Features | Security | Central Asia

Kazakhstan’s Islamist Threat?

The Kazakh government’s failure to explain a number of recent attacks has fuelled talk of an Islamic terrorism threat to the country.

Joshua Kucera
Kazakhstan’s Islamist Threat?
Credit: US Air Force

A series of mysterious, unexplained attacks in Kazakhstan has prompted speculation there that radical Islamists, until now unknown in the country, might be gaining a foothold. While there’s little to suggest that is the case, the government’s incomplete and implausible explanation of the violence – apparent attempts to assuage foreign investors – has created a vacuum in which rumours have run wild.

The string of violent incidents began May 17, in the far western city of Aktobe, when a 25-year-old man blew himself up inside the local headquarters of the domestic security agency KNB (the successor to the Soviet-era KGB). The authorities quickly announced that the bomber, Rakhimzhan Makhatov, was an organized crime boss who killed himself ‘with the aim of avoiding responsibility’ for his actions, police officials said. The notion of a mafia suicide bomber was received with a great deal of scepticism in Kazakhstan, and when local journalists investigated they found that Makhatov had become increasingly religious over the last several years, for example giving up music and joining a conservative but informal religious organization.

A week later, a car blew up outside another KNB office, in Kazakhstan’s capital city, Astana, killing two men in the car. The two apparent perpetrators of that attack had Russian names and were described by government officials of being of ‘European appearance,’ making it apparently less likely that the attack was Islamist-related.

While government officials denied that even the first attack might be the work of radical Islamists, their actions suggested they might have believed otherwise. The government reshuffled the heads of state-controlled Islamic institutions in Aktobe, and parliament rejected a proposal to deploy a token four-person group of military officers to the NATO-led mission in Afghanistan.

Just days after the Aktobe attack, the Taliban issued a statement warning Kazakhstan against deploying officers to Afghanistan, saying ‘the Muslim people of Kazakhstan should stand against this wrong policy of their rulers and should not let their believing Muslim sons fight against their Muslim brethren.’ That warning, plus the two suicide attacks, appeared to spook Kazakhstan’s legislators. While normally the parliament is a rubber stamp for the president, Nursultan Nazarbayev, they voted down the proposal to send the troops to Afghanistan. ‘It would be inadmissible to turn Kazakhstan into one of the targets of world terrorism,’ wrote one member of parliament in a newspaper piece explaining his opposition.

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The mystery around the attacks has deepened in the weeks since, as a series of gun battles in the rural Aktobe region have resulted in more than a dozen killed, including four police officers. There has been even less information about those incidents, but government officials claimed that they involved a criminal group that was stealing oil by siphoning from pipelines. The officials added, enigmatically, that the group was ‘using religious ideas as a cover,’ an implausible explanation that did little to quell the rumours of Islamist extremism.

This has been Kazakhstan’s first experience with alleged Islamist attacks, and the way the government and media have treated the issue is in striking contrast to similar episodes in other Central Asian states. In Kazakhstan’s neighbours, especially Uzbekistan, Kyrgyzstan and Tajikistan, the governments are quick to label any violent incident the result of Islamists. Doing so serves two purposes: first, it justifies a harsh crackdown on domestic opponents and delegitimization of even honest political opponents as radicals with a transnational agenda. Secondly, it attracts foreign aid, in particular from the United States, for programmes to strengthen the military, police and border control. For those reasons, both local and international media often treat Central Asian claims of an Islamist terror threat with scepticism, while in this case they are sceptical of Kazakhstan’s claims that these episodes are not Islamist-related.

Kazakhstan, however, differs from its Central Asian neighbours in the large role that foreign investors, especially in the oil and natural gas industries, play in the country. Aktobe is a centre of the country’s petroleum industry, and the government appears skittish about foreigners worrying that the region could be the target of terror groups. ‘In this region Kazakhstan is the only country that lives in stability,’ the country’s prime minister, Karim Massimov, told participants in the World Islamic Economic Forum in June.

The government’s beleaguered opposition also has seized on the possibility of Islamist terror to discredit the government. Mukhtar Ablyazov, an exiled banker and now political dissident, says the government’s failure to improve living standards has led Kazakhs to embrace Islam. ‘They are isolated from the world market due to a poor education, lack of knowledge of other languages, lack of a profession, and therefore work. They are doomed to lead a miserable life without any chance to move up the social ladder…The state does not care. What else can they do but seek refuge in religion?’ he wrote in a statement in July.

But there’s still little evidence to suggest that radical Islam has played a part in any of this summer’s violence, says Eric McGlinchey, a political science professor at George Mason University who studies Islamic movements in Central Asia. There are far fewer such movements in Kazakhstan than in Uzbekistan, Kyrgyzstan and Tajikistan, McGlinchey says, and circumstantial evidence in a handful of incidents shouldn’t lead observers to believe there’s an Islamist terror threat emerging in Kazakhstan now, he says. The clumsy attempts to deny such a threat, however, ‘have backfired on the government’ by creating the space for rumours to spread, he adds.