Authorities in Kazakhstan said at least 10 people were killed on June 5 in a spate of shootouts in the western city of Aktobe instigated by a group of religious extremists.
Internet connections in the city were suspended shortly after the unrest broke out and officials provided only scant details about the unfolding events, fueling online speculation and sometimes muddled reporting.
Late in the evening, Interior Ministry spokesman Almas Sadubayev was reported as saying that a group of gunmen in the mid-afternoon stormed a hunting supplies shop, killing a sales clerk and a guard. Three police officers dispatched to the scene received gunshot wounds. During a raid on another gun store later in the day, a customer was killed, Sadubayev told Vlast.kz.
Sadubayev the armed gang also commandeered a commuter bus and rammed the gates of military base in the city.
“Having got into the grounds [of the base], they opened fire indiscriminately, killing three and wounding six servicemen,” he said.
Police joined troops on the base in repelling the assault and killed one of the attackers in the process, Sadubayev said.
Authorities reacted to the outbreak of violence by deploying special forces and declaring an antiterrorist operation.
“During the antiterrorist operation in Aktobe, four criminals were killed, seven were detained — two of them were injured,” Sadubayev said.
Earlier statements from the Interior Ministry identified the attackers as “adherents of nontraditional, radical religious groups.” That term is typically used as shorthand for Islamic extremists.
In recognition of their degree of concern, authorities declared a level red terrorism alert, the highest available.
No group has come forward to claim responsibility for the events and the radical Islamic link has been made only by the authorities.
Aktobe is one of three oil cities in the west of Kazakhstan, along with Aktau and Atyrau.
While the exact aims of the the alleged gunmen in Aktobe remains unclear, the city and the surrounding regions are no strangers to serious unrest.
Western Kazakhstan is routinely identified as a hotbed of radical Islamic activity, however. One cause cited for this is the perceived dissatisfaction at inequality between places like Astana and Almaty, which have both grown prosperous on the back of an extended oil boom, and cities in the west that remain underdeveloped despite being the source of much of Kazakhstan’s wealth.
On June 30, 2011, gunmen killed two police officers in Shubarshi, a village around 200 kilometers south of Aktobe, sparking a major manhunt in the region. After a major security operation, the attackers were on July 8 tracked down to a house in the nearby village of Kenkiyak. In that confrontation, nine suspects and one police officer were killed. Another security services died of his wounds when he was shot earlier during the manhunt.
Then as now, authorities were cagey about identifying the group as any kind of extremists, let alone Muslim radicals. Instead, the official explanation offered was that they were engaged in organized crime while sheltering behind the guise of religion.
“For some time on the territory of Aktobe Region’s Temir District an organized criminal group has been operating which, using religious ideas as a cover, was engaged in theft from a pipeline near the villages of Shubarshi and Kenkiyak, and also committed other crimes of a mercenary and violent nature,” Aktobe Region police spokesman Almat Imangaliyev explained at the time.
That spate of violence came quick on the heels of another even odder incident in Aktobe itself.
On May 17, 2011, a suicide bomber detonated a bomb inside the local headquarters of the National Security Committee, the successor agency to the KGB. At the time though, prosecutors sought to dismiss speculation that the bombing was the work of Islamic radicals and instead laid the blame on a local criminal kingpin.
Recently published research by Almaty-based sociologist Serik Beissembayev suggests that while there is indeed some degree of overlap between the criminal underworld and radical Islam in Kazakhstan, the fuller explanation requires a more nuanced approach. Beissembayev based his findings on multiple interviews with people from western Kazakhstan convicted on terrorism charges.
People lured by radical religious currents typically experience crises of identity, either because of a profound emotional trauma or as a result of a sudden change in their environment and surroundings.
“For example, Darmen, one of the participants in a firefight between a radical group and special forces in the Aktobe region, grew up in an ordinary family and was the only son. His mother describes him as a calm child who was a good student in school. The change in his behavior became noticeable after he went to college in the city and became an active believer,” Beissembayev said of one of his study subjects.
Authorities in Kazakhstan pursue a slightly contradictory line on the threat of Islamic terrorism — arguing on one hand that it is a clear and present danger, but then attempting to describe it as primarily an outgrowth of criminal activity. Beissembayev’s analysis suggests that criminality may not inspire terrorist conduct as such — in line with the explanation for the 2011 suicide bombing — but that it provides a fertile territory for it to flourish.
“Involvement in Salafi Jihadist ideology occurred most often in the areas with high concentrations of of gray and illegal activity — in bazaars, suburban areas, and new neighborhoods. In these areas the effect of government agencies is minimal; informal and illegal practices, such as corruption, racketeering, trafficking, etc. dominate, and a specific subculture is formed with its own notions of morality, credibility and attitude toward life,” he wrote.
If the perpetrators of the unrest in Aktobe are proven to have been inspired by radical Islamic beliefs, questions will turn next to understanding how the group was organized.
Authorities have estimated that between 200 and 400 citizens of Kazakhstan have left the country, along with their wives and children, to take up arms alongside groups like Islamic State in Iraq and Syria.
Kazakhstan’s most prominent terrorism, Yerlan Karin, has played down the likelihood, however, of such fighters returning to their homeland to deploy violent methods learned from their time in the Middle East.
“The countries of Central Asia, ours included, do not fall within Islamic States scope of interest. For Islamic State, al-Qaeda and other terrorist organizations, Central Asia is a focus for recruiting, a place where they can recruit new supporters of their ideology,” Karin said in an interview in May.
Commenting on the events in Aktobe, Karin doubled down on that position, speculating that the attackers might have been a sleeper cell inspired by radical Islamic propaganda.
“Propaganda has intensified. Five so-called Islamic State video messages have been [addressed at Kazakhstan]. The last video was issued only last week. Even though experts have cast some doubts on whether it is genuine, the main point is that it is being distributed,” Karin told Vlast.kz. “So this mass propaganda may sooner or later have had an effect on so-called ‘sleeper cells.’”
This article was updated to include background on previous radicalism-linked attacks in Aktobe and surrounding areas.