A shoot-out between security forces and a group of armed men accused of an attack on police in the oil-rich west of Kazakstan has highlighted a little-reported issue – rising resentment of the authorities mixed with growing Islamic sentiment in the region, and a government apparently struggling to respond appropriately.
Locals say the clash had more to do with specific grievances against the police than with an outbreak in Islamic militancy. But with a consensus that Islamic groups are growing in strength in this part of Kazakstan, some analysts believe heavy-handed police tactic are feeding resentment of the authorities, and could contribute to the rise of more extreme Islamic groups.
A nine-day security operation to track down the killers of two policemen ended on July 9 with a clash in the village of Kenkiak, in the Aktobe region of northwest Kazakstan. Nine people inside a house were killed in a firefight that broke out when shots were fired from inside at police conducting a search of the village. One police officer also died, bringing to two the number killed since the operation began.
Police eventually stormed the house and ended the siege.
The nine included all six men placed on a wanted list in connection with the murder of two policemen in the nearby village of Shubarshi overnight on June 30-July 1.
A spokesman for the police in Aktobe region, Almat Imangaliev, said the attackers drove up to a police checkpoint and opened fire on officers sitting in a car.
Immediately after the attack, a substantial force of interior ministry troops equipped with armoured vehicles and helicopters were deployed in the area, but the suspects had already left Shubarshi and were hiding out in nearby reedbeds. Police offered a 100,000 US dollars reward for information leading to their capture.
Ardak Kubasheva, a resident of Keniak, told IWPR that when the forces arrived in Shubarshi they searched the homes of the suspects and took some relatives away. Other villagers known to be devout Muslims were also detained for questioning and then released.
There is some evidence that the murder of the two police officers was a revenge attack, rather than a random act of violence.
A police source speaking on condition of anonymity told IWPR, “These [wanted] individuals are members of a radical religious group. They killed policemen who had taken part in detaining and questioning one of their fellow-members.”
Many people in the area saw the massive security operation as an overreaction, as the suspects were believed to have hunting weapons rather than military small-arms. But the authorities may have been driven to take stern measures as the attack on the policemen came only a few weeks after a suicide bombing in Aktobe, the first ever in Kazakstan.
Rahimjan Makhatov blew himself up on May 17 inside the Aktobe offices of the National Security Committee. Three people were injured including two security service officers.
Although many jumped to the conclusion that this was an attack by some Islamic extremist group, the authorities steered clear of describing the incident as a terrorist act. Instead, they painted a picture of Makhatov as a suspected criminal who opted to kill himself rather than go to jail.
The case illustrates the somewhat paradoxical approach taken by the Kazak authorities – on the one hand, they talk about the dangers posed by Islamic groups that go their own way, but at the same time they are reluctance to dent the country’s image by suggesting there is a real terrorist threat – all the more so in western regions where many foreign oil companies have invested.
RADICAL ISLAM ON THE MOVE
Whatever Makhatov’s motives, the symbolism of a suicide attack followed by an armed attack by suspected Islamic militants is not lost on anyone. Both the government and independent commentators agree that radical strands of Sunni Islam have taken root in western Kazakstan. Where they disagree is on the causes of this trend, and on how to deal with it.
In western regions of Kazakstan which include Atyrau and Mangistau as well as Aktobe, a fundamentalist strand of Islam has taken hold. Some of the groups refer to themselves as followers of Taza Din or “the pure faith”. Although they are Sunnis like most ethnic Kazaks, Taza Din followers say they adhere to the true tenets of Islam, and therefore keep themselves apart from Kazakstan’s religious establishment and do not pray in the mosques it controls. (For more on Taza Din, see Kazak Islamists Under Pressure.)
Meyrambek Kurmanov, who heads a department in the Aktobe regional government that oversees religious groups as well as political parties, said the existence of such groups was a serious threat to national security.
“In our region, they are actively recruiting young people into the ranks of the radicals,” he said. “Most of those recruited by radical tendencies are… young people between the ages of 14 and 30.”
He said the authorities were trying to educate people about the risks entailed by this kind of activity, but were hampered by the fact that “there are very few educated experts on theology who are able to explain what’s right and what’s wrong”.
Kurmanov said he did not believe Islamic missionaries from abroad were visiting western Kazakstan, and instead the main spread of ideas was probably via the internet.
By contrast, Murat Telibekov, head of a group called the Union of Kazakstan Muslims, said he believed the Kazak Islamist groups were in direct contact with similar groups in the Caucasus, since they are separated only by the Caspian Sea.
“There’s a stream of extremist literature and missionaries coming in from the North Caucasus,” he said.
POLICE SEEN AS PROVOKING ANGER
Many other experts argue, meanwhile, that the surge in interest in Islam can be attributed to local causes, ranging from economic hardship to a sense of powerlessness against mistreatment by the police.
Andrei Grishin of the Kazakstan Bureau for Human Rights and Rule of Law say radicalisation takes place when observant Muslims are persecuted and pressured and realise they cannot obtain redress through legal means.
Grishin said there were no precise figures for the number of people convicted of crimes linked to Islamic radicalism, but that “it’s estimated that there are 700 or 800 [such] prisoners, given that every year a minimum of 50 people face charges of extremism and terrorism”.
In the recent events in and around Shubarshi, Kubasheva said she knew some of the suspects, and while they were devout Muslims, they were not Islamic militants.
“These guys have not committed criminal acts before,” she said. “They were unemployed and they went to the official mosques.”
