By Jacob Zenn
After the fall of the Soviet Union in 1991, the people of Kazakhstan, like those in the rest of the former Soviet Republics, experienced a revival in religious affiliation.
In some sectors of Kazakh society, the repression of spiritual life in the Soviet days was reversed when Kazakhstan became independent in December of that year. Previously non-existent elements of Saudi-Wahhabi inspired crazy Salafism crept to the surface in Kazakhstan and are now apparent, especially in the southern and western regions of the country located near the Caspian Sea and the volatile North Caucasus....
Salafism is a reform movement of Islam in which followers believe that the life of their Prophet Mohammad and the earliest Muslim community constitutes a universal paradigm for interpreting world events and history. Salafists consider the founding years of Islam to be the prototype for their cultural and religious validation and use examples from that era as a template to build relationships with "infidel" or non-Salafist Muslim communities in the contemporary world.
"Jihadi-Salafists" see historical evolution as the unfolding of a single contest: the struggle of Good (true Islam) versus Evil (false Islam and Disbelief).  Although Salafist doctrine is largely rejected by the Islamic world, Saudi Arabia and Qatar stand apart as the leading country that preaches the doctrine.
Although "Salafists", or "Wahabbis" - as Central Asians and Russians commonly call them - are still a small minority at less than 1% of the population in Kazakhstan, they are having a more significant impact on the country than this would suggest.
Increasing numbers of Salafists in Kazakhstan are being influenced by calls to violence from jihadis in the North Caucasus and from Jund al-Khilafa (JaK - Army of the Caliphate), a terrorist group led by Kazakhs based in the Afghanistan-Pakistan border region.
According to its online statements, JaK is comprised of "mujahideen from different nationalities, but is made up 90% Kazakh nationals who are interested in the military, faith, intellectual, and political support for our brothers in order for them to rise to an acceptable level of ability to wage the fight" against the regime of President Nursultan Nazarbayev.
Three videos that JaK released in 2011 attest that the group has operated in Khost province, Afghanistan, against US forces along with Taliban-supported foot soldiers.
While not all Salafists promote violence and not all aspiring jihadis are Salafists, there is a link between Salafist fundamentalist interpretations of Islam and terrorist attacks that have been carried out in Kazakhstan. In 2011, three terror incidents in claimed by JaK - in Atyrau, Taraz and Boraldai, Almaty - bore the mark of Jihadist-Salafist influence.
Terror let loose
On November 12, 2011, in Taraz, southeastern Kazakhstan, Maksat Kariyev went on a noontime rampage killing five security officers, one gun shop guard, and himself in a suicide bombing that he detonated when a police commander approached him.
The interrogation of six members of the cell that prepared Kariyev for the attack revealed that one was a "spiritual mentor" who drew up the attack plan for Kariyev and helped purchase and store the RPG-26 grenade launcher, RGD-5 grenade, Makarov pistol and two sawed-off shotguns that Kariyev used in the attack, which lasted several hours.
Kariyev, who has a background as former senior rifleman in the Kazakh army, was an ideal fighter to carry out the attack from an operational standpoint. However, from an ideological standpoint, Kariyev was weak. He was a drinker who suffered from fits of temper tantrums and could not hold a job or live in a permanent residence after leaving the army.
Kariyev consulted with local imams prior to his attack and asked about the consequences of him committing a suicide attack to kill infidels. The cell’s "spiritual leader" ultimately persuaded Kariyev and the other cell members to conduct jihad and kill police officers in order to establish an Islamic caliphate. When Kariyev carried out the attack, he drugged himself up on narcotics and followed those orders.
JaK said in a statement the day after the attack that:
In Taraz, you saw with your own eyes what one soldier did to you, and God willing you will see horrors by the hands of men who don't fear death and give their souls easily to support the religion of Islam and defend the honor of the Muslims.On October 31, in Atyrau, a port city on the Caspian Sea in western Kazakhstan, a terrorist blew himself up next to an apartment building near the intended target - the Prosecutor-General's office - and another bomb detonated in a garbage can blocks away. The terrorist who blew himself up did so by mistake. A claim of credit by JaK following the attack stated that:
We refute that the last attack was carried out as a martyrdom-operation. It seems that the bomb exploded accidentally, which led to the martyrdom of its carrier. We ask Allah to accept him among the martyrs.The cell responsible for the two explosions in Atyrau was formed in 2009 by 20-year-olds who were inspired by the ethnic Buryat Russian-born Islamic convert Said Buryatsky, who became a jihadi leader in the North Caucasus before Russian forces killed him in 2010.
