The security service says robust action prevented major attacks on local targets. www.iwpr.net Timur Toktonaliev, IWPR KG Editor
After Kyrgyzstan’s security service killed and detained militants who it said were planning a series of attacks in the country, questions remain about how close the group’s involvement with Islamic State really was.
On July 16 and 17, forces from the State Committee for National Security (GKNB) killed six individuals and captured seven others in the Kyrgyz capital Bishkek. In one operation, they surrounded a house in the city centre. After a standoff lasting several hours, they stormed the building and four suspects were killed and the remaining seven were arrested. Some hours later, two more suspects were killed in a raid on a second house in the Bishkek suburbs.
The security service said it uncovered plots to bomb central Bishkek during Friday prayers at the end of Ramadan, as well as to attack the Russian airbase at Kant, 22 kilometres from the capital.
President Almazbek Atambaev was full of praise for the counter-terrorism operation. He said “hundreds of our fellow-citizens could have been killed” if the attacks had been carried out.
“Islamic State is a true enemy of Islam,” he said.
The GKNB circulated video footage taken during one of the raids in which a black and white banner similar to the Islamic State (IS) flag was found along with firearms and ammunition.
Apart from this, the security service has not made public much of its evidence linking the group to Islamic State. A GKNB representative who asked not to be named told IWPR that the detained men belonged to IS but further information about them could not be shared for security reasons.
He stressed, however, that the threat was serious.
“First of all, they want to destabilise the situation in the country, and to prove themselves,” he told IWPR. “This group has nearly been destroyed, but some members remain at large. Now we are establishing their identities and searching for them. We’re carrying on working.”
According to the GKNB, the group was led by Kazakstan national Janbolat Amirov, and he was among those shot dead during the raid.
This has been disputed by the security service in Kazakstan, which says Amirov died at the beginning of July when an accomplice set off explosives to avoid being arrested by Kyrgyz police. It denied reports that the pair had set up a terrorist group in Kazakstan, and said they were instead planning to go to Syria.
The GKNB did not specify how many of the 11 men killed and arrested were Kyrgyz or Kazak citizens, and said it had yet to confirm whether any of them had been to Syria.The story was further complicated by the arrest on July 20 of a former member of Kyrgyzstan’s parliament as he tried to fly out from Bishkek airport.
According to the GKNB, Maksat Kunakunov was supplying the IS cell with weapons via an underworld boss, Tariel Jumagulov, who was among those killed in the July 16-17 raids.
“An organised crime gang under Tariel Jumagulov was to carry out a series of armed robberies against financial institutions and individuals to acquire money to fund terrorist activities and destabilise the situation in the country,” the GKNB statement read.
Explaining why someone with a history of organised crime like Jumagulov would get involved with IS, the security service representative interviewed by IWPR described an emerging alliance between underworld mobsters and extremists, which made it easier for the latter to get their hands on weapons.
Artur Medetbekov, a former deputy head of the GKNB, agreed that this odd confluence of interests was happening.
“Organised crime groups turn to Islam in penitence for their sins, but then find themselves in a network of extremist and terrorist organisations with no way out,” he said. “They get brainwashed and become active members of these movements.”
ISLAMIC STATE ON THE RISE
Amid a general resurgence of Islam in post-Soviet, a number of fringe groups have gained some support, including Hizb ut-Tahrir, the militarised Islamic Movement of Uzbekistan and most recently IS. (See Does Islamic State Threaten Central Asia?)
Kyrgyzstan’s government is worried about the threat posed by IS. According to official figures, some 200 Kyrgyz nationals are fighting for IS in Syria, although experts say the real figure is probably much higher. Police try to keep track of anyone returning to the country in case they plan to carry out attacks there, and also round up people they suspect of recruiting for IS. (See our story Return From Syria.) They recently arrested a 54-year-old woman in the southern Osh region on suspicion of recruiting for the group.
“There’s a threat posed not only by those who leave the country, but also by those who stay here,” IWPR’s source in the GKNB said. “They surf the internet, they get recruited, they watch [jihadist] videos. It isn’t necessary to go to Syria. You can sit at a computer and take the oath to join the organisation.”
“This operation shows that the threat posed by IS is quite plausible and that [geographical] borders don’t matter,” he continued, noting that while “this is the first time we have liquidated supporters here… there are other groups linked to IS in Kyrgyzstan”.
“We are working to identify them and stop them,” he added.
Experts on counter-terrorism and Islamic affairs agree that the risks are real, but not all agree on the significance of the recent security service raids.
An expert on religious affairs who asked to remain anonymous said she was dubious about whether members of the group targeted were genuinely affiliated with IS.
“These terrorists proved to be poorly trained,” she told IWPR. “If this had been Islamic State, the militants would have been better prepared.”
She suggested that the link had been made by the Kyrgyz security service to emphasise both the success of its actions and the extent of the threat it was dealing with.
“It could also be that these men decided to align themselves with IS,” the expert said. “But it’s another matter what role they played in the IS structure, if any.”
At the same time, she acknowledged that the trend towards militarisation of radical groups was a real one.
“Previously, there was Hizb ut-Tahrir, which aimed to build a caliphate by peaceful means, and had no success. Its place has been taken by IS, which managed to create a state within a few months,” she said. “It’s quite obvious that IS is not going to fight for its ideals by peaceful means in Central Asia.”
Others said there was no reason to dispute the official narrative.
“We’ve always said this would happen sooner or later,” But the most important thing is that it was prevented, Kadyr Malikov, director of the Religion, Law and Politics think tank, said. “Now we are concerned for the future – how many similar groups do we have in Bishkek and Kyrgyzstan?”
In Medetbekov’s view, “IS has great potential. There are no signs it is weakening. Instead, it is gaining in strength, and the threat it poses to us and to the region is only going to increase.”
Timur Toktonaliev is IWPR’s Kyrgyzstan editor.