Kazakhstan faced domestic terrorist incidents in 2011–2012, which mainly targeted National Security Committee (KNB) and other government buildings. And meanwhile, the Kazakhstani government has been increasingly tracking the small-scale involvement of some of its citizens in foreign insurgencies in Afghanistan and Syria. Since then, Astana has sought to overhaul the existing domestic security framework to deal with a possible terrorist or extremist threat within the country. On September 24, President Nursultan Nazarbayev instructed the Security Council to devise a new security system for the country. As part of this overall security architecture, a state plan has emerged on terrorism and religious extremism. Central to this strategy, and hinted at in the revised Law on Terrorism passed in January 2013, is the idea of coopting the public in the fight against these potential threats (see EDM, October 1, April 17).
On October 2, President Nazarbayev approved a state program on fighting religious extremism and terrorism for the period of 2013–2017. Central and local government bodies will now implement the program, while the head of the presidential administration, Karim Massimov, will supervise its progress. In a commentary by the secretary of the Security Council, Kairat Kozhamzharov, this state program was described as being initiated in the context of Nazarbayev’s national address on December 14, 2012, outlining “The strategy of Kazakhstan 2050: the new political course of the formed state.” The state program will aim to ensure the security of society and the state by “preventing the manifestations of religious extremism and threats of terrorism.” This task envisages a series of preventative measures, enhancing the efficiency of detecting and preventing terrorism and extremism and improving the system of measures to deal with its consequences (Interfax-Kazakhstan, October 2).
The new state program centers on involving the public in such preventative measures and in modernizing the information work among “target groups.” Indeed, the program stipulates a number of initiatives that will be carried out for the first time and are tied to strengthening the “civil position” of the “Kazakh people” to facilitate “tolerant religious consciousness and immunity to radical ideology in society” (Interfax, October 2). “The program pays special attention to the attraction of the community to participate in the preventive work and modernization of communications and an awareness-raising campaigning focused on target groups. Most of the preventive measures set forth in the program will be implemented for the first time in Kazakhstan,” the comment on the decree states (Tengrinews, October 2).
One important factor underlying these developments is linked to the growing role of the Spiritual Board of the Muslims of Kazakhstan (SBMK), the main religious body in the country. Reportedly, the SBMK has launched a national program to promote traditional Islam. According to the country’s chief mufti, Yerzhan kazhy Malgazhyuly, the SBMK has formed six special groups to monitor the “religious situation” in the regions. Each group consists of five people: “skilled theologians and imams, who are well aware of the situation in the localities,” the mufti said. Malgazhyuly explained that these groups have worked over the past six months among “people who need religious enlightenment,” including convicts, adding, “Work is also under way among the youth to prevent the spread of destructive movements and to explain the traditional religious values” (Interfax, October 2).
Indeed, the cleric claims that the campaign to date has persuaded “92 people” to quit the Salafi movement and return to traditional Islam. The groups visited 62 towns, 122 districts, 33 settlements, 200 higher and secondary educational establishments, and 1,500 schools; most of these were located in the Western region of Kazakhstan—the area most prone to religious extremism (Interfax, October 2).
In order to support national counter-terrorism strategy, local authorities in the town of Atyrau are printing information about the dangers of religious extremism on utility bills. The head of Atyrau’s religious affairs department, Erkinbek Shokhayev, said that these warnings will be printed on the reverse side of utility bills sent to local consumers; this appears likely to continue for some time (Aq Zhayyq, September 30). The local authorities in Atyrau have also taken steps to strengthen the council for cooperation among religious communities by recruiting four “highly qualified” theologians, and inviting religious experts from Egypt’s famous al-Azhar University to provide training for local Islamic experts. Books on traditional Islamic mathhabs (schools) and radical sects are also being published and distributed in mosques, schools and universities.
However, similar anti-extremism meetings are also being staged in cities throughout Kazakhstan, and like the work in Atyrau, such activities preceded the adoption of the new counter-terrorism and anti-extremism strategy. According to Tengrinews (October 1), during one meeting in Almaty in late September, participants advanced the idea of using appeals from “repenting terrorists” in the fight against extremism. Almaty local prosecutor, Damir Katayev, put forward this idea at a roundtable titled “Strengthening Efforts to Prevent Terrorism and Extremism.” Katayev suggests that video clips featuring terrorists, presumably having confessed and showing remorse about their past involvement in terrorism, could be used to dissuade youths from joining extremist religious sects. A similar meeting was held in Kazakhstan’s capital, Astana, earlier this month, Tengrinews reported. On September 12, the head of Kazakhstan’s anti-terrorist center and chairman of the KNB, Nurtay Abykayev, took part in a meeting in Astana that promoted “greater cooperation between the public and law enforcement agencies in fighting banned religious movements.” Like the discussion in Almaty, the meeting attended by the head of the KNB focused on ways of protecting young people from imbibing radical ideologies (Tengrinews, September 12).
Based upon these reported initiatives and the references to the counter-terrorism and anti-extremism strategy for 2013–2017, a number of observations are possible concerning how Astana is constructing its wider security policy. In particular, efforts aimed at avoiding the radicalization of the country’s youth focuses on using the law, coopting the public into the process, improving religious education and offering warnings about the dangers of radical ideologies. Moreover, a striking feature in these efforts is the campaign to promote traditional Islam, something the government has largely shied away from backing in the past. However, none of these measures imply that Astana is particularly concerned about a possible downturn in state security after 2014. Rather, Kazakhstan views these campaigns as necessary to avoid the radicalization of its young people over the long term and within the domestic framework.
This article appeared in the Jamestown Foundation’s Eurasia Daily Monitor.