Uzbekistan’s ISIS problem: persecution at home may be radicalising young Muslims

A Central Asian militant details his path to joining the brutal organisation in Afghanistan, Ruchi Kumar reports from a Kabul prison

Tashkent TV Tower Aerial Shot During Sunset in Uzbekistan taken in 2018
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Shirzad, the 37-year-old militant sitting in a dimly lit interview room at Afghanistan’s intelligence agency, tries to excuse his decision to join one of the most brutal terror groups in the world.

“I immigrated [to Afghanistan] from my country [Uzbekistan] to save my religion,” says the Uzbek national at the Kabul facility controlled by the National Directorate of Security, Afghanistan’s intelligence service.

Shirzad, a member of the Islamic State of Khorasan Province, looks frail and fearful. His small structure, gaunt expression and receding hairline make him look several years older than his actual age.

He is one of about 900 ISIS fighters who surrendered or were caught in the past four months during a massive military operation launched by the Afghan forces in the eastern province of Nangarhar.

The ISIS fighter, who now goes by the name Najeebullah, which he adopted when he joined the group in 2015, avoids making eye contact with anyone in the room as he narrates the turn of events that led him to his current state, a prisoner in Afghanistan.

“There was no Islam in Uzbekistan,” he says of the former Soviet territory, all the while staring at his open palm.

“We couldn’t pray or fast [during Ramadan]; people are not allowed to wear scarves, even while praying. They started putting us in jails. They sentenced my cousin to jail for five years [for practising Islam],” he claims in his broken Pashto, a language he picked up in the three-and-a-half years he spent in the eastern provinces of his adopted country.

Although Uzbekistan is a Muslim-majority country, the former Soviet state is known for its strict control of religious expression and practices, what a UN report in 2019 called “extreme surveillance and state control of religious practices,” including laws that criminalise unregistered religious activities.

“There is a history of heavy religious restriction in Uzbekistan and we are concerned that it has led to radicalisation,” said Hugh Williamson, director for Europe and Central Asia at Human Rights Watch.

“In the post-Soviet period, Uzbekistan imposed severe limits on how people express their Muslim faith; and those who did so in ways that don’t conform with the very narrow definitions imposed by state have been persecuted.”

Members of the Afghan security services escort alleged members of ISIS and the Taliban, arrested during an operation in Nangarhar province, January 27, 2016. EPA
Members of the Afghan security services escort alleged members of ISIS and the Taliban, arrested during an operation in Nangarhar province, January 27, 2016. EPA

The former president Islam Karimov, who ruled the country with an iron fist since its liberation from the Soviet Union, had curtailed many religious freedoms. But since his death in 2015, his successor, President Shavkat Mirziyoyev, has brought about many reforms, which resulted in the United States administration removing the country from its list of counties engaged in severe violations of religious freedom.

A US congressional advisory body on international religious freedoms, however, recommended that Uzbekistan stay on that list.

Experts say that despite reform, not enough has been done to combat radicalisation, as restrictive laws remain.

Ironically, much of the government activities that subdue religious practices have been on the pretext of combatting the local insurgencies of the Islamic Movement of Uzbekistan and the Islamic Jihad Union. Incidentally, neither insurgency has launched any significant attack inside Uzbekistan since 2004.

Yet the IMU has a significant presence in northern Afghanistan because of the Taliban’s outreach to the group. But the alliance between the Taliban and IMU was never a perfect marriage, says Andrew Watkins, senior analyst at International Crisis Group.

“When the Islamic State came about in Afghanistan in 2015 the IMU were driven toward the global appeal of the Islamic State and pledged allegiance to the ISIS faction in the country,” he said.

Shirzad joined the Tehrik-i-Taliban militant group at home before being told to go to Moscow. He was then instructed to go to Azerbaijan and on to Iran. He was then smuggled into Afghanistan through the porous borders of Nimruz Province. From there, he was taken to Waziristan in Pakistan for three months after meeting the local Taliban leadership, re-entering Afghan territory and joining ISIS in Achin district in Nangarhar.

In his earlier life, as a resident of a small Uzbek town, Shirzad worked at a printing press. So ISIS assigned him to their “press department” in Nangarhar, in charge of printing propaganda material which was distributed across the region, especially in universities for recruitment.

Shirzad admits participating in frequent battles, especially with the Taliban in Zabul, Faryab and Nangarhar provinces, but claims he never killed anyone. The Afghan forces are less convinced of denial of involvement in crimes. They continue to investigate Shirzad and many others who were caught along with him.

“In Achin, we were given a good place to stay and money, about 1,000 to 1,500 Pakistan rupees [Dh23 to Dh34] every month. The younger teenage recruits would be paid 500 Pakistani rupees,” he says. “We would also collect money from local people by selling wood there.”

There remains an estimated 2,500 ISIS fighters in Afghanistan, of whom almost 400 are believed to be foreign.

“We have noticed many central Asian fighters from Uzbekistan, Tajikistan and Kyrgyzstan, as well as Arabs, Indians and Pakistanis,” an NDS official says. About 60 per cent are from Pakistan, hailing from border tribes, he says.

While the ISIS insurgency declined in the Middle East, its Afghan faction maintained a steady presence in a country already battling the Taliban and other insurgent groups. The Hazara Shia minority was a frequent target, as were government premises, suffering complex attacks that caused many casualties.

That was until recently. As of the end of 2019, nearly 1,400 ISIS fighters left in Nangarhar province, which was the centre of the growing insurgency, had surrendered or were caught during anti-ISIS operations, NDS officials say.

Those like Shirzad, who were struggling to abandon the organisation, saw it as an opportunity for redemption.

“All I wanted was to live an Islamic life. But we were betrayed,” he says, tears welling up in his eyes.

“I am tired of the war and all the wrongs inflicted by the Taliban and Daesh in Afghanistan. I regret ever having come here. Look what it has done to my children – they can’t even go to school. They are losing education opportunities being here in the prison with me,” he says between sobs.

Shirzad had six children, four of whom were born after he arrived in Afghanistan.

He has requested that the Afghan government does not send him back to Uzbekistan. He is willing to serve his time in Afghan prisons and after that he hopes to build a life in Afghanistan, choosing a war-torn country over his birth country.

“If the Afghan government allows, I will stay here with my family, rent a place and work here,” he says, looking over to the NDS officer standing close by.

But Shirzad’s fate remains undecided for now, as the Afghan officials continue their investigation into his crimes and those of other foreign fighters.