Central Asia becomes new target in Russia's televised hunt for Islamic State terrorists
By DAVID FILIPOV | The Washington Post | Published: May 8, 2017
MOSCOW — The arrests are decisive, dramatic, and nationally televised.
As the camera rolls, masked Russian counterintelligence agents jump out of a van and dash across a field outside Moscow. They take down a man in a blue coat, pin him to the pavement and pull a pistol from his pants. This is Abror Azimov, the TV announcer says, "one of the organizers" of last month's bombing of a St. Petersburg subway train, which killed 16 people.
In the next scene, agents arrest Azimov's older brother, Akram. They pull a grenade from a bag he is carrying. The elder brother, the announcer says, is also an accomplice in the bombing.
The detentions, broadcast recently on one of Russia's most-watched news programs, are designed to show law enforcement's resolve. They give the public a name for a new enemy in Russia's struggle against domestic terrorism: migrant workers from Central Asia. And, some rights advocates worry, they are the harbinger of a new wave of repression against a vulnerable minority.
The Azimovs are part of a group of about 20 suspects who have been rounded up in what Russian law enforcement authorities say is an aggressive pursuit of Islamist extremists involved in the bombing. All of the suspects hail from predominantly Muslim, strife-torn former Soviet republics of Central Asia, from which, Russian President Vladimir Putin recently estimated, several thousand people have left to join the Islamic State.
Russian authorities say they are acting prudently to protect their country from a clear and present threat. Last month, Alexander Bortnikov, director of the Federal Security Service, or FSB, said agents had thwarted 16 terrorist attacks across Russia in 2016, most of which involved migrants from other former Soviet republics.
But some worry that migrant workers from Central Asia make convenient targets. In the 2013 campaign for Moscow mayor, both the eventual winner, Sergey Sobyanin, and the runner-up, opposition leader Alexei Navalny, campaigned on tough stances toward economic migrants from the region.
"They are treated like second-class humans in Russia," said Tanya Lokshina, Russia program director for Human Rights Watch.
As the "caliphate" crumbles and the Islamist militants return from the Middle East, the concern in Moscow is that they will travel to Russia to infiltrate the large population of Muslim economic migrants from Central Asia - between 2.7 million and 4.2 million people, according to a 2016 study published by the Moscow-based journal Russia in Global Affairs.
Citizens of Kyrgyzstan — the home country of the Azimovs and Akbarzhon Dzhalilov, the suspected suicide bomber in the St. Petersburg attack — can travel to Russia without a visa, as can those from Tajikistan and Uzbekistan. These countries intersect in the Ferghana Valley, a volatile region that has seen a growth of stringent versions of Islam and the recruitment of hundreds of militants to fight in the Islamic State.
Central Asian migrants, who come to fill the low-paying jobs that Russians often refuse, become vulnerable to Islamist militant propaganda because of their "rather difficult social-economic position" in Russia, said Andrei Kazantsev, a specialist on Central Asia and a member of the Valdai Discussion Club, a Moscow think tank.
Some analysts are suspicious of the authorities' speed in identifying the alleged organizers of the St. Petersburg bombing. Kazantsev is not, attributing the results to the sheer number of police and counterintelligence agents dedicated to the investigation.
Three days after the bombing, Russian investigators said they had arrested eight possible accomplices in the subway attack. Along with the footage of the Azimovs' arrest, Russian television has broadcast several FSB videos showing agents kicking down doors, taking suspected militants into custody and displaying what narrators describe as bomb components. One video showed the bodies of two men, shot by agents, the narrator says, after they put up a fight.
No one doubts that Central Asia is producing Islamist militants, but some Russian observers fear that the crackdown will extend to blameless civilians. They refer to Russia's response to militancy in the North Caucasus region along the country's southern border. There, federal forces fought two civil wars in Russia's semiautonomous republic of Chechnya. They are combating a simmering Islamist insurgency in the neighboring republic of Dagestan, and facing Islamic State fighters returning home to these regions. Along with suspected militants, rights advocates say, thousands of innocents have been subject to imprisonment, torture and summary execution.
Arkady Dubnov, an independent Central Asia analyst based in Moscow, said that authorities are clearly "hurrying to prove the Central Asian connection" to the St. Petersburg attack, which is stoking "fear of migrants among the Russian population." He said authorities had provided little evidence of the suspects' terrorist links, other than "fake details of an investigation and staged arrests."
The Azimov brothers' mother, Vazira Mirzakhmedova, said in a statement last month that she believed her eldest son, Akram, had been kidnapped by authorities from a hospital in southern Kyrgyzstan, and that the arrest outside Moscow had been staged. In an interview in their home in Jalal-Abad, the Azimovs' youngest brother, Bilal, said that "everyone in Russia knows" that the arrests were "a setup, theater."
When FSB agents prepare to detain an armed terrorist, he said, they normally wear body armor. In both of the televised arrests, the agents do not appear to be wearing protective vests under their jackets, and their guns are holstered, even though a narrator says they knew the suspects would be armed.
Investigators said that Akram Azimov had admitted that he and his brother had been accomplices in the bombing, but in court Azimov denied involvement in the attack.
Russia's FSB did not respond to a request for comment.
Jalal-Abad is in Kyrgyzstan's part of the Ferghana Valley. The area has produced a prominent field commander in Syria, Sirozhiddin Mukhtarov, known as Abu Salah al-Uzbeki, who is believed to have been recruiting fighters from his native region since 2013. One Kyrgyz news site has reported that Abu Salah ordered the St. Petersburg bombing, although the SITE Intelligence Group, a private company that monitors terrorist organizations, reported last month that a group called the Imam Shamil Battalion claimed responsibility for the attack.
A well-known imam in Kara-Suu, Kyrgyzstan, not far from Jalal-Abad, was convicted in 2015 for possession of extremist literature.
"Lack of opportunities and access to good education among youth, a poor labor market, conflict tensions among ethnic groups, political turbulence and widespread corruption in the government system leave a large part of the population vulnerable and marginalized," said Akylai Karimova, an activist from the Ferghana Valley city of Osh, Kyrgyzstan, who runs a U.N.-funded project to reduce radicalism among young people. "These, in turn, become a perfect base for radical elements to spread among them."
Until now, the economic rewards of working in Russia, even in lower-paying jobs, were worth enduring the second-class treatment faced by many migrants. According to the 2016 study in Russia in Global Affairs, 31 percent of Kyrgyzstan's gross domestic product came in the form of remittances from Russia.
But the news of arrests after the St. Petersburg attack has changed some people's minds, Karimova said. "They seem lost, saying, 'There is no point for us to go to Russia now,' " she said.
There is some evidence that the televised crackdown is having an effect on Russians, too. In a survey of 1,800 Russians taken in the wake of the bombing, 60 percent said they believed the threat of international terrorism has increased in recent years. But 75 percent said they believed Russian authorities could protect them from it.
Zhyldyz Bekbaeva in Jalal-Abad, Kyrgyzstan, contributed to this report.