Tajik and Turkmen migrant workers susceptible to ISIS

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Coronavirus has introduced mass instability worldwide and can have especially dangerous political effects in regimes that do not acknowledge the presence or threat of the pandemic. Undoubtedly, coronavirus has had a significant impact on employment worldwide, which is especially true for Central Asian migrant workers who have lost their jobs and sole source of income.

This unemployment coupled with the fact most cannot return to their home countries because of closed borders compounds the direness of their situation; they are stranded with little money, a lack of government support, and job uncertainty for the future. Similarly, they are forced to decide between finding shelter and food for themselves or sending what little money they possess back to their families. Central Asia’s economies are being strained by this sudden unemployment because they rely heavily on remittances from migrant workers.

International terrorist organizations like Islamic State (ISIS) are taking advantage of this situation. ISIS is appearing to exploit the situation through a two-pronged approach. Firstly, they are targeting these migrant workers—who are already politically disenfranchised—but are especially economically challenged during this pandemic. In targeting a vulnerable population, they are engaging in both a recruitment strategy and instilling their ideas into an aggrieved population. If ISIS can convince Central Asian migrant workers their conditions can be redressed by joining ISIS to acquire income for their families, they can endanger the stability of the region. They not only threaten to siphon work away from the formal economy but become a more attractive economic option for these migrant workers permanently. The longer countries like Russia and Turkey—where migrant workers go for work—stay on lockdown, the more difficult it becomes for migrant workers and their families to survive, and the more likely they are to consider ISIS’ offer.

Secondly, they are framing coronavirus as a divinely sanctioned punishment against manipulative governments and infidels. These strategies advance their desire to promote political unrest in susceptible areas while simultaneously advancing their ideology.  

Migrant workers

Citizens from Turkmenistan and Tajikistan rely on finding work outside their countries because they can make more money, although still a considerably low amount. Most of these migrant workers go to Russia and Turkey, where they face harsh working conditions. Tajikistan’s government is especially vulnerable to interruptions in migrant work—nearly 30% of their GDP comes from these remittances.[1] Likewise, migrant workers themselves rely on this seasonal work to provide for their families back home. The coronavirus pandemic has suspended migrant work and halted their income; as a result, they are considering alternative work opportunities. If coronavirus continues to disrupt the workflow in Russia and Turkey, these migrant workers will face mounting pressure to find any work available—including offers from ISIS—or otherwise face impoverishment.

Migrant workers are especially susceptible to ISIS’ message. While they are not necessarily more likely than other groups to undergo radicalization, their working conditions and political status render them an attractive socioeconomic group for instilling discord. Rather than only attempting to recruit migrant workers, ISIS realizes the value in creating friction between them and their governments. By intentionally advancing the message that governments worldwide are responsible for failing health industries and economic downturn, ISIS is effectively exploiting the unsatisfactory working conditions and extremely low pay of migrant workers for their own ideological purposes—conditions which are aggravated by worldwide economic catastrophe.

Such tactics are evidenced by recent events in Turkey. In one reported incident, a Turkmen migrant worker in Istanbul named Erkin describes being approached by a stranger in the Aksaray neighborhood of Istanbul, who initiated a conversation with him about the difficulties of being a migrant worker from central Asia. The man then offered him a well-paying job in neighboring Syria, clueing Erkin in the man was likely a recruiter from ISIS.[2]

Hence, ISIS’ targeted recruitment strategies as well as their rhetoric signify their intent to benefit from misfortune. The recruiter demonstrated a keen awareness of the political and economic hardships of being a migrant worker and sought to exploit these grievances, which should be a warning to governments everywhere not to lose sight of the threat of terrorism during this pandemic. ISIS is utilizing the political and economic distress of Central Asian migrant workers as both a recruitment strategy and a vehicle for enabling political unrest.

Existing ISIS sympathizers in Central Asia facilitate communications between them and migrant workers. ISIS has received many foreign fighters from Central Asia—it is estimated since 2013, approximately 5,000 ISIS fighters have come from Central Asia, 1,300 of which hail from Tajikistan, and 400 from Turkmenistan. Likewise, they have played active roles in ISIS’ campaign in Syria and Iraq,[3] and have staged attacks in Central Asia, such as the 2018 attack on cyclists in Tajikistan.[4]

ISIS messaging strategies during coronavirus

Like other extremist groups, ISIS has quickly recognized the political opportunities coronavirus affords. With the suspension of US, NATO, and Iraqi counterinsurgency operations due to the pandemic,[5] they face less pressure from security forces and an international coalition, and their typical tactics of sowing discord and exploiting political unrest have been reinvigorated. ISIS Propaganda expert Laith AlKhouri notes they will spread misinformation and exploit global turmoil to delegitimize governments around the world and promote their own message.[6]

Likewise, ISIS has framed coronavirus through their Islamist lens, arguing it is a punishment sent down by God against the infidels for their corruption and moral depravity.[7] A world in chaos gives them a renewed sense of hope to disseminate their message more effectively, and their decentralized structure and online presence only heightens this. They argue that countries which mishandle the coronavirus place their citizens at risk to protect the wealth and power of the government. Accordingly, countries that underreport their coronavirus cases or fail to institute effective measures in combating it only strengthen ISIS’ message by proving their point; similarly, their failure to protect their migrant workers from economic fallout make ISIS a viable working option.

