Or if they are highly conservative, they may avoid interactions with male religious leaders and prefer to be taught by other women or their spouses at home.

While in Kyrgyzstan only males become imams, this does not mean that women cannot be trained to be “spiritual leaders.” Similar to the Morchidat Program introduced in Morocco in 2005,[50] women receiving the same training as the male imams could serve to practice religious practices traditionally reserved for the male imams and provide religious education—to other women—in mosques, prisons, and families of those affected by the phenomenon of foreign fighters. In Kyrgyzstan, “Mutakalim,” a faith-based NGO aiming to protect and promote Muslim women rights, is already working on such issues. Women religious authorities can also be paired with individuals active on social media and to run helplines and rapid intervention teams to counter propaganda and recruitment into extremist and terrorist groups. When equipping religious leaders to fight extremism, one must also be aware of whatever religious agendas these actors have in mind as well and protecting their staff from themselves being recruited.

When it comes to religion and religious issues, it appears the government only invites men to meetings about countering extremism and as a matter of routine does not include female religious leaders. In this regard, it is important to not duplicate the sexism often inherent in religious groups but instead include the voices of female religious authorities and encourage their active participation in government led initiatives to fight violent extremism. The government must also remain transparent about the selection criteria used to form partnerships with religious authorities to address the issue of radicalization and extremism in the country and the inclusion of female religious leaders equal to their inclusion of male leaders. In the case of Kyrgyzstan, the State Commission on Religious Affairs respondents said they want to be “neutral” and have the religious community decide for themselves about the role and representation of men and women. They do not want to propose “positive discrimination,” for instance, to increase the role of women in the muftiat.

When it comes to penetrating closed Salafi groups and mahalas, it may be useful to prepare Islamic arguments based on scriptures and to have such messaging possibly emanating from individuals practicing Salafi Islam, although government involvement and employment of Salafi messengers remains a contentious issue. This is primarily because these groups also promote anti-homosexual and anti-feminist teachings that oppose Western democratic values, and even sometimes argue against participation in democratic society itself, including voting—all issues that would likely outweigh using them as the government paid messengers. That said the Kyrgyzstan government could invite Salafi voluntary participation in fighting extremism through sermons, Internet messaging, and written tracts denouncing terrorist groups that endorse Takfiri practices. They can also require oversight of Salafi imams, require training for Salafi imams in scriptures that counter Takfiri ideologies, consider limiting foreign investments in mosques, buildings and infrastructure, and paying imams salaries, or as the Religious Commission has put forward, promoting “an indigenous form of Islam in Kyrgyzstan.” These are delicate issues, however, as they possibly involve restrictions on the freedom to practice religion and involve politics among the various religious actors.

Empowering Women in Kyrgyzstan

 Some of the respondents pointed out how living in patriarchal societies and not being able to make decisions outside their husbands, brothers, and husbands could serve as an incentive for women to join violent extremist groups to regain self-esteem and empowerment. Officially, by the beginning of 2016, the unemployment of Kyrgyz women was 48.9%, meaning living independently is highly unlikely whereas ISIS beckons women with the possibility of employment and salaries competitive to their male counterparts.[51] Although a highly misogynist organization, ISIS did offer free, spacious housing to its foreign fighters, food and propane allowances, and invited female foreign fighters to join the hisbah, or ISIS morality police, taking positions of authority in the ISIS community. Hisbah female members answer to almost no one and enjoy high status in the ISIS community, which may offer more freedom and power to Kyrgyz women than those from rural backgrounds would normally enjoy. Likewise, the materialistic benefits may entice them.

Some explained that to challenge extremism, one must also stand up to traditional patriarchal and traditional gender roles that suppress women’s participation in private and public life—to empower them so that foreign enticements hold less power for them. In this regard, the role of women’s influence and power in a Kyrgyz family remains a highly-debated issue, particularly in the southern Uzbek communities, and empowering them to choose between traditional and more modern roles is likely a difficult task fraught with potential repercussions both positive and negative. When it comes to allowing and enabling women to participate in counter radicalization and counterterrorism efforts, future CVE strategies must also ensure that they do not too strongly threaten traditional relationships between genders within certain [conservative] communities and cultures in Kyrgyzstan in ways that might create a backlash to these initiatives or outright rejection of them.

