By Michael Jones, CIB Asia/Eurasia Desk
Analytical question: How popular is ISIS in Central Asia?
Kazakh authorities have reported the arrests of groups of suspected terrorists in major cities in both August and October of 2016 (Anon. 2016a; Anon. 2016d). Examined in light of terror attacks in major cities in the country earlier this year, these developments are indicative of an increase in popularity of the Islamic State of Iraq and Syria (ISIS) in Kazakhstan and the wider Central Asian region. It can be stated with high confidence that recent events in Kazakhstan are a sign that ISIS’s popularity is continuing to grow.
On June 5, 2016, several suspected Salafi militants launched an attack on civilian and military targets in the city of Aktobe, a main population center in northwestern Kazakhstan, resulting in seven deaths and 37 injuries (Anon. 2016c). Shootouts continued over subsequent days as police killed 18 and arrested nine of the attackers. The shootings, likely perpetrated by returning ISIS fighters native to Kazakhstan, were the most significant incident in Aktobe since a 2011 suicide bombing —the first suicide bombing in Kazakhstan’s history. A month later, on July 18, a lone actor with Salafist ties killed four police and a bystander and injured nine others in an attack perceived to be motivated by Islamic extremism (Anon. 2016e).
On August 31, the National Security Committee of Kazakhstan (NSC) made public a series of arrests, made between August 12 and 30, of 21 individuals operating in three groups in the regions of West Kazakhstan and Aktobe (Anon. 2016a). The NSC reported that these groups had plans to conduct terrorist attacks against both law enforcement and the public. Finding caches of weapons, an IED, counterfeit cash, and documents tying the groups to international terrorists, those arrested were immediately put on trial under several anti-terrorism and illegal weapons possession laws. Following this, in early October the Deputy Chairman of the NSC, Marat Kolkobayev, announced while addressing the Majilis —the lower house of Kazakhstan’s parliament— the recent arrest of another seven groups and four lone individuals in Aktobe (Anon. 2016d). He went on to declare that online propaganda from international terrorist organizations has contributed to an increase in radical recruitment and financing from Central Asia. The same day, government officials in the Majilis announced proposed amendments to several existing counter-terrorism laws, drafted on the orders of President Nursultan Nazarbayev under the name ‘On Amendments to Some Legislative Acts of the Republic of Kazakhstan on Issues of Counter-Extremism and Terrorism’. The specifics of the new law, however, are sparse in the public record (Anon. 2016b).
The recent attacks and subsequent arrests come as the Central Asian states on the whole have seen intensifying crackdowns on political opposition and Islamic radicalization. In Kazakhstan, terror attacks of this nature are generally rare; thus the apparent frequency of attacks in the last year, in major cities, is cause for concern among officials in Astana. Fears of rising ethnic and religious tensions in Almaty, a city of 1.7 million people of whom almost 20% are foreigners, exacerbate the problem (Anon. 2016f). A significant response from the Kazakh government has been the October 10 announcement of plans to host joint military exercises in October 2017. The drills, currently called “Combat Brotherhood”, will be in cooperation with the Collective Security Treaty Organization (CSTO), a military alliance of six post-Soviet states including Kazakhstan and Russia. The experimental three-week training is reportedly oriented around a counter-terrorism scenario, including reconnaissance operations, rapid response of ground and aviation units, post-conflict settlement, and the implementation of peace-keeping forces. Coming off the back of a CSTO joint exercise in neighboring Kyrgyzstan, the announcement seems timed to show a response from the government to the potential of future attacks (Anon. 2016g).
The concurrence of terrorist attacks, arrests of radical Islamists en masse, efforts to enact new reforms to counter-terror legislation, and intent to hold expanded military exercises all indicate a rise in the growth of Islamic terrorism in Kazakhstan. Consequently, it can be estimated with high confidence that a rise in the popularity of international terrorist organizations across Central Asia, especially ISIS, is being observed within 2016. Major English language media outlets from within Kazakhstan, particularly Kazinform and BNews, have consistently reported on these and similar activities for months, and the veracity of these reports is likely conclusive given corroborative coverage abroad from news outlets including the BBC and EurasiaNet. The trends seen in Kazakhstan demonstrate that it is highly likely that the popularity of ISIS in Central Asia will continue to rise this year.
Anonymous (2016a) “21 radical group members detained in western Kazakhstan”, Kazinform, 31 August.
Anonymous (2016b) “Aktobe, Almaty terrorist attacks proved it is high time to amend legislation”, Kazinform, 5 October.
Anonymous (2016c) “Kazakhstan: Gunmen attack gun shops and army unit in Aktobe”, BBC, 5 June.
Anonymous (2016d) “Kazakhstan NSC: Activities of 7 radical groups are stopped in Kazakhstan”, BNews, 5 October.
Anonymous (2016e) “Kazakhstan: Suspect in Almaty shootings speaks”, EurasiaNet, 28 July.
Anonymous (2016f) “Number of foreigners increased by 20% in Almaty”, BNews, 18 October.
Anonymous (2016g) “Post-Soviet military bloc to hold drills in three member states in 2017”, AsiaN, 10 October.
Toleukhanova, A. (2016h) “Kazakhstan’s latest shooting: Terror or crime?”, EurasiaNet, 18 July.