Terrorism: The ‘Forgotten Dimensions’ of Jihadism in Central Asia, China (Part 1)

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By Douglas Green for The Times of Central Asia

Are the governments of Central Asia’s post-Soviet republics taking effective action to root out the phantom of terrorism lurking in all corners of the region? The awkward question was carefully avoided during the latest peace talks on Syria in Astana. Fact remains, however, that thousands of nationals of Russia, Kazakhstan, Kyrgyzstan, Tajikistan, Turkmenistan and (most of all) Uzbekistan are “fighting” in Syria and northern Iraq. In the meantime a rather large number of them are also spreading over the world to replace terrorists originating from the Near-East to spread new waves of havoc, while others “bring terror home” by returning to their countries of origin ready to carry out attacks on their own communities. However, so far nobody has properly mapped the overall situation.

Kyrgyzstan

There is no lack of updates on this – even though they are reported as isolated incidents and the big picture remains by and large ignored. 

In Kyrgyzstan, late in January, the long-awaited trial against Maksat Kunakunov, former MP on behalf of Kurmanbek Bakiyev’s Ak-Zhol party and accused of preparing to overthrow the government of Kyrgyzstan in connection with underground movements tied to Daesh and Al-Qaeda, came to a close with the culprit along with a number of his followers convicted to ten years behind bars. 

Regretfully his underground organisation can remain fully operative even with their chief in jail, especially if one takes Daesh increasing clout in the region into consideration.

On October 6 and November 11 last year respectively, Kyrgyz police detained members of the Hezb ut-Tahrir, a movement propagating the overthrow of secular governments and the adherence of Central Asia to a global “caliphate”. Hezb ut-Tahrir finds its origins in Uzbekistan where it is equally outlawed. It continues, though, to operate unhindered from its current headquarters in London.

Kazakhstan 

In Kazakhstan, a security operation initiated in late December last year targeted a movement called Al Takfir wal-Hijra, