Wednesday, 17 September 2014

How Real is the Jihadi Threat to Kazakhstan?

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By John C.K. Daly (09/17/2014 issue of the CACI Analyst)

In the 23 years since the collapse of the USSR, Central Asia’s interest in its Islamic heritage has grown, with many mosques opening and increasing numbers of Central Asians making the haj. This interest has coincided with militant unrest roiling the Muslin world, from the Maghreb to Xinjiang, leaving Central Asian governments concerned whether radicals, particularly from neighboring Afghanistan, may seek to raise the banner of jihad in their countries. In mid-August, Kazakh FSB officers detained four men in Pavlodar in northeastern Kazakhstan, ranging in age from 20 to 46, who called themselves Salafis. The quartet was subsequently charged with promoting terrorism and extremism under Chapter 9, Article 233 of the Criminal Code of the Republic.

BACKGROUND: The activity of radical Islamic militants from Central Asia can be divided into two stages. The first includes the beginnings of Islamic radicalism and the efforts of radicals to exploit the weakness of the region’s states in the first decade after the fall of the USSR. The second includes the period after the 9/11 attacks and the fall of the Taliban in 2001, when radicals from Central Asia were forced to escape and found themselves in a new environment, while their influence on the situation in Central Asia was diminished. 

In Oct. 2006 the office of Kazakhstan’s prosecutor-general released an updated list of 12 organizations, approved by the Supreme Court, banned on the basis of terrorist activities.

The list included a number of Central Asian-based separatist, or religious movements, the Islamic Movement of Uzbekistan (IMU), Hizb ut-Tahrir al-Islam (Party of Islamic Liberation, HuT) the Jamaat of Central Asian Mujahidin and the Uyghur Islamic Party of Eastern Turkestan separatist group. Foreign-banned militant groups included the Kongra-Gel Kurdish organization (PKK), the Boz Kurt (“Gray Wolves”) Turkish right-wing group, Pakistan’s Lashkar-e Taiba, Kuwait’s Social Reforms Society, Lebanon’s Asbat an-Ansar Palestinian group, al Qaeda, Afghanistan’s Taliban, and the Muslim Brotherhood are also included in the list. In contrast to the secretive IMU, HuT, which seeks to reestablish a Caliphate in Central Asia, produces an abundance of literature about its goals, including a website (www.hizb-ut-tahrir.org). In 2011 Kazakhstan’s sole indigenous militant group emerged with several attacks in country, the Jund al Khilafah (“Soldiers of the Caliphate”).

In its struggle against Islamic radicalism and terrorism Kazakhstan has reached out to a broad array of allies. One of the most important international allies for Kazakhstan is the United Nations Regional Centre for Preventive Diplomacy for Central Asia (UNRCCA), founded in 2007 to assist post-Soviet Central Asian nations via its mandate and through regional cooperation to respond to domestic and transnational threats to peace while also supporting regional sustainable development.

Another regional mechanism for coping with terrorism is regular meetings of the Commonwealth of Independent States’ (CIS) national counter-terrorism centers. On February 11-12, 2014, the heads of national CIS counter-terrorism centers held their 7th meeting in Moscow under the auspices of the CIS Anti-Terrorism Center (ATC).

Legal structures regarding terrorism have also been tightened, with Kazakhstan’s Criminal Code Article 233-3 (financing of terrorist or extremist activities and other complicity in terrorism or extremism) providing for up to eight years imprisonment.

Kazakhstan has also developed governmental mechanisms to cope with the increased threats of religious extremism and terrorism. Kazakhstan’s National Security Committee (NSC) in July 2013 established an Anti-Terror Center (ACT). On March 14 during an ACT session, NSC chairman Nurtay Abykayev reminded the participants of the need for prompt implementation of a state program drawn up in 2013 and extending to 2017 for counteracting religious extremism and terrorism by drawing up a plan of measures for its execution.

IMPLICATIONS: The Kazakh government has adopted a proactive approach to dealing with terrorism and religious extremism and is not going it alone; it is an active participant in regional counterterrorism efforts. In June 2012, Central Asian officials met in Almaty to discuss a joint plan of action for implementing the UN Global Counter-Terrorism Strategy in Central Asia. 

