By now, it's a well-established fact that foreign fighters looking to join extremist groups -- most worryingly the Islamic State in Iraq and Syria (ISIS), or simply the Islamic State (IS), as it now calls itself -- fighting the Assad regime in Syria have been using Turkey as a gateway to that country.
But more recently concerns have been rising about ISIS's activity inside Turkish cities, particularly with regards to the recruitment of vulnerable Turkish young men in poor neighborhoods. In a deeply reported piece in Newsweek, reporters Alexander Christie-Miller and Alev Scott take a look at ISIS's activity in Istanbul, telling the story of Deniz Sahin, a 28-year-old woman whose estranged husband recently went off to join the extremist group in Syria, taking their two children along. From the Newsweek piece:
Stories shared with Newsweek in recent days by Deniz and others show the group has sunk its tendrils deep into Turkey, a country that may now be in its firing line after being named as part of a Nato alliance to combat the jihadist group. Many fear Isis has the capacity to wreak havoc in a nation that attracts 35 million tourists a year and whose porous border adjoins Isis-controlled territory.
For Kazakhs seeking religious enlightenment, a telephone hotline is now available to guide them toward god. Twenty-four hours a day, a dedicated team of specialists is on call to answer burning questions about the divine – and to ensure authorities are kept abreast.
On the surface the hotline – 114 – serves people with genuine inquiries about religious matters. But, says one of its government backers, it will also be useful for ratting on those who deviate from Kazakhstan's myriad restrictions on religious practice.
“Information about breaches of legislation in the religious sphere and illegal and destructive religious activities […] is forwarded to the law-enforcement bodies and departments for religious affairs of the akimats [local government offices] for investigation,” Yulia Denisenko, head of the Association of Centers for Victims of Destructive Religious Organizations, the government organization behind the hotline, told a media briefing in Astana on November 28.
Kazakhstan experienced its first suicide bombing in May 2011. Since then, terror-related incidents have left at least 67 dead, mostly suspects and law-enforcement officers. This September Astana announced a new state program to fight terrorism and extremism amid fears of growing links between homegrown radicals and international terror groups. Kazakhstan's intelligence services estimate around 100 Kazakh citizens are waging jihad in foreign countries.
Kyrgyzstan’s intelligence service has declared that it has foiled a terror plot with links reaching into Syria, which allegedly provided a training ground for three suspects now under arrest.
The State National Security Committee (known by its Russian acronym, GKNB) said in a statement on September 16 that it detained the three – two citizens of Kyrgyzstan and one of neighboring Kazakhstan – in late August in the southern city of Osh. The GKNB pointed out, with its typical dearth of detail, that the arrests happened in the run-up to a summit of the Shanghai Cooperation Organization in Bishkek on September 13, but did not say why it is only now revealing the plot.
The GKNB said the three are members of Islamic Jihad Union (IJU), which is listed as a terrorist organization by the US government. The group was sent from Syria, where it had been fighting on the side of the rebels in the civil war, to Kyrgyzstan to commit “acts of sabotage and terrorism” in Bishkek and Osh, the GKNB said.
Two of the suspects were named by media as Sardor Rakhmonov and Mazhit Abdullayev, originally of Osh. The citizen of Kazakhstan – who has not been identified – has testified that the three trained in a militant camp in Syria, Tengri News reported, quoting the GKNB’s press service.
Federal authorities in Idaho have arrested an Uzbek man on suspicion of conspiring with the Islamic Movement of Uzbekistan, a Washington-designated terrorist group, and providing the organization with bomb-making training.
The arrest of Fazliddin Kurbanov, 30, comes only weeks after news emerged that the alleged Boston Marathon bombers hailed from the former Soviet Union. It is likely to fuel growing concerns in the United States about terror threats emanating from the ex-Soviet states, which regional leaders are already eager to exaggerate to justify their widespread repression against followers of Islam.
Some media in Uzbekistan have seized the opportunity to link Kurbanov to refugees who found asylum in Idaho after Uzbek authorities opened fire on unarmed civilian protestors in the eastern town of Andijan in 2005. Tashkent has long alleged it was battling Islamic militants that day and has sought to tar the refugees as radicals. But the Uzbek media attempts to make a connection are extremely tenuous.
The Associated Press reports that Kurbanov was arrested May 16 in Boise after a grand jury charged him with "conspiracy to provide material support to a foreign terrorist organization," "conspiracy to provide material support to terrorists," and "possession of an unregistered explosive device." The indictment alleges that Kurbanov provided money and computer software to the Islamic Movement of Uzbekistan (IMU) "to be used in preparation for and in carrying out an offense involving the use of a weapon of mass destruction."
A major terror trial has opened in Astana, hearing allegations that a group of radicals intended to blow the city’s landmark pyramid sky high and plotted to assassinate senior officials, Tengri News reports.
The iconic pyramid, called the Palace of Peace and Reconciliation and designed by British architect Norman Foster, has become a symbol of President Nursultan Nazarbayev’s glitzy capital. It is also a symbol of religious tolerance, every few years hosting a Congress of World and Traditional Religions to promote inter-faith dialogue.
Prosecutor Malika Shashdauletova alleged that the group also planned to attack the HQ of the National Security Committee’s domestic intelligence service (KNB) and murder agents; plotted the assassinations of unidentified “senior figures of the Republic of Kazakhstan”; and planned an act of terrorism at the opening of Astana Opera, the city’s new opera house.
Shashdauletova said that alleged ringleader Serik Koshalakov opened a kebab shop near an Astana mosque to recruit followers to pursue the ultimate goal of setting up an Islamic caliphate in Kazakhstan.
