Concerned about an increased terrorism threat in Central Asia, Kazakhstan's government is diverting an increasing amount of resources to domestic security. However, officials realize that unilateral security initiatives stand less of a chance of success than a coordinated regional effort, and are seeking to enhance strategic ties with neighboring states.
At a November 19 meeting of the Central Asian Cooperation Organization, Kazakhstani President Nursultan Nazarbayev urged his colleagues to combat "religious extremism, radicalism and fanaticism in the region." Analysts expect Nazarbayev to repeat this message at an upcoming Shanghai Cooperation Organization summit, scheduled to begin November 23.
This urgency partly reflects increased awareness of international terrorism, particularly after the seizure by Chechen extremists of a packed Moscow theater on October 23. Kazakh Defense Minister Col. Gen. Mukhtar Altynbayev, responding to the hostage incident, commented on the necessity of revising the role and use of the armed forces in meeting domestic security challenges. Earlier in November, Nazarbayev appealed for closer international cooperation in the antiterrorist agenda and for bolstering regional and national security bodies.
Kazakhstani officials worry that the country's abundant natural resources and other factors could make it a potential target for Islamic radicals. Intelligence services have closely monitored the activities of the Islamic Movement of Uzbekistan (IMU) and Hizb-ut-Tahrir, two groups seeking to overthrow existing Central Asian governments and establish an Islamic caliphate in the region.
The government has already taken increased precautions against a potential terrorist strike. A specialist sub-unit, subordinate to Lieut. Gen. Malik Saparov, Chief of the General Staff of the Kazakhstani armed forces, has received orders to protect weapons dumps and other munitions warehouses. The Ministry of Defense has undertaken responsibility for securing these sites, at considerable, though undisclosed, cost to the state budget.
Nazarbayev's quest for regional cooperation comes as Kazakhstani generals are trying to bolster their own troops' capabilities. Authorities have paid significant attention to the training of Kazakhstani special forces in recent months. In particular the former KGB alpha force, renamed Aristan (Lion) and placed under the operational control of the national intelligence agency KNB, has become the nation's most formidable antiterrorist unit. They benefit from better training and equipment than other Kazakh divisions and have fared well in multinational antiterrorist exercises. Analysts caution, however, that the anti-terrorist unit has yet to be tested.
The relatively weak state of other divisions indicates that Kazakhstan's real security problem is related to finances and systems. The country has not made the financial investment in the defense budget that Western-style antiterrorist programs would require. Officials have expressed pride over the presence of the sophisticated S-300 SAM system which protects Astana and Almaty. At the same time, the country's inland oilfields receive less protection, and most day-to-day protection of the fields lies in the hands of private subcontractors.
Experts generally agree that "hard" security, including the use of highly trained professional special forces, is critical in properly securing such sites. While Kazakhstan has paid meaningful attention to protecting its western districts, including the Caspian Sea, its interior oilfields and the economic potential they represent appear significantly more vulnerable.
This inconsistency cannot last long, especially since Kazakhstan has more foreign direct investment than any other Central Asian nation. If Kazakhstani intelligence had gambled on the hope that regional or international terrorist groups would decline or fail to strike oilfields and other economic interests, it is now indicating that it may be able to rethink its priorities.
In an interview with Kazakhstanskaya Pravda on November 5, KNB counterterrorism chief Col. Vladimir Zhumakanov emphasized a focus on preventing terrorist attacks and promised that his forces had begun giving much closer attention to the experience of other states. Taken with Nazarbayev's statement at the Central Asian Cooperation Organization meeting on November 19, this indicates that Kazakhstan wants to learn lessons from other attacks and apply those lessons to its own domestic conditions.
There is no shortage of justifications for Nazarbayev's calls for cooperation. In a tape attributed to Osama bin Laden in November, the leader of al Qaeda boasted that his group would strike against Islamic states that it considers to be pro-Western or hostile to its cause. The IMU has reportedly regrouped, and states continue to mistrust Hizb-ut-Tahrir. Nazarbayev has redirected the KNB's attention, but he will need more resolute regional and international efforts to convert that attention into a meaningfully stronger security system.
Roger N. McDermott is a Political Consultant at the Scottish Center for International Security of the University of Aberdeen.