Kazakhstan has taken steps to protect and counteract any potential terrorist threat to the establishment of a nuclear fuel bank, though authorities continue to express concern about a wider and non-specific terrorist threat within the country. On April 4, Foreign Minister Erlan Idrisov stressed that the low-enriched uranium in the fuel bank will “not hold much appeal for terrorists,” but added an important qualification, noting that the physical protection system at the Ulba Metalworks, which will house the nuclear fuel bank, would follow a “multi-level system of protection” against unauthorized access to the nuclear materials (Ekspress-K, April 4).
However, concern about acts of political violence in Kazakhstan, or the risk of an upsurge in militant activity linked to the North Atlantic Treaty Organization’s (NATO) drawdown of combat forces from Afghanistan by 2014 permeates official statements. On March 28, Nurtai Abykayev, the Chairman of the National Security Committee (Komitet Natsionalnoy Bezopasnosti—KNB), expressed such concern to a meeting of CIS border guard service chiefs in Astana. “Growing threats to stability in the region highlight the need for us to further consolidate our efforts. We are troubled by the continuing activity of terrorist and extremist organizations in the region, especially in the run-up to the withdrawal of NATO forces from Afghanistan,” Abykayev said. The KNB chairman called for increased cross-border cooperation to respond to regional threats including terrorism and drug trafficking (Interfax, March 28).
Nonetheless, the KNB has come under high-level criticism following a wave of violent incidents in Kazakhstan since 2011. In July 2012, President Nursultan Nazarbayev called for “concrete measures” to counter extremists and terrorists operating in the country. Nazarbayev castigated the security forces for their “unprofessionalism,” and failing to prevent such crimes because “work is not done properly.” Nazarbayev stated that “As the president and guarantor of our constitution, I am not satisfied with the work of law enforcement agencies, particularly that of the KNB. The efforts we are making are not efficient enough,” The presidential critique of intelligence and security failings was in response to an incident in Karasai district in Almaty region on the previous day, in which an explosion occurred and fatalities among security forces took place; Nazarbayev noted “we are acting post factum all the time” (Interfax, July 13, 2012).
While the KNB has been criticized for its failure to monitor and disrupt “terrorist” attacks before they occur, its leadership offers statistics to bolster its fractured reputation. According to the KNB, law enforcement agencies “failed to prevent 18 out of 53 extremist actions in 2011–2012.” The KNB claims that in this period “35 violent actions were averted,” and the activities of “42 extremist groups were neutralized.” Among the “18 violent extremist actions,” seven involved the use of explosives (Interfax, February 6).
It appears that the central part of the “concrete measures” resulting from the presidential criticism in July 2012 is the revision of existing legislation on terrorism. The Law on Terrorism, passed in January 2013 is by no means simply a paper tiger; it represents clear efforts to modernize the country’s approach to defining and combatting terrorism. It also builds on agreements signed by Kazakhstan’s leadership on countering terrorism within the context of the Shanghai Cooperation Organization (SCO) Convention on Terrorism (June 16, 2009) and a model law discussed by the inter-parliamentary assembly of the CIS on December 3, 2009 (https://www.zakon.kz/4532801-kazakhstan-vedet-aktivnuju-borbu-protiv.html).
In drafting the revised law, international experience of combating terrorism was taken into consideration, and thus the law also enshrines respect and protection of human rights in the state’s efforts to counter terrorism. The bill passed “On amendments and additions to legislative acts on combating terrorism” marks a departure from traditional regional approaches to the phenomenon. Instead of placing the burden for countering terrorism on the intelligence services and security forces alone, it expands its basis to connect with civil society. It enshrines in law a large-scale outreach or information campaign to explain to the Kazakhstani public the following key points: the dangers of terrorism, exposing its various forms and mechanisms, the methods used by terrorists to recruit and disseminate their ideology of political violence, and consequently offers the development of a “civic consciousness,” facilitating cooperation between the security forces and citizens to reduce the social basis of support for terrorism. It is this appeal to civil society to help combat terrorism that makes this law unique within Central Asia (https://www.zakon.kz/4532801-kazakhstan-vedet-aktivnuju-borbu-protiv.html).
An important precursor to drafting the law occurred in November 2012, with an international conference on combating terrorism organized in the Majlis in Astana. Experts noted that foreign terrorist organizations have taken “significant steps” to consolidate their influence in Central Asia, including Kazakhstan. These specialists on terrorism highlighted the presence of Kazakhstani citizens recruited by international terrorist organizations abroad, and observed that some citizens were spreading radical ideologies in person and through the Internet. The conference heard arguments in favor of finding a balance between countering extremism and terrorism and avoiding excessive force that may inadvertently radicalize society (https://www.counter-terror.kz/ru/article/view?id=195).
Part of the information campaign designed to reach out to civil society and inform the public about the dangers of terrorism, which includes relevant contact with schools, colleges and universities, resulted in launching a website in December 2012 dedicated to promoting awareness of the terrorist threat: www.counter-terror.kz. Yet, it mainly contains articles lifted from other websites and there is no clear guidance to members of the public on how to report suspicious activities to the authorities (www.counter-terror.kz).
In one critical article on the new counter-terrorism website, Professor Georgiy Dubovtsev, who lectures on strategy at the National Defense University, suggests that terrorism poses a potential military threat to Kazakhstan, which must be countered by the country developing political-military cooperation with other countries. Dubovtsev argues that the threat posed by terrorism is forcing Astana to seek ways to form an effective system to counter these threats (https://www.counter-terror.kz/ru/article/view?id=195).
Kazakhstan’s new counter-terrorism strategy is a novelty in a region marked by inadequate protections of individual human rights. The 2013 Law on Terrorism, therefore, marks an important milestone in the country’s development by linking counter-terrorism to respect for human rights. Moreover, the law allows the government to reach out to and co-opt civil society in an effort to reduce the scope of terrorist organizations, which seek to radicalize Kazakhstani society. Nonetheless, the bedrock of the state’s counter-terrorism capability remains in the hands of an unreformed KNB and security structures that have struggled to respond adequately to the explosion of domestic political violence since 2011.