Security services in a region of Kazakhstan hit recently by a spate of deadly shootouts have claimed that they dismantled 14 radical groups operating locally over the past year.
State news agency Kazinform on June 15 cited Nurlan Kydyrbayev, head of the National Security Committee in Aktobe region, as saying that 36 people plotting violent acts in Kazakhstan and abroad were arrested since 2015.
“When it comes to people that do not accept preventative measures and that harbor violent intentions against society, we are forced to adopt robust measures,” Kydyrbayev said.
It was not immediately clear why this information has been made public now, rather than before the events in Aktobe on June 5.
Kydyrbayev, who was speaking at a meeting of security officials on antiterrorism measures, said that there were an estimated 1,565 people that he termed Salafists living in the Aktobe region. Of that overall number, around 90 are potential jihadists, Kydyrbayev said.
Salafism is held up by its followers as an adherence to the pure, original and untainted form of Islam. While ostensibly rejecting the established doctrinal schools, they arguably relate most closely to the Hanbali system that prevails in Saudi Arabia, as opposed to the more moderate Hanafi recognized by most Muslims in Central Asia.
Various theories circulate about how this particular current came to gain prominence in countries like Kazakhstan.
One particularly contentious account reproduced by political analysis website Exclusive.kz suggested that Salafism was initially brought into the country by the security services.
“It is believed that Salafi preachers were brought into the country in the mid-2000s by security officials engaged in a desperate fight … against the influence and ideas of Hizb ut-Tahrir,” the article’s author Manas Bistayev wrote. “Salafism was chosen as the lesser evil because it was more primitive and simple to manipulate.”
Needless to say, that is not the version that Kydyrbayev is going with.
“In order to keep Salafists under control, it takes a lot of effort. Since last year, we have managed to convince 32 Salafists, but we do not have enough well-educated theologians and imams to carry out this work. We need to train local staff,” he said.
Repeating the party line hinted at by President Nursultan Nazarbayev and stated more clearly by Interior Minister Kalmuhanbet Kasymov, Kydyrbayev argued that instructions for the Aktobe attacks came from the Islamic State.
“In an address by the main [Islamic State group] ideologue, they received instructions to carry out jihad in our country,” Kydyrbayev said.
In truth, this explanation raises more questions than it answers. Namely, is the official version of events that the Aktobe group were given specific instructions on the type of attack they were to execute, as well as when and where it was to be executed? And that they were given resources to do all this? Or is the argument that Islamic State propagandists are ultimately but only loosely responsible because of their general call to violent acts against their perceived foes? Nazarbayev remarks suggest the former to be the case, while Kydyrbayev appears to lean toward the latter.
Bloody events in France, Belgium, the United States and Egypt over the past few months have clearly illustrated how the Islamic State is increasingly functioning as a franchised brand that can be liberally adopted by the perpetrators of arbitrary mass murder.
The Aktobe group, which is said to have numbered up to 45 people, strayed considerably from the lone wolf method of violence almost for its own sake, however, and seemed intent on capturing weapons for some ulterior end.
Nurgali Bilisbekov, the deputy head of the National Security Committee, said in a briefing this week that the gunmen in Aktobe were intent on capturing government buildings.
“According to preliminary data, after seizing the firearms, the terrorists intended to attack penitentiaries and administrative buildings,” Bilisbekov said.
And then there is the complicated matter of how the attackers came under the sway of radical Islamist beliefs.
Kydyrbayev reprised a recurrent theory about how radicalized Muslims in Kazakhstan are recruited through the internet. This explanation is particularly appealing to Kazakhstan’s officials as it places the blame for radicalization firmly on outside parties and obviates the need to offer any critical insights into potential domestic roots.
Kogershyn Sagiyeva, a reporter on the ground in Aktobe for independent Russian television station Dozhd, offered a more plausible theory in a dispatch filed while the attackers were still being hunted down.
“It is believed that this place is the main recruitment center for radicals,” Sagiyeva said of a bazaar in the city. “‘Real Islam’ is spread the old way, by word of mouth. It is every effective. The successes of missionaries is easy to explain. Radical Islam is an alternative way to gain social acceptance for young, poor and angry people.”
It will be hard for the government to craft a fresh ideology that is able to appeal to disaffected youths whose life has been made all the harder by the current economic decline assailing the country. And since security officials show they are unwilling to accept that there are any viable internal causes for the turn to radical Islam, there is every sign the situation will not improve soon.