Radical groups operating within the Shanghai Cooperation Organization member states will be placed on a new, common list of banned organizations. On July 24 Toygonbek Kalmatov, from the Kyrgyz government agency for religious, confirmed that SCO representatives recently held a closed meeting in order to list international “religious extremist” organizations currently banned within member states. The criteria for placing groups on this new list have not been made public, nor has the list itself. Interestingly, Kalmatov refused to comment on the precise nature of the list, preferring to reinforce the message that the SCO member states face threats from banned organizations, either directly or indirectly, and confirming that additional investigations are underway in connection with designating these groups as outlawed.
His comments highlight the complex and often politicized nature of threat assessments in Central Asian security thinking. Moreover, given China’s increased diplomatic security activity ahead of the SCO summit in Bishkek in August, it suggests a possible widening of the scope for placing certain groups under scrutiny, while the actual “threat” posed by these groups remains unclear. Will such a list serve as a focal point to guide the collaborative work of the regions intelligence agencies? Critics believe it may simply serve to supply and exaggerate de facto justification for political repression in the SCO countries.
Kalmatov did reveal that the list involves several well known and lesser known groups including: the Ul-Shura Higher Military Majilis of the United Forces of Mujahideen of the Caucasus, Al-Qaeda, Al-Jihad, the Muslim Brothers, Hizb-ut-Tahrir, Lashkar-i-Taiba, the Islamic Party of Turkestan, and the Taliban. He commented that the number of banned groups varies among the member states; there are 17 in Russia, six in China, and 24 in Uzbekistan (Akipress, July 24).
Multiple Kazakh media sources have reported rising militant activity in Central Asia, although their reports concentrate on neighboring Kyrgyzstan. Hizb-ut-Tahrir is singled out, buoyed by allegedly empowering the impoverished, poorly educated Kyrgyz youth. The message is clear: radical ideology is gaining ground and becoming an established, growing network in the region (Khabar Television, July 23).
Kyrgyzstan’s intelligence agencies have allegedly observed that religious extremist organizations operating within the country have become more active. However, evidence appears sporadic, including leaflets containing extremist calls for the forcible overthrow of the government, which are typical of extremist propaganda throughout the region. What appear new, however, are the locations involved, spreading from southern Kyrgyzstan to almost every part of the country. Arrests have led to the seizure of weapons, triggering fears that militants could be planning to take action.
Local residents in southern Kyrgyzstan have noted increasing activity from Hizb-ut-Tahrir since the militant incursion into southern Kyrgyzstan in 2006. “We are all frightened. We fear that militants might come here at any moment. When they said that they were in the mountains here, we got afraid very much. In fact nobody knows for sure. They might be there even now,” explained one anxious Kyrgyz resident.
Indeed, members of Hizb-ut-Tahrir were detained on July 25 in Kyrgyzstan’s northern Chuy region. Leaflets were seized at a traffic checkpoint and, on the same day, 20 leaflets were seized during the arrest of two Hizb-ut-Tahrir activists in the village of Chuy (Kabar, July 25).
Kazakhstan may well be pushing its own security agenda by drawing attention to the weaknesses of the Kyrgyz security agencies, while denying that these problems are as extensive within Kazakhstan. Astana is placing itself at the forefront of an approach stimulating greater inter-regional cooperation while displaying its own regional leadership, but it also acknowledges Beijing’s own security agenda. Alik Shpekbayev, Kazakhstan’s deputy interior minister, and the Chinese ambassador to Kazakhstan, Zhang Xiyun, have discussed the prospects for cooperation in the fight against transnational crime: “We want to strengthen our international relations with foreign colleagues, especially in those regions where we share borders with China, Russia, and countries of the Central Asian region. We are raising the issue of improving these relations,” Shpekbayev noted. Kazakhstan wants more access to Chinese police training for its own officers, knowing this will be cost effective and demonstrate Astana’s commitment to strong bilateral security relations. “I fully agree with the deputy minister that both traditional and new threats are common to our countries,” the Chinese ambassador said. Beijing also wants more joint activities between the Kazakh and Chinese police.
Zhang praised the level of bilateral security cooperation between the two countries. China’s Ministry of Public Security has provided “no-strings” technical aid worth $396,000 to Kazakhstan’s Ministry of Internal Affairs. “It is worth expressing a high opinion about cooperation between the police of Kazakhstan and China in the field of fighting crime and extremism. As a sign of gratitude for establishing good and lively contacts, the Chinese Ministry of Public Security has taken a decision to hand this technical equipment over to the Kazakh Interior Ministry,” Zhang explained.
China provided four all-terrain vehicles, two sets of scanners, five surveillance devices, 40 sets of equipment for crime detection, 30 cameras and video cameras, 30 notebooks, as well as communications equipment and office equipment. The materials will be distributed to police departments in Almaty and Eastern Kazakhstan, which borders China. Beijing has a vested interest in Kazakh security, and can deliver equipment quickly once a decision has been made, cutting through unnecessary bureaucracy (Interfax, July 20).
The emergence of a commonly agreed list of banned organizations encompassing the SCO member states may in fact betray an eastward drift in the security strategies and thinking within the security agencies of the region. SCO dynamics may play a key role in determining the groups and individuals regarded as “radical” and by definition subject to the scrutiny of the region’s security agencies. Nonetheless, the SCO will have to produce more than just a list of banned extremist groups in order to establish its security credentials among its critics.