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    Central Asia
     Sep 19, 2012

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Salafists challenge Kazakh future
By Jacob Zenn

Kazakhstan has experienced a rise in militant activity carried out by Salafist groups on its territory and periphery since late 2011. The Salafists' rejection of secularism and other types of Islam and their call for a return to the ways of the Salaf, or pious ancestors who lived at the time of Muhammad and the first four caliphs, are regarded by the Kazakh government - and most Kazakhs - as incompatible with the country's political and social institutions and the native brand of Islam that is strongly flavored by Kazakh customs and traditions. [1]

For this reason, Kazakhs often refer to Salafists as Wahhabis, denoting the puritanical form of Sunni Islam prevalent in Saudi


Arabia that has made inroads into Central Asia in the post-Soviet era.

In the words of Kazakhstan's President Nursultan Nazarbayev, speaking in July, "radical and extremist elements" in Kazakhstan have "put enormous pressure on the state and on society as a whole". This article tracks recent developments in Salafist militancy in Kazakhstan and the Central Asia region and reviews Kazakhstan's "counter-Salafism" strategy, the long-term impact of which will likely be diminished by forces beyond Kazakhstan's control.

Jund al-Khilafah and domestic militancy
In the last three months of 2011, three Jund al-Khilafah (Army of the Caliphate) cells carried out the first terrorist attacks in Kazakhstan's history, targeting government buildings and personnel in Atyrau, Taraz and Almaty.

According to sources in Kazakhstan, one of Jund al-Khilafah's founders from Atyrau became a Salafist militant when he was arbitrarily denied permission by Kazakh authorities to study Islam in Saudi Arabia. With two companions from Atyrau, he then fled to the Afghanistan-Pakistan border region, where they established Jund al-Khilafah while maintaining networks with Salafists in Kazakhstan who could carry out attacks on the home front. [2]

Jund al-Khilafah also heightened its profile through posts on online jihadi forums, such as al-Qaeda's Ansar al-Mujahideen forum, claiming responsibility for each of the three attacks. The movement also issued video statements denouncing the 2011 "massacre" of striking oil workers in Zhanaozen and President Nursultan Nazarbayev's religious policies, which Jund al-Khilfah claims prohibits government officials from praying in state institutions, men from growing beards and women from wearing the hijab. [3]

Jund al-Khilafah has not carried out attacks in Kazakhstan in 2012, but another Salafist group in Kostanay (northern Kazakhstan) was uncovered facilitating the travel of Salafists to Afghanistan by providing them with fraudulent documents. Elsewhere, members of a group in Atyrau, possibly related to Jund al-Khilafah, were caught sending money to Kazakh militants abroad through bank transfers to Pakistan.

In addition, a group in Tausamaly (a village outside of Almaty) set off a gas explosion in a safe-house on July 11, while creating a home-made bomb, killing eight people. A search of the premises uncovered guns, ammunition, religious literature and police and SWAT team uniforms. In an August 17 follow-up operation to arrest the leaders of that cell, Kazakh security forces killed nine people who reportedly refused to surrender.

During the investigation, it was revealed the suspects kept their wives locked up in apartments to prevent them from communicating with the outside world. Most recently, on September 12, a special forces operation in Atyrau raided a flat where suspected terrorists who set off an accidental explosion that killed one person on September 5 were believed to be residing.

Salafism on Kazakhstan's periphery
The rise of militancy north of Kazakhstan, in the Russian republics of Tatarstan and Bashkortostan, may be connected to the rise of militancy in Kazakhstan. Ravil Kusainov, one of the founders of Jund al-Khilafah, declared in an interview to the jihadi media outlet Minbar Media that Jund al-Khilafah consists of nationals from different countries. His name and the name of another founder, Rinat Habiulla, are also distinctly Tatar.

On July 19, a Salafist militant group injured Tatarstan's chief mufti, Idlus Faizov, in a car-bomb assassination attempt in Tatarstan's capital, Kazan. One hour before that attack, different members of that group succeeded in killing the chief of the education department of the Spiritual Board of the Muslims of Tatarstan, Valiulla Yakupov, in a shooting outside his residence. Both religious leaders were known for their efforts to cleanse Salafism from Tatarstan's religious institutions.