Police in Boston have named two brothers hailing from Kyrgyzstan as chief suspects in the April 15 Boston Marathon bombings, which killed at least three and left more than 170 wounded. It appears the two, members of the country's dwindling ethnic Chechen community, left Kyrgyzstan over ten years ago and had been in the United States for about a decade.
Authorities in Boston are searching for Dzhokhar Tsarnaev, 19. His brother, Tamerlan, 26, was killed after a series of violent engagements with police in several parts of the metropolitan area early on April 19 that left one officer dead and one severely wounded, The Boston Globereported. A police source told the paper that an explosive trigger was found on Tamerlan’s body.
In Bishkek, the State Committee on National Security (GKNB) confirmed the two lived in Kyrgyzstan and left in 2001. Because they were 8 and 15 when they left, the GKNB said in a statement, it is "inappropriate to link them with Kyrgyzstan."
Adnan Jabrayilov, the head of the country's Chechen community, told Radio Azattyk that he believes the entire family emigrated over ten years ago. He said the family was from Tokmok and added that members were very well educated.
Vodka named after Allah was always sure to create a storm of controversy in mainly Muslim Kazakhstan – as it did last year, when bottles bearing Allah’s name went on sale in the eastern city of Semey.
Those bottles were produced in Aktobe on the other side of Kazakhstan, where it seems the country’s security services have recently uncovered a plot to blow up the offending factory.
On February 19 three young men – including a minor – were jailed by a court in the western city of Aktobe for plotting to plant explosives at a factory producing vodka with a label mentioning Allah, KTK TV reports.
Media reports did not name the plant at the center of the plot, but back in April last year a factory owned by Kazakhstan’s GEOM company (which makes liquor under the popular Wimpex brand) got into hot water for making vodka with a label showing an Arabic inscription reading “Allah’s strength is enough for everybody.”
The court found the three young men guilty of plotting to blow up the factory and sentenced 17-year-old Salamat Akhet to three years in prison and Nursultan Tenizbayev and Arslan Zhakabayev, both 18, to five years.
Akhet’s mother claimed her son was the victim of a stitch-up by the security services, which have been cracking down heavily on suspected extremists – particularly in western Kazakhstan – since a spate of terrorist attacks began in 2011.
The US State Department’s annual terrorism report, released this week, provides a brief overview of how Foggy Bottom views terrorist threats abroad. On Central Asia, unfortunately, the cautious survey adds little to our understanding of the problem.
In its introduction to the region, the report notes that Central Asian governments “faced the challenge” of balancing human rights with security concerns. Further down, the report lists myriad examples where authorities heavily favored security, often at the expense of basic human rights.
State hedges on Central Asian governments’ tendency to hype threats. For the most part, the report simply lists what authorities describe as terrorist attacks and as anti-terrorist operations, but uses qualifying terms – “reportedly”; “potentially” – that make it clear State is as in the dark on the nature of the events as the rest of us.
The report does cautiously point out that Central Asian governments’ widespread human rights abuses may end up creating terrorists.
For example, Kazakhstan’s 2010 amendments to the law on “religious activities” had “severely restricted the peaceful practice of religion,” the report says, adding that some commentators linked subsequent violent incidents to the new law.
In the Tajikistan, Turkmenistan, and Uzbekistan sections, the report states the widely held belief that the three countries misuse counterterrorism statutes to persecute legitimate political and religious actors. Kazakhstan and Kyrgyzstan, despite their well-documented use of the same playbook, are not censured directly on this point.
Six people have been killed in a shootout with security forces in Almaty, raising concerns that the terrorism that stalked Kazakhstan last year is rearing its head once again.
The six, suspected of involvement in the killing of a police officer in Almaty on July 28, were shot dead by police in an apartment block in a residential district on July 30 after refusing to surrender, Tengri News quoted a police spokeswoman as saying. The group was engaged in criminal activity including robbery, and authorities suspect they may be religious extremists.
Security forces hunting for suspects in the July 28 shooting death of a police officer had sealed off the apartment block.
The violence comes three weeks after an explosion in a house on the outskirts of Almaty left eight people dead in a case police are treating as terrorism. It blew up on the night of July 10-11, killing the four adults and four children. Suspicious items found among the debris included weapons, ammunition, and police uniforms and equipment, Megapolis newspaper reported.
Kazakhstan, which had long prided itself on its reputation for stability, was last year hit by a string of attacks across the country, mostly targeting law-enforcement bodies.
A closed terrorism trial has ended in western Kazakhstan with guilty verdicts for the 42 defendants, who received sentences ranging from five to 15 years in jail.
A court in Atyrau found the defendants, aged 22 to 32, guilty on charges including organizing a terrorist group; preparing terrorist acts; financing terrorism; and possession of weapons, explosives and explosive devices.
No specific details have been released about the alleged conspiracy. The suspects were arrested following a spate of militant activity in western Kazakhstan last summer, in an operation in which one man was shot dead.
Two months later, the energy hub of Atyrau was hit by two explosions that killed one perpetrator, in what was later reported to be a botched bombing attempt. In a separate closed trial, on April 2 five defendants received prison sentences of six to 12 years for those attacks.
As EurasiaNet.org reported last fall, those attacks were part of a series of extremist-related incidents that jolted Kazakhstan, starting with its first-ever suicide attack in another western city, Aktobe, in May, and culminating in a November rampage by a gunman in the southern town of Taraz that left the attacker and seven others dead.