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Kazak police. (Photo: Andrei Grishin)
A spate of shootings linked to Islamic extremists in Kazakstan has raised urgent questions about how the state should respond to terror threats.
Security officials said that a gunman who killed three policemen and two members of the public in Almaty on July 18 had been radicalised in prison.
A month earlier, a group of suspected militants went on a shooting rampage in the northwestern town of Aktobe, attacking a gun shop and a military base. Three soldiers and four civilians were killed.
An appropriate government response was now key amid a period of economic recession and political uncertainty, said John MacLeod, senior analyst for Russia and the former Soviet Union at Oxford Analytica and a former IWPR managing editor.
Such incidents are unusual in the secular Central Asian state, although there have been some previous outbreaks of violence linked to extremists.
The terrorism threat level has now been raised and security measures tightened in public places, but MacLeod told IWPR that the confused messages coming out of Astana remained concerning.
IWPR: How prepared are the Kazak law enforcement agencies and the National Security Committee to tackle threats of terrorism?
MacLeod: I would be cautious about apportioning blame to the police and security forces here. We’ve seen with attacks in Paris, the United States and most recently Munich just how difficult it is to anticipate and respond to incidents of this kind. In Almaty, they did manage to capture the alleged perpetrator.
Officials said that the Almaty gunman was a radical Salafist, and that those involved in the Aktobe shootings were extremists from the same movement. Do you think that’s plausible?
Well, there definitely was one attacker in Almaty and up to 30 of them in Aktobe in June. I have seen little evidence to suggest these people belong to some other kind of group. So the working assumption is that the authorities are right in saying there’s a loose network of Salafi-minded people.
Of course only a minority of these groups have violent intentions, as far as one can judge. But the rising cycle of shootings and the expansion to places like Almaty have to be a concern for the government.
Do you see extremism as a long-term threat to Kazakstan?
The extremist movement – even the question of whether there is one network rather than scattered groups – is hard to track, and differs from dynamics in Tajikistan and Kyrgyzstan, where the closer proximity of towns and villages makes for greater organisational cohesion.
There was a similar upsurge of violence in 2011-12 but the authorities seemed to deal with that so that things calmed down in subsequent years.
The added worry now is the nature and extent of connections with Islamic State in Syria. Hundreds of Kazaks have turned up in Syria. The authorities say the suspects in the June attacks in 2016 were in contact with Islamic State, but we don’t know whether there was any direct support, as opposed to inspiration.
Nursultan Nazarbaev's presidential term ends in 2020. Could there be any connection between an internal struggle for power and the recent land protests, as well as these attacks?
I don’t think either the protests or the attacks – and let’s be clear the two things are entirely unconnected – are the product of political power-struggles.
But there is a lot of genuine uncertainty about who will succeed President Nursultan Nazarbaev, and this uncertainty is made all the more acute by the deterioration in the overall environment – low oil revenues plus the multiple negative consequences of recession in Russia and slowdown in China.
The key concern is how the president and his cabinet manage these various challenges.
A worrying aspect of the recent unrest is the confused messages coming out of Astana. There’s been talk of a Ukrainian-style revolt as well as foreign Islamists, a coup-plotter alleged to have funded the land-law protests, and more.
If there is going to be a coordinated wave of Islamic extremist attacks, the government will need to tackle those specifically and get on top of that situation, rather than getting distracted by conspiracy theories.
There’s also a danger that government responses will be excessive and lead to greater repression of the population. In a time of political uncertainty and economic problems, that could provoke broader public resistance.
This publication was produced under IWPR project Strengthening Capacities, Bridging Divides in Central Asia, funded by the Foreign Ministry of Norway.
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