BACKGROUND: Between May and August 2011, Kazakhstan’s westernmost provinces witnessed a series of attacks that served as wake-up call to the government. In May, there were suicide and vehicle bombings in Aktobe near National Security Committee buildings involving Kazakh and Kyrgyz citizens. In June and July, there were shootings of police and armed forces officers in Shubarshi, Aktobe. In early September, there was another suicide bombing in Atyrau.
From October to December 2011, Jund al-Khilafah (JaK), with connections to militants in the North Caucasus and Afghanistan, claimed three attacks in Atyrau, Taraz and Boraldai village in Almaty. Like the series of attacks in western Kazakhstan, JaK’s attacks involved police shootings and suicide bombings. However, a key difference was that JaK used jihadist forums to claim the attacks and issue propaganda to condemn Kazakhstan’s secular institutions, religious policies, and the Zhanaozen labor protests of December 2011. The use of these forums, which are administered by al-Qaeda representatives, showed that JaK was an international terrorist group. Later in 2012, evidence emerged that JaK’s amir in Afghanistan was an al-Qaeda member and a Swiss citizen of North African descent, who trained Muhammed Merah to carry out a shooting spree in Toulouse, France in March 2012, in which four French paratroopers and three Jews were killed.
In 2012, the activities of Salafist-Jihadist groups like JaK were curtailed, but Kazakhstan saw a new extremist trend. There was an uptick in activities of Salafist groups like Tablighi Jamaat (TJ), which harbors the goal to Islamize majority-Muslim countries and create a global Islamic Caliphate. TJ’s mashura (Arabic for “council”) exists parallel to Kazakhstan’s Spiritual Directorate of Muslims; therefore by implication it rejects the country’s political and religious authorities. TJ has also been connected to al-Qaeda in countries ranging from Mali to Pakistan. However, it focuses on religiously moderate groups like Kazakhs and Kyrgyz because TJ believes they are most in “need” of a “revival of Islamic piety.” In 2012, Kazakhstan reported that it suppressed an all-time high of more than 200 TJ missionaries.
In 2013, there have been fewer reports of Salafist-Jihadist and TJ activity, but an increase in reports of Kazakh jihadists abroad. Kazakh citizens, possibly including ethnic Chechens, are believed to be the largest contingent of Central Asians in the North Caucasus. There are also an estimated 200 Kazakhs in Afghanistan and Pakistan and an unknown number in Syria, some in leadership positions. For example, on July 15, 2013, a Kazakh named “Brother Abu-Mu’adh al-Muhajir” appeared in a video with Syrian rebels introducing the “mujahedeen from Kazakhstan” and calling on “those who live in tyranny” to “emigrate from Kazakhstan, Kyrgyzstan, or any other country” and engage in jihad. The prospect of the return of jihadists from abroad to Kazakhstan after the U.S. withdrawal in Afghanistan or a potential rebel victory in Syria may be the next trend Kazakhstan faces.
IMPLICATIONS: Rather than being caught behind the curve as in 2011, Kazakhstan is now working to prevent new threats before they surface, in particular threats to the home front from “hot-spots” around the world. In May 2013, Kairat Lama Sharif, Kazakhstan’s Head of the State Agency for Religions, acknowledged that the country was “concerned” about JaK and other terrorist organizations that were recruiting Kazakh youths to “so-called holy wars,” such as in Syria, the North Caucasus and Afghanistan. Similarly, Kazakhstan’s Deputy Chairman of the National Security Commission, Kabdulkarim Abdikazimov, acknowledged that “the most serious threat is posed by terrorist organizations located in the Afghanistan-Pakistan border area that are planning to build a ‘khalifat’ in Central Asia.” To anticipate worst-case scenarios, Kazakhstan has looked at the history of terrorist attacks in its near abroad for examples of what could be expected. The Kazakh Special Forces have therefore trained for hostage negotiations in a “Beslan-style” attack, referring to the town in North Ossetia, Russia, where in 2004 more than 380 people, mostly students, were killed at an elementary school during a terrorist takeover of the entire school.
