Radicalised political Islam, the reignited war in Iraq, and Syria’s prolonged and devastating civil war are fostering a level of terrorism that the world has never before witnessed. The rise of foreign terrorist fighters is a problem so acute that the UN Security Council has held an open debate on the issue and adopted a resolution aimed specifically at this new type of combatants. Some estimates count more than 15,000 foreign fighters from more than 80 nations fighting in Syria in recent years, including, according to some reports, a number of Kazakhstan citizens.
Erlan Karin, a prominent political analyst, recently published a report titled, “Our People in a Foreign War,” and outlined the tendencies his research team observed over the course of their many months of research. The reasons fighters join the jihadi movement fuelled by terrorist groups like the Islamic State in Iraq and Syria and the Al-Nusra Front are too numerous to count individually, but the expert classifies them into three distinct categories.
The first group of people to join are those he calls “victims of their problems.” These people’s lives are either full of issues, such as financial problems, or they are criminals facing prosecution. Their desperation makes them susceptible to being manipulated into thinking that waging “holy war” is a path to redemption. The second category consists of those who are “lied to” about conditions in Iraq and Syria. These people are believers who fall victim to propaganda and don’t know the real conditions in what are currently war zones. Members of these first two categories may have gone to Syria and upon discovering the reality of the situation, want to return, although these attempts are not always successful. The last category of Kazakhstan fighters in Syria is that of the “fanatics.” These people deliberately set off to fight and are fully aware of what they are committing themselves to.
Yerzhan Ashikbayev, deputy minister of foreign affairs of Kazakhstan, participated in UN Security Council open debates on behalf of the country, proclaiming, “Terrorism now has no national or ethnic identity, citizenship or religion. It poses a threat to all nations, rich and poor, and this threat, which ignores borders, is growing rapidly.” Ashikbayev proposed a comprehensive plan of action that includes the furthering of universal anti-terror legal instruments and other mechanisms. He also highlighted the need to build up both national and international anti-terrorism capabilities, expand networks and mechanisms for the exchange of best practices and create an international database of terrorist organisations and individual terrorists.
Money trails are also to be monitored as terrorist groups often use laundered money to finance their operations. The Central Asian Regional Information and Coordination Centre, which specialises in combating the illicit trafficking of narcotics is already making headway in considerably reducing the amount of drug money used by terrorists.
Ashikbayev also made a point of using non-military organisations and encouraged all member states and other stakeholders to encourage the integration of migrants into society, thereby reducing their social and economic marginalisation, which if left unchecked, can lead to increased terrorism. An increase in dialogue between ethnic groups, religious denominations and cultures would reduce the risk of radicalisation. He brought up the Kazakhstan model as an example. In a country where more than 130 ethnic groups and 17 religious denominations live peacefully, the government is making exceptional efforts to promote the ideals and values of inter-ethnic and interfaith dialogue through various cultural associations under the supervision of the Assembly of the People of Kazakhstan. Finally, he reminded the UN that Astana regularly hosts the Congress of Leaders of World and Traditional Religions.
A resolution targeting foreign terrorist fighters was adopted unanimously by the UN Security Council. It calls for nations to adopt new laws and regulations to prosecute and penalise those affiliated with terror groups, prevent the entry or transit of individuals linked to terrorism and target funding for terror groups. Kazakhstan made changes to its laws in April. Starting Jan. 1, 2015, willful participation in armed conflict or military operations on the territory of a foreign state, even in the absence of a mercenary contract, can get a Kazakhstan citizen a jail term of three to seven years.
Kazakhstan is actively engaged in counter-terrorism activities through a number of international organisations such as the Organisation for Security and Cooperation in Europe (OSCE), the Shanghai Cooperation Organisation (SCO), the Conference on Interaction and Confidence-Building Measures in Asia (CICA) and the Collective Security Treaty Organisation. But, building a safe environment free of religious extremism will require economic and educational advancement as well as military and intelligence cooperation between states.
The threat terrorists pose for Kazakhstan, although relatively small, is very real. According to Deputy Prosecutor General of Kazakhstan Zhakip Assanov, the intelligence services of Kazakhstan prevented nine terrorist attacks in 2013 and 2014. “Since last year, special services have stopped nine terrorist attacks. For example, in April 2014, two supporters of a radical religious ideology, encouraged followers to go to Syria and participate in military actions against law enforcement officials. The courts sentenced them to five years each in prison. A foreign terrorist group purposefully prepared one of our citizens to create an armed terrorist group inside of Kazakhstan,” Assanov said at a plenary session of the Senate.
Also, according to Assanov, thousands of online extremist materials, including websites, have been taken down. “Since 2004, the country has deemed 15 organisations to be terroristic and six as extremist. These organisations were shut down and are now entirely absent from the country,” added Assanov. Still, since 2011, Kazakhstan has seen more than 10 recorded terrorist attacks. They have killed 21 people, including 17 law enforcement officers and special service agents. These incidents, which occurred in Almaty, Taraz and Aktobe, are likely to have been encouraged by outside forces. Terrorist organisations currently fighting in Iraq and Syria are particularly suspect in these cases.
According to Karin’s report, somewhere between 180 and 250 Kazakhstan citizens are currently fighting as jihadists in foreign terrorist organisations. “It is no secret that these organisations are spreading their negative policies in Kazakhstan,” says Deputy Prosecutor General Assanov.
Kazakhstan is not immune to this gruesome global trend. Foreign fighters are being recruited from even the most advanced nations. But the government is fighting the terrorist threat along with its partner states and believes that strengthening international cooperation is key for effective and long-term results on this matter. It is the right course of actions, and the one that should be supported by both the domestic audience and international partners.