The "Mujahideen of Tatarstan" issued a pair of videos on YouTube, the first of which announced the formation of the group on the morning of the attacks. In this video, "Muhammad," the military amir of the group, said the Tatarstan Mujahideen were prepared to carry out attacks on the orders of Caucasus Emirate leader Dokku Umarov, who has sought to establish a front in Russia's Volga and Far East regions for nearly a decade. [4]

According to Russian officials, there is an entire generation prepared to carry out extremist activity in Tatarstan, with well over 100 people having been arrested for extremist activity there since 2006. These include the owner of a company that organizes pilgrimages, the head of a mosque in Tatarstan and an Uzbekistan national who are all suspects in the recent shootings of two religious leaders.

Tatarstan's neighbor, Bashkortostan, has also seen growing signs of militancy. Bashkortostan's southern border is only 300 kilometers from the northern Kazakhstan city of Aktobe, where four members of a Salafist militant cell were convicted in October 2011 for carrying out police shootings.

In June 2012, five members of a Hizb ut-Tahrir cell were arrested in Bashkortostan for preparing and distributing leaflets, books, brochures and videos propagandizing "extremist views". In addition, an eight-person cell was arrested in late 2011 while preparing experimental explosions for an attack on Bashkortostan's district headquarters. Like Jund al-Khilafah's founders, the suspects were alleged to have planned an escape to Afghanistan through Kazakhstan.

Other regional developments
To Kazakhstan's south, the Salafist-influenced group Hizb ut-Tahrir (HuT) has taken advantage of Kyrgyzstan's weak internal security. HuT was founded by diaspora Palestinians in 1952 and believes it is obligatory for every Muslim to work toward the reestablishment of the Islamic Caliphate; that no other system of law but Sharia is permissible; and that it is haram (forbidden) for Muslim states to seek protection from America or other kufr (non-Islamic) states. [5]

HuT has been repressed to near extinction in Uzbekistan, where it first gained popularity in Central Asia in the 1990s, and most of Kazakhstan, but in Kyrgyzstan HuT has re-emerged with an estimated 20,000 to 100,000 members. [6]

Moreover, after ethnic clashes between Kyrgyz and Uzbeks in southern Kyrgyzstan in 2010, HuT made inroads into northern Kyrgyzstan and areas near the Kazakhstan border, especially among the internally displaced people from the south now living near Bishkek, where Kazakhs have been among those arrested for proselytizing for HuT. Although HuT members profess non-violence, some of them have been radicalized by way of their increased contacts with Afghanistan. Notably, Kyrgyz fighters are believed to comprise the majority of fighters in Jund al-Khilafah. [7]
In the North Caucasus, where Dokku Umarov's Caucasus Emirate is based, Kazakhs have been found among captured or killed militants more frequently than any other Central Asian nationality, although it might be possible that many of these "Kazakhs" are ethnic Chechens who have returned to their homeland more than half-a-century after Stalin deported the entire Chechen population to Kazakhstan in the 1940s.

The proximity of the North Caucasus to Atyrau and western Kazakhstan and the trade and transportations links that connect the two Caspian Sea coastal areas may also explain the rise of Salafism in western Kazakhstan. Religious extremist groups were historically only found in southern Kazakhstan's Shymkent and Kentau regions, which are home to Kazakhstan's more religiously conservative Uzbek minority, but the estimated 5,000 Salafists between the ages of 13 and 30 in Atyrau is a sign of Salafism's spread to ethnic Kazakh regions of the country.

In addition, Jund al-Khilafah and other Central Asian Salafist groups continue to propagate the militant ideas of Aleksandr Tikhomirov, an ethnic Buryat Russian who converted to Islam with an adopted name Said Buryatsky and was killed in battle in the North Caucasus in March 2009.

Further abroad, the rise of the Muslim Brotherhood in Egypt and the emergence of Salafist political parties in Egypt, Libya and Tunisia provide newfound legitimacy for political Islam - a challenge to the secular, Nazarbayev-centric regime in Kazakhstan.

Continued 1 2  

Kazakhstan stirs terror nests (Jan 20, '12)

Rising terror group exploits Kazakh unrest (Dec 21, '11)

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