Consistent with viewing terrorism as regional issue, Kazakhstan has reached out, in particular, to Afghanistan not only by increasing investment, but also by providing educational grants to Afghans to study in Kazakhstan. Kazakhstan hopes that when the Afghan students return home and take leadership positions, they will influence the country to adopt a more liberal approach to religion and society, thus mitigating the potential Talibanization of the country post-2013. At the same time, Kazakhstan is working to secure its own borders, including — on the directive of President Nazarbayev — developing the Near-Border Services, improving customs authorities, and more closely monitoring freight delivery to prevent weapons or drugs from being trafficked. In addition, in July 2013, Kazakhstan’s intelligence services uncovered local Salafist groups funding terrorist groups abroad. Farther afield, Kazakhstan has also begun cooperating with the European Union on a joint counter-terrorist propaganda program.
Yet, in light of the homegrown cells that carried out attacks in 2011 and the increased activities of groups like TJ, Kazakhstan has been forced to look inwards to address radicalization. According to Kazakhstan’s National Security Commission, there are over 20 radical Salafi Jamaats (“Societies”) with approximately 500 members in the country. In western Kazakhstan, which is closest to the North Caucasus and where JaK’s founders came from, there are several thousand Salafists, the majority of whom are under 30 years old. Some Salafists, including JaK’s founders, were radicalized through viewing jihadist propaganda online, especially the Russian jihadist Said Buryatskiy, who was killed in the North Caucasus in 2012.
Kazakhstan has therefore blocked more than 950 websites that promote terrorism after receiving court permission in 2011-2012. At the same time, Kazakhstan launched an anti-terrorism website, Counter-terror.kz, which posts materials to discourage terrorism. On the legal front, in 2013, Kazakhstan amended the Criminal Code and the Law on Combating Terrorism to combat the use of information systems or educational materials to radicalize others. In total, Kazakhstan has invested more than US$ 1 billion on countering religious extremism.
CONCLUSIONS: Recognizing the importance of a stable internal environment for continued economic growth and political liberalization, Kazakhstan has taken the terrorist threat seriously. As President Nazarbayev said in December 2012, “the secular nature of Kazakhstan is a crucial precondition for the nation’s further development.” The attacks Kazakhstan suffered in 2011 and the activities of grassroots Salafist groups and international ones like TJ have compelled the country to respond to the reality that even though Kazakhs are religiously moderate, their country is not immune to extremist influences from beyond Kazakhstan’s borders.
Since 2011, Kazakhstan has minimized the previous year’s threat: the homegrown Salafist-Jihadist threat in 2011 did not repeat itself in 2012. Moreover, TJ has been less effective in recruiting in 2013 than in 2012, especially after Kazakhstan proscribed it as a violent extremist organization. In 2013, however, Kazakhstan is not acting retroactively, but preparing its security framework for the future. The security threats Kazakhstan will face will be tied to regional developments. Thus, the country is seeking to prevent citizens from being influenced by extremists abroad, especially in Syria, the North Caucasus and Afghanistan, while also developing international partnerships to prevent extremists abroad, including Kazakhs already in foreign theatres, from gaining influence in Kazakhstan.
As long as Kazakhstan’s neighbors in Central Asia, including Xinjiang in China and the Ural region in Russia, remain stable, Kazakhstan will likely be able to withstand the increasingly complex – and dangerous – operational environment across Eurasia that will likely emerge after the U.S. war in Afghanistan and the end of the Syrian civil war.
AUTHOR’S BIO: Jacob Zenn is an Analyst of Eurasian Affairs for The Jamestown Foundation and a non-resident research fellow of the Center of Shanghai Cooperation Organization Studies (COSCOS) in Shanghai. He testified before the U.S. Congress on Islamist Militant Threats to Central Asia in February 2013.