Andrey Chebotarev: Extremism in Kazakhstan: its Сurrent Сondition and Сounteraction Issues
“In the interests of the state’s anti-extremist activity transparency, it is necessary to establish a Public council to monitor the implementation of the State program on combating religious extremism and terrorism in the Republic of Kazakhstan for 2013–2017,” – Andrey Chebotarev, political scientist, analyses the current situation of extremism and the main counter-extremism methods in Kazakhstan, exclusively for CABAR.asia.
Within the last 5 years, an increase in religious extremism and terrorism manifestations became a worrying trend in Kazakhstan. It peaked in 2011-2012 when 14 extremist acts and armed clashes with law enforcement bodies occurred in different parts of the country. As a result, 51 extremists, 13 law enforcement officers and 6 civilians died .
How it all began
Although religious extremism displays occurred in Kazakhstan in the past, they were mainly linked to:
- “Hizb-ut-Tahrir”, a radical religious and political organization’s activity, whose members were advocating the group’s ideas via spreading leaflets, books etc. predominantly in the southern parts of the Republic. In March 2005, the court of Astana declared “Hizb-ut-Tahrir” as an extremist organization and banned its activity in Kazakhstan;
- the presence of foreign extremist organizations’ members in Kazakhstan, caused mainly by a relatively mild immigration regime of the Republic, as well as by the shortcomings within the immigration police’s work. As a rule, those individuals had been taking a temporary refuge in Kazakhstan to avoid justice in their own countries, or had been undertaking subversive activities against the neighbouring countries (Uzbekistan, China, Russia) and recruiting potential supporters among the citizens of Kazakhstan. In this respect, in November 2004, in an unprecedented case, the national security bodies eliminated a group of 9 people, who were part of “Jamaat mujahideen of Central Asia” Certain members of the group led by Ahmat Bekmirzayev were citizens of Uzbekistan and had taken part in terrorist attacks in Uzbekistan in spring and summer of the same year .
Until 2011, the only armed clash between extremists and law enforcement officials had occurred on the 28th of September in 2000 in Almaty, when Special Forces of the Ministry of Internal Affairs eliminated a group of four people. Those killed were ethnic Uighurs, citizens of Turkey and China. It was further established that they were members of “Organization for the liberation of Uighurstan” and had murdered two policemen in one of Almaty micro-districts shortly before their own death . As one may see, this case was about a clash between the Kazakhstani security forces and foreign extremists.
However, there had been also a gradual process of home-grown extremists’ formation within Kazakhstan. This process had a number of own specifics.
Firstly, it was about the geographical expansion of the relevant groups’ activities with their actual spread across the Republic. Secondly, it was accompanied with emergence and activation of new radical organizations, including “Tabligi jamaat” and Salafist groups.
Thirdly, the intra-confessional contradictions between the representatives of the Spiritual Board of Muslims of Kazakhstan (SBMK) and those non-supporting SBMK, arrived to the point where the latter started positioning themselves against the state.
Fourthly, there was an increase in terrorism and other violent acts within the extremists’ activity. In 2008 and 2009, according to the Committee of National Security (CNS) of the Republic of Kazakhstan, 7 terrorist acts were prevented, and 46 people were sentenced due to involvement in terrorist and extremist activity .
The main trends
The rise of the extremist activity in 2011-2012 received a rather harsh response from the state and its bodies. In October 2011, a “Law on religious activity and religious associations” with an aim to strengthen the government control of religion and inter-religious relations, was adopted. Prior to this, an Agency for the religious affairs was established. Since 2014 the Committee for the Religious Affairs of the Ministry of Culture and Sports of Kazakhstan has been carrying out the relevant functions. The Committee actively collaborates with experts, theologians, spiritual leaders and NGO representatives in all matters aimed at prevention of the religious extremism.
Simultaneously, the work of the law enforcement bodies against terrorism and extremism has increased. In turn, this had an impact on an increase in numbers of citizens accused in committing these crimes and sentenced to various terms of imprisonment. According to the SBMK, there are around 400 people currently held in the penitentiary system of the country. In addition, about 150 of them continue to adhere to their radical views .
Moreover, the official statistics point at an increase in the overall number and forms of the threats analysed. In 2013, according to the General Prosecutor Office of the Republic of Kazakhstan, 65 crimes related to extremism and terrorism were committed; in 2014, 52 respective crimes were registered . During January and February of 2015, Kazakhstan’s Unified Register of Pre-Trial Investigations had 165 crimes listed. These included 72 cases of terrorism propaganda and/or public call for committing terrorist acts; 62 cases of organization, direction and participation in a terrorist group and its activities; 12 cases of recruitment, training and arming for the purpose of terrorist acts and/or extremist activity; and 6 cases of undergoing of a specific training .
