On October 8, both the United Kingdom’s and United States’ embassies in Bishkek issued warnings about an increased threat of a terrorist attack on Kyrgyzstan sometime that month. The suspected attack, if it materialized, was supposed to possibly involving the kidnapping and hostage taking of Kyrgyzstani officials or foreign diplomats (24.kg, October 8). The British embassy encouraged citizens of the UK to remain vigilant in public places, stay away from crowded areas and follow any security advice from the local authorities. Washington’s embassy in Bishkek called on US citizens to practice good personal security habits: exercising vigilance when in public places or while using mass transportation, being aware of their immediate surroundings, as well as avoiding crowded places, in addition to always following the instructions of local authorities, especially in an emergency (Azattyk.kg, Kloop.kg, 24.kg, Sputnik.kg, October 8).
This marked the first time that several major powers’ diplomatic missions had published such warnings about an imminent terrorist attack in Kyrgyzstan, or provided such a specific timeframe for this anticipated incident. The warnings released by the two embassies were quickly picked up and widely disseminated by the local media, striking fear and panic in Kyrgyz society (Politkilinika.kg, October 11). At the same time, Kyrgyzstani security services in the capital began to distribute and post placards on the city’s public transit that featured instructions for how to remain properly vigilant against potential terrorist threats. The press service of the Ministry of Internal Affairs declared, however, that those placards were not motivated by any particular warning or threat, and had been a pre-planned preventative measure (Azattyk.kg, October 10).
Some local experts argued that the Kyrgyzstani government should take these Embassy warnings seriously. But Sapar Isakov, who heads the foreign policy department within the presidential administration, expressed surprise over how the US and UK embassies could have published such terrorism watch advisories without first consulting Kyrgyzstan’s Ministry of Foreign Affairs. “I know for a fact that the US embassy did not hold any consultations with the Ministry of Foreign Affairs of Kyrgyzstan. In this regard we are perplexed. How is it possible there were no consultations with the corresponding bodies of the country of residence? The Ministry of Foreign Affairs will demand an explanation [of the two Western governments],” Isakov said (Kabar.kg, October 10). Subsequently, US Ambassador Sheila Gwaltney and UK Ambassador Robin Ord-Smith were summoned to the foreign ministry offices in Bishkek (24.kg, October 11). As of October 13, the ministry revealed no details about the outcome of these discussions or whether the foreign embassies shared any information with the Kyrgyz Republic’s government regarding the possible terrorist attack.
The State Committee for National Security (SCNS) of Kyrgyzstan declared that it does not possess any information regarding the possibility of a terrorist attack in October. It added that neither the US nor UK embassy had shared any information with the Central Asian republic’s security services prior to publishing the aforementioned warnings to their own citizens (Kloop.kg, October 9). According to the 2015 Travel and Tourism Competitiveness Report, released by the World Economic Forum, Kyrgyzstan ranks 97th in “Safety and Security,” after Algeria and Iran. In this ranking of 141 countries, Turkey placed 121st and Russia came in 126th (Sputnik.kg, October 12).
Yet, the two Western embassies’ warnings did not materialize completely in a vacuum. The advisories came just days after a video was uploaded to YouTube on October 5, in which three Kyrgyz young men, allegedly based in Syria, threatened Kyrgyzstan’s government. Furthermore, the militants accused President Almazbek Atambaev of further damaging the country’s economic situation and raising unemployment in the country (Zanoza.kg, October 8). The video’s main message was that only Islam and sharia law would save the Kyrgyz people; the three men in the recording pledged to continue fighting to build a Caliphate in the region. Nurlan Ismayilov, a Kyrgyzstani expert on religion and security issues, believes the YouTube video and the later warnings from the US and UK embassies could in fact be interlinked. “Usually embassies make such warnings when they have concrete information and deep analysis. It is frightening that a threatening video and the warnings by two diplomatic missions appeared together, one after another,” Ismayilov declared (Azattyk.kg, October 10).
After a terrorist attack on the Chinese Embassy in Bishkek, which took place on August 30, all diplomatic missions in Kyrgyzstan have taken steps to be more vigilant. According to the SCNS, the August attack on the Chinese embassy was carried out by a 33-year-old Uyghur man who was a member of Jabhat Fateh al-Sham—a Sunni Islamist militant organization (formerly an al-Qaeda affiliate known as Jabhat al-Nusra) fighting in Syria. Some experts believe this attack could signify a wider penetration of the region by militant and terrorist groups, with Kyrgyzstan now being on the front line in Central Asia. Zakir Chotoev, the deputy head of the State Commission of Religion Affairs, said, “In light of what is going on in the world, and taking into account that our citizens are fighting in Syria as well as the last terrorist attack on the Chinese embassy, all these are reasons why we have to stay vigilant and prepared, and why we should worry” (Azattyk.kg, October 10)
Opposition leader and prominent Kyrgyzstani politician Omurbek Tekebaev alleged that the country’s special services might be organizing terrorist attacks to distract people from Kyrgyzstan’s internal problems, unite them against such threats, and to eliminate some domestic opposition figures. “Our special services might organize one or two terrorist attacks to spread fear among the population. We know how, in the past, authoritarian leaders organized terrorist attacks to eliminate opposition leaders,” he declared (Spuntik.kg, October 11).
Without any further details revealed about the supposed terrorist threats warned against by the UK and US embassies, it is only possible to speculate as to why these warning were released and what they mean for the country’s overall level of security. If there is a real threat, it is time for Kyrgyzstan’s security services to show increased professionalism and try to prevent any possible attack. But if Tekebaev’s allegations are valid, and Kyrgyzstan’s special services really were planning some covert operations, the two Western diplomatic missions may have acted in order to send a signal to the society. A third realistic possibility is that the August 30 attack on the Chinese embassy unnerved all diplomatic missions in Bishkek, putting them all on high alert. And if so, advisory warnings like those published by the UK and US might become more frequent and routine—though London and Washington may not have expected such a pointed reaction from the local authorities or the media.