After series of arrests in the winter followed by additional attacks and plots this spring and summer, Kazakh authorities can no longer deny that Islamic terrorism is a problem in the country.

The attack on police station in Almaty was called a terrorist act by the Kazakhstan's President Nursultan Nazarbayev. Photo: RIA Novosti

On July 18, two gunmen killed three policemen and a citizen in Kazakhstan's commercial capital, Almaty. While it is not yet clear who is behind the attack, the shootings come a month after a deadly assault in the northwestern town of Aktobe. On July 12, a regional court in Aktobe convicted 12 men for plotting terrorist acts on behalf of the Islamic State of Iraq and the Greater Syria (ISIS), and these men may have been part of the same cell responsible for the July attacks. Although the 12 men had been detained in February, their arrest clearly did little, if anything, to combat terrorist activity in Kazakhstan.

Local experts say that after the flurry of activity, attributed to cells affiliated with ISIS, the Kazakh authorities can no longer deny that their country, once known as the most stable and secular of the post-Soviet Central Asian states, faces a threat from radical Islam. 

June attacks

On June 6, radicals linked to the February detainees attacked two gun stores and a military unit in the city of Aktobe in one of the most notable and brazen attacks in Kazakhstan in recent years. According to investigators, the perpetrators had planned to seize arms and continue their attack in the city. However, as a result of a gunfight at the military unit’s headquarters, 12 of the attackers were killed and nine were detained. The events in Aktobe were recognized as a terrorist attack by the Ministry of Interior.

Three weeks later, terrorist attacks were thwarted in the Karaganda Region of central Kazakhstan. Radicals had planned to blow up a residential building in the village of Gulshat, and although all the residents of the building were evacuated in the course of the counter-terrorist operation, one of the terrorists managed to activate the explosive device and was killed. Shortly thereafter, an instructional leaflet on manufacturing explosives and religious literature was seized in a house in the city of Balkhash. Eleven radicals were detained during the operation. According to the Committee for National Security (KNB) of the Republic of Kazakhstan, they were associated with a “nonconventional religious trend,” which usually means that they were adherents of Salafism, an ultraconservative branch of Sunni Islam.

After the raid, the KNB issued the following statement: “All the members of the radical group have been detained. Material evidence has been seized including firearms, flash-memory cards, and cell phones. A prejudicial inquiry has been opened.”

While the actions of the authorities are commendable, most experts believe that the threat of terrorist acts by radical Islamist remains serious. “For a long time, Kazakhstan’s authorities had believed that the Islamist ideas did not pose a serious threat and that the growing religiosity of the population made it more loyal to the state. Also, they had been unwilling to destroy the long-standing propaganda myth that there was no terrorism in the country, but rather inter-confessional harmony. Now the authorities take a realistic view of the threat,” says political scientist Marat Shibutov.

The roots of radicalism

Kazakhstan had been considered the most stable and most secular among the post-Soviet states of Central Asia. The majority of Kazakhs consider themselves Muslim, but religion does not play as big a role in Kazakh society as it does in the neighboring countries of Uzbekistan and Tajikistan, which are more patriarchal. Kazakhstan’s post-Soviet authorities promoted the country’s secularity as a point of pride for the nation.

This carefully cultivated image first began to break down in 2013, after a series of terrorist attacks in the Aktobe region. Although the security services managed to prevent most of the terrorist attacks that had been planned, the recent events — which again took place in Aktobe — show that the groups are still present.

Asylbek Izbairov, a professor in the Department of Religious Studies at the L.N. Gumilev Eurasian National University, says that the potential for Islamic terrorism in Kazakhstan dates back further, from at least the mid-1990s, and that the rise of radical Islam in Kazakhstan can be broken down into three stages.

“In 1995, the ideas of radical Islam already started infiltrating Kazakhstan; they came from [the Russian Republics of] Dagestan and Chechnya. That period, which lasted until 2002, can be called the first stage of the formation of the extremist terrorist underground in Kazakhstan. The republic was then permeated with the ideas of Takfirism, a radical ideology based on accusing Muslims of apostasy,” Izbairov said.

According to him, the second stage – in which the ideas of Wahhabism and Takfirism spread further — is associated with the name of Sheikh Abduhalil Abdujabarov, a religious leader well known among Kazakh Muslims.

“Sheikh Halil, as he is called in Kazakhstan, was a native of south Kazakhstan who received religious education in Pakistan. In 2003, he moved to Atyrau [the Atyrau Region is located in the European part of Kazakhstan and borders Russia — Editor's Note] where he started teaching in a madrassa and spreading the radical ideas of Takfirism,” Izbairov added. In 2005, after his radical activity was exposed by the authorities, Sheikh Halil fled to Saudi Arabia. Last year he was detained by the Saudi security services and is now serving time.

The expert says that Kazakhstan’s the third stage of Islamic terrorism, which continues today, started in 2011. “NATO’s military operation against Al-Qaeda and the Taliban in Afganistan, the wars in the Middle East, the emergence of the Islamic State — all these factors influenced the spreading of the ideas of radical Islamism in Kazakhstan as well,” Izbairov said. “Aided financially by external sponsors, the Islamists managed to create their organizational backbone in various regions of the republic.”

According to Izbairov, the main reason the ideas of radical Islamism have been able to put down roots in Kazakhstan is the “religious patchiness of Kazakh society” and the lack of a strong, central religious figure.

“Kazakhstan is not a country with one Imam, a spiritual leader of the Muslims. In large part, that is the reason religious people yield to the radical ideas of underground groups,” he said.

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Who are the terrorists?

In the past, Kazakh authorities attempted to deny the presence of Islamic radicals by attributing the upsurge in violence to crime.

“While in 2011 and in 2013, when terrorist attacks were committed in various Kazakhstan cities, the authorities still tried to chalk them up to a surge in crime and corruption scandals in the country, after the Aktobe events it is pointless to seek explanations unrelated to the radical Islamism. After this June, Kazakhstan society has become aware of the seriousness of the threat,” Izbairov said.

However, there are still misconceptions about radical Islam in Kazakhstan.

Despite the stereotype that the most religious parts of the country are the southern regions that border Uzbekistan and Kyrgyzstan, experts maintain that this is far from true. “Today, radical Jamias [gatherings of Muslims dedicated to the joint study of Islam — Editor's Note] are most widely spread in the west of Kazakhstan. It is from that area that militants are recruited to the ranks of ISIS,” Izbairov said.

Gulmira Ileouva, a sociologist and president of the “Strategy” Center for Social and Political Studies in Kazakhstan, said that the country’s current economic downturn is creating conditions that could nurture radical Islam. “Inadequate religious education, desire to distinguish oneself from the crowd, social environment, personal tragedies — all these are frequent factors influencing someone to become a terrorist,” Ileouva said, noting that all these trends are on the rise according to sociological surveys conducted by her foundation.

Although the Kazakh authorities so far have been able to avoid more serious tragedies, there is a growing awareness in the country that the radical underground has not been eliminated, and there is still a lot of work to be done.