The only suspect in the recent spate of shootings in Kazakhstan’s business capital, Almaty, has told investigators his only targets were people involved in the law enforcement system and that he avoided attacking civilians.
Ruslan Kulekbayev told his interrogators, according to transcripts obtained by Vremya newspaper and published on July 27, that his motivation was revenge and that although he is a devout Muslim, his actions were not religiously inspired.
“I wanted to take revenge on judges, prosecutors and police officers because I consider my (previous) convictions unfair. First I went to the Almaly district court, but I saw nobody in uniform there. From there I went to the Almaly police precinct and the first person I saw was the guy who came through the security checkpoint,” Kulekbayev reportedly told interrogators.
The Vremya profile of the suspected 26-year old attacker is highly detailed and describes a serial recidivist whose background shares features with the typical violent radical extremist as described Kazakhstan’s authorities, although distinct in some respects.
Kulekbayev first criminal conviction came in 2010, when he received a three-year suspended sentence for robbing a jeweler. In February 2012, he was detained at the railway station in his native city of Kyzylorda in possession of a pistol and religious literature. Kulekbayev said that although he prayed, he had no link to extremist groups.
The weapons possession charge and the suspended sentenced translated into a three-and-a-half year jail term. Prison officials say that he showed no willingness to be rehabilitated while behind bars. The reason provided for that is illuminating about the situation in the country’s jails, which are often cited as founts of radicalization. Vremya cites its sources as saying Kulekbayev consorted exclusively in jail with hardcore “refuseniks” who rejected all penitentiary rules. Some of the refuseniks included the so-called “bearded men,” the expression used to refer to followers of what official term non-traditional Islam.
“Readers will ask: Why are the bearded men considered the worst offenders? They are not criminal kingpins, but just devout Muslims that have ended up in jail by the ‘will of Allah.’ The thing is that the followers on non-traditional Islam use the time allocated for sleep to read their prayers. That is a violation of the rules. In some prisons they have even built themselves mosques, where they read sermons to parishioners and keep the fast and prepare their own food, and then they spend the whole day sleeping off a night of prayer, which is also a violation of the rules,” the newspaper explained.
The prevalence or otherwise of religious radicals in the country’s prisons has shown up some points of disagreement among top security officials.
National Security Committee chief Vladimir Zhumakanov has said that Kulekbayev initially “made friends with Salafists” in prison. Meanwhile, the deputy chairman of the penitentiary system, Meyram Ayubayev, has ruled out this version of events and insisted that one-to-one work is done with inmates to prevent radicalization. That position is understandable perhaps for an official unwilling to be cast as somebody presiding over a breeding ground for potential violent extremists.
In a detail supporting Zhumakanov’s version, Kulekbayev reportedly began displaying showing signs of heightened piousness after his release from jail, when he made his way to the Yntykmak district of Almaty in which he lived at the time of the attack. After moving back in with the woman he married before his conviction, Kulekbayev began forcing her to wear the hijab, forbade her from leaving the house and threatened her with beatings if she refused to follow his orders.
The day before the shootings, he allegedly shot dead a prostitute — an act he has now, according to Vremya, justified by citing his religious moral code.
“For several days I warned her and other prostitutes that their profession was haram. Especially so during the holy Ramadan. Even though I warned them that prostitution is punished by Allah, they took no heed. And so I shot her,” Kulekbayev reportedly said under questioning.
The picture that emerges here is of a long-term social misfit with poor impulse control. Easily swayed by others but unwilling to submit to authority. At the time of the shootings, Kulekbayev was engaged in occasional and evidently not especially remunerative, low-skilled labor. It is a familiar profile that could as easily be applied to the assorted individuals and groups behind the string of bloody attacks that have recently been taking place across countries in the West. But the one key distinction in Kazakhstan — both in Kulekbayev’s case and that of the gang behind the events in Aktobe — is the single-mindedness with which attackers went specifically after perceived figures of authority.