A Crossroads of Terror: How Central Asia Acts as the Asia Pacific Weapons Silk Road
A Closer Look at Recent Weapons Trafficking History
Our analysis finds that conflicts have shaped the trajectory of Central Asia’s unique position as the “Silk Road” of world weapon’s trafficking, but that recent major law enforcement events such as the killing of a major Kyrgyzstan thief-in-law mob boss and the crackdown by the Taliban on the Afghanistan opium trade has caused potentially trajectory changing disruptions in the illegal trade.
In recent years, based on data taken from U.S. naval interdictions and other legal busts, observation highlights a growing rise in state sanctioned illicit weapons trade and national terror organization solicitation and supply of major weapons payloads.
Proliferation and Non-proliferation
Arms trafficking has made headlines as reports of North Korea’s supply to both Russia and the Islamic terror organization Hamas elevated public awareness of Asia-Pacific-originating arms trafficking. Overt Operator dives deeper into the network of arms sales and transportation that falls outside of the law, or within gray areas of policy, to clarify illegal arms operations for the casual observer.
Pipelines of arms trafficking are complex, and entangled, and can correspond with changes in legal supply chain logistics, totalitarian regime control of resource flow, and the activity of organized crime networks in various spheres of influence. The distribution and transportation of arms, be they small arms or the loosely defined category of Weapons of Mass Destruction, is called “proliferation” in legal policy. Efforts to curb this illegal, or legal loophole operating arms distribution are referred to as “non-proliferation.”
With Regards to the Asia Pacific
The Asia Pacific has been the general location of geopolitical tensions, escalations, and rapid changes in geopolitical frameworks in a consistently traceable manner since the latter half of the 20th century.
As these changes were tracked after the end of World War II, the signers of non-proliferation treaties began to archive hostile activities from major regional players and assess what the risk these players' role might be in challenging the Western alliances and American hegemony in weapons’ manufacture and testing.
The team at Overt Operator traced data on recent events of weapons trafficking to form an understanding of maps and key patterns of weapons trafficking from the Asia Pacific through Central Asia and in correspondence with the Western word. The gun icon equals weapons trafficking, the mail icon equals postal weapons trafficking conspiracy, the nuclear icon equals nuclear schemes, the death icon represents war, genocide or disaster, the truck icon represents an economic land corridor, the toxic icon equals a hub of drug trafficking, either current of historic, the epicenter icon equals a hot spot for global trafficking, the robot icon equals trafficking of technology as it relates to weaponizable technology (semiconductors, critical weapons parts), and the ship icon represents navy engagements.
Central Asia: A Crossroads of Trafficking
Central Asia is a crossroads of both state-sponsored and illicit economic corridors that pass through the region, pairing the demand from the Far East and Iran’s geopolitical agendas with the supply from various players, and then distributing goods, including arms and technology.
Russia: Demand Over a Struggling War Effort
In October, Russia announced it would not ratify its signature on a treaty that has continued over recent history to prevent the nation from conducting nuclear tests, Overt Operator reported on October 3. At the time of the report, Russia had opted to conduct a full day of nuclear testing, and developments showed that Russia would commit to withholding its signature from the treaty.
Sanctions and Reliance on Western Asia:
As Russia became more alienated by its continued military campaign in Ukraine, the nation began to rely more and more heavily on Central Asian neighbors for the export of weapons. Earlier in 2023, this led to the European Union pressuring Kyrgyzstan to enforce western sanctions on Russia, and, in the United States, the Biden administration expressed concern over the role of Kyrgyzstan in the trafficking of weapons through the region.
The government in Kyrgyzstan had opted to ban weapons trafficking into Russia, but reports from The Moscow Times said that the nation denied this ban.
Clashes of Trafficking Interests
Russia has begun to build a strong alliance with other states heavily impacted by Western sanctions, particularly China, Iran, and North Korea. However, as the nation draws near and begins to rely on both state-sponsored economic corridors between these regions, and illicit frameworks, the country has seen its interests clash with Western monitoring and interception. USNI News reported in October that the United States had transported ammunition seized from Iran in December 2022 to Ukraine to support Ukraine’s efforts against Russia. USNI cited a formal complaint made to the Supreme Court of Washington D.C. detailing munitions seized en route to Yemen over the course of the last two years of activity.
