The trail of the terrorist attack on Istanbul airport that killed 42 people looks now to be leading inexorably to the former Soviet Union, and Central Asia in particular.
The New York Times cited Turkish officials as saying on June 30 that the three suicide bombers that mounted the attack were citizens of Kyrgyzstan, Russia and Uzbekistan.
Turkey has already linked this to the Islamic State militant group, which is known to have large groups of Central Asian and Russian citizens among its ranks. Estimates on the exact number of Central Asians in the group vary, however, from the low hundreds into the thousands.
Turkey has said that 13 people, including three foreigners, have been detained in connection with the attack on Istanbul’s main airport on June 28. No group has yet claimed responsibility for the attack, which also claimed victims among Uzbek citizens, according to Turkish media.
Kyrgyzstan’s Foreign Ministry cast some confusion over proceedings by telling media that it could not confirm that one of its citizens had been linked the bombings.
“Employees from the Kyrgyz consulate met with representatives from the anti-terrorism department in Istanbul. They did not confirm the information. According to them, the identity of the suicide bombers is still being established,” the ministry said.
That statement appeared to have been superseded by events, however.
Kazakhstan’s security services have said they have intercepted a group planning a series of terrorist acts using improvised explosive devices.
One suspect blew himself up as law enforcements officers tried to go in for an arrest in the village of Gulshat, in the the central Karaganda region, The National Security Committee, or KNB, said in a statement on June 29. Other members of the group appear to have been based in the town of Balkhash.
According to the statement, the apparent suicide blast occurred on June 26.
Officials claim to have made a number of arrests but provided no firm details.
“Objects seized included the components of an explosive device, firearms and other evidence,” the KNB said.
The statement made no allusions to the recent spurt of violence in the western city of Aktobe earlier in the month, when a large group of men seized weapons from a hunting supplies shop and went on to attack a National Guard base. Seven people, including three servicemen, were killed in that incident on June 5.
Authorities initially identified the perpetrators in Aktobe as belonging to a radical religious group and suggested they had received guidance from militants in Syria, but the flow of official information about the events has since run dry.
On June 6, following the unrest in Aktobe, authorities announced they were raising the terrorism alert to amber for a 40-day period.
While describing the group intercepted in the Karaganda region as terrorist plotters, authorities have avoided giving any specifics about motivations.
Security services in Kyrgyzstan say they have neutralized another international terrorist cell, although little to no firm information has been provided.
The State Committee for National Security (GKNB) said in a perfunctory statement on March 29 that the seven-person group was engaged in recruitment for combat activities in war zones, apparently a reference to Syria and Iraq.
The statement also states that the cell was priming for terrorist acts within Kyrgyzstan.
There is more that is not known, however. No names have been provided, for the individuals or the group to which they allegedly belonged. Even the location of the arrest is left vague and given only as “in the territory of one of the republic’s regions.”
This degree of nebulousness has become the trademark of the GKNB and will do little to dispel suspicions that its periodic terror scares are work of officials seeking to keep the public on edge.
In the past few months, the authorities have bestowed the anti-terror operation label on shootouts that appeared more like clashes with regular organized crime groups.
In its eagerness to counteract Islamic extremism, Uzbekistan has embraced a Cultural Revolution-style naming and shaming exercise.
Parents are being hauled before public meetings to be admonished for the sins of their militant sons and daughters in scenes reminiscent of the public castigations common during the Cultural Revolution in 1960s China.
“This sacred land, where model family relations are rooted, never forgives those who do not care about their children's future,” a doom-laden TV program intoned on January 26, according to a translation by BBC Monitoring.
“Unfortunately, some people, who have forgotten their parental obligations and are bringing up their children as traitors, do not seem to realize it,” the program – broadcast on the main state channel – said.
TV screens were filled with a sobbing elderly couple whose son is allegedly fighting with militants in Syria, filmed at a public meeting held in the Andijan Region in eastern Uzbekistan.
