Last Updated: Monday, 30 May 2016, 07:01 GMT

Fighting Terrorism, Kazak-Style

Publisher Institute for War and Peace Reporting
Publication Date 26 July 2011
Cite as Institute for War and Peace Reporting, Fighting Terrorism, Kazak-Style, 26 July 2011, available at: [accessed 30 May 2016]
DisclaimerThis is not a UNHCR publication. UNHCR is not responsible for, nor does it necessarily endorse, its content. Any views expressed are solely those of the author or publisher and do not necessarily reflect those of UNHCR, the United Nations or its Member States.

Clashes between police and armed men at the beginning of July and Kazakstan's first ever suicide bombing in May have raised the spectre of an Islamic militant threat. IWPR Central Asia editor Saule Mukhametrakhimova explains how the authorities are handling the emergence of Muslim extremism in the west of the country.

There has been a sudden upsurge in violence in western Kazakstan – does this mean Islamic groups are becoming more militant?

Recent developments do suggest that radical Islamic ideas have taken hold among some people, who are prepared to use violence as a form of protest against the authorities.

When a man blew himself up at the offices of the National Security Committee in Aktobe in mid-May, many jumped to the conclusion that it was an attack by some Islamic extremist group. There were reports that Makhatov was part of an informal group of observant Muslims who were not part of the state-controlled religious structures. But the authorities steered clear of portraying the incident as a terrorist act, and instead suggested that the man was a crime suspect who preferred suicide to jail.

On July 9, a massive security operation ended in a firefight in the village of Kenkiak and the deaths of nine men suspected of shooting two policemen at the beginning of the month. Officials downplayed the Islamic angle, saying the men used their religion as cover for criminal activities.

Nevertheless, the government does appear to be concerned about the Islamic factor. After the two policemen were shot dead, the security forces rounded up villagers who attended the same mosque as the main suspects. And after the final showdown, over 200 individuals were detained, photographed and placed on police records on the grounds of possible involvement in "religious extremism".

There is insufficient evidence to prove that an Islamic militant group was behind either incident, and no organisation has claimed responsibility. Nor does there appear to be any connection between them, although in both cases, law-enforcement forces were clearly targeted.

At the same time, it would be wrong to conclude that militant groups with a declared "jihadi" agenda are not present in Kazakstan. Last November, a group calling itself Ansaruddin posted a statement, together with a handbook on how to wage jihad, on a number of websites. There is also a discussion forum called djixad_kz on a Russian-language social networking site. 

How can we explain the authorities' reluctance to refer to a militant threat in western Kazakstan? After all, there are numerous individuals known to be Islamists in jail, many of them convicted on terrorism charges.

The Kazak government is unwilling to face up to the possibility of a home-grown terrorist threat. The authorities don't deny that there are security concerns, but they usually cite the threats posed by international terrorism, and not the existence of local radical groups.

They do acknowledge, however, that it is hard to insulate Kazakstan from surrounding sources of instability – insurgency in Afghanistan, Islamic militant groups that have operated in Tajikistan, Kyrgyzstan and Uzbekistan in the past, militants in Muslim parts of the Russian North Caucasus, and the spread of Hizb ut-Tahrir. They accept, for example, that there are Kazak nationals fighting in the North Caucasus, who generally turn up when they are killed by the Russian military.

The official view is that the only security threats come from the outside. But the incidents we've seen recently undermine the prevailing "truth" that there are no radicals prepared to take up arms within Kazakstan. 

Would it be right to see these incidents as a warning to the government that social protest might be channelled through Islamic groups?

That may well be true. The administration of long-serving president Nursultan Nazarbaev has spent many years watching and curbing the political opposition, which is often led by out-of-favour officials. When opposition websites carry information damaging to the authorities, swift action is taken to block them. Yet it was only in June, after the suicide bomb in Aktobe, that the prosecution service restricted access to 15 websites believed to advocate Islamic extremism and terrorism.

How has the government handled the problem so far?

Many experts agree that the authorities used excessively harsh tactics to crush radical but essentially peaceful groups like Hizb ut-Tahrir and Taza Din. That appears to have radicalised some Islamists.

At the same time, too little was done to stop the spread of aggressive jihadi ideas. Islamic militants from the North Caucasus appear to have visited western Kazakstan unhindered, with their Kazak counterparts going the other way.

The authorities insist that devout Muslims who practice their faith peacefully are not persecuted. But that is not always true – devout Muslims practicing their faith outside the official clerical establishment are routinely harassed. Followers of groups or Islamic trends which the government doesn't like are liable to be accused of terrorism and given long prison sentences, regardless of whether these groups advocate extremism or not.

There's always been a view that Kazakstan is less susceptible to radical Islamic influence than, say, Uzbekistan or Tajikistan. Is that still true?

Kazakstan has the strongest economy in the region thanks to its oil wealth, and thanks to this, the authorities have largely been able to maintain calm. Even secular opposition has been kept under tight control. Yet Islamist groups are emerging – not in the south, a more obvious location for radicalisation since it's so close to Uzbekistan, but in the west of the country.

Why the west in particular? One would think people there would be better off because that's where the oil industry is based.

The problem is that most people in western Kazakstan haven't actually benefited from the oil wealth. There's a lot of unemployment and widespread dissatisfaction about low living standards, aggravated by the contrast with the obvious wealth of the oil companies.

So here we have social malaise, resentment of a police force seen as brutal and corrupt, and Islamic ideologies all coming together.

Unlike southern regions which are traditionally more overtly religious, the sight of a woman wearing a headscarf or men going to the mosque on a regular basis is less common in the west. That makes it easier for police to pick out and harass observant Muslims, who in turn feel a keener sense of mistreatment.

Saule Mukhametrakhimova is IWPR Central Asia editor in London.

Copyright notice: © Institute for War & Peace Reporting

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