Kazakhstan and Kyrgyzstan: Central Asian States as the Asia Pacific Arms Supply Highway
Kyrgyzstan’s neighbor Kazakhstan has had a recent history with weapon’s trafficking that comes into focus at this present high intensity moment.
Example Case: Son of the Former Kyrgyz Ambassador Arrested in 2018 for Small Arms Trafficking
In 2020, the United States Immigration and Customs Enforcement agency reported removing a Kazakhstan national Eldar Rezvanov to his home country of Kazakhstan on convictions of international arms trafficking. Rezvanov was arrested in 2018, along with Tengiz Sydykov, the son of the Kyrgy ambassador to the United States Zamira Sydykova, for their roles in arms trafficking that pushed into the United States, The Diplomat reported on March 2, 2018. Sydkyova claimed that her son was “mistakenly”accused of participating in arms trafficking, and that it was her sons roommate Rezvanov who was actually responsible. The two alleged arms traffickers were arrested in Virginia after trafficking arms in the United States capitol. As ICE explained in 2020:
“On Oct. 20, 2017, after being notified by local law enforcement that Rezvanov was possibly involved in the illegal export of AECA controlled items, the U.S. Postal Inspection Service (USPIS) identified and examined several packages Rezvanov shipped at the Park Fairfax Post Office. These packages contained: 395 firearms parts such as firing pins, springs and extractors; 75 magazines for Glocks and AK 47 rifles; and 20 barrels and slides for Glock pistols.,” ICE wrote in a press release on Rezvanov’s deportation.
In a document detailing the scheme between 2016 and 2019, when it was last updated, the Department of Justice explained the Rezvanov was trafficking these small arms to Chechnya.
“According to allegations in the criminal complaint, Tengiz Sydykov, 28, and Eldar Rezvanov, 27, each citizens of Kyrgyzstan residing in Alexandria, purchased over 100 disassembled firearms and attempted to ship them to Chechnya without a license. The men attempted to smuggle the firearms to Chechnya by using false shipping inventories and disguising the disassembled firearms as kitchen utensils. Sydykov and Rezvanov were charged with Violating the Arms Export Control Act, Conspiracy to Smuggle Goods from the United States, Wire Fraud, Bank Fraud, and Money Laundering,” the document explained.
The two Central Asians were accused of using the United States parcel services to disassemble weapons and ship them under the guise of kitchen utensils, from an apartment in Washington, D.C.
Weapons trafficking to a from Chechnya would have fallen under the surveillance of Russia at the time that Rezvanov and Sydkyov were arrested. In 2018, the European Parliament explained that Russian intelligence agency officers had detected the use of chemical weapons by Russian nationals in an attempt to silence opposition, and that Russia had exercised abuses of the Open Skies Treaty flights over Chechnya.
At the time of this case, Russia had been accused on the world stage of committing human rights violations in Chechnya.These abuses by Russia reportedly followed the fallout conditions of the recent historic Second Chechnyan War. Likewise, Russia had been accused of going on an intensive social cleansing of LGBT citizens in Chechnya at this time.
North Korea: Driven to Supply as Global Pariah
In recent months, nuclear non- proliferation experts have monitored North Korea to profile the scale of risk between North Korea’s increased dialogue and sale of artillery-compatible munitions to Russia. On September 12, the Center for Arms Control and Nonproliferation Senior Policy Director John Earth spoke with the Korean-language edition of U.S. federal-government linked Voice of America, and explained the consequences of this increased cooperation between the Hermit Kingdom and Russia, which, while having existed for some time in the weapon’s proliferation space, has increased due to the status of Russia’s failing war effort in Ukraine.
