Security services in a region of Kazakhstan hit recently by a spate of deadly shootouts have claimed that they dismantled 14 radical groups operating locally over the past year.
State news agency Kazinform on June 15 cited Nurlan Kydyrbayev, head of the National Security Committee in Aktobe region, as saying that 36 people plotting violent acts in Kazakhstan and abroad were arrested since 2015.
“When it comes to people that do not accept preventative measures and that harbor violent intentions against society, we are forced to adopt robust measures,” Kydyrbayev said.
It was not immediately clear why this information has been made public now, rather than before the events in Aktobe on June 5.
Kydyrbayev, who was speaking at a meeting of security officials on antiterrorism measures, said that there were an estimated 1,565 people that he termed Salafists living in the Aktobe region. Of that overall number, around 90 are potential jihadists, Kydyrbayev said.
Salafism is held up by its followers as an adherence to the pure, original and untainted form of Islam. While ostensibly rejecting the established doctrinal schools, they arguably relate most closely to the Hanbali system that prevails in Saudi Arabia, as opposed to the more moderate Hanafi recognized by most Muslims in Central Asia.
Various theories circulate about how this particular current came to gain prominence in countries like Kazakhstan.
One particularly contentious account reproduced by political analysis website Exclusive.kz suggested that Salafism was initially brought into the country by the security services.
In a sign that Kazakhstan is intent of placing the recent shootouts in Aktobe at the feet of foreign parties, Interior Minister Kalmuhanbet Kasymov said on June 14 that investigators believe instructions for the attack were issued from Syria.
The international trail is just one out of multiple, sometimes outlandish, strands coming together to form the official account of the day of terror that claimed the lives of five civilians and three servicemen.
Authorities announced the conclusion on June 12 of what they dubbed an anti-terrorist operation after detaining the last suspected attacker.
Nurgali Bilisbekov, the deputy head of the National Security Committee, or KNB, explained in a post-operation briefing that the armed group appeared intent on capturing government buildings.
“According to preliminary data, after seizing the firearms, the terrorists intended to attack penitentiaries and administrative buildings,” Bilisbekov said.
Bilisbekov said only timely reaction from special forces troops prevented the plan from being fulfilled.
Kasymov offered the most detailed official version of events to date in his remarks to the press.
“The total number [of people involved in the attack], as it has been accurately established, is 45 people. But when they declared jihad and left their flats, 19 of them backed out. We have identified them all now and are interrogating them,” he said.
A court in Kazakhstan’s capital, Astana, has sentenced a key figure in a corruption case involving the upcoming EXPO-2017 fair to 14 years in jail.
The court on June 9 convicted Talgat Ermegiyaev, former head of fair organizer Astana EXPO-2017 company, after finding him guilty of embezzling 10.2 billion tenge ($30 million).
The conviction casts an unfortunate shadow over an event that was intended to showcase Kazakhstan as an innovative and modern economic powerhouse.
As part of his punishment, Ermegiyaev will also be stripped of six cars, shareholdings in companies that he owned and funds in three separate bank accounts.
Another 22 people were also on trial over the corruption probe. Twelve had fully admitted their guilt and assisted the investigation.
Among those who turned state witness were 61-year old Kazhymurat Usenov, former head of the construction department at Astana EXPO-2017.
This was not Usenov’s first brush with notoriety. In 2013, his son, Maksat, while drunk plowed his car into six people waiting at a bus stop, killing one of them. Maksat Usenov got off with just a fine, 45 days of house arrest and the loss of his driving license in a verdict that sparked widespread outrage. All the same, he was subsequently seen driving a car and again got into an accident in 2014. The scandal forced his father’s resignation.
Ermegiyaev is insistent he is innocent and claims he has been made a scapegoat.
Security forces in Kazakhstan on June 10 mopped up most of the remnants of the armed gang that sowed terror in western city of Aktobe over the weekend.
The Antiterrorism Center said in a statement that the gunman were located overnight in an apartment on Nekrasov Street in Aktobe. Troops with the National Security Committee and Interior Ministry surrounded the building and evacuated residents to safety.
