Kyrgyzstan frets over terror plots
Border officials say the build-up of militants in north Afghanistan is a source of concern.
Kyrgyzstan is fretting amid claims of a series of terrorist plots and reports that Islamist militants have built up their presence in northern areas of Afghanistan.
Speaking on July 24, the chairman of the State Border Service, Ularbek Sharsheyev, noted that some 10,000 militants from groups like the Taliban and Islamic State have mustered on the southern border of ex-Soviet Central Asia. Kyrgyzstan does not share a direct border with Afghanistan.
“This could have an effect on us, so in the interests of avoiding possible incursions, the state border service is tightening security at remote and difficult sections of our southern borders — mountain areas that could be used as possible paths for movement of militant groups,” Sharsheyev told reporters in remarks cited by Interfax news agency.
Eurasianet has in recent days noted one small detachment of troops in the Kyrgyz village of Sary-Tash, on a highway linking the Pamirs to the southern city of Osh.
The main source of concern is said to be the return of Kyrgyz citizens involved in fighting in the Middle East. Sharsheyev said 12 such people have been detained in the first six months of 2018.
Another 600 people who have come to Kyrgyzstan “have been placed under scrutiny and information about them has been passed on to cooperating bodies,” Sharsheyev was quoted as saying.
In what appears like a coordinated development, the State Committee for National Security, or GKNB, has for two days running reported detaining Kyrgyz citizens suspected of plotting terrorist acts.
On July 24, the GKNB reported that it had arrested a man identified only as M.B. on terrorism charges.
“In 2017, on instructions from [international terrorist group] leaders, the detainee entered the Kyrgyz Republic with the purpose of forming a terrorist cell composed of people who had arrived from conflict areas in Syria and of waging ‘armed jihad,’” the GKNB said in a statement, which noted that the man had been detained on July 19.
An almost identical GKNB statement released on July 25 noted that another man, born in 1977 and named only as Sh.Sh., was detained on terrorism charges following a search-and-investigation operation by security service agents.
“It was established that Sh.Sh. underwent a militant insurgency course and received training as a suicide bomber from an international terrorist organization. He also took an active part in the armed conflict against government forces in Syria,” the statement said, noting that man was detained on July 21.
Although there is a firm consensus that hundreds of Kyrgyz citizens have indeed left the country to join the ranks of militant groups in Syria, assessing the credibility of specific terrorism alerts in Kyrgyzstan is always problematic. Details about plots are typically scant, when trials take place, they are held under highly nebulous conditions and authorities often struggle to coherently identify the militant groups to which suspects are said to belong.
In a trend that should worry Bishkek’s security partners, there are lingering suspicions that terrorism charges are sometimes used by the government as a way of targeting political opponents.
Activists have described the case of Maksat Kunakunov as one such instance.
In July 2015, Kunakunov, a one-time member of the now-defunct ruling party of deposed President Kurmanbek Bakiyev, was detained as he was seeking to leave the country from Manas International Airport. He was subsequently convicted on charges of passing money on to the Islamic State — a scenario that strongly defied plausibility.
In May, the Bishkek-based Committee to Defend the Freedom of Speech appealed to the president’s office to order a review of Kunakunov’s case and that of many other individuals it said had been “fabricated.”
And for all the claims of action being taken to stop militants slipping across the border, this feat appears remarkably easy for those with sufficiently strong motivation.
As the GKNB quite blithely admitted in early June, a wanted former deputy prime minister suspected of grand-scale corruption managed in April to cross from Kyrgyzstan’s Batken region into neighboring Tajikistan with ease. The GKNB provided an unwittingly amusing account without quite revealing how it obtained the details.
“[Askarbek Shadiyev] crossed the border by fording a river near the village of Arka, in the Leilek district, in the direction of Tajikistan,” the security services, adding that he later flew from Khujand to Moscow and then New York.
The GKNB then limply noted that Shadiyev’s relatives said he had left the country for medical treatment and “should return in one or two weeks.” He has not returned yet.
This all makes for a worrying picture.
That there are militants out there with malign intent is hardly in dispute. But intelligence coming out of Kyrgyzstan — at least what is made public — is of highly dubious quality, and sometimes intentionally so, it would appear. Border security is likewise loose in the extreme, if the GKNB’s own information is to be believed.