In 2011, the Atyrau cell connected with JaK's leadership in the Afghanistan-Pakistan border region and received orders to carry out the bombings.
That Atyrau was the site of the October 31 explosions is symptomatic of the growing extremism in the province. According the Director of Religion Department in Atyrau, 90% of Atyrau province's 8,000 practicing Muslims are between the ages of 13 and 30 and 70% of those 8,000 young people are influenced by Salafism. If those numbers are correct, then there are more than 5,000 Salafists in Atyrau alone. In the case of these Atyrau bombings, it required only four of those young Salafists to carry out what could have been a deadly attack.
In Boraldai Village outside of Alamaty, five JaK fighters were killed on December 3, 2011, when Kazakhstan security forces surrounded them inside their safe house. Kazakh authorities suspected the cell of carrying out a drive-by shooting that killed two police officers on November 8 and possibly another November 11 shooting in Almaty in which two other police officers were killed.
The cell was reportedly planning additional terror attacks in Almaty before its elimination.
Only the leader of the cell, Yerik Ayazbayev, escaped from Boraldai at the time of the shootout, but he was killed on December 29 in Kyzylorda, southern Kazakhstan after police investigated what appeared to be an accidental explosion that Ayazbayev set off in his apartment building.
Like Kariyev's cell, the Boraldai cell also had a "spiritual mentor", Aghzan Khasen, who died in the shootout in Boraldai. This appears to be a standard model of Jak cells in Kazakhstan: six or seven fighters under the lead of a "spiritual mentor" who is a Jihadist-Salafist.
On December 6, three days after the Boraldai shootout, JaK issued a statement saying that JaK fighters were "ready to be killed in the thousands in order to support [Islam]" and that "losing our lives is a cheap price that we pay for this cause". JaK asked that "God give glory" to the fighters who were killed by "the apostate forces of the Nazarbayev regime" at "a base where the five lions of the al-Zahir Baybars Battalion of Jund al Khilafa were gathered".
Members of the Salafist community in western Kazakhstan, were also suspected of killing policemen in the Aktobe region on July 1, 2011, and another special unit officer on July 2 during the raid to capture the killers. Although no connection with JaK has been proven, six suspects were alleged to have taken part in the attacks, which is consistent with the size of JaK cells.
In an effort to curb Salafist influence in the country, Nazarbayev introduced a bill in September, 2011, to combat religious extremism, but one that also restrains basic religious freedoms. The bill, which has been approved by the lower house of parliament and the senate, requires religious organizations to dissolve and register again through a procedure that is virtually guaranteed to exclude smaller religious groups, including most Muslim groups and also minority Christian groups.
Trying to turn the tide
The merits of clamping on down on religion in the wake of the rising Jihadi-Salafist undercurrent in Kazakhstan needs to be weighed against the risks of alienating practicing Muslims with new religion law. But regardless, one thing is for certain. Any policy or law that affects religion will become propaganda for JaK and possibly a recruiting boon for the terror group.
On October 26, 2011, JaK released a video in which it said:
We call upon you to abolish these laws, and we also demand that you offer an apology to the people for that mistake. We demand complete freedom for Muslims to carry out their rituals of worship. In the event you insist on your position, then we will be forced to make a move against you. Know that the policy that you are following is the same that was applied in Tunisia, Libya and Egypt; however, as you have seen, it only caused loss to those who exercised it.Five days after delivering this message, the Atyrau bombers attempted their attack. This showed that JaK could follow up on its warnings and that its words were not hollow. With JaK cells entrenched in Kazakhstan, Nazarbayev will have to add JaK's capabilities to his calculus when he considers other measures to combat the growth of Salafism in his country.
Notes 1. See Stephen Ulph. Towards a Curriculum for the Teaching of Jihadist Ideology, Part III: The World Through a Jihadi Lens. Jamestown Foundation, October 2010.
