There’s never a good time to be the victim of a terrorist attack, but two mysterious bombings last month in Kazakhstan hit the country at a particularly awkward moment.
The bombings come as the country moves forward with a plan to send peacekeepers to join the NATO mission in Afghanistan. The Kazakh government, led by President Nursultan Nazarbayev, has in the past argued that the deployment to Afghanistan would contribute to, not diminish, Kazakhstan’s security, making last month’s two strikes particularly difficult to stomach.
The first of the two bombs struck the western city of Aktobe on May 17. The bombing had the additional dubious distinction of being Kazakhstan’s first ever suicide attack. The target was a facility belonging to the Committee of National Security, the Kazakhstani version of the KGB. The alleged bomber, Rakhymzhan Orynbasarovich Makhatov, proved to be the only fatality, though three bystanders were injured.Enjoying this article? Click here to subscribe for full access. Just $5 a month.
Mahatov’s family blames his shift to radicalism on his wife, who was detained by police following the bombing. Mahatov, if official versions of his story are to be believed, was a failed musician of sorts, and after marrying a devout woman is said to have become more religious himself.
There’s no doubt that Islam is far more seductive in Western Kazakhstan than other parts of the country, and mosques in the region tend to be fuller than those elsewhere in the country. Western Kazakhstan is also close to the Russian controlled North Caucasus, where traditional Islam has been flourishing. Indeed, some Kazakhs have in recent years joined the anti-Russian insurgency in the region.
On May 25, the Imam of Aktobe was removed from his post by the Religious Board of the Muslims of Kazakhstan, a move Aktobe locals say was linked to the May 17 suicide bombing. But although Mahatov appears to have avoided attending mosques, the Kazakh government is concerned that ‘underground mosques’ in the form of informal prayer rooms – the kind Mahatov is said to have frequented – foster extremist ideologies.
As government authorities rushed to downplay the Mahatov bombing, a second, even more mysterious, car bombing hit Astana on May 23. Two bodies were found at the blast site in the capital, which took place close to an internal security facility. Local authorities have been slow to label either incident as terrorism. Mahatov, they said, was a common criminal, and the bombing in Astana was a mere accident. But it’s unusual for automobiles and individuals to ‘spontaneously combust,’ even in authoritarian countries.