The analysed situation fully reflects the ambiguous processes taking place in the Kazakhstan’s society. First of all, the growth of religious consciousness among the population, especially amongst the Muslims, overlaps with deterioration within the economy and the social sphere. It was the case in 2008-2009 during the global financial and economic crisis, and the situation may be aggravated by the current crisis within the global economy and by the August 2015 devaluation of tenge – the national currency of Kazakhstan. Both time periods show a decrease in income and the living standards of certain parts of the population, rising unemployment, limited social mobility, growing prices for food and utilities, internal migration and the lack of normal living conditions in the context of a demographic growth. All of this is exacerbated by a high level of corruption and a low quality of the public services provided to citizens.
In these circumstances, population’s social well-being deteriorates and transforms into all possible forms of protest. Following and immersing oneself into a particular religion becomes an alternative to protests. According to 2009 national census results, the followers of Islam in Kazakhstan equalled to 11 millions and 237.9 thousand people, or a 70.2% of the total population . Since then the growth trend among the Muslims is mainly seen in an increasing numbers of men attending mosques and women wearing hijab. In addition, hijab is also worn by some high school students. Despite being officially banned for the purpose of maintaining a secular order within the education system, this subject is an ongoing matter for debates within the society.
Simultaneously, these processes also include the extreme, which can be seen precisely as protests against the existing reality. This refers to the spread of the so-called “pure Islam”, seen in opposition to the traditional Islam given the openly conformist position of the official clergy towards the state and its policies. Given the economic crisis, ideological vacuum and an actual “purge” of the secular opposition undertaken by the authorities, respective religious movements and groups are actively positioning themselves as an alternative social and spiritual system.
This approach is particularly effective with the young people who are vulnerable in social-economic and spiritual respect, and who look for answers to their questions in the ideas offered. Young Kazakhstanis who got educated in Islamic theology institutions abroad are amongst the most influenced. Remarkably, according to the estimates of scientific-research centre “Youth”, above 55% of the extremists are young people in the age between 17 and 29 .
Another worrisome trend is the convergence and merging of the extremism and organised crime. On one hand, the criminal methods are often used by the radical religious organizations to do their activities. This is particularly true when it comes to funding. On another hand, the ideas of “pure Islam” are actively disseminated amongst the criminal elements, most commonly in prisons. Besides, the religion is used by representatives of some organized crime groups to justify their crimes.
For example, in June 2015, special operation in Almaty aimed at detaining two people suspected of committing a series of robberies. The suspects showed armed resistance to the police officers. As a result, one of the criminals was shot and died and the second one was disarmed and arrested. During the investigation, it was established that these people wanted to go to Syria and planned to get the money by robbing an entrepreneur .
The case demonstrates yet another critical trend caused by an external factor. This has to do with the armed conflicts in Iraq and Syria, where the extremist group “Islamic State” (DAESH) is active. It is worth mentioning that a certain number of Kazakhstanis had previously participated on the side of the “Taleban” and other extremist groups during the military operations in Afghanistan. However, since the beginning of military operations in two Arab countries, the number of Kazakhstan citizens willing to gain this experience has notably increased. Furthermore, wives and underage children often accompany men leaving towards the territories controlled by DAESH. According to Kazakhstan’s Security Council’s secretary Nurlan Yermekbayev, the number of Kazakhstanis who moved to Syria and Iraq equals to around 400 people .
It is possible that the outflow of the potential extremists and recruited supporters towards various “hot spots” has its impact, to a certain degree, on a decrease of extremist activity in Kazakhstan itself. However these people’s residing in Syria, Afghanistan etc. is a serious factor threatening the national security of the country in the long-term. Going through a military training and indoctrination abroad, they can join and lead illegal extremist groups if they return to Kazakhstan.
What hinders an effective counteraction?
In general, the analysis of overall manifestations of modern extremism allows defining the following characteristics of the Kazakhstan phenomenon:
Increase in scale, including the capacity building and the influence of extremist groups
- Growth in harshness of the actions with focus on various types of violence
- Variety of activities, including its networking and virtual forms
- Active use of the latest scientific and technological developments, including Internet, mobile communications etc.
- Determination to achieve a great resonance (effect), including an ultimate destabilization of the situation in the country
Considering the above-mentioned aspects of the religious extremism and terrorism in Kazakhstan, the state is lately reconsidering its methods and mechanisms of combating these threats. In particular, the threats are no longer viewed as something caused by external factors, such as the influence of foreign extremist groups or religious missionaries. Accordingly, the impact of internal factors such as social-economic problems; low levels of religious education of the younger population; shortcomings in the youth’s moral, spiritual and patriotic education; corruption, bureaucracy and a low level of the religious clergy’s professional training, are considered.
