The ruling elite of Kazakhstan, in its pursuit of foreign investment in the largely oil-dependent economy, invariably depicts the country as an oasis of peace and political stability in Central Asia. Contrasted with the constant political turmoil in Kyrgyzstan and the fragility of Islam Karimov’s heavy-handed regime in Uzbekistan, this idyllic picture of Kazakhstan partly reflects reality. This deceptive image, however, dulls public awareness of the growing threat of Islamic extremism in that country.
On the night of June 30, patrolling policemen were unexpectedly attacked by an armed gang in the village of Shubarshi in Aktobe Province (West Kazakhstan). Two policemen were killed on the spot and another officer of the Special Task Force was shot and killed while pursuing the attackers. All members of the gang escaped unharmed and police announced a $100,000 reward for information leading to the capture of the criminals, although it turned out later that local police possessed detailed information about everyone in the six-member gang, who were all residents of Shubarshi. However, it took the Special Task Force almost two weeks to track down and kill three of the gang members and capture another two alive in Aktobe Province. One of those killed in the fighting, Toktarbek Mambetov, reportedly received training in a terrorist camp in Pakistan (Kommerceskiyi Televizioniyi Kanal-TV, July 11).
In the wake of this costly victory, 16 inmates in a prison near the town of Balkhash in Qaraghandy region (Central Kazakhstan) made a failed escape attempt on July 11 and opened fire on their guards. All of them were reported to have blown themselves up in un-clarified circumstances. Police authorities announced that the former detainees belonged to an extremist Islamic organization (KTK TV, July 12).
All these incidents form part of a long chain of terrorist attacks that have taken place over the last three months on an unprecedented scale. Prior to the killing of the policemen in Shubarshi, a 25-year-old suicide bomber penetrated into the regional office of the National Security Committee in the provincial capital of Aktobe and detonated a bomb. A week later a car bomb exploded near the preliminary detention and investigation center of the National Security Committee in Astana. The bodies of two men identified simply as “Europeans” were found on the scene. Although officials have repeatedly denied any link between these blasts and terrorist organizations, it is notable that these incidents occurred immediately after the government announced its intention to send a limited contingent of peacekeepers to Afghanistan. Following the announcement, threats from Taliban leaders appeared in the local press (Delovaya Nedelia [Almaty], May 27).
In none of these cases did authorities fully admit the existence of terrorist groups in Kazakhstan, dismissing numerous incidents with significant religious character as common criminal acts. Nurtay Abykaiev, the chairman of the National Security Committee, stated at the OSCE Experts Conference last October that Kazakhstan is not a breeding ground for religious extremism and that the only existing threat comes from the inflammability of the situation in neighboring countries (Interfax-Kazakhstan, October 14, 2010).
However, Kazakhstan’s porous border, the corruptibility of high-ranking officials in law-enforcement bodies and the poverty of a large portion of the population despite an alleged economic prosperity renders the country vulnerable to incursions by Islamic extremists. Following the bomb blasts in Tashkent in 1999 and 2000, Uzbek security services accused Astana (the Kazakhstan capital since 1997) of harboring terrorists of the Islamic Movement of Uzbekistan (IMU) in the border area with Uzbekistan. Kazakhstan flatly rejected these accusations as unfounded. In 2009 Russian security services reported the killing of an unspecified number of terrorists who allegedly carried Kazakh passports. In February the Russian Federal Security Service (Federal’naya sluzhba bezopasnosti – FSB) announced that two residents of Aktobe, Albert Abdikarimov and Raimbek Yerzhanov, surrendered to Russian security forces when an apartment block was surrounded in Makhachkala, capital of Dagestan (Kursiv [Moscow], February 17; Interfax Central Asia, February 11; Kommersant, February 15).
Addressing a meeting of the council of law enforcement bodies, the head of the Mangystau regional department of the National Security Committee, Bolat Shaimanov, admitted that some wounded Chechen fighters received medical treatment in local hospitals (Tengri News [Almaty], April 1, 2010). Kazakhstan cooperates closely with Russian security services in fighting terrorism. However, in its incessant attempt to internationalize the war against Chechen fighters, Moscow doesn’t discriminate between Islamist extremists and separatists.
In the framework of its interaction with international organizations and on the eve of its chairmanship of the Organization for Security and Co-operation in Europe (OSCE), Astana banned 14 radical Islamic organizations and 15 websites propagating religious extremism and terrorism, but these measures proved highly ineffective in the face of the rapidly expanding Wahhabi and Salafi trends in south and west Kazakhstan. All evidence indicates that the Spiritual Board of Muslims of Kazakhstan, which until recently was quite successful in consolidating believers around the officially approved moderate Islam, is rapidly losing its battle against religious extremists.
The problem is further complicated by the fact that authorities have no clearly defined strategy of counteracting the threat of Islamist extremism. Given the long history of muted but strong resistance of Sunni believers to officially administered bans and prescriptions, the current crackdown and tactics of repression inherited from the socialist era may prove counterproductive.