The devastating civil war in Syria and the long-standing turmoil in Iraq have been magnets for jihadists (and aspiring jihadists) from the Caucasus and Central Asia. No sooner had a civil war erupted in Syria in 2011 than militant Islamists from post-Soviet states began flocking there. More recently, some have also made their way to Iraq to fight on behalf of the ultra-radical Islamic State jihadist organization, which over the past year and a half has gained control of large swaths of territory in both Syria and Iraq.
Estimates of the number of fighters who have gone from the Caucasus and Central Asia to Syria and Iraq vary widely. The numbers cited by the Russian Federal Security Service (FSB) and Internal Affairs Ministry (MVD) have fluctuated wildly over time and are often highly inflated. Western security officials have publicly indicated that many hundreds—and probably more than 1,000—from Russia’s North Caucasus region, more than 200 from the South Caucasus (Azerbaijan and Georgia), and at least several hundred from Central Asia (mostly Tajikistan, Kyrgyzstan, and Uzbekistan) have fought in Syria and Iraq.
The influx of these jihadists has been a boon for Islamic State. Over the past year, most of the leading Islamic fighters from the Caucasus and Central Asia have sworn allegiance (bay’at) to Sheikh Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi, the leader of Islamic State. Some of the jihadists from these areas have already returned home and joined underground terrorist groups dedicated to Islamic State, and many more will be coming back to their home regions within the next year or two.
The return of battle-hardened mujahedin has already begun to cause major problems for the societies in which they settle.