Tajikistan and Turkmenistan’s response to coronavirus

Tajikistan and Turkmenistan are prime examples of countries unwittingly bolstering ISIS’ message. In Tajikistan, the government has denied having any cases of coronavirus, instead blaming pneumonia or H1N1—exacerbated by bad weather—for an influx in hospital patients.[8] Tajikistan is known for controlling information that comes in and out of the country to maintain political power; however, continuing business as usual during these especially volatile times could have repercussions for the country.

Tajik migrant workers stuck in Russia due to border closures are certainly informed of the seriousness of the coronavirus; therefore, Tajikistan’s government risks its political legitimacy from within the country by attempting to withhold information during these fractured times. Similarly, Tajikistan risks losing their migrant workers to ISIS’ work opportunities, which they may perceive as a steadier source of income during these challenging times.

By failing to appeal to their migrant workers’ concerns, Tajikistan threatens the economic stability of the region. Indeed, ISIS’ strategy of promoting political unrest and government change could be an attractive idea for disenfranchised Tajik migrant workers who will return to Tajikistan when borders reopen.

In Turkmenistan, the situation is similar. Doctors are prohibited from using the word “coronavirus” and reports have emerged of citizens being taken away for using the word “coronavirus” in public.[9] Turkmenistan is stringent on what information circulates throughout the country and restricts information flowing out. Given the structure of the authoritarian regime as well as the limited data coming out of the country, Turkmenistan—like Tajikistan—jeopardizes their political legitimacy from within by intentionally suppressing coronavirus reports. Additionally, their neglect for their migrant workers abroad may lead them to accept work from ISIS simply out of desperation to feed their families.   

Conclusion

As of April 24th, Tajikistan and Turkmenistan have both upheld their claims of no coronavirus cases. In Tajikistan, a new football season began on April 4th as sporting events throughout the country continue mostly undisrupted.[10] In Turkmenistan, 7,000 cyclists gathered on April 7th to celebrate World Health Day.[11] If their claims of no reported cases of coronavirus are accurate, they must nonetheless keep their citizens informed on WHO’s guidelines[12] for protecting themselves against an outbreak which is verifiably affecting almost every country worldwide. Otherwise, they risk augmenting ISIS’ message of corrupt governments and losing their migrant workers to ISIS as an economic alternative.

Where information is unclear, groups like ISIS can infiltrate and insert messages of their own, skewing the conversation in their direction and manipulating migrant workers’ grievances for ideological advancement. Therefore, Turkmenistan and Tajikistan not only need to display transparency and concern during these unprecedented times, but they must address the political and economic grievances of migrant workers to maintain political and regional stability. By remedying migrant worker’s underlying political and economic issues that groups like ISIS target, they reduce the economic and ideological appeal of ISIS.

In an already unstable global political environment due to coronavirus, ISIS’ ability to promote misinformation and propagate its agenda is enhanced; therefore, Tajikistan and Turkmenistan must remain especially vigilant to avoid placing regional stability at risk.

Ryan Schweitzer & Michael Tannous

Ryan Schweitzer is a graduate of Columbia University and a current Fulbright research student in Uzbekistan. His research interests include security, identity formation, and nationalism in Central Asia

Michael Tannous is a senior at Boston University pursuing a B.A. in International Relations and a B.A. in English. He is concentrating in foreign policy and security studies in the Middle East & North Africa


The views expressed in this articles do not necessarily reflect the views of Blue Domes


[1] https://www.theglobaleconomy.com/Tajikistan/remittances_percent_GDP/

[2] https://central.asia-news.com/en_GB/articles/cnmi_ca/features/2020/04/16/feature-02

[3]https://thenewturkey.org/the-forgotten-terrorists-daesh-fighters-of-central-asia

[4] https://www.nytimes.com/2018/07/30/world/asia/tajikistan-attack-cylists.html

[5] https://www.politico.com/news/magazine/2020/04/08/how-the-islamic-state-feeds-on-coronavirus-175192

[6] https://www.justsecurity.org/69508/how-terrorist-groups-will-try-to-capitalize-on-the-coronavirus-crisis/

[7] https://www.justsecurity.org/69508/how-terrorist-groups-will-try-to-capitalize-on-the-coronavirus-crisis/

[8] https://eurasianet.org/tajikistan-says-it-has-no-covid-19-attributes-new-death-to-swine-flu

[9] https://foreignpolicy.com/2020/04/10/turkmenistan-coronavirus-pandemic-denial-strongman-berdimuhamedov/

[10] https://www.dailysabah.com/sports/football/tajikistan-opens-new-football-season-despite-coronavirus-pandemic

[11] https://www.economist.com/asia/2020/04/23/life-carries-on-as-usual-in-tajikistan-and-turkmenistan

[12] https://www.who.int/emergencies/diseases/novel-coronavirus-2019/advice-for-public

One comment

  1. Very intriguing article! Makes me wonder why Rahmon and Berdimuhamedov are not worried for their regimes and people

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