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.
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
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
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
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
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