Interventions with Family Members to Prevent Radicalization

There is a need to reach out to parents whose offspring and spouses of those who have died in Iraq and Syria and who still hold strong beliefs and convictions about their relative’s involvement in the Syrian and the Iraq conflict. Those who are grieving family members who died in Syria and Iraq for ISIS may refer to them as heroic or “martyrs.” In this regard, it is necessary to provide assistance and support to such families to help them in their grief while also speaking out against terrorism, as glorifying involvement in groups like ISIS just promotes more involvement. This is especially important so as to prevent a further radicalization cycle within the families and communities these relatives are influencing. While dealing with trauma is difficult, it is equally important to understand and investigate emotional and psychological dimensions of women, including of their family members in general, who are mourning their children’s death and struggling to come to terms with the death of their loved ones in the service of a terrorist group. It is also important not to collectively penalize the whole family for their adult children’s involvement or for feeling confused about their son or daughter having made the ultimate sacrifice for a cause that unlikely represents the mother or spouse’s true feelings.

Research on the Roles of Female Radicalization and Prevention

There is a need for empirical research that addresses both male and female motivations for joining violent extremism in Kyrgyzstan and research that examines the differences in their terrorist trajectories into and back out of terrorism, as well as the roles their female family members played in contributing to their decisions for embracing terrorism or in trying to prevent it. Migration was often mentioned as a vulnerability, but empirical research might shed more light on how much it really plays a role. Likewise, Kyrgyz police insisted that women played passive roles and followed their men, but our interviews showed another face of women, at times instigating and encouraging and other times refusing to follow, and also actively intervening to stop their family members from going. We need a better understanding of what draws women into radicalization and how they are currently preventing it and can be armed to better prevent it. With this type of research, we can better fine tune programming to protect both men and women and enhance the preventative roles of women.

Participants stressed the unique role of women in identifying concerns that may lead to violent extremism, especially among women and the young. Many pointed out the need for empirical research that addresses women’s motivation for joining violent extremism to likewise identify the kind of support women need to deal with radicalization and violent extremism in their families and their communities.[52]

Research should include needs assessment for women to more effectively deal with radicalization and violent extremism in their families and their communities. Strictly speaking in the context of the latter, there is a need to identify women’s needs and services, specifically in terms of the type of support they need to deal with their offspring and spouses currently engaged in violent extremism; the kind of support they need and would embrace to increase their knowledge and empowerment to act against the early signs of radicalization; the kind of support they need to increase their critical analytic skills given that many have fallen prey to online recruitment and bullying from spouses; and the kind of training they need to become more confident about discussing contentious issues with their children and their spouses. It is equally important and necessary to conduct a needs assessment to understand who mothers and other female family members—wives and sisters—trust for solutions, who they fear, what they need, etc. It is also important to measure female family members’ confidence in the family and their communities and their confidence in responding to contentious issues in the family and community. As one female imprisoned subject told us, she would have reached out to a helpline. In this regard, we can ask others where the points of intervention could have been and then begin constructing them in ways that are truly effective.

There should also be a clear conceptualization on what the role of Kyrgyzstan women should be in relation to:

1) Challenging violent ideology and promoting moderate teachings and moderate views of Islam

2) Understanding and being fully equipped to speak back about the false claims of extremist groups, including their materialist and utopian claims

3) Equipping women with powerful prevention tools and training

4) Preventing recruitment

5) Supporting and engaging directly with those vulnerable through interventions in communities and prisons

6) Focusing on community resilience; and

7) Addressing grievances, perceived or real, that are exploited by extremists during the radicalization process.

This research revealed both national and international actors’ resolve in not only identifying and diverting violent extremism but also supporting women and their families in disengaging from violent extremism. In the context of the latter, the respondents stressed the need to establish appropriate referral mechanisms for services to help radicalized individuals and the families of radicalized individuals—services that now barely exist.