Status as Pariah
U.S. experts who spoke with South Korea assessed the proliferation of weapons cooperation between North Korea and Russia reflects the desperation of the two nations, Voice of America reported, quoting Thomas Shinkin with the Atlantic Council, a former U.S. State Department researcher. Shinkin assesses that the meeting between North Korea and Russia was a direct result of the “isolation” the two nations are experiencing due to sanctions on the legal trade level. Shinkin referred to both North Korea and Russia as “pariah states.”
Iran: Driven to Supply Over National Hate Agenda
Iran has likewise benefited from the adjaceny of illegal trafficking operations to its state-controlled economics corridors and illicit maritime trafficking routes that pass through Central Asia and into the southern bordering maritime region of what is known as the KTAI Corridor, an acrostic for Kyrgyzstan, Tajikistan, Afghanistan and Iran corridor, which was reportedly launched in 2020 and has served as an important economic zone for Iran which has become a heavily state sanction nation in recent years, and a stronger economic player to the nations listed in this analysis who have been ostracized by Western sanctions.
Expanding Corridors Through Criminal Traffic Zones
The KTAI Corridor has a base of operations in Shahid Rajaee Port, Iran, the English-language chamber of commerce for Iran website explained. While the KTAI route takes its name for the major states it passes through, its operations expand into Turkey, and all the way down to the Port of Chabahar, Iran, and Bandar Abbas, Iran.
Historically, Bandar Abbas has had significant incidents of arms trafficking into West Africa. In 2010, France 24 reported that Nigerian authorities had arrested Nigerian nationals for a conspiracy to trade arms with Azim Aghajani, a businessman and then-prominent member of the IRGC.
In 2021, there was a maritime interdiction of arms trafficking of a “stateless fishing dhow” in the northern Arabian Sea for “over a thousand assault rifles” which were at that time en route to Yemen. At the time of the report, U.S. navy personnel aboard the U.S.S. Tempest and U.S.S. Typhoon intercepted the vessel, and its cargo of 1,400 assault rifles and over 200,000 rounds of ammunition. At that time, the United States believed the weapons to have originated in Iran, the Global Initiative Against Transnational Organized Crime reported. From the open source intelligence analysis of the GIATOC, map data indicated that known smuggling routes begin out of Bandar Abbas, indicated likewise historically by the arrest made in 2010, showing that the route of illegal arms trafficking and the KTAI economic corridor overlap at points.
Trafficking activity has continued along this route from Bandard Abbas, Iran into the Arabian Sea into 2023. On January 6, reports from Central Asian media outlets stated that U.S. naval ships seized a fishing vessel carrying 2,116 AK-47s from another fishing vessel passing through the region.
The KTAI and Notable Trafficking Operations
Nations along the KTAI corridor have seen severe human rights crisis disruptions that have impacted their position as known and potential trafficking routes. As the regional base of several major criminal syndicates, the KTAI is an economic corridor at high risk of being exploited by crime rings and state-sanctioned global illicit trade that adds pressure to the current domino-tipping pressures of world relations.
Example Case: The Fall of Kamchybek Kolbaev
On October 4, the authorities in Bishkek, the capital of Kyrgyzstan and the starting point of the KTAI within that country, apprehended and fatally shot an organized crime leader, Kamchybek Kolbaev, The Diplomat reported. Kolbaev was designated by former U.S. President Barack Obama was a “significant narcotics trafficker” in 2012, and was also known for crimes of illegally circumventing goods routing from China. Kyrgyz newspaper 24.kg reported that Koblaev was the leader of the crime group known as Kamchybek Asanbek, and been charged with violating the nation’s Article 209 for ‘Fraud on an especially large scale” having been accused of robbing cargo containing exported goods from China.
