Terror on the steppe

By bne IntelliNews November 21, 2011

Clare Nuttall In Almaty -

Kazakhstan is in a state of shock after a gunman, said by security forces to be a "Jihadist", killed seven people then blew himself up in the southern city of Taraz in November. The scale of the attack was unprecedented in a country that has maintained good relations between its many religious groups, though recent months have seen an escalating series of bombings and shootouts in west Kazakhstan, leaving the entire country now on high alert.

On the morning of November 12, a man identified by police as "M K Kariyev", shot dead two members of Kazakhstan's security forces who were following him. He then went on a deadly rampage through the quiet provincial town. When cornered by police, he set off explosives strapped around his waist, killing himself and a police officer.

Security has been stepped up across Kazakhstan, as police and security forces investigate the incident and try to forestall further attacks.

Following the attack, there was big military presence in Kazakhstan's largest city Almaty, where armed soldiers patrolled the city centre, and police stopped cars with out-of-town number plates. Security forces were reportedly inspecting the documents of bearded men and women wearing hijabs.

Before this spring, Kazakhstan had no history of terrorism. May saw the country's first suicide bombing, when a man blew himself up outside the National Security Committee building in the western city of Aktobe, killing himself and injuring three bystanders.

A battle between police and an armed group in Aktobe left four policemen and nine suspected militants dead in July. In nearby Atyrau, the centre of Kazakhstan's oil and gas industry, police shot dead a man they believed was planning to commit terrorist acts on August 30.

Kazakhstani officials initially denied that the country was being targeted by terrorists, and have played down the risk of extremism, blaming organised criminals rather than religious groups. However, as the attacks become more deadly, it has become clear that Kazakhstan is under threat from militants. On October 31, two bombs exploded in Atyrau, the first near the regional government headquarters, and the second outside the general prosecutors office. One man, who is believed to have been the perpetrator, was killed in the second blast.

Anna Walker, analyst at Control Risks Group, tells bne that the government had been "caught on the back foot" by the earlier attacks and was reacting rather than coming up with a coherent strategy. International oil and gas companies operating in west Kazakhstan have stepped up their security measures.

Afghan blowback

No one has claimed responsibility for the Taraz attack, but there is speculation that Jund al Khilafah (Soldiers of the Caliphate), the organisation responsible for the Atyrau bombings, may have been behind it. The group is believed to have been set up by Kazakhstan-born militants who had been fighting alongside the Taliban in Afghanistan. In a video released after the Atyrau bombings, Jund al Khilafah threatened further violence in Kazakhstan if the government does not repeal the new law on religions adopted in October.

Even before its adoption, critics of the law had said that although its aim was to discourage extremism, it could have the opposite effect. The law introduced new restrictions on freedom to worship, including a requirement for all religious groups to re-register with the authorities. There is also a ban on prayer rooms in state buildings.

The Taraz attack was not only the largest to date, it also brought the reality of terrorism uncomfortably close to home for many Kazakhs. The previous bombings and shootouts were all in Kazakhstan's oil rich "Wild West", which is separated from other major cities by thousands of kilometres of steppe and desert. Taras, however, is in the densely populated south of the country, and only 350 kilometres from its largest city Almaty - just down the road in Kazakhstani terms.

The attacks were also shocking because they do not seem to have come in the context of an increase in religious fervor or social instability. There have been no great social changes; in fact, Kazakhstan has long prided itself in being the most stable of the post-Soviet republics. One of the achievements of President Nursultan Nazarbayev's rule was to maintain harmonious relations between the many ethnic and religious groups represented in the country. The majority of Kazakhstan's population are Muslims, but there is a sizable Orthodox Christian minority, and dozens of smaller religious.

Kazakhstan has seen an increase in religious observance among young people, the post-Soviet generation. However, compared to the more traditional south Central Asian republics, the country is relatively secular.

For most of the post-independence period, Tajikistan and Uzbekistan have struggled against terrorism and insurgency. In both countries, the influence of Soviet atheism was small, and Islam is widely practiced. But with war-ravaged Afghanistan just across the border and the fear of an Islamic rebellion, the authorities in Dushanbe and Tashkent exert tight control over religious activity.

In Uzbekistan, President Islam Karimov's repressive regime inspired the creation of the Islamic Movement of Uzbekistan (IMU), a militant Islamist group set up to overthrow Karimov and establish an Islamic state under Sharia law across Central Asia. The IMU became a pan-regional threat, making several raids into south Kyrgyzstan in 1999 and 2000. However, it was virtually destroyed after fighting with the Taliban against coalition forces in Afghanistan. The remnants of the group are reported to have opened training camps in Pakistan.

Emomali Rakhmon, Tajikistan's president, has maintained security in the volatile country since the end of the civil war in 1997, when his forces defeated the Islamist opposition with help from Russia. Since then, Rakhmon's government has kept a tight hold on religious activity. Dozens of suspected members of the banned Hizb ut-Tahrir movement have been arrested in north Tajikistan in recent years.

Like Karimov, Rakhmon is aware of the threat radical Islam poses to his regime. Measures to prevent the spread of religious fervor include appealing to parents to withdraw their sons from overseas madrassas (religious schools) and banning children from entering mosques or other places of worship except on religious holidays.

Last August, a mass breakout from a high security prison in Dushanbe was followed by a series of bombings. The Raksh Valley, always an opposition stronghold, seemed to be throwing off control by the central government. However, Dushanbe has now re-exerted control over the country and the last of the 25 escapees, Azam Ziyoev, was rounded up on November 14, the rest having already been killed or captured.

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