Government responses to militant attacks have led to a rise in Islamist extremism in the typically stable Central Asian country.
The number of militant attacks in Kazakhstan increased markedly in 2011. Although the government attributed all of the attacks to increasing Islamist extremism, there are numerous factors -- including Kazakhstan's economic conditions and current political tensions -- that could motivate such attacks. The government's reaction to the attacks has been to crack down on religious movements -- a move that has given rise to very real Islamist extremism that could spread rapidly in Kazakhstan.
In 2011, Kazakhstan saw an increasing number of militant attacks http://www.stratfor.com/analysis/20110524-extremist-trend-kazakhstan i. Although Kazakhstan has no real tradition of extremism, in 2011 at least six incidents and seven police raids all reportedly linked to militancy occurred inside the country. The Kazakh government has said outright that Islamist extremism exists in the country, though some incidents seem to have been spurred by other factors (particularly Kazakhstan's socioeconomic and political tensions). The government's strong response to these attacks -- preceded by almost two decades of ignoring or downplaying the potential of an Islamist threat -- is feeding an Islamist-linked extremism that could spread easily in Kazakhstan.
Kazakhstan's Fertile Ground for Extremism
Kazakhstanhttp://www.stratfor.com/analysis/20090415_central_asia_shifting_regional_dynamic has a tradition of relative stability and religious tolerance. The country's population is 70 percent Muslim. Most of this population is not generally considered devout, though this changes in southern Kazakhstan -- particularly where the population becomes heavily ethnic Uzbek, a group generally more fundamentalist than Kazakh Muslims. Since the fall of the Soviet Union, Kazakhstan has not seen the kind of extremism found in its southern neighbors of Kyrgyzstan, Tajikistan and Uzbekistan and, on occasion, in Turkmenistan. However, this does not mean Kazakhstan is not fertile ground for such movements.
Kazakhstan has two major populated areas -- the northwest and the southeast -- with little population between. The demographics of each populated area could facilitate militant activity.
The northern population includes a large number of Chechens who were sent to Kazakhstan during the Soviet era. According to some estimates, more than 500,000 Chechens were sent to Kazakhstan in order to keep the traditionally anti-Russian groups in the Caucasus from consolidating against the Soviet regime. More than 100,000 Chechens live in Kazakhstan -- a population that increased in the early 2000s with the second Chechen war (so more than 500,000 were sent there but only 100,000 live there now? And do we mean that the population surged to 100,000 with the second Chechen war or that it was 100,000 and then it grew more? 500,000 were sent to Kazakhstan in the 1920s by Stalin, after the fall of the Soviet Union this population fell to about 100,000, but surged again during the early 2000s when the 2nd Chechen war started – confusing I know.). Some of Chechnya's most prominent militant, revolutionary and political leaders were born in Kazakhstan, including Dzhokhar Dudayev, Aslan Maskhadov and even Akhmad Kadyrov, father of the current Chechen president. This Chechen diaspora represents an opportunity for Caucasus militant networks to reach into Kazakhstan through an existing human network, though it is not clear if this is occurring.
Kazakhstan's south and southeast contains large groups of ethnic Uzbeks, Tajiks and Kyrgyz. Kazakhstan's southern regions are the country's most densely populated and are considered the Kazakh heartland. These are the regions where Islamist fundamentalism is more prevalent, mostly among the non-Kazakh populations. This is the area in which foreign Islamist extremist groups, such as Hizb al-Tahrir and the Islamic Movement of Uzbekistanhttp://www.stratfor.com/kazakhstan_new_militant_threat (IMU), were detected as early as 1998, according to STRATFOR sources.
Kazakhstan has been more lenient than other Central Asian states as far as banning specific Islamist extremist groups. STRATFOR sources have said the Kazakh security services are also behind in keeping up with the shifting population movements in southern Kazakhstan -- particularly the extremist groups -- although they reportedly are improving with help from Russian intelligence. This comparatively lax attitude allowed militant groups to establish themselves before the government reacted. Uzbekistan's National Security Service has issued several reports that the IMU -- along with newer militant groups like Uzbek Islamic Jihad -- has been spreading in Kazakhstan. These groups do not appear to have been very active in Kazakhstan, though other Central Asian states allegedly have accused Kazakhstan of giving these groups (which are active in those Central Asian countries) a haven.
