Kazakhstan has experienced a rise in militant activity carried out by Salafist groups on its territory and periphery since late 2011. The Salafists’ rejection of secularism and other types of Islam and their call for a return to the ways of the Salaf, or pious ancestors who lived at the time of Muhammad and the first four Caliphs, are regarded by the Kazakh government—and most Kazakhs—as incompatible with the country’s political and social institutions and the native brand of Islam that is strongly flavored by Kazakh customs and traditions.  For this reason, Kazakhs often refer to Salafists as Wahhabis, denoting the puritanical form of Sunni Islam prevalent in Saudi Arabia that has made inroads into Central Asia in the post-Soviet era.
In the words of Kazakhstan’s President Nursultan Nazarbayev, “radical and extremist elements” in Kazakhstan have “put enormous pressure on the state and on society as a whole” (Astana Times, July 13). This article tracks recent developments in Salafist militancy in Kazakhstan and the Central Asia region and reviews Kazakhstan’s “counter-Salafism” strategy, the long-term impact of which will likely be diminished by forces beyond Kazakhstan’s control.
Jund al-Khilafah and Domestic Militancy
In the last three months of 2011, three Jund al-Khilafah (Army of the Caliphate) cells carried out the first terrorist attacks in Kazakhstan’s history, targeting government buildings and personnel in Atyrau, Taraz and Almaty. According to sources in Kazakhstan, one of Jund al-Khilafah’s founders from Atyrau became a Salafist militant when he was arbitrarily denied permission by Kazakh authorities to study Islam in Saudi Arabia. With two companions from Atyrau, he then fled to the Afghanistan-Pakistan border region, where they established Jund al-Khilafah while maintaining networks with Salafists in Kazakhstan who could carry out attacks on the home front.  Jund al-Khilafah also heightened its profile through posts on online jihadi forums, such as al-Qaeda’s Ansar al-Mujahideen forum, claiming responsibility for each of the three attacks. The movement also issued video statements denouncing the 2011 “massacre” of striking oil workers in Zhanaozen and President Nursultan Nazarbayev’s religious policies, which Jund al-Khilfah claims prohibits government officials from praying in state institutions, men from growing beards and women from wearing the hijab. 
Jund al-Khilafah has not carried out attacks in Kazakhstan in 2012, but another Salafist group in Kostanay (northern Kazakhstan) was uncovered facilitating the travel of Salafists to Afghanistan by providing them with fraudulent documents. Elsewhere, members of a group in Atyrau, possibly related to Jund al-Khilafah, were caught sending money to Kazakh militants abroad through bank transfers to Pakistan (Interfax, July 3). In addition, a group in Tausamaly (a village outside of Almaty) set off a gas explosion in a safe-house on July 11, while creating a home-made bomb, killing 8 persons. A search of the premises uncovered guns, ammunition, religious literature and police and SWAT team uniforms (Kazakhstan Today [Almaty], July 17). In an August 17 follow-up operation to arrest the leaders of that cell, Kazakh security forces killed nine people who reportedly refused to surrender (Regnum.ru, August 17). During the investigation it was revealed the suspects kept their wives locked up in apartments to prevent them from communicating with the outside world. Most recently, on September 12, a special forces operation in Atyrau raided a flat where suspected terrorists who set off an accidental explosion that killed one person on September 5 were believed to be residing (Interfax [Atyrau], September 12).
Salafism on Kazakhstan’s Periphery
The rise of militancy north of Kazakhstan, in the Russian republics of Tatarstan and Bashkortostan, may be connected to the rise of militancy in Kazakhstan. Ravil Kusainov, one of the founders of Jund al-Khilafah, declared in an interview to the jihadi media outlet Minbar Media that Jund al-Khilafah consists of nationals from different countries (www.vesti.kz, November 10). His name and the name of another founder, Rinat Habiulla, are also distinctly Tatar.
On July 19, a Salafist militant group injured Tatarstan’s chief mufti, Idlus Faizov, in a car-bomb assassination attempt in Tatarstan’s capital, Kazan. One hour before that attack, different members of that group succeeded in killing the chief of the education department of the Spiritual Board of the Muslims of Tatarstan, Valiulla Yakupov, in a shooting outside his residence. Both religious leaders were known for their efforts to cleanse Salafism from Tatarstan’s religious institutions. The “Mujahideen of Tatarstan” issued a pair of videos on YouTube, the first of which announced the formation of the group on the morning of the attacks. In this video, “Muhammad,” the military amir of the group, said that the Tatarstan Mujahideen were prepared to carry out attacks on the orders of Caucasus Emirate leader Dokku Umarov, who has sought to establish a front in Russia’s Volga and Far East regions for nearly a decade (see Eurasia Daily Monitor, August 12). 
According to Russian officials, there is an entire generation prepared to carry out extremist activity in Tatarstan, with well over 100 people having been arrested for extremist activity there since 2006. These include the owner of a company that organizes pilgrimages, the head of a mosque in Tatarstan and an Uzbekistan national who are all suspects in the recent shootings of two religious leaders (Nezavisimaya Gazeta, March 3, 2011; Kommersant, July 20).