Attendance at an “unofficial” mosque – one not approved by the formal Muslim establishment in Kazakstan – is often seen as a marker for adherence to a more radical strand of Islam.
Alima Abdirova, who heads the Aktobe-based group Aru Ana and has met many Islamists, said, “They [police] harass them and ask them why they grow beards and why they don’t attend state-registered mosques.”
Many locals say the killing of the two policemen was direct retaliation for the interrogation of two men whose car was stopped on June 26 and was, according to police, found to contain a pistol and two sawn-off shotguns.
According to Kubasheva, one of the men questioned returned home completely shaken up, prompting others to take action.
IWPR put this concern to the police source, who said, “I don’t know whether he was harshly treated or not”, and added that harsh treatment was a “vague notion” that depended on one’s point of view.
“But it goes without saying that suspects don’t get a pat on the head or offered a cup of coffee,” he continued. “We’re well aware of the mentality of bandits, and of how to communicate with them so as to get results. If we stuck to the etiquette, the crime-solving rate would be considerably lower than it is. We have own tried-and-tested methods for dealing with suspects… these methods work and help us not only solve but also prevent crime.”
Others argue that far from dealing with the militant threat, heavy-handed policing breeds the kind of resentment that could drive radical but peaceful Islamists towards violence.
Concerns about the police’s behaviour increased when a relative of one of the wanted suspects was shot dead by police on July 3, early on in the operation.
Police spokesman Imangaliev said the man was killed after resisting arrest and trying to flee when police arrived at his house in Kenkiak following a tip-off. He said a hunting rifle, a religious pamphlet and money were found at the scene.
Kanatov said he was surprised at this account, since the man was unarmed at the time when he was gunned down. “The authorities are behaving in a stupid way,” he added.
The killing left eyewitnesses scared for their own safety.
“People here are panicking, they’re in shock, they are scared.” Kubasheva said.
IWPR’s police source insisted that observant Muslims who did no harm to others and were not plotting subversion were in no danger. “But when it come to members of radical organisations, as well as all those who want to overthrow the constitutional system through violence, harsh polices are needed.”
He added, “If authorities show themselves to be weak and do nothing, the radicals will interpret this in their own way and will start expanding in earnest.”
The police source suggested that Kazakstan was unfairly subjected to a different set of standards to those applied in western democracies.
“Why can they detain men who wear beard and look suspicious, or kill Bin Laden and other armed religious fanatics, yet we have to respect their human rights here?” he asked. “Bandits don’t have rights; their only right is to be in prison.”
Kurmanov, too, rejected allegations that Islamists were unfairly picked on by the police, and that this fed the process of radicalisation.
“I don’t agree with that,” he said. “The authorities don’t exert pressure on members of religious groups. Quite the reverse, our legislation is too liberal… Our laws prohibit the state from interfering in religious matters.”
In 2009, Azamat Karimbaev, who was seen as the informal leader of the Islamic community in Shubarshi, was arrested and convicted, with six others, of planning a terrorist act. He was given 17 years, but died in prison in December 2009.
His widow Ayman said her husband’s only “crime” was to build a mosque for the village. The building was subsequently taken over by Kazakstan's official Muslim clerical establishment.
Baktygul Kanatov, a lawyer who heads a group in Aktobe called For Justice, said he believed these harsh sentences would effectively put a stop to Islamic activity in the area. But he said that after the developments of recent days, he had come to believe the group would gain more supporters.
SOCIAL PROBLEMS FEED SENSE OF INJUSTICE
Although western Kazakstan should be one of the wealthier parts of the country given that most of the oil and gas industry is based here, many residents have not seen the benefits.
Abdirova pointed to causes of dissatisfaction that are especially strong in the west – the contrast between low living standards of most residents and the profits made by oil and gas companies, widespread unemployment, and concerns about the environmental impact of the hydrocarbons industry. (See also Kazakstan's Unhappy Oil Workers on conditions on unrest in the industry.)
She said the village of Kenkiak, for example, had a pall of smog hanging over it.
“I’ve visited the area in winter and summer, and it’s difficult to breath there,” she said. “There’s been a case of water being poisoned, there is unemployment, the soil isn’t good and there’s no [drinking] water.”
Abdirova said many young people found it impossible to get work, even if they had good qualifications. Jobs with oil companies are thin on the ground, as employers either recruit highly-qualified oil engineers or bring in workers from abroad.
Kurmanov denied that social ills had contributed to the rise of more militant forms of Islam.
“In our [western] regions, in particular, these factors don’t play a role. The social and economic situation is good, and there aren’t any problems of this kind,” he said.
Once again, policing is an issue for the general population as well as those who engage in forms of Islamic activity frowned on by the authorities.
“Our police don’t protect us,” Kanatov said. “You go and lodge a complaint; let’s say [a businessman] reports that he’s the victim of an extortion racket. Instead of helping, the police will side with those who’ve got money.”
The police source dismissed such allegations of corruption, saying, “There are a lot of people who believe we are doing God knows what, that instead of catching murderers and thieves we are abusing the rights of law-abiding citizens, even torturing them. What torture is that – what are they talking about? “But when they face serious problems, they come to us asking for help.”
On July 11, Kazakstan’s deputy interior minister Marat Demeuov announced that two more individuals suspected of involvement in the two policemen’s murder had been arrested.
In the latest twist in the official account of events, he said the two men and the nine killed in a firefight had used Islamic ideas “as cover” for criminal activities - the theft of oil from pipelines running close to their villages.