Also facilitating the spread of extremism is the generational change occurring in Kazakhstan. STRATFOR sources have indicated that Islamist extremism recently has become romanticized among Kazakh youths. Furthermore, the up and coming generation is more Internet-savvy, and the Internet can be a tool for radicalization. During the past two years, the Kazakh government has blocked more than 100 websites deemed extremist. Internet radicalizationhttp://www.stratfor.com/web_jihad_strategic_utility_and_tactical_weakness of potential jihadists is nothing new, and the Kazakh government takes it quite seriously. Astana has claimed that numerous suspects detained since the beginning of August have used the Internet to contact radical and/or militant actors outside Kazakhstan, likely from Pakistan, Afghanistan and the Russian Caucasus. Unimpeded access -- or even limited access -- to such resources can encourage radicalization and give extremists new capabilities. (The Internet is not the only source of information that could lead to radicalization, however; drug traffickers who buy their products from Islamist militants sometimes bring underground propaganda across the Kazakh border along with their smuggled goods.)
Reasons for Rising Tensions
Previous violence in Kazakhstan was about religious ideology as much as it was a means of acting out against other problems, such as the country's economic and political situation. The government seems to have labeled all militancy as Islamist-linked militancy even though there is no shortage of reasons for people to act out.
The first contributing factor is Kazakhstan's economy. The country's coffers may be full of energy revenue http://www.stratfor.com/analysis/20091203_central_asian_energy_special_series_part_2_external_forces, but that wealth has not reached the general population. Furthermore, the 2008 financial crisis greatly affected Kazakhstan http://www.stratfor.com/analysis/20090203_kazakhstan_economic_crisis_and_opportunities; the country's banking sector is bordering on collapse and its currency, the tenge http://www.stratfor.com/analysis/20090204_kazakhstan_falling_tenge, has been devalued sharply. Moreover, Kazakhstan is joining has joineda Customs Unionhttp://www.stratfor.com/analysis/20110630-russia-belarus-kazakhstan-customs-union-agreement-deepens with Russia and Belarus. This is greatly affecting Kazakhstan's poorer populations, who traditionally buy inexpensive goods imported from China but now will have are now having to purchase pricier goods from the Customs Union member countries. Kazakhstan's economic situation has prompted numerous protests across Kazakhstan, particularly among energy workers in Atyrau, where many attacks have taken place.
Kazakhstan is also undergoing a political upheaval, as various political clanshttp://www.stratfor.com/analysis/20110324-kazakhstans-succession-crisis scramble for power amid uncertainty over who will lead the country once long-standing President Nursultan Nazarbayev steps down. Traditionally, Kazakh politicians have not hesitated to use violence against their opponents. Multiple STRATFOR sources have said at least one of the attacks in the country attributed to extremism -- the May 24 bombing outside the National Security Committee in Astana that killed a Kazakh and a Kyrgyz citizen in an automobile -- was politically motivated. With snap parliamentary elections set for February 2012 and no official word on when Nazarbayev might step down or who would replace him, political power plays in Kazakhstan appear to be growing more dangerous.
Adding to the tensions within Kazakhstan is increased instability along its borders with Uzbekistan and Kyrgyzstan. These three countries -- along with Tajikistan a little farther south -- share a series of valleys and mountain ranges in which their populations spill over into the other countries. In 2010, Kyrgyzstan underwent a revolutionhttp://www.stratfor.com/weekly/20100412_kyrgyzstan_and_russian_resurgence, which has left its southern regions (those bordering the other three countries Uzbekistan and Tajikistan, and near Kazakhstan) unstable and subject to periodic violence. Fighting has occurred among the different ethnic groups, particularly between Kyrgyz and Uzbeks, leading waves of Uzbeks to flee Kyrgyzstan and flow into both Uzbekistan and Kazakhstan. Violence has also returned to Tajikistan http://www.stratfor.com/analysis/20110622-microcosm-tajikistans-underlying-security-issues, which experiences periodic bouts of unrest. The porous borders and shared populations have led Kazakhstan to become more concerned with instability from Uzbekistan, Kyrgyzstan and Tajikistan spilling over into Kazakhstan. Kyrgyzstan and Tajikistan have both seen unrest calm in recent months, whereas Kazakhstan has seen an increase in activity (though there is no evidence that the situations are connected).
The first handfulof attackshttp://www.stratfor.com/analysis/20110518-suicide-bombing-kazakhstan in Kazakhstan in 2011 were in the country's north and west -- regions not usually prone to Islamist fundamentalism because of the generally secular outlook of the ethnic Kazakhs there, the area's proximity to Russia and the presence of a large Russian minority population. The attacks then moved across Kazakhstan to the capital and then into the country's south. It is unclear if there is any real organizational or operational connection between the attacks that occurred before Oct. 12 and those that have occurred since then.
Moreover, the attacks appear to be relatively unsophisticated and not very organized. So far the devices used in the attacks appear to have been made by competent bomb makers, but there has been quite a bit of error in their deployment, indicating that the operatives have not received adequate training (as the Oct. 12 accidental self-detonation demonstrated). These militant attacks are a new development, so the obstacle of operative capability can be overcome, as it has been on other Islamist militant fronts -- in Yemen http://www.stratfor.com/weekly/20090902_aqap_paradigm_shifts_and_lessons_learne or Somalia http://www.stratfor.com/analysis/somalia_al_qaeda_and_al_shabaab, for example. And, despite the low level of sophistication, two of the Kazakhstan suicide attacks managed to kill at least one government employee each.