Although other areas of the country were featured in the program, the choice of Andijan as a venue was telling. The city was the scene of fatal unrest in 2005 which the government blamed on Islamic extremists, a version disputed by many survivors and by international human rights groups.
“What are the goals of these traitors? Who are they fighting for and dying for as dogs?” state TV asked rhetorically in its latest broadside against extremists, over footage of burials in foreign war zones.
President Islam Karimov frequently embraces alarmist talk about the threat to Uzbekistan and the wider region of Islamic extremism emanating out of Afghanistan.
Kyrgyzstan has endured nothing short of a plague of Islamist-inspired terrorism in 2015, if the authorities are to be believed.
In the latest apparent blow against militants, the security services announced on December 11 that they killed two dangerous terrorist suspects during a special operation in the capital, Bishkek.
Officials have said the men were guilty of the murder of a police officer on November 19. According to their account, the suspects shot Aktilek Abduvaliyev three times from a 9 millimeter Makarov pistol.
The alleged perpetrators turned out to be hardened criminals perviously convicted for robbery, illegal arms possession and inciting interethnic and religious hatred.
Four Makarov pistols, a grenade, the makings of an improvised explosive device and several mobile phones were found on the men, according to the state security service.
Following a pattern established after other recent shootouts with purported terrorists, the authorities claimed that the suspects were planning attacks in Bishkek and the surrounding Chui region.
In a curious detail, authorities pointed out that the pair used bicycles to move around. Equally strangely, the now-dead suspects are said to be members of a group called Jaysh al-Mahdi.
Government guidance on this organization describes it as arising from the eponymous Shia militia that came to prominence in Iraq following the U.S.-led invasion in 2003. Kyrgyzstan is an overwhelming majority Sunni Muslim country, making the claims of an active Shia armed group troublesome to square.
Indeed, the security services appear to be having trouble recalling whom they have accused of belonging to which terrorist organization. The two men killed this week are said to have been operating under the command of organized crime boss Tariel Djumagulov.
Security services in Kazakhstan’s capital recently foiled a major terrorist conspiracy, city mayor Adilbek Dzhaksybekov has claimed.
He gave no details of the alleged terrorist plot beyond that it was thwarted four months ago, or in the summer.
“Anti-terror questions are now coming to the fore,” Dzhaksybekov told a law-enforcement meeting in Astana. “The National Security Committee uncovered, literally four months ago, a major clandestine and well-equipped group which was planning terrorist acts in Astana.”
In recent months city residents have reported no evidence of heightened security in Astana, where security is not particularly tight and residents can stroll freely quite close to government buildings on the Left Bank.
Dzhaksybekov spoke of the need to be vigilant in preventing acts of terrorism following this month’s attacks in Paris.
Kazakhstan has not witnessed any major terrorist attacks. It experienced its first suicide bombing in 2011, and that year and the next year the country saw a series of low-level, mainly botched explosions and attacks on law-enforcement officers in which scores – mostly alleged extremists and members of the security forces - died.
In the most serious incident, seven people were killed when a gunman went on a rampage in the southern city of Taraz in 2011.
The United States diplomatic mission in Uzbekistan has been targeted in a firebomb attack in an unusual incident that will kindle chatter of a possible new terrorist menace in the repressive Central Asian nation.
Attacks on diplomatic missions in the heavily policed country are rare, but not unprecedented.
The US Embassy was targeted by bomb attacks on diplomatic and security targets in Tashkent in 2004 that killed two security guards at the Israeli Embassy.
This most recent attack occurred early September 28. The US mission said in a statement that “an unidentified assailant tossed two improvised incendiary devices onto embassy grounds,” one of which exploded.
Nobody was injured in the blast, but the embassy was closed as a precaution. The mission has now returned to business as usual, the statement said.
The embassy offered no possible motivation for the attack, which would have required the assailant to approach a robustly patrolled building surrounded by high razor-wire walls and guarded by U.S. Marines and local police.
The embassy said it was cooperating with authorities to investigate the attack and that it had identified “no specific threat information against Americans and/or American interests.”