The common theme that emerged during the interviews was that referral mechanisms are important in mobilizing all qualified stakeholders to deliver effective preventative interventions that cater to individual needs. In other words, referral mechanisms allow for mobilizing qualified and credible professionals to deliver effective interventions. This is especially important given that law enforcement and security professionals may not necessarily possess the required skillsets and expertise, and requiring training and support. There also needs to be transparency when it comes to criteria used to select actors (e.g. civil society, non-governmental, etc.) to participate in such a mechanism. There also needs to be transparency on how interventions are assessed and what it is comprised of, as there is a need to be transparent on how referral information is retained/shared with others. Equally important, there need to be clear guidelines that spell out the relationship with the government (e.g. law enforcement) and how referral information is shared with them for preventative and investigative purposes.

Finally, we encourage future research on these topics to also include in-depth interviews with returnees from Syria and Iraq now in prison and their female family members residing in their respective communities to gain additional perspectives on their trajectory into terrorism and how they might rehabilitate, and to learn more about women’s roles in these groups. We recommend in-depth and psychological interviews with these populations of returnees and their wives, some of whom also spent time as ISIS members, and their mothers and sisters to learn more details about women’s involvement in the groups and how prevention might have occurred and could occur in the future.


Kyrgyz citizens have, unfortunately, been seduced into joining the conflict in Syria and Iraq, including joining ISIS ranks, in large numbers compared to other countries in the Central Asian region. Kyrgyz authorities are working hard and effectively to curb travel to the conflict areas in Iraq and Syria and to prevent and intervene in the radicalization process both among Kyrgyz migrant workers and on the ground in Kyrgyzstan. With continued efforts to stand up hotlines, create rapid intervention teams, fight against and remove ISIS propaganda, arrest recruiters and, most importantly, address the vulnerabilities that exist among the population that resonate with terrorist claims, the country is headed in the right path and towards diminishing further extremist activities in the country.


[1]See for example

[2] Cited in “From Asia to Siberia or In search of “New World” the condition of migrants from Central Asia in the Baikal Siberia”, Ulan-Ude, 2013, p.58; Another study of their impact on Kyrgyz women may be important to carry out.

[3] Web-page of GKDR (translated from Russian). Retrieved fromтыюу-салынган-диний-бирикмелер/

[4] NCTC Director Nicholas Rasmussen testimony before the House Committee on Homeland Security. Retrieved from The Soufan Group report dated 2015 estimates the number to be between 27,000-31,000.

[5] Regional anti-terrorist structure of the Shanghai Cooperation Organization, based on the data provided by the anti-terrorist bodies of Central Asian states for the period of 2013-2015. Retrieved from

[6] F. T., Bouffard, M., King, K., & Vickowski, G. (October, 2016). The return of foreign fighters to Central Asia: Implications for U.S. counterterrorism policy. National Defense University. Retrieved from

[7] Interview with Erlan Bakiev, Kyrgyzstan Counter-Terrorism Police (Tenth Unit), November 24, 2016.

[8] Data reported by the International Center for the Study of Radicalization (ICSR) appear to be low. See, for example, International Center for the Study of Radicalization (January 26, 2015). “Foreign fighter total in Syria/Iraq now exceeds 20,000; surpasses Afghanistan conflict in the 1980s;” content/uploads/2015/12/TSG_ForeignFightersUpdate3.pdf; Lynch F. T., Bouffard, M., King, K., & Vickowski, G. “The return of foreign fighters to Central Asia: Implications for U.S. counterterrorism policy.” Data contained in the latter report reflect both 2014 and 2015 findings. In the case of Kyrgyzstan, Bosnia, Albania, Serbia, and Macedonia numbers have been updated and reflect 2015 findings. Note that data are gathered based on official government estimates, UN reports, think-tank research reports, academic sources, and other open source and secondary sources. There are methodological weaknesses associated with collecting data about foreign fighters, specifically in that 1) data reporting entities often fail to disclose their data collection criteria and methodology, hence potentially affecting the accuracy of data, 2) while the number often reflects all foreign fighters traveling to join violent groups in Iraq and Syria, others report such number by deducting the number of returnees and those who have died, and 3) women and children are omitted in some reports, while in others they are not. Data gathered from 1) returnees, 2) Kyrgyzstan Police and domestic security agencies, and 3) open sources of information. Data collected on individual foreign fighters (returnees), from those currently in Syria and Iraq fighting, and deceased.

