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    Central Asia
     Dec 21, 2011

Rising terror group exploits Kazakh unrest
By Jacob Zenn

The terrorist organization Jund al-Khilafah (JaK) is presenting President Nursultan Nazarbayev of Kazakhstan with one of the most critical tests of his 22-year presidency. JaK's raison d'etre - overthrowing the Nazarbayev regime and establishing an Islamic state - is not appealing to the religiously moderate Kazakh citizenry, but JaK's terror attacks are undermining Nazarbayev's hold on power. Should Nazarbayev end up being deposed the way autocrats in the greater Middle East and Islamic world were in 2011, then JaK will be one of the reasons why.

JaK Background
Jund al-Khilafah, meaning "Army of the Caliphate," entered the international jihadi scene half a year after Nazarbayev won the

presidential elections in April with 95.5% of the vote. The group released videos in September and October of two attacks it claimed to have led against US forces in Afghanistan over the summer.

However, those videos only proved that JaK's three founders - Rinat Khabidolla, Urynbasar Munatov and Damir Znaliyev - were a media-savvy triumvirate attempting to establish a pedigree and propagate jihad in Kazakhstan, possibly by exploiting others' attacks. Although Kazakh jihadis are known to be fighting alongside other Central Asian jihadis in Afghanistan and Pakistan, the videos did not confirm that the attacks shown were led by JaK or whether the Kazakhs in the videos were foot soldiers in a Taliban-orchestrated assault.

It was not until late October that JaK proved that it could strike within Kazakhstan. On October 31, an attacker blew himself up next to an apartment building and another bomb was detonated in a garbage can in Atyrau in Western Kazakhstan. JaK claimed credit for the explosions and issued a statement on November 1 saying, "We deny that the last attack was made by a suicide bomber. It looks like the bomb exploded accidentally causing the martyr death of the carrier…. Both of these blasts were just warnings for the government and we intentionally did not aim for deaths and injuries, as we don't want to harm a lot of people."

A later investigation revealed that while cell members were responsible for buying the components for the explosives in local pharmacies, assembling the bombs, and carrying out the attacks, JaK provided direct instructions to the cell from a base in the Afghanistan-Pakistan border region. The plotters were radicalized Muslims from Atyrau with no previous military experience, which may explain their incompetence in the operation. They had connected to JaK only after independently deciding to carry out an attack.

JaK conducted another attack on November 12 in Taraz, Eastern Kazakhstan that rattled the country's security forces. In a two-hour, noon-time rampage, 34-year-old former senior rifleman in the Kazakh army MK Kariyev hijacked a car by threatening the driver with a gun, and robbed arms from a gun shop, killing a shopper and a guard. He then stole a police car by killing two special security police officers and taking their Kalashnikov and Makarov guns, drove home to pick up an RPG-26 grenade launcher and drove to the regional office of the National Security Committee, launched one shot from the grenade launcher and several shots from automatic weapons at the walls of the building.

At this point Kariyev drove away, shooting and wounding two more policemen before he was finally wounded by police in a shootout. When a commander arrived to seize Kariyev, he blew himself up killing the commander as well. In total, there were five killed, besides Kariyev.

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 Insha'Allah 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."

In mid-November, six members of Kariyev's cell were arrested. The investigation showed that Kariyev's "spiritual mentor" and other cell members had drawn up the attack plans for Kariyev. They purchased and stored the RPG-26 grenade launcher, RGD-5 grenade, PM gun, two sawed-off shotguns and a small-caliper shoulder arm gun that Kariyev used in the attack.

On December 3, five members of a JaK-linked terror cell, including another spiritual leader, and two Kazakh Special Forces soldiers were killed in a night raid on the cell's safehouse after the terrorists refused to surrender despite being outmanned and outgunned. The members of the cell were responsible for killing two Almaty police officers in the same village in a roadside shooting on November 8 and were planning new attacks in Almaty.

Motivations and Ideology
In its written and video statements posted on online jihadi websites, JaK has focused on Nazarbayev's religious policies, which JaK perceives as "anti-Muslim". JaK's first terror operation in Atyrau was launched weeks after Nazarbayev signed a new Religion Law that imposed several restrictions on religion, including:

  • Compulsory government censorship on religious literature by allowing the government to evaluate and approve all religious literature before it can be imported into the country.
  • Requiring government approval for the building and opening of worship centers, such as mosques or churches.
  • Punishments for religious leaders if children participate in activities of the religious organization that one of the parents or legal guardians objects to.
  • Bans on prayer in state organizations, which covers everything from the president's office down to local government buildings, universities and military barracks.

    Nazarbayev justified the law saying, "We are not talking about restricting freedom of belief for anyone ... No, we are talking about protecting the state from religious extremism, as all states do, moreover those states that accept Islam as the state religion ... Whoever wants to, comes here, opens a mosque and what they're doing in these mosques no one knows, no one checks, no one registers them."

    While the new law does not specifically address symbols of religiosity such as womens' head scarves or facial hair, as a matter of policy the government cracked down on hijabs and beards soon after Nazarbayev signed the law. Kazakh police stopped bearded men on the streets and told them to shave their beards "for the sake of peace and quiet in the country". The District governor of Suzak Province, Berik Meyirbekov, even ordered that beards be shaven "so that any person looks pleasant and tidy in front of people and society." Similarly, woman wearing hijabs were sometimes prevented from attending their universities or high schools.