Tatarstan’s neighbor Bashkortostan has also seen growing signs of militancy. Bashkortostan’s southern border is only 300 kilometers from the northern Kazakhstan city of Aktobe, where four members of a Salafist militant cell were convicted in October 2011 for carrying out police shootings. In June 2012, five members of a Hizb ut-Tahrir cell were arrested in Bashkortostan for preparing and distributing leaflets, books, brochures and videos propagandizing “extremist views” (Perviy Kanal, May 25). In addition, an eight-person cell was arrested in late 2011 while preparing experimental explosions for an attack on Bashkortostan’s district headquarters. Like Jund al-Khilafah’s founders, the suspects were alleged to have planned an escape to Afghanistan through Kazakhstan (MediaKorSet, December 16, 2011).
Other Regional Developments
To Kazakhstan’s south, the Salafist-influenced group Hizb ut-Tahrir (HuT) has taken advantage of Kyrgyzstan’s weak internal security. HuT was founded by diaspora Palestinians in 1952 and believes it is obligatory for every Muslim to work toward the reestablishment of the Islamic Caliphate; that no other system of law but Sharia is permissible; and that it is haram (forbidden) for Muslim states to seek protection from America or other kufr (non-Islamic) states.  HuT has been repressed to near extinction in Uzbekistan, where it first gained popularity in Central Asia in the 1990s, and most of Kazakhstan, but in Kyrgyzstan HuT has reemerged with an estimated 20,000 to 100,000 members.  Moreover, after the ethnic clashes between Kyrgyz and Uzbeks in southern Kyrgyzstan in 2010, HuT made inroads into northern Kyrgyzstan and areas near the Kazakhstan border, especially among the internally displaced people from the south now living near Bishkek, where Kazakhs have been among those arrested for proselytizing for HuT (see Eurasia Daily Monitor, July 16). Although HuT members profess non-violence, some of them have been radicalized by way of their increased contacts with Afghanistan. Notably, Kyrgyz fighters are believed to comprise the majority of fighters in Jund al-Khilafah. 
In the North Caucasus, where Dokku Umarov’s Caucasus Emirate is based, Kazakhs have been found among captured or killed militants more frequently than any other Central Asian nationality, although it might be possible that many of these “Kazakhs” are ethnic Chechens who have returned to their homeland more than half-a-century after Stalin deported the entire Chechen population to Kazakhstan in the 1940s (RFE/RL, April 20, 2011). The proximity of the North Caucasus to Atyrau and Western Kazakhstan and the trade and transportations links that connect the two Caspian Sea coastal areas may also explain the rise of Salafism in Western Kazakhstan. Religious extremist groups were historically only found in southern Kazakhstan’s Shymkent and Kentau regions, which are home to Kazakhstan’s more religiously conservative Uzbek minority, but the estimated 5,000 Salafists between the ages of 13 and 30 in Atyrau is a sign of Salafism’s spread to ethnic Kazakh regions of the country (Tengrinews, November 17). In addition, Jund al-Khilafah and other Central Asian Salafist groups continue to propagate the militant ideas of Aleksandr Tikhomirov, an ethnic Buryat Russian who converted to Islam with an adopted name Said Buryatsky and was killed in battle in the North Caucasus in March 2009.
Further abroad, the rise of the Muslim Brotherhood in Egypt and the emergence of Salafist political parties in Egypt, Libya and Tunisia provide newfound legitimacy for political Islam—a challenge to the secular, Nazarbayev-centric regime in Kazakhstan. Salafists in the Middle East have shown strong opposition to the Kazakhstan government, including the radical Mauritanian Sheikh Abu-Mundhir al-Shinqiti, who issued a fatwa in March 2011 saying that it is legal for Muslims to attack police in Kazkahstan and that there is an obligation for the Muslims of Kazakhstan to not be patient, but rather to engage in jihad (Kavkaz Tsentr, March 19, 2011). The revolutions in the Arab world have also emboldened groups like Jund al-Khilafah, which has urged Kazakhs to "to draw lessons from the Arab Spring and get rid of their governments" and sent a message to President Nazarbayev in a video statement saying that his regime would follow the same path as those in Tunisia, Egypt and Libya because of its “anti-Muslim” policies (www.vesti.kz, November 10). Leading Kazakhstani political analysts who contributed to a report in late August 2012 called “Central Asia-2020: An Inside View” have estimated that the probability of Islamists coming to power in Central Asia through revolution or mass protests, such as those in the Arab World, is as high as 30% in the mid-to-long term (Interfax, August 20). Similarly, Maulen Ashimbayev, the chairman of the Committee for International Affairs, Defense and Security of the Majlis (the Kazakh Parliament’s lower house) says that:
Kazakhstan is probably interesting to [Salafists] by the fact that we are situated relatively not far from such complicated regions as the North Caucasus, Afghanistan, Pakistan and Iran. Our territory is a transit one for movements between southern and northern ‘hot spots.’ Therefore, the radical forces have the wish to entrench themselves here. They are purposefully working on recruiting supporters from within the country, attracting, first of all, young people to their ranks (Kazakhstan Today [Almaty], September 10).
