Thomas F. Lynch III, Michael Bouffard, Kelsey King, and Graham Vickowski

The Return of Foreign Fighters to Central Asia: Implications for U.S. Counterterrorism Policy

Institute for National Strategic Studies


Central Asia is the third largest point of origin for Salafi jihadist foreign fighters in the conflagration in Syria and Iraq, with more than 4,000 total fighters joining the conflict since 2012 and 2,500 reportedly arriving in the 2014–2015 timeframe alone. As the Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant (ISIL) continues to lose territory under duress from U.S.-led anti-ISIL coalition activities, some predict that many may return home bent on jihad and generating terror and instability across Central Asia. Yet several factors indicate that such an ominous foreign fighter return may not materialize. This paper assesses the current status and future risk potential for the return of the thousands of Central Asian foreign fighters who have joined Salafi jihadist groups in Syria and Iraq since mid-2011. The analysis and policy recommendations draw upon authors’ findings from a review of primary source publications from the region, field trips there from 2013 to 2015, and research into English-language and other secondary sources that culminated in June 2016.