Terrorist attacks are extremely rare in Uzbekistan, where the presence of police and security service officers is ubiquitous and stifling. This blast came three weeks after an explosive device detonated at Tashkent’s Chorsu Bazaar in an incident that the authorities belatedly explained was a security exercise.
Uzbekistan and Tajikistan have in close succession come up with a new punishment for people suspected of involvement with terrorist organizations. If official accounts are anything to go by, however, the authoritarian governments are also trying their hand at less harsh measures to attack the intensely hyped specter of Islamic terror.
Uzbek news website Anons.uz has reported that President Islam Karimov on August 10 signed off on amendments to the law detailing when somebody can be stripped of their citizenship.
Under the revised law, the penalty will now apply if a given person “has caused substantial harm to the interests of society and the state by engaging in activities in the interests of a foreign state or by committing offenses against peace and security.” Crimes against peace and stability are interpreted in Uzbekistan as acts that include incitement to conflict and terrorism, or any other activity related to terrorism and mass murder.
The U.S. Department of Defense-funded regional military propaganda unit Central Asia Online, meanwhile, reports on the purported good cop part of Uzbekistan’s anti-terrorism campaign.
The National Security Council, a body affiliated to the presidential administration, is spearheading a program aimed at “debunking extremist ideology, supporting traditional Islam” and “promoting harmony among members of different faiths.”
That such a unabashedly approving report should appear in a service funded by the U.S. taxpayer is a stark illustration of the profoundly confused nature of Washington’s stance on Uzbekistan.
Only days after the death of Taliban leader Mullah Omar was announced, the Islamic Movement of Uzbekistan terrorist group has reportedly sworn allegiance to the Islamic State. In a video posted by the IMU-controlled Furqon TV on July 31, a figure identified as the group’s spiritual leader, Sheikh Muhammad Ali, stands in front of the black flag of IS and pledges loyalty to the organization.
The rest of the 16-minute video shows IMU militants carrying out attacks on Afghan army posts in Zabul province, which borders Pakistan. Usman Ghazi, the IMU’s leader since 2012, features in the clip.
This is the first time the IMU’s central leadership has formally sworn allegiance to ISIS. But it is not the first report of IMU-linked militants allying themselves with ISIS.
In September 2014, Ghazi pledged support to Islamic State leader Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi, criticising Mullah Omar, who had not been seen in public since 2001. “On behalf of members of our Islamic Movement, I herewith announce to the world that we are siding with the Islamic Caliphate,” the statement read. Ghazi stopped short of pledging bay’a [the oath of allegiance] to ISIS. A few months later, in March 2015, a group of Uzbeks in northern Afghanistan claiming to be from the IMU, went a step further, pledging fealty to the Islamic State. Ghazi did not officially endorse the move.
The move comes during a tumultuous period for the movement.
Authorities in Kyrgyzstan have fallen largely silent about the alleged Islamic State cell that they neutralized earlier this month, only for the group itself to purportedly address a video message to the nation.
The nine-minute clip, titled “Address to the people of Kyrgyzstan,” was posted on July 25 and remained online for only a few hours before being taken down, news website Kloop.kg reported.
As Kloop reported, the video consisted of an address to camera by a man speaking in Kyrgyz who appealed to viewers with calls for the Kyrgyz people to “relocate to the lands of Islamic State from infidel nations.” The speech was accompanied by Russian subtitles.
It is specified by the speaker that Kyrgyzstan is one such “infidel nation,” because of the country’s embrace of “man-created laws and rules, “such as democracy.
The video was stamped with the logo of Furat Media, the Russian-language wing of the IS group’s online propaganda operation. Pending further verification by security experts, the authenticity of the video remains in question.
Authorities have for months been warning of a Kyrgyz contingent within the IS group. According to the Interior Ministry’s latest estimates, 422 citizens of Kyrgyzstan, including 55 women, are engaged in combat activities with radical Islamic organizations in Iraq and Syria.
Kloop notes that the footage issued over the weekend was bereft of the scenes of brutality or violence that have increasingly come to typify the IS group’s output.