Although Kazakhstan has a reputation for dealing out harsh punishments with insufficient due process to terror suspects, the country has taken a more calibrated approach to countering Salafism. The Kazakh approach recognizes the role of the intelligentsia, religious leaders, NGOs, public organizations and the mass media in preventing isolated Salafist groups from becoming a large-scale problem in the country (Kazakhstan Today [Almaty], September 10).
One way in which Kazakhstan has sought to prevent youths from being recruited into extremist organizations is through educational initiatives. For example, the Astana mayor’s Domestic Policy Department established a “Center for Research on Religious Problems and for Psychological Rehabilitation” in October 2011 to provide alternative religious education for youths whose parents or teachers believe they have been influenced or “brainwashed” by “non-traditional religiosity,” such as Wahhabism (Central Asia Online [Almaty], October 13, 2011). Similarly, in southeastern Kazakhstan’s Zhambyl province, the Department of Religious Affairs has begun holding roundtable discussions, debates, seminars and public opinion polls to help youths distinguish “between traditional religion and the harsh rules of destructive cults” (Central Asia Online [Taraz], May 12, 2011). The Zhambyl city of Taraz also unveiled a memorial depicting the famous Kazakh folk couple Kozy-Korpesh and Bayan-Sulu after the November 2011 terrorist attack in the city “to symbolize the struggle against terrorism and to promote love” (Central Asia Online [Taraz], February 15).
Other strategies to counter the Salafist ideology include:
- Opening the new Nur-Astana mosque, one of Asia’s largest, in Astana in July 2012. The mosque can seat up to 5,000 worshippers and is designed to buttress the government’s religious credentials.
- Efforts to shut down religious facilities where Salafists have been reported preaching, including the Saudi Arabian cultural center in Almaty.
- Placing theologians and psychologists on the military draft boards to check for signs that indicate whether new recruits have been influenced by Salafism.
- Monitoring more than 10,000 websites for extremist content and blocking access to more than 100 such websites.
Some of Kazakhstan’s approaches to addressing the spread of Salafism may be effective in preventing youths from falling into the trap of an inflexible ideology which has a tendency towards militancy. Nonetheless, with Salafism’s success in winning recruits on Kazakhstan’s periphery, it will be difficult for Kazakhstan to succeed in containing the ideology without the successful efforts of neighboring states such as Russia and Kyrgyzstan, both of which have seen Salafism spread in recent years. For this reason, Kazakhstan has hosted regional forums to address Salafism, including a conference in Astana where anti-extremism cooperation between Turkic-speaking countries was discussed on September 6 (Interfax [Astana], September 6).
However, one of the key domestic issues Kazakhstan will need to address is the country’s political future and whether religious groups will be able to openly and freely partake in politics in a post-Nazarbayev Kazakhstan as in Egypt, Libya and Tunisia now. If Salafist-influenced groups were allowed to participate in politics, the Kazakh government would have to develop a political model that is more attractive to the country’s citizens than the religious model that has won Salafist political parties votes in formerly secular countries like Egypt and Tunisia. It is not yet clear what ideology will guide the next generation of Kazakh leaders who do not have the legitimacy of Nazarbayev, the country’s first ever president
Finally, there is also the issue of the hundreds of Central Asians fighting in Afghanistan who may eventually return home and bring with them not only the ideology of the Taliban and al-Qaeda, but also fighting expertise that could make the militancy of Jund al-Khilafah today seem small in comparison.
1. Andrew McGregor, “Ambivalence or Radicalism? The Direction of Political Islam in Kazakhstan,” Modern Kazakhstan: Between East and West, Conference at the Munk Centre for International Studies, University of Toronto, December 5, 2003.
2. Author’s discussion with Kazakhstani official, September 2012.
3. See Statement of Jund al-Khilafa regarding the events of Zhanaozen: "Overthrow the tyrant," https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=tBy0CBFKyxA, December 18, 2011.
4. The two videos may be viewed at: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=BH0_CVDy8oQ&feature=youtu.be, July 27, 2012; https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=k4xEvysQZVw, August 4, 2012 (summary of the latter at Umma News, August 4).
5. McGregor, op cit.
6. Statistics according to Saule Mikhametrakhimova of the Institute of War and Peace Reporting (IWPR). See Aleksandr Shustov, “Radical Islam Attacks Central Asia,” Strategic Culture Foundation, https://www.strategic-culture.org/news/2010/11/26/radical-islam-attacks-central-asia.html
7. See endnote 2.
Jacob Zenn is a legal adviser and international affairs analyst based in Washington, D.C. with experience in all seven Central Asian “Stan” countries and Xinjiang. He is an honorary member of the Center of Shanghai Cooperation Studies (COSCOS) in Shanghai, China.