Authorities said the gunmen refused to lay down their weapons and instead fired on security forces. Four of the gunmen were killed when the apartment was stormed.
Another man, identified by officials as an accomplice to the gunmen, was killed at another location when he opened fire on a patrol car.
A correspondent for Radio Free Europe/Radio Liberty’s Kazakhstan service Azattyq reported seeing multiple armed personnel carriers and fire engines, as well as dozens of security forces, at the scene. The correspondent reported hearing at least two blasts.
Several journalists were forced to delete video footage and photos of the special operation, Azattyq reported.
Earlier in the week, the head of the National Security Committee said that six gunmen were on the run, which means at least one person still remains at large.
This brings the total death toll among the alleged perpetrators of the attacks on June 5 to at least 18. Seven people — four civilians and three servicemen — were killed on that day.
With the critical phase of operations nearing conclusion, attention would be expected to turn now to determining the motives of the group.
Kazakhstani naval vessel "Oral" conducts exercises on the Caspian Sea in early June 2016. (photo: MoD Kazakhstan)
Kazakhstan is teaming up with German, Turkish, and Spanish firms to boost its Caspian naval forces, the Ministry of Defense has announced.
The MoD signed a memorandum of intent with the German firm Abeking & Rasmussen for the delivery of corvettes for Kazakhstan's navy. The two sides also discussed establishing a ship-building facility in Kazakhstan. "We are ready to cooperate with the Armed Forces of Kazakhstan and support the establishment of shipbuilding. Our aim - to create in Kazakhstan a modern shipbuilding enterprise, so it can compete at the global level and contribute to quality production," said Thomas Haake, sales director of Abeking & Rasmussen, according to an MoD press release.
In addition, the MoD also signed a memorandum of understanding with Turkish shipbuilder Dearsan to provide corvettes, and with the Spanish company SEAS to jointly produce naval mines in Kazakhstan. It's not clear what the relationship between all of these deals is, in particular the apparent similarity between the German and Turkish deals; none of the companies or the MoD responded to requests for clarification.
In his first public statement since the bloodshed in Aktobe, Kazakhstan’s President Nursultan Nazarbayev depicted his country as being a target for outside-led, violent revolutionaries.
The rhetoric underscored the frenzied paranoia gripping the leadership in Astana as policymakers struggle to devise solutions to an increasingly radicalized mood in the country.
Nazarbayev was ostensibly referring in his June 8 address to the string of shootouts over the weekend, but the remarks suggested he also sees antigovernment protests as part of the broad destabilizing efforts hatched by mysterious foreign parties.
He was explicit about his suspicions that Aktobe was organized by outside forces.
“According to information in our possession, the terrorist acts were organized by adherent of radical pseudo-religious currents — they received instructions from overseas,” Nazarbayev said in a televised speech, which included a belated expression of condolence for the families of people killed in Aktobe.
From there, it was a short leap to the recent anti-land reform protests. Nazarbayev did not identify the rallies specifically, but the implication was clear.
Kazakhstan's President Nursultan Nazarbayev, meeting with National Security Committee chief Vladimir Zhumakanov on June 8, 2016.
Authorities in Kazakhstan look like anything but in control.
For a whole three days after violence erupted in the western city of Aktobe, Kazakhstan’s President Nursultan Nazarbayev was nowhere to be seen.
Prime Minister Karim Masimov tepidly assured his Cabinet on June 6 that the president was monitoring events closely: “The head of state is maintaining this issue under his control.” But still no messages, of either reassurance or condolence, came out of the presidential administration in Astana.
The silence was finally broken on June 8, when the Akorda presidential administration released a video of a brief exchange between Nazarbayev and the chairman of the National Security Committee, Vladimir Zhumakanov.
In the briefing, Zhumakanov told Nazarbayev that 13 of the attackers involved in the shootouts in Aktobe had been killed and that another 14 were injured. Between gunmen, servicemen and civilians, a total of 20 people died in the clashes.
“During preparations for the crime, 20 people declined to participate directly — they have been identified and questioned,” he said. “Six people are wanted and, according to our information, they are in the Aktobe region.”