Two months later, Shanghai Cooperation Organization (SCO) experts met in Almaty to discuss joint activities, while Kazakh security forces conducted joint counterterrorism drills with their Russian and Ukrainian counterparts. The SCO has held five anti-terrorist exercises; the sixth, code-named “Peace Mission 2014” was the first to be held in a single SCO state. Involving 7,000 SCO troops, the operation was held in China’s Chzhuzhihe military district in Inner Mongolia on August 24-29. 

The exercise’s goal was to deter the "three evil forces" of terrorism, separatism and extremism. The scenario for the exercise involved a separatist organization, supported by an international terrorist organization, staging terrorist incidents and a coup. The SCO dispatched military forces to put down the insurrection and restore stability at the request of the country’s government.

The Kazakh government has also turned its attention to the Internet as a possible vehicle for radicalization. In September 2012 an Agency for Religious Affairs spokesman said that between January and September 2012, 1,800 websites were investigated for violent extremist content, while a National Security Council representative stated that 950 websites promoting violent extremism had been shut down since 2010. According to Kazakhstan’s Prosecutor-General Askhat Daulbayev, in 2013 courts ruled to block access to 596 “destructive” website resources and prohibiting their operations in Kazakhstan.  

Earlier this year, Kazakhstan’s Prosecutor General’s Office announced that since 2011 it had in conjunction with other government agencies monitored over 90,000 on-line resources to check on their content. As part of the government’s plan to conduct a large-scale campaign to counter radicalization in society, new legislation requires all media outlets in Kazakhstan to assist state bodies in counterterrorism efforts.

On June 4, Kazakhstan’s Deputy Prosecutor General Andrei Kravchenko said that more than 10 terrorist acts have been committed in Kazakhstan over the past several years, resulting in the deaths of 17 law enforcement officials and four civilians being injured, while for the period January-April 2014, 57 criminal cases had been opened.

Kazakhstan’s problem of radicalization is no longer limited to in-country malcontents. On January 8, Kyrgyz State National Security Committee (GKNB) special services detained two Kazakh citizens, identified only as “R. N.” and “S. M.” and described as members of an “international terrorist organization,” in Chui oblast in northern Kyrgyzstan, near the border with Kazakhstan. The Kyrgyz GKNB press office reported that the Kazakh nationals came to Kyrgyzstan unlawfully “after undergoing military training in Syria,” and that the detainees planned to settle in Kyrgyzstan using false passports “with the aim of setting up a recruitment pipeline for further trafficking of recruits to Syria.”

CONCLUSIONS: While Kazakhstan has largely escaped the high levels of militant violence that has scarred neighboring post-Soviet Tajikistan, Kyrgyzstan and Uzbekistan, a worrying aspect of the trickle of Kazakh jihadis being detained and prosecuted is their relative youth. As more than 60 percent of Central Asia’s 50 million people are under the age of 25, the radicalization of this young portion of the population will become an ever higher government priority.

Central Asian states now face the triple threats of Islamic radicalism, terrorism and drug trafficking. Accordingly, all the post-Soviet Central Asian states have identified these issues as their main security concerns. Afghanistan is the locus of that threat, which may metastasize after the ISAF withdrawal is completed in December 2014. Kazakhstan is actively seeking regional and international assistance in its counter-terrorism efforts, from states and organizations including Russia, the U.S., EU, UN, CIS and the SCO to keep what has up to now been a minor if worrying trend containable. With a young, computer savvy population aware of the Internet, which radicals use as a recruiting tool, Kazakh security forces have their work cut out for them.

AUTHOR’S BIO: Dr. John C.K. Daly is an international correspondent for UPI and Central Asia-Caucasus Institute non-resident Fellow. 

(Image Attribution: OSCE, Creative Commons)

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The Central Asia-Caucasus Analyst is a biweekly publication of the Central Asia-Caucasus Institute & Silk Road Studies Program, a Joint Transatlantic Research and Policy Center affiliated with the American Foreign Policy Council, Washington DC., and the Institute for Security and Development Policy, Stockholm. For 15 years, the Analyst has brought cutting edge analysis of the region geared toward a practitioner audience.

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