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Enveloped in the swirling fog of coronavirus news, disoriented and panicked, it is easy to forget that crises that began long before this are continuing to grind along, out of sight. Islamic extremist groups are not dissuaded by the virus, and life in Syrian camps for their former members carries on as ever before. In Uzbekistan, a country which supplied between 1,500 and 3,000 fighters to IS, and spawned the Islamic Movement of Uzbekistan, a new problem poses itself. What is to be done with those returning from the former Islamic State?
Uzbekistan, among other Central Asian states, has chosen a compassionate approach to women and children – one which is lacking in many western countries. But in order to understand the necessity of such an approach, we must consider the circumstances which led us to this point.
Rise of Islamic Extremism in Uzbekistan
In 1991, Uzbekistan became an independent republic. Free from the oppression of the Soviet Union, Islam Karimov sought to establish his own brand of oppressive state based on two key principles: anti-Islamism and Uzbek ethnic identity.
The Karimov government’s main foe – the Islamic Movement of Uzbekistan (IMU) – first took root in the fertile Fergana Valley in the late 1990s. Jumaboi Ahmadjonovich Khodjiyev, better known by his nom de guerre Juma Namangani, had returned to his home town radicalised following the Soviet-Afghan war. During a period of instability following independence Namangani, who had deserted the Soviet army and fought on the side of the Afghan mujahideen, befriended some local Islamic figures. Together, they formed Adolat (‘justice’), a group seeking the establishment of a radical Salafi caliphate in Central Asia.
Although nominally democratically elected, Islam Karimov was struggling to assert his authority in Tashkent. Adolat soon took over Khodjiyev’s hometown of Namangan, and locals suffered under a brutally enforced Sharia law. However by 1992, Karimov had cemented his rule, and Adolat was outlawed, bringing the Fergana Valley back into the iron grip of the Uzbek state.
The Islamic Movement of Uzbekistan
When Uzbekistan was part of the U.S.S.R., Islam was driven underground. Mosques became workshops, madrasas were boarded up, and women were forbidden to wear the veil – the final remains a point of contention even now.
But despite the liberalisation that occurred as the Soviet Union began to crumble, the seeds of a new Islamic movement were sown among the ruins. Adolat became the IMU in 1998, and they waged jihadi campaigns in Afghanistan, fought in the Tajik civil war, and caused chaos in Pakistan.
Eventually, the IMU fell out with the Taliban, aligned themselves with Al-Qaeda, and then in 2014, pledged allegiance to the Islamic State.
But with the fall of IS in 2019, and the tentative ongoing peace discussions in Afghanistan, the IMU and their supporters seem somewhat backed into a corner. Without a physical caliphate to travel to, and without allegiance to the Afghan Taliban, Uzbek extremists were stranded.
The Stateless Members of the Islamic State
Almost a year after the first repatriation flight, Uzbek women and children still languish in Al-Hol, a Kurdish-run camp at Baghouz in northern Syria. This is where IS’ last battle took place in March 2019. It is difficult to accurately estimate the number of people who left Uzbekistan to join IS. According to the Institute for National Strategic Studies, Central Asia was the third largest supplier of fighters to Islamic State. Approximately 1,500 of those were ethnic Uzbeks, according to New York-based security consultancy The Soufan Group, but the figures are difficult to verify.
Additionally, many Uzbeks fighting in Syria, including for Jabhat an-Nusra were already expatriates. There is a large ethnic Uzbek population in southern Kyrgyzstan, from which many members of the IMU were drawn.
The Silk Road to Peaceful Repatriation
Remarkably, it is the former Soviet, Central Asian states that are leading the way for repatriation of former IS members. Europe and the U.S. have been notoriously on their guard. The case of Shamima Begum, schoolgirl turned jihadi wife, prompted public outcry in the U.K.. These western governments face a difficult choice. Preventing their jihadi citizens from returning and having them tried in Iraq or Syria means a potential deprivation of human rights on multiple fronts, including revocation of citizenship and facing unjust trials in the Middle East. On the other hand, allowing former IS members back could lead to increased radicalisation, difficulty proving their crimes in court, and a sense among the public that if they have committed a crime abroad, they will be welcomed home.
It is this last option that states such as Uzbekistan have chosen to pursue. While this may seem counterintuitive, particularly with knowledge of the country’s chequered past regarding institutionalised torture in its notorious prisons, Uzbekistan is among the countries leading the way with a peaceful path for repatriation.
In July 2017, Islam Karimov’s presidential successor Shavkat Mirziyoyev declared that Uzbeks involved in terrorism in the Middle East would be stripped of their citizenship. But as he has been loosening the screws of repression in other areas of government, Mirziyoyev appears to have made a u-turn when it comes to repatriation measures too.
Mirziyoyev has made the Uzbek Som fully convertible, abolished Soviet-style exit visas, and removed the chief of the secret police. And now, he is embarking on an ambitious track to repatriate and deradicalise his citizens, paving the way for a new educational system that emphasises traditional, local Islam.
If successful, secular Uzbekistan could lead the way on reintegration by using a community-focused approach, backed by imams. The key will be to instil pride in a locally-focussed Islam, and make it known that those who stray will always be welcomed back if they are willing to change. During the time of Uzbek SSR, there was a gaping hole where religious education used to be. Rectifying that is the keystone in the foundation of Uzbekistan’s grand reintegration project.
Men Without Women
It is worth noting however, that the treatment of men, women, and children differs greatly. As part of operation Mehr (‘Kindness’) in May 2019, Uzbekistan repatriated 156 of its citizens: two men, 48 women and 106 children. And in October, it was announced that a further 64 children were flown back from Syria – their parents remaining behind imprisoned, or their whereabouts unknown. President Mirziyoyev has referred to the repatriated as ‘misled’ – they are assumed innocent, and not imprisoned upon return, unlike in many other countries.
In partnership with UNICEF, Uzbekistan has developed a one-year family rehabilitation problem. The essence of the mission is not to see the returnees as victims of trauma, or worse, as terrorists, but as people who have been through a difficult situation and need support to bounce back.
But of course, there are difficult cases. Returning men are swiftly tried and sentenced on extremist charges. Luckily for them, Uzbekistan’s most infamous prison – Jaslik, in remote Karakalpakstan – was closed by President Mirziyoyev shortly after he took office in 2016.
Of course, this does not mean that Uzbekistan’s prisons are free from torture and other inhumane treatment. In 2018, Amnesty International found that torture was still widespread, and all freedoms remained severely restricted – but better than they were under Karimov. At the same time as Mirziyoyev said that terrorists would be stripped of their citizenship, he drew an important distinction. He differentiated between the ‘delusional,’ and ‘those with blood on their hands.’ As for the latter, he said there was ‘no point [trying to] talk to them.’
Uzbekistan, and its fellow Central Asian states have acted more decisively than most in trying to empty the camps and bring their citizens home. For Uzbekistan, welcoming those who were misled by terror groups provides an opportunity to rewrite the national narrative as one of a country rooted in positive, Islamic values. And while returning men still face stiff prison sentences, women and children are largely treated with mercy and compassion. For families torn apart by war, there is a fertile future for them yet in Uzbekistan.