As the series of attacks grew, Astana linked them all to a rise in Islamist extremism (despite the other potential reasons for such attacks). After the first spate of incidents, the Kazakh government began police crackdowns and then broke with Kazakhstan's tradition of religious tolerance, imposing restrictions on the opening of new mosques, prayer in the workplace and Muslims' preaching outside the (de facto) government-approved religious doctrine.
The government's reaction to the growing number of attacks has created what appears to be an Islamist backlash against the government and likely spurred the attacks that occurred in Kazakhstan in October and November.
A previously unknown group calling itself Jund al-Khalifa (JaK), or Soldiers of the Caliphate, appeared in September in an online video showing the group attacking U.S. forces in Khost, Afghanistan. A second Khost attack video appeared online in mid-October. JaK allegedly is a militant organization formed by four Kazakh nationals -- Rinat Khabidolda, Orynbasar Munatov, and Damir Znaliev (only 3 are named heh… only 3, not 4) -- operating in the Afghan-Pakistani borderlands, with alleged ideological ties to the Russian Caucasus and the deceased Caucasus Emiratehttp://www.stratfor.com/analysis/20110519-special-series-origin-caucasus-emiratemilitant and internet spokesman for global jihad, Said Burayatski.
Originally JaK claimed to wage jihad against Western forces, but on Oct. 24 the group threatened the Kazakh government over the new religious laws, demanding that they be repealed immediately. JaK claimed the Oct. 31 double improvised explosive device (IED) attack in Atyrau. According to Kazakh law enforcement, the three men arrested for the Oct 31 attacks reportedly communicated with members of JaK via the Internet. In claiming the attack, JaK emphasized that it did not intend to hurt anyone, saying the suspected bomber Bauyrzhan Sultanghaliev accidentally detonated the bomb. JaK did, however, threaten "rivers of blood" should the religious restrictions not be repealed. Then, on Nov. 15, the group claimed responsibility for the Nov. 12 rampage in Taraz, only to deny its claim the next day. Although a direct connection and communication between the three men apprehended for the Oct. 31 attacks -- Meirambek Usabekov, Merkhat Qalqamanov and Alimzhan Sagenov, as well as the accidental suicide bomber Sultanghaliev -- and JaK has been established, no such contact of contact between JeK and the Taraz suicide bomber, Maskat Kariyev, has been verified. Little more is known about the group outside of the Oct. 31 Atyrau attacks and possible involvement in the Nov. 12 Taraz incident.
It could be that radical Islamist elements that have long been in Kazakhstan have found a reason to organize as the government targets religious movements in the country. Uzbekistan and Tajikistan have pursued similar policies with similar effects in the past two decades. Whereas the attacks in Kazakhstan in the spring appear to have been motivated by socioeconomic, political or criminal reasons, the rise in Islamist extremism the government used to explain the increasing number of attacks seems to be materializing. Considering that conditions in Kazakhstan are conducive to the spread of Islamist militancy -- and those conditions are not likely to change anytime soon -- the situation in Kazakhstan could be growing more dangerous for the government, which has no history of effectively combating these problems except with harsh clampdowns.
Over the years, small numbers of Kazakhs have traveled to fight in the Russian Caucasus. This trend appears to have resurfaced in recent years. Five armed Kazakh "mercenaries" (why is this in quotes?) were killed July 28, 2009, in a shootout with Dagestani law enforcement in Makhachkala. On Oct. 5, 2010, Erlan Yusupov of Aktau, Kazakhstan, was killed in a shootout with police in Makhachkala, and on April 20, 2011, (Kazakh citizen?) Sabit-Bai Amanov was killed in a shootout with security personnel. Amanov reportedly fought under deceased Caucasus Emirate < http://www.stratfor.com/analysis/20110519-special-series-origin-caucasus-emirate militant and online proponent of global jihad Said Burayatski, and ended up fighting for the Caucasus Emirate in Dagestan. Most recently, four Kazakh men were arrested -- two on Feb. 14 and two on Feb. 15, 2011 -- in Makhachkala for attempting to join the armed insurgency. The men said website content and videos online motivated them to join the jihad against Russia in the Caucasus. (Since we're talking about attacks inside Kazakhstan, this paragraph seemed completely out of place at the beginning of the section where we talk about the string of attacks in Kazakhstan. If we keep it, I think it might fit better with the bit about Chechens in N. Kazakhstan and the possible human network Caucasus militants could use to infiltrate Kaz) Heh… that is what I get for piecing things together with CT’s paragraphs. Yea, lets cut this paragraph.