Recent allegations, circulated in Moscow, concerning the presence of ethnic Kazakhs among the terrorists in Beslan, provoked swift denials and concerted efforts in Astana to downplay any possible speculation about terrorists operating within Kazakhstan. Coupled with this response, the authorities in Kazakhstan have intimated their first steps towards tightening security in the wake of events in North Ossetia. In these twin areas, evidence is emerging about Kazakhstan’s sensitivities relating to the questions of possible domestic terrorists and the pro-Russian basis of its national security policies.
The reports circulating in the Russian media were based on comments by Sergei Fridinsky, deputy prosecutor-general for the Southern Federal District of Russia, who alleged that ethnic Kazakhs were involved in the Beslan tragedy. His remark immediately triggered a chain reaction in Kazakhstan suggesting more than diplomatic outrage. The Kazakhstani embassy in Moscow sought clarification on the remarks (Kazakhstan Today, September 7). That a strenuous denial should be issued shortly afterwards seems hardly surprising, since a similar approach was taken earlier this year when allegations were made by Uzbek authorities about the involvement of Kazakhs operating from Kazakhstan in the terrorist incidents in Uzbekistan. Unlike the response to the Uzbek claims, which only merited a denial from the press office of the Kazakhstani intelligence service (KNB), the scale of carnage at Beslan brought out the top ranks of the KNB, which stepped forward with an elaborate explanation of the unlikelihood of an ethnic Kazakh being among the hostage takers.
Indeed, Nartay Dutbayev, Chairman of the KNB, not only denied the allegation, but he also offered details on the reasons behind the rumor. According to Dutbayev, one of the Chechen terrorists was nicknamed “Kazakh,” and this could have been enough to trigger the erroneous reporting. Also, drawing on information gained from the Russian Federal Intelligence Service (FSB) another possibility was that a Kazakh born in Ukraine who had served for some time in the Russian armed forces before siding with Chechen militants could be the individual in question. Admitting that only a small number of the Beslan terrorists had been identified, Dutbayev was less than definitive: “At the moment, the situation has not yet been clarified. There is no clear understanding of the details” (Interfax, September 9). By any standards this was an ambiguous denial.
In that atmosphere of confusion, Dutbayev’s deputy, Vladimir Bozhko, was more unequivocal while speaking in the Kazakhstani parliament. He denied any Kazakh link with Beslan and stated that no proof had been offered. Nevertheless, even Bozhko’s comments were less than clear-cut in their nature. He confirmed that the KNB is taking seriously reports that the terrorist attacks in Uzbekistan may have had a connection with Kazakhstan, if only as a transit point to terrorist training camps in Afghanistan. Concern about the attacks in Uzbekistan and Russia had forced Kazakhstan, in his view, to step up its intelligence activities aimed at uncovering individuals engaged in planning terrorism internationally, but operating within Kazakhstan. Moreover, Bozhko suggested that the pattern being followed to enhance domestic security placed greater emphasis on intelligence and border security. This mirrored President Nursultan Nazarbayev’s instructions to the Kazakhstani Security Council to take effective measures against terrorism by creating an efficient crisis-management system coordinating the work of the various security agencies involved in counter-terrorism and introducing new technologies into border security systems.
These disparate responses to the worsening security situation in Kazakhstan’s vicinity reveal that crucial questions are being asked, albeit gradually, relating to the possible existence of terrorists within Kazakhstan. The answers are unknown, at least publicly, though after the initial denials over the Uzbek bombings and publicity had faded, the KNB was prepared to investigate the claims. Parliament has been informed that the KNB has stepped up its efforts to uncover domestic terrorists. Taken together, it appears that while questions should be raised about homegrown extremists, the preferred approach on the part of the KNB, understandably so, is to avoid too much publicity and quietly investigate. This echoes Nazarbayev’s approach to enhancing security post-Beslan, which in turn matches Russian security priorities, showing that he follows Moscow’s lead. His intelligence service, rooted as it is in the old KGB, cannot afford to ignore the potential backlash of any later discovery of Kazakh terrorist cells. But the KNB is currently looking for that which officially does not exist, since Astana adheres to the position that it has no terrorists or terrorist training camps and has a tight grip on the activities of Islamic extremists in Kazakhstan, such as the avowedly non-violent Hizb-ut-Tahrir.
Until now, it was officially unthinkable to ask whether Kazakhstan was an unwitting host to terrorists. Behind the scenes, Kazakhstani intelligence officers may well be taking it more seriously than they suggest publicly. And Nazarbayev’s eagerness to closely emulate Moscow’s security thinking on increasing domestic security may give the FSB more room to pressure their KNB counterparts to look for terrorists on their own soil.