[9] Sageman, M. (2008). Leaderless jihad: Terror networks in the twenty-first century. Philadelphia: University of Pennsylvania Press; Taarnby, M., & Hallundbaek, L. (2010). Al-Shabaab: The internationalization of militant Islamism in Somalia and the implications for radicalisation processes in Europe. Ministry of Justice. Copenhagen.

[10] Barlett, J., & Miller, C. (2014). The edge of violence: Towards telling the difference between violent and non-violent radicalization.” Terrorism and Political Violence, 2 (1), 1-21.

[11] Ibid., p.2

[12] Schmid, P.A. (2013). Radicalisation, de-radicalisation, counter-radicalisation: A Conceptual discussion and literature review. International Centre for Counter Terrorism. The Hague, p. 10.

[13] Lorenzo, V. (2010). Countering radicalization in America. United States Insitute of Peace. Washington, D.C.

[14] Federal Bureau of Investigation. (n.d.). What is violent extremism. Retrieved from

[15] United Nations, Resolution, 2178 (2014), p.2. Retrieved from

[16] Ibid.

[17] Speckhard, A. (February 25, 2016). The lethal cocktail of terrorism: The four necessary ingredients that go into making a terrorist & fifty individual vulnerabilities/motivations that may also play a role. International Center for the Study of Violent Extremism: Brief Report. Retrieved from

[18] For more details in Russian, see,

[19] See for example;

[20] Official data provided by the 10th department of the Ministry of Internal Affairs to the U.N. Kyrgyzstan Office, valid as of July 2016.

[21] According to data provided by members of the State Service on Punishments Execution.

[22] ISIS has managed to call the largest migration of foreign fighters ever to a battlefield. Estimates are that approximately 38,000 foreign fighters have left for Syria and Iraq—many to ISIS. Zarqawi’s earlier call to jihad with al-Qaeda in Iraq produced only 5000 foreign fighters, while the “jihad” in Afghanistan produced less than 2000 foreign fighters.

[23] Kyrgyzstan Police Conference Presentation; Interviews, Kyrgyzstan Police, October 17-18, 2016.

[24] More about this group in Russian can be found at

[25] According to the police and members of the crime prevention center in Batken province.

[26] According to the data of the Republican Narcological Center. Retrieved from

[27] Results of the public opinion survey conducted by the sociological company “El-Pikir” in 2014.

[28] National Institute for Strategic Studies of Kyrgyz Republic. (2016). Kyrgyzstan: Extended migration profile 2010-2015, pp.61-62. Retrieved from file:///C:/Users/ChE/Desktop/Migration-Profile-Extended-Kyrgyzstan-Rus-2010-2015.pdf

[29] See

[30] Speckhard, A. The lethal cocktail of terrorism: The four necessary ingredients that go into making a terrorist & fifty individual vulnerabilities/motivations that may also play a role.

[31] Yasmin Green, personal communication, 2016.

[32] See

[33] Speckhard, A., & Yayla, A. S. (2016). ISIS Defectors: Inside Stories of the Terrorist Caliphate: McLean: Advances Press, LLC; Unpublished Kosovo interview June 2016

[34] Ibid.

[35] Ibid.

[36] Speckhard, A. The lethal cocktail of terrorism: The four necessary ingredients that go into making a terrorist & fifty individual vulnerabilities/motivations that may also play a role; Speckhard, A. (2012). Talking to terrorists: Understanding the psycho-social motivations of militant jihadi terrorists, mass hostage takers, suicide bombers & martyrs. McLean, VA: Advances Press, LLC.

[37] See

[38] See

[39] See

[40] See

[41] Videos can be retrieved from

[42] Anonymous consultant comments. December 2016.

[43] See

[44] Police chief interview in Issy- Kul. Interviews with a crime prevention center members in Batken.