Nazarbayev, who looked weary and curiously had a bottle of hand sanitizer before him on his desk, tried to transmit some sense of menace and grit, although not very effectively.
“We know they are in the region, their names are known and the population has been warned. It is imperative that every last one is captured,” he said, barely raising his voice above a monotone. “If they resist, they must be eliminated. They should all be punished in a most severe fashion.”
Kazakhstan’s intelligence agency has named a Kazakh businessman as one of the mysterious “third forces” behind recent land protests that investigators claim was an attempt to mount a coup to overthrow President Nursultan Nazarbayev.
Tokhtar Tuleshov, an entrepreneur from southern Kazakhstan who has been under arrest on corruption charges since January, “actively took specific steps toward the forcible seizure of power,” Ruslan Karasev, a spokesman for the National Security Committee, known by its Russian acronym — KNB, said at a briefing on June 6.
The KNB has proof that “protest actions against so-called ‘land reform’ that took place in the cities of Atyrau, Astana, Almaty, Uralsk and Kyzylorda were inspired and financed by Tuleshov.”
Protests against planned land reforms hit cities around Kazakhstan in late April and May, and an attempt to hold a nationwide day of protest on May 21 ended in forcible dispersals and the arrests of over 1,000 people, according to civil society campaigners.
“[Tuleshov’s] plan of action envisioned the destabilization of the situation in the country by means of creating hotbeds of tension, organizing protest actions and mass unrest, against the background of which he planned to form a so-called alternative government and change the structure of the existing power,” Karasev said.
Authorities in Kazakhstan said at least 10 people were killed on June 5 in a spate of shootouts in the western city of Aktobe instigated by a group of religious extremists.
Internet connections in the city were suspended shortly after the unrest broke out and officials provided only scant details about the unfolding events, fueling online speculation and sometimes muddled reporting.
Late in the evening, Interior Ministry spokesman Almas Sadubayev was reported as saying that a group of gunmen in the mid-afternoon stormed a hunting supplies shop, killing a sales clerk and a guard. Three police officers dispatched to the scene received gunshot wounds. During a raid on another gun store later in the day, a customer was killed, Sadubayev told Vlast.kz.
Sadubayev the armed gang also commandeered a commuter bus and rammed the gates of military base in the city.
“Having got into the grounds [of the base], they opened fire indiscriminately, killing three and wounding six servicemen,” he said.
Police joined troops on the base in repelling the assault and killed one of the attackers in the process, Sadubayev said.
Authorities reacted to the outbreak of violence by deploying special forces and declaring an antiterrorist operation.
“During the antiterrorist operation in Aktobe, four criminals were killed, seven were detained — two of them were injured,” Sadubayev said.
Earlier statements from the Interior Ministry identified the attackers as “adherents of nontraditional, radical religious groups.” That term is typically used as shorthand for Islamic extremists.
In recognition of their degree of concern, authorities declared a level red terrorism alert, the highest available.
The summit of leaders from Eurasian Economic Union member states in Astana this week brought much grumbling with it, but there are some incremental signs of progress.
Kyrgyzstan’s President Almazbek Atambayev set the tone on May 31 by pointing out problems on the border with Kazakhstan.
“Despite the positive aspects of integration, including the elimination of customs controls on the Kyrgyz-Kazakh border, the improvement of conditions for [Kyrgyz labor] migrants in Russia and other [EEU] states, I would like to note a number of problems. These are the matters of the harmonization of railway [transit] tariffs, the ban on the export of Kyrgyz potatoes to Kazakhstan, [phytosanitary-veterinary] controls on the Kyrgyz-Kazakh border, the transit of goods in Russia and a number of other things,” Atambayev said in remarks cited by Sputnik news agency.
There is a lot to unpack there, and even the good news Atambayev offered needs to be qualified.
Although custom controls were indeed lifted at the Kyrgyz-Kazakhstan border, it was only for them to be replaced with more stringent inspection regimes aimed at quashing the activities of unregistered traders exploiting differences in prices for various goods in the respective countries. Lengthy waits are still the norm for motorists and it will be a long time before the EEU becomes the kind of border-free space one sees in western Europe.