By Fozil Mashrab
TASHKENT - When newly elected Kyrgyz President Almazbek Atambayev traveled to Turkey for his first official bilateral visit from January 12 to 15, many Kyrgyz watchers were looking for clues on Kyrgyzstan's future foreign policy course in the next six years - the duration of the single term allowed for a Kyrgyz President.
Others immediately criticized former prime minister Atambayev, who took over as president on December 1, for making his first blunder by not traveling to Russia, which Atambayev has often in the past called Kyrgyzstan's "main strategic partner".
Since the first foreign visit of any newly elected president carries with it great symbolic meaning, should we also expect the resurgence of Turkey's influence in Central Asia in general and in Kyrgyzstan in particular in the near future, in a rerun of the heady early 1990s? Then, Turkey unsuccessfully attempted to position itself as a "big brother" for newly independent Turkic countries of Central Asia, only to abandon such ambitions when it became clear that Turkey was trying to punch above its weight given the limitations of its economic strength.
Turkey's foremost priority and preoccupation for the past 40 years or so has been integration into the European Union, so Ankara's periodic surges of interest in other regions, including Central Asia, have waxed and waned based on the progress or lack of thereof in its talks with the EU.
This time, the new-found love between Kyrgyzstan and Turkey seems to suggest that it is not Turkey that is trying to reengage its Central Asian cousin more strongly; rather, President Atambayev is attempting to diversify Kyrgyzstan's foreign policy away from superpowers such as Russia, the United States and China and thus lessen his country's heavy dependence on them. Cultivating the so-called second-tier countries like Turkey may look a better bet, as they emerge as strong economies with increasing technological and investment potential.
In the past, the main foreign policy strategy of former Kyrgyz presidents has been to play one superpower against the other in order to gain maximum benefit for Kyrgyzstan and its ruling regimes. Such political brinkmanship and attempts to juggle superpower interests have been detrimental for Kyrgyzstan. They have led to two forced regime changes in a decade, each time as the balance was perceived to be tilting too much towards one superpower at the cost of the other.
It is widely believed that US threw its weight behind the so-called bloodless "Tulip Revolution" in May 2005, when president Askar Akaev was ousted - he then found asylum in Russia. The bloody overthrow of Kurmanbek Bakiev in April 2010 was the result of a combination of economic sanctions and political pressure from the Kremlin.
In the aftermath of the violent regime change in 2010, former president Bakiev's all-powerful son, Maxim Bakiev, who was the central figure in his father's regime, found safe haven in London, while Kurmanbek himself is believed to have fled to Belarus.
Superpowers like Russia, US and China have looked at Kyrgyzstan with a view of furthering their own strategic and geopolitical aims. As such, the US has not really been interested in investing much into the Kyrgyz economy, largely limiting itself to securing its strategic and geopolitical interests related to continued access to the Manas airbase near Bishkek; Russian investments and economic assistance came with political and economic domination.
Politically, China has sought the Kyrgyz government's support for its repression of ethnic Uyghurs in its restive western Xinjiang province, and economically it has been interested in marketing its products in Kyrgyzstan and using the country Kyrgyzstan to penetrate the markets elsewhere in the region.
The week before traveling to Turkey, President Atambayev played host to Japanese Deputy Foreign Minister, who was in Kyrgyzstan's capital, Bishkek, as part of a bilateral exercise to commemorate the 20th anniversary of the establishment of diplomatic relations between the two countries.
Atambayev and Prime Minister Omurbek Babanov spared no effort in trying to convince their Japanese guests that Kyrgyzstan was safe for foreign investments in various sectors, including, first and foremost, mining.
Therefore, Kyrgyz government's recent attempts at courting Japan, Turkey and other second-tier countries are meant to diversify Kyrgyzstan's foreign partners and aim at attracting much-needed foreign investments into the economy, which was severely damaged by the violent regime change and bloody ethnic clashes in 2010.
A similar foreign policy strategy has benefited neighboring Uzbekistan, whose best friends in terms of economic and investment cooperation and transfer of technologies are South Korea, Germany, India, Japan, Singapore, Malaysia, Vietnam, Turkey, Oman and some other countries which have been courted and cultivated by Uzbek government over many years.
