Astana recognizes reality of domestic threat



Kazakh authorities stated on Friday September 2 they had killed a Jihadi terrorist and arrested 18 others a few days earlier in the western oil producing province of Atyrau. Security forces found shotguns, ammunitions, components for improvised explosive devices (IEDs) and other special equipments in the group’s hideouts. According to a statement issued by the provincial prosecutor’s office, the suspects were linked to terrorist networks operating in Pakistan and Afghanistan. Later, investigation indeed confirmed that they benefitted from money transfers from Pakistan and maintained Internet contacts with the Afghan Taleban.

  • Growing awareness of domestic terrorism threat

Kazakhstan has been targeted by a series of terrorist attacks over the past months. On July 14, 10 suspected Islamist terrorists were shot dead in Aktobe, whereas a suicide bomber provoked several casualties in the same city on May 14. Consequently, Kazakh President Nursultan Nazarbayev called for increased state control over religious groups, saying some of them could harbour extremists and terrorists. A week earlier, speaking during a governmental meeting, Finance Minister Bolat Zhamishev had already announced that Kazakhstan would increase spending on counter-terrorism operations by 23, 5% up to 13.5 billion KZT (US $91.6m) in 2012.

For the first time for more than ten years, authorities acknowledged that the terrorists caught in Aktirau were Kazakh nationals. Earlier, only foreign nationals were considered as “terrorists”, while incidents involving Kazakhs were labelled “criminal cases”. Practically, Kazakhstan was pretending that any “terrorist” arrested on its soil was a foreigner, and therefore extradited him towards his alleged home country without any further investigation (such as Rustam Chaigulov, who was transferred towards Russia in December 2005, and several members of the Hizb ut-Tahrir extradited towards Uzbekistan in April 2006). This policy was criticized by western countries, which feared that it would undermine struggle against global terrorism.

One should indeed mention that an increasing number of Kazakh nationals have been involved in terrorist attacks carried out over the past years in Russia, Uzbekistan and Kyrgyzstan.  In the spring and in the summer of 2004, members of a Hizb-ut-Tahrir cell allegedly trained in Kazakhstan launched a series of bomb attacks in Uzbekistan, killing more than 50 people. At the time, Kazakh authorities denied reports about the existence of terrorist camps on their territory. However, another suspected Kazakh national was arrested in the Kyrgyz capital of Bishkek, over suspicion of being involved in a series of terrorist attacks in Kyrgyzstan. Media also regularly report over a growing number terrorist incidents involving Kazakh nationals abroad. The fact that Kazakhstan has now admitted that terrorist networks were operating on its territory however shows that it is ready to recognise the reality of the problem. 

  • Main factors of risk

Whereas Kazakhstan has always been considered as a stable country, many signs are highlighting an increasing terrorist activity in the country. Over the last decade, police indeed dismantled several terrorist cells; most of them linked to the Hizb-ut-Tahrir and to the Islamic Movement of Uzbekistan. A series of factors are favouring conditions for the growth of terrorism threat in the republic: 

  • The political turmoil in Kyrgyzstan prompted thousands of refugees to flee political and ethnic violence in Bishkek and in the South, many of them towards Kazakhstan. Observers issued concerns that Jihadi terrorists could take advantage of this influx to infiltrate the country and get into contact with local Islamist organisations. Moreover, several security reports highlighted that Tajik and Uzbek terrorist-candidates are still regularly attempting to join training camps in Kazakhstan. As we mentioned above, Astana is still denying the presence of such facilities on its soil.

  • Large parts of the population remain below the poverty line although the country benefit from high oil revenues. Many Kazakh therefore migrate illegally to Russia, where some of them become easy targets for radical Islamists clerics, mainly in the Southern and North Caucasus federal districts. In 2010-2011, Russian media indeed reported that an increasing number of Kazakh nationals were detained and charged for terrorist-related offences, especially in the three restive republics of Chechnya, Dagestan and Kabardino-Balkaria. 

  • Drug trafficking remains one of the major security challenges for Kazakhstan, whose territory is lying on the main export route of Afghan heroin. Given the fact that drug trafficking in Central Asia is a major source of funding for terrorist organisations, this situation might allow local cells to get equipment and to recruit members in order to carry out operations in the country.

  • Perspectives for the future

Kazakhstan remains one of the most stable and safe countries in Central Asia, but the trends that we intended to highlight in this paper represent a real source of worries for the future. So far, most of the Kazakh nationals involved in terrorists operations were arrested abroad. However, the rising number of attacks reported in the country and the recent dismantling of a cell operating in a strategic oil-producing region are indications that groups linked to international networks don’t consider anymore the country as rear-base, but also as a target.

Recent declarations delivered by the most senior members of the Kazakh government proved they are aware of the problem. The situation could therefore prompt the country to play a more active role in the struggle against terrorism on the regional stage. The government should now take concrete steps and implement new policies to tackle the terrorism risk efficiently. Otherwise, and given the deterioration of the security situation elsewhere in central Asia and in Southern Russia, Kazakhstan might soon become a new battlefield for international Jihad.

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