The State program on combating religious extremism and terrorism in the Republic of Kazakhstan for 2013–2017, approved on the 24th of 2013 by the Decree of the President of Kazakhstan, pays strong attention to preventive measures. They include academic research to study the reasons and conditions for the extremism spread; constant monitoring of print and digital mass-media to reveal extremist content; and organization of educational and informative events.
That said, the state and its competent bodies’ activity is complicated by the following factors.
Firstly, the Kazakhstani religious extremists do not have a united organisation or a coordinating centre. In this regard, activities of respective people and their associations are not related to each other. Neither do they have a clear strategy with a short-term nor long-term goals set. Their tactic moves are difficult to categorise with no option to draw a line between the “jihad acts” and the usual criminal offences.
Secondly, there is a lack of preventive work aimed at the youth people. This type of work’s main focus is on educational and informative propaganda measures. Meanwhile, a number of vitally important issues such as high-quality education, employment and housing, remain unsolved. Adding to the issues mentioned above, disadvantaged social and psychological atmosphere in families facilitates the youth’s falling under the influence of extremist ideas and their supporters.
Thirdly, there is a lack of systematic work to inform Kazakhstani people in an objective way about the fight against extremism and terrorism in the country. As a rule, the law enforcement bodies occasionally report about the detention of certain people and the trial results in various mass-media. However, the affiliation of these people with a specific extremist organization, their religious beliefs and motivation behind the alleged crimes remain often unknown. In addition, the judicial proceedings of crimes related to extremist and terrorist activities, are held behind closed doors in most of the cases.
The lack of public access to the official information does not allow seeing the bigger and objective picture of religious extremism. In turn, this creates citizens’ distrust in the anti-extremist activity and the official information on its results. Moreover, there are allegations by citizens and members of their families of groundless, fabricated criminal cases and court orders based on the former. From these statements it follows that those people suffered from the security forces primarily due to their religious beliefs differing from the SBMK standards .
Conclusion and recommendations
In general, it is clear that Kazakhstan has clandestine extremist groups with an Islamist orientation, which are associated with foreign peers in one way or another. This in itself is a serious threat to national and public security. Similarly, the problems mentioned above do not help the citizens’ participation in countering terrorism and extremism nor their constructive cooperation with the law enforcement agencies on this matter.
In these circumstances, improvements in the counter-extremism activities in Kazakhstan must be carried out with an emphasis on prevention and transparency. In the first case, a particular attention should be paid to the youth by giving priority to specific practical matters. First of all, as a primary and key social institution where people are born and form as personalities, family has the biggest responsibility in matters of education and development of children and teenagers. In this respect, Kazakhstan must develop and implement a national family policy as a set of measures to support, strengthen and protect the institution of family and its values. Specific attention must be given to prevention of family troubles, including the establishment and operation of family psychology centers.
Another important direction is the improvement of the national youth policy. On one hand, the state must give priority to developing a system of an affordable housing system (especially for young families), providing accessible and good quality education, setting conditions for the young people’s employment and supporting the most vulnerable youngsters. On another hand, it is necessary to establish and maintain conditions and incentives for the young people to solve their problems independently.
As part of the informative and educational activity, it is advisable to organize meetings of students from secondary schools, colleges and universities with the representatives of different religious groups. This will allow the teenagers and the young people to get acquainted with the values and practices of respective religions, which will help the formation of a respectful and tolerant attitude to other faiths. There is also a need in organizing and holding psychological training sessions within the educational institutions, in order to counter the influence of destructive religious organizations and extremist groups.
In the interests of transparency of the state’s anti-extremist activity, it is necessary to establish a Public council for the monitoring of implementation of the State program on combating religious extremism and terrorism in the Republic of Kazakhstan for 2013–2017. The Council can include leading experts, representatives of the relevant NGOs, mass-media, education institutions etc.
In addition, it is advised for the Committee of the National Security of Kazakhstan – a coordinator of the state activity against extremism and terrorism, to organize and conduct a regular overall research on the threats. Based on results, it is necessary to prepare and publish an annual national report on “Extremism and terrorism in Kazakhstan” with a subsequent presentation to the Republican administration and its free access publication.
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Аuthor: Andrey Chebotarev, Director, Centre for Contemporary Research «Alternativa» (Kazakhstan, Almaty).
The views of the author may not coincide with the position of CABAR.asia