    In a Russian-language video released on October 26, five days prior to the botched October 31 bombing in Atyrau, JaK threatened to "make a move" against the government if the government "insisted on its position" with regards to laws forbidding prayer in public institutions and the wearing of headscarves. In another statement posted on the Ansar al-Mujahideen Islamic Forum on November 17, Jak lashed out at Nazarbayev's policies to close down mosques, stating that he was fawning to Russian interests in the country, corrupt, and that he had sanctioned the torture of Muslims in Kazakh prisons.

    JaK also has global ambitions. It has followed other Central Asian jihadi movements in supporting the creation of an Islamic caliphate in Central Asia and the greater Islamic World. In a statement JaK described the reasoning behind the name "Jund al-Khilafa: "This name reminds Muslims of their duty to revive the Islamic Caliphate as a system. ... It is the system of Shariah-based governance that must be prevail in every Muslim country from the east to the west. ... We believe that the region of Central Asia, in addition to the Islamic Maghreb [North Africa] and Yemen, are candidates to be the nucleus for the return of the Caliphate State in the future."

    JaK has benefited from the regional geopolitical situation, which will make it hard for the Kazakh government to neutralize it as it has other Islamist groups, such as Hizb ut-Tehreer.

    This is due to the following reasons:
  • Havens in Afghanistan and Pakistan provide the JaK leadership with operational space and Taliban connections needed to plan attacks, conduct their media campaign, and recruit new fighters. In addition, many Kazakh students now in Pakistan have become radicalized and on their return home could present a long-term threat to the country.
  • The Arab Spring has made secular autocracies in the Muslim world more vulnerable by destroying the myth of their invincibility. JaK said in a statement in October that the Nazarbayev regime would follow Tunisia, Egypt and Libya because of Nazarbayev's anti-Muslim policies.
  • Kyrgyzstan's weak internal security can be exploited by Kazakh terrorists as a means to smuggle weapons into the country. Kazakh terrorists may also be able to hold meetings and hideout in Kyrgyz territory without the close supervision of Kazakh authorities.
  • The North Caucasus has become a source of Salafist influence in Kazakhstan, especially in the Western part of the country where Atyrau is located. The provincial prosecutor's office alleged that the cell responsible for the botched explosions in Atyrau was initially formed in 2009 under the influence of Russian-born Islamic convert Said Buryatsky. That Atyrau was the site of the October 31 attack may also be symptomatic of growing extremism in the region. 90% of the province's 8,000 practicing Muslims are believed to be between ages 13 and 30 and 70% of the young people are influenced by Salafism.

    Despite JaK's rise as a bona fide terrorist group capable of carrying out attacks against the regime's security apparatus, JaK's efforts alone are insufficient to unseat the Nazarbayev regime. Furthermore, the Kazakh people are attracted to JaK's goal of establishing an Islamic state any more than the broader Islamic world has embraced al-Qaeda's ideology.

    However, JaK has exposed a weakness in the state's security apparatus through its successful attacks against policemen and government institutions. In doing so, JaK has also highlighted some of the Nazarbayev regime's excesses through its online propaganda, especially the overly-repressive laws and policies on religion that even irk moderate Kazakh citizens.

    Thus, on December 15, when more than 10 striking oil workers in Zhanaozen in the southwest of the country were killed by state security officials during a protest and then neighboring cities followed with protests of their own, JaK was able to exploit the violence for its own purposes.

    On December 18, JaK issued a video statement called "Overthrow the Tyrant," saying: "The massacre that happened in Zhanaozen where tens of the general public were killed, it appears to us that the regime of Nazarbayev doesn't fight the mujahideen only, but rather he fights the whole Kazakh people. He wasn't satisfied by plundering the money of the people and oppressing it, but moreover he banned people from their right in worshiping Allah. O' Kazakh people: your blood is our blood, and your souls are our souls. Insha'Allah we won't leave this event pass quietly. We call you to continue your revolt against the regime of Nazarbayev. Since this regime aims to deform the identity of the Kazakh people."

    The protests had nothing to do with JaK, but the group's message about getting rid of the Nazarbayev regime might strike a chord with other Kazakhs who, for other reasons, seek the same objective. Other opponents of the regime will be unlikely to coordinate with JaK to bring down the regime, but JaK terror attacks, heightened discussion of the regime's excesses, protests and strikes throughout the country, and examples from Kyrgyzstan to Russia to the Arab World of people gathering in the streets to voice dissents will make Nazarabyev's job security less stable than ever before.

    Jacob Zenn holds a Juris Doctorate from Georgetown Law where he was a Global Law Scholar. He has extensive experience in Central Asia, including Russian language study in Bishkek in 2007, Farsi/Tajiki language study in Samarkand in 2008, and Uyghur/Uzbek language study in Urumqi, Xinjiang Province, China in 2011. He also runs an open-source research, translation and due diligence team focusing on the Islamic World. He can be reached at jacobzenn@gmail.com.

    (Copyright 2011 Asia Times Online (Holdings) Ltd. All rights reserved. Please contact us about sales, syndication and republishing.)

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