The meeting on Central Asia–EU cooperation on Counter-Terrorism was convened on the 25th March, co-hosted between the Latvian Presidency and the European Commission. Sixty experts participated in the meeting, including practitioners and policy makers from several of the Central Asian countries: Uzbekistan, the Kyrgyz Republic, Tajikistan and Kazakhstan. There was a strong turnout of EU Member States, who also provided substantive expertise across three panels. The meeting was opened by Ms. Baiba Braže, Director-General for security Policy and International Organizations, and Ms. Mara Marinaki, Managing Director, Global and Multilateral Affairs, EEAS.
The threats in the Central Asia region are still nascent, but there are many reasons to be vigilant, as systemic factors that make the region susceptible to external shocks. Spillover of the growing instability in Afghanistan, Iraq and Syria, and the economic consequences of the sanctions in Russia threaten the stability of Central Asia, all could foster the conditions in which violent extremist ideologies have been shown to flourish. As Mr. Abdraim Salimov, a senior official from the Ministry of Interior of the Kyrgyz Republic emphasized, this is not only a security challenge. “Women and youth are extremely vulnerable in this environment,” thus making building resilience at the community-level a priority for development practitioners in the region. The EU’s longstanding bilateral cooperation with the countries in the region make it a key partner, and the EU Counter Terrorism Coordinator, Gilles de Kerchove identified a number of ways that the EU’s strategic framework could provide avenues for further partnership, including a specific focus on deradicalisation in a prison environment, for example.
Expert speakers called particular attention to the linkages between the pressures of labour migration and radicalisation. The region, where there has long been a scarcity of sustainable livelihoods for youth, is under growing economic constraints as the Russian economy constricts under the effects of international sanctions, and the rate of remittances into Central Asian countries has fallen. Cross border movement remains dynamic, however, and with this comes the risk that violent extremist ideologies move and spread in vulnerable communities further afield. The need to address radicalisation via social media and the Internet are key challenges which all states will need to address.
Another area of noted concern was the growing terrorist activity in Afghanistan and Pakistan following the withdrawal of international troops. Experts noted that both Kabul and Karachi were becoming dynamic hubs for a diverse range of terrorist groups who were becoming increasingly active and violent, but also that citizens of Central Asia are featuring as terrorist actors in these theatres.
A clear “silver thread” that ran through all of the remarks of the participants, whether at the political level or at the community level, was to ensure that promotion and protection of human rights remain central to any action. Repressive responses to emerging violent extremist ideologies can do to encourage extremism than prevent it. Instead, there is a continual need to communicate with vulnerable communities, build trust and alliances, and address the root causes of marginalization that provide a fertile ground for radical ideologies to take root. “Investing in trust takes time,” said Niek Mestrum, an expert of the Latvian Presidency and senior policy advisor of the National Coordinator for Counter Terrorism and security of the Netherlands, “but it helps to prevent foreign fighters’ travel.”
A mutual priority of both the Central Asian representatives and their EU Member States counterparts is to improve cooperation and efficacy around the detection of high-risk travellers and returning foreign terrorist fighters. The discussion highlighted the EU RAN Network as a potential best practice to addressing radicalization and countering violent extremism, which could be mirrored outside Europe for other regions, thereby creating synergies between the EU’s internal and external action. As Adriaan van der Meer, Head of Unit for DEVCO B5 concluded, “there are many common activities that could – and should – be developed,” and highlighted a key take-away in prevention activities is the need to “go local”.
The EU’s internal initiatives have generated many lessons learned, and the EU welcomes active collaboration with the Central Asia region. The meeting concluded that there were many ways in which the EU could share experiences with Central Asian partners through technical dialogues in specific areas. Some of the issues raised as priorities were on strengthening border management, countering the financing of terrorism, and identifying and preventing foreign and terrorist fighter travel. Discussions around preventive strategies emphasized the potential for sharing lessons learned and best practices that the EU RAN Network has generated. Key topics included looking at the media and counter-messaging strategies, working with women and youth, and addressing internet radicalisation.
All participants echoed their appreciation of this substantive initiative by the Latvian Presidency and the European Commission, which has done much to further mutual collaboration amongst the countries of Central Asia and EU Member States.