[45] Issyk-Kul Region, GKNB informal interview.

[46] Speckhard, A., & Yayla, A. S. (2016). ISIS Defectors: Inside Stories of the Terrorist Caliphate: Advances Press, LLC.

[47] Data from the interviews with representatives of law enforcement bodies.

[48] See

[49] See

[50] Available at

[51] See

[52] Interview, S, MJ., October 19, 2016.



A research institution based in Washington, D.C., ICSVE provides research, training, and strategic advice to government leaders, intelligence, defense, international organizations, and civilian communities worldwide to prevent and deter the threat of violent extremism in the core areas of capacity building and programmatic support, countering extremist narratives, developing community resilience, managing intervention activities, and training.

This research was commissioned and supported by UN Women. The views, opinions, findings, and recommendations expressed in this report are strictly those of the authors. They do not necessarily reflect the views of UN Women.


The information in this publication may not be reproduced, in part or in whole, and by any means, without further permission from the International Center for the Study of Violent Extremism (ICSVE). For permission to reproduce the information contained in this publication, please contact Neima Izadi at


ICSVE would like to thank UN Women and UN Women Kyrgyzstan Office for supporting this research. Additional gratitude goes to government officials in Kyrgyzstan, the Kyrgyz police, counterterrorism officials, journalists, judges, prosecutors, and representatives of local and international organizations and local informants who all shared their time generously with us.

Published by ICSVE, Washington, D.C.

Printed in Washington, D.C.

© August 4 , 2017 ICSVE. All rights reserved.

Reference for this report: Speckhard, Shajkovci & Esengul (August 4, 2017) Analysis of the Drivers of Radicalization and Violent Extremism in Kyrgyzstan, including the Roles of Kyrgyz Women in Supporting, Joining, Intervening in, and Preventing Violent Extremism in Kyrgyzstan. ICSVE Research Reports.

About the Authors:

Anne Speckhard, Ph.D. is Adjunct Associate Professor of Psychiatry at Georgetown University in the School of Medicine and Director of the International Center for the Study of Violent Extremism (ICSVE) where she heads the Breaking the ISIS Brand—ISIS Defectors Interviews Project. She is the author of: Talking to Terrorists, Bride of ISIS and coauthor of ISIS Defectors: Inside Stories of the Terrorist Caliphate; Undercover Jihadi; and Warrior Princess. Dr. Speckhard has interviewed nearly 500 terrorists, their family members and supporters in various parts of the world including Gaza, West Bank, Chechnya, Iraq, Jordan, Turkey and many countries in Europe. In 2007, she was responsible for designing the psychological and Islamic challenge aspects of the Detainee Rehabilitation Program in Iraq to be applied to 20,000 + detainees and 800 juveniles. She is a sought after counterterrorism experts and has consulted to NATO, OSCE, foreign governments and to the U.S. Senate & House, Departments of State, Defense, Justice, Homeland Security, Health & Human Services, CIA and FBI and CNN, BBC, NPR, Fox News, MSNBC, CTV, and in Time, The New York Times, The Washington Post, London Times and many other publications. Her publications are found here:

Chinara Esengul, Ph.D. Candidate,  supports PeaceNexus Foundation as their Regional Adviser on Central Asia. She has over ten years of experience in researching and advising on Central Asian peace and security issues. Before joining PeaceNexus she worked for the government of Kyrgyzstan as a deputy director of the National Institute for Strategic Studies developing policy briefs on security matters of Kyrgyzstan and beyond. Chinara is associate professor at the Kyrgyz National University´s faculty of International Relations, completing her Ph.D. in political sciences in 2014 (thesis topic – informal and formal political and social institutions of Central Asia and their impact on Central Asian regionalism). In recent years she was a consultant with various UN agencies and other international organizations on peacebuilding in Kyrgyzstan and Central Asia.

Chinara Esengul holds a higher education diploma in International Relations from the Kyrgyz National University, a higher education diploma in Law from the Kyrgyz Russian Slavic University, an MA in International Relations from the International University of Japan, and is a PhD candidate in political sciences at the Kyrgyz National University.

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