Prior to his death earlier this year, Kolbaev was a notorious crime ring leader and had a $5million reward arrest warrant taken out against him by the U.S. State Department. Kolbaev had, according to the State Department, been crowned a “thief in law” by Russia’s organized crime syndicate. Radio Free Europe explained that, at one time, Kolbaev may have been the most influential player in the illegal trafficking system of the area, with ties deep to “the bowels of Eurasian crime,” and even had extended into influencing governmental corruption. United States officials had tied Kolbaev to a crime syndicate in the region called “The Brother’s Circle.” The presidential office in Kyrgyzstan reportedly investigated to see whether the police killing of the crime chief was legal or illegal, as Kolbaev had been released from officials custody and ordered not to leave Bishkek as part of a pre-trial agreement as he was prosecuted for his role in another criminal scheme.
The team of Overt Operator continues to investigate the impact of criminal organizations on legitimate supply chains. See more details of oil security nexus implications from our report earlier this year:
The Brothers Circle is a Russian organized crime syndicate which the United States has listed as one family of organized crime that poses the greatest risk to U.S. national security interests. Analysts of Russian society claim that the Brother’s Circle is, more than an organization, a society and subculture, and that the term was more of a “catch all” phrase for general Eurasian–Russian linked criminal society. Whether a formal organized crime ring, or a subculture of the post-Soviet trafficking craft, the Brother’s Circle has been indicated, since 2012, as a ring of criminal enterprise leaders who has specialized in various forms of narcotics and goods trafficking, including arms trafficking.
Prominent members of this criminal organization who had a direct hand in its arms trafficking element are falling under house arrest and illness. 24.kg has reported that Adilet Kasenov, whom the United States had listed as a Brother’s Circle arms trafficking suspect and had “slapped sanctions on”, has, since September 2023 been on house arrest and suffered “a stroke” even prior to his arrest.
As of 2023, Kyrgyzstan was a state that did not meet the full requirements of a state preventing human trafficking set forth by the US National Anti-Trafficking Rapporteur, and, while the country had increased its efforts to report, monitor, and prosecute human trafficking, the country remained at Tier 2.
In 2023, the U.S. State Department reported that Bishkek, Kyrgyzstan was one of the centers where NGOs were given donations to repatriate and care for the needs of women and children victims of human trafficking.
China: Demand over Increasingly Aggressive Technology Transformation
Global observation has shown that China has become an aggressive player in world conflict escalations as the People’s Republic of China seeks to assert its dominant position as a world tech super power.
See Overt Operator’s last analysis on the subject:
Open-source intelligence researcher Hans Christensen with the Federation of American Scientists, along with the James Martin Center, studied maps of the desert region of China, to determine whether tips of arms production and nuclear test sites were accurate. Researchers tracked weapons stations through evidence of weather control station sites, which are indicators of a nation’s weapons creation and test facilities in a region, the Center For Arms Control and Non-proliferation reports, interviewing experts with the James Martin Center for a podcast that was published on September 27.
Dominoes of War
China’s international advance for producing semiconductors has been challenged by the geopolitical fallout of the Israel-Hamas war. China has found its national policy entangled between the Western interest in Taiwan’s sovereignty and security, its investment in Israel, and Israel’s interests in self-determination and the right to self defense. This entanglement in international affairs further strains China’s pressure to seek unconventional ways to compete against the United States in its quest for technological dominance in the semiconductor trade and in other innovation advancements.
“China is Israel’s number two trading partner, and so there will be a significant impact to that trading relationship during the war. There will be disruptions due to labor shortages as business workers are called up as army reservists, and as disruptions occur due to the war (business interruption, material shortages, import/ export disruption etc.). Since Israel has advanced computer chip capabilities, it is important as an alternative to Taiwan,” Lisa Anderson with LMA Consulting Group explained to Overt Operator.
“Longer-term, if China supports Iran, it could further negatively impact trade. If the war in Israel expands beyond the country’s borders, it can pose a risk to two key shipping choke points: the Suez Canal, a key waterway for all types of commercial container ships, and the Strait of Hormuz, which is pivotal to oil and gas shipping,” Anderson explained.
As legitimate economic supply chains are strained further by international conflicts and rising suspicions of China’s foreign policy, Overt Operator analyzes that the propensity for more cases of semiconductor trafficking (see above map) and other forms of trade loopholes and illicit trade practices will be observed in connection to these issues from the Asia Pacific.