Kazakhstan is grappling with a rising terror threat as extremists continue to target Central Asia’s most prosperous – and hitherto most stable – state.
The latest spree of violence in this secular state of 16.6 million (around 70 percent of whom are Muslim) took place November 12 in the usually sleepy southern town of Taraz. A suspected extremist killed eight people, including himself, during the incident.
The bloodshed highlighted the challenge Astana faces as it confronts radicalism, which analysts see as fuelled by factors ranging from the unstable regional security situation to Kazakhstan’s internal socio-economic problems. Ironically, some observers express concern that government moves to crack down on radicals could inadvertently fuel extremism.
The mayhem in Taraz – where the attacker killed five members of local security forces, as well as two bystanders – left citizens across the country stunned. It also brought the death toll in 2011 from a string of incidents with possible extremist links to at least 30, including 11 members of the security forces.
This spate of violence began with a suicide bombing in May in the western oil town of Aktobe, followed by an unexplained car explosion in Astana a week later. In July a fatal confrontation between security forces and suspected extremists left 13 dead in western Kazakhstan. Two explosions followed in October in the western energy hub of Atyrau, then the onslaught moved south: on November 8 two police officers were killed in Almaty in circumstances that remain under investigation, and four days later tumult struck Taraz.
These incidents are unusual for Kazakhstan, which, before this year, had avoided the type of extremist attacks witnessed elsewhere in Central Asia. Now, however, “the problem of terrorism is becoming quite real,” Yerlan Karin, senior strategist at the ruling Nur Otan party, told a round table in Almaty organized by the US National Democratic Institute and Almaty-based Assessment Risk Group on November 16.
Kate Mallinson, a Central Asia expert at London's GPW risk consultancy, told EurasiaNet.org by e-mail: the terror attacks “lack professionalism and have principally targeted the security structures not civilians.” However, the violence is rattling Astana, threatening to undermine Kazakhstan’s cherished reputation as an oasis of stability in a volatile region and a haven for foreign investors, who have sunk millions of dollars into the energy sector.
Petrodollars have pumped up Kazakhstan’s economy over the last decade, begging a question: why is a country that is prosperous by regional standards grappling with the extremist tendencies often associated with socio-economic hardship?
President Nursultan Nazarbayev – in his third decade ruling independent Kazakhstan – keeps a wary eye on social discontent. Even before the Arab Spring saw the overthrow of long-serving Middle Eastern leaders, he made a point of channeling funding into social programs to boost living standards and counteract disaffection.
Nevertheless, oil-fuelled wealth has not fattened everyone’s wallets, and those left on the sidelines are chafing against the system. “[W]idespread corruption, the disparity between the immense wealth of the elites and the challenging living conditions [of others] have led to widespread disaffection in the country, particularly in the West, the hydrocarbons resource base of the country,” Mallinson says.
Kazakhstan’s tightly-controlled political system offers little space for dissent, increasing the lure of underground radical strains of Islam that the authorities are now scrambling to contain.
As part of the crackdown, Kazakhstan has adopted a law tightening controls over the religious sphere; rounded up some 40 people suspected of involvement in a terror plot in Atyrau; and blocked over 100 websites deemed extremist.
Some observers warn that a rigorous crackdown could end up encouraging radicalism rather than curbing it. “The impact of the terrorist activity has been limited so far and at present doesn't pose a risk to stability within Kazakhstan,” Alice Mummery, a Kazakhstan analyst at the London-based Economist Intelligence Unit, told EurasiaNet.org by e-mail. “However if the government, which has traditionally had a fairly tolerant attitude towards religion, continues with its heavy clampdown on religious groups in response to recent events this certainly increases the possibility of further attacks.”
Nazarbayev has pledged to safeguard freedom of conscience while battling extremists, but the new religion law provoked an outcry both inside and outside Kazakhstan. Critics contend it curtails religious freedoms, and are particularly outraged over its ban on prayer in public institutions.
The law drew the attention of one radical groups. In particular, a little-known militant group calling itself Jund al-Khilafah (Soldiers of the Caliphate) threatened attacks over the bill, then claimed responsibility for two blasts in Atyrau on October 31. One would-be bomber died during the incident.
Some skeptics doubt that Jund al-Khilafah exists as a credible force, but Kazakh investigators believe otherwise. They say it was formed this summer “to unleash jihad on the territory of Kazakhstan” by three Kazakh citizens who are fighting on the lawless Afghanistan-Pakistan border. Investigators believe the men were in contact with the Atyrau bombers.
The extremist assaults that Kazakhstan is witnessing are ill-prepared and sporadic but could mushroom into something more systematic and threatening, Dosym Satpayev, head of the Assessment Risk Group, said on the sidelines of the Almaty round table.
“Yes, today it is largely amateur activity,” he told EurasiaNet.org. “But if tomorrow professional combatants, for example citizens of Kazakhstan who are on the territory of Afghanistan, wind up on the territory of Kazakhstan, these are not people who make bombs from the Internet, and I think then an even more serious threat will emerge in Kazakhstan.”
Joanna Lillis is a freelance writer who specializes in Central Asia.