Uzbekistan has a number of inherent advantages over Kyrgyzstan, such as vast natural gas reserves, a rich mineral base, a larger market, relatively better infrastructure and internal transportation system - and most importantly political stability, which is the bedrock for attracting foreign direct investment.
Therefore, even if Uzbekistan's humble success is used as a yardstick, Kyrgyzstan will still have a tall order to follow since successful implementation of such a strategy will require many years, if not decades, of patient and persistent work and maintenance of political stability and continuity of reforms in Kyrgyzstan. A single six-year term is not really enough to see through such a long-term strategy.
To translate the political goodwill and warm inter-personal relations between the two leaders, President Atambayev and Turkish President Abdullah Gull have agreed that both sides will work towards increasing bilateral trade turnover between the two countries to US$1 billion by 2015 from $300 million in 2011. It is an ambitious plan given the size of the Kyrgyz economy and small total volume of its foreign trade, which reached $4 billion last year.
The Turkish president also promised to help Kyrgyzstan to attract Turkish investments to the amount of $450 million in the next few years - provided the Kyrgyz authorities create favorable conditions for foreign investors.
Foreign investors' confidence in Kyrgyz economy has been shaken recently not only because of the political instability in the country but also as a result of the weak government protection of foreign investments. Some businesses established with the participation of foreign direct investment during the rule of Kurmanbek Bakiev fell prey to the Kyrgyz authorities' "nationalization campaign" carried out in the aftermath of his violent overthrow.
This campaign targeted all businesses considered to have enjoyed too cozy a relationship with the former regime or which were illegally seized by the Bakiev clan and cronies. The new Kyrgyz authorities have refused to acknowledge that it was not possible to establish and run a successful business in Kyrgyzstan during the time of Bakiev without entering some kind of deal with Maxim Bakiev or some other high-profile representatives of the regime.
Some critics of the Kyrgyz government have accused the new authorities of "flagrant disrespect for private property and asset grabbing", which was actually just history repeating itself - since former president Bakiev and his team used the same tactic in taking over various businesses and property after the overthrow of the former Askar Akaev in 2005.
If President Atambayev's pronouncements made in Turkey are any indication of what might be in store for foreign investors, then we can expect that the biggest and most lucrative foreign investment in the country - the Canadian-owned Kumtor gold mine, which contributes around 60% of Kyrgyzstan's exports - might become the next target for Kyrgyz authorities in the near future.
While addressing the Turkish Parliament, Atambayev said that in the last 10 years gold worth of $10 billion was extracted from the Kumtor mine while Kyrgyz state coffers received only 3% of that money. Such coded accusations usually precede some real arm-twisting at a later stage.
As Turkey engages Kyrgyzstan more strongly both economically and politically, its immediate responsibility will be to apply strong but well-meaning brotherly pressure on Kyrgyz leaders to bring about genuine reconciliation among the ethnic majority Kyrgyz and Kyrgyzstan's largest ethnic minority Uzbeks. Both are Turkic speaking Muslim people.
So far, Turkish leaders have conveniently chosen not to raise this issue in their bilateral talks; or if it was discussed during the recent bilateral summit, that was not publicized.
If Turkey continues to remain an indifferent bystander and look the other way when it comes to the repression and systematic violence against ethnic Uzbeks by the Kyrgyz state in the southern provinces of Osh and Jalalabad, such a policy will be short-sighted and ultimately untenable.
So far, Turkey has only sponsored one conference on the 2010 ethnic clashes in the southern part of Kyrgyzstan, which was held in the Kyrgyz Issik-Kul lake resort in their immediate aftermath. That is definitely too little for a country that considers itself as the champion of the unity and brotherhood of Turkic peoples.
Turkey will not be able to replace Russia as Kyrgyzstan's "main strategic partner" any time in the future, and Turkey does not seem to entertain any such plans. But if Turkey does indeed start to invest in the Kyrgyz economy and assist Kyrgyzstan in capacity building and military training with the prospect of establishing a complete visa-free regime between the two countries in the future, as was announced during the bilateral meetings, then Kyrgyzstan will definitely be able to lessen its dependence on Russia or any other superpower.
For that to happen, President Atambayev will be expected to ensure political stability, and a transparent and predictable environment for foreign investment in the country.
Fozil Mashrab is a pseudonym used by an independent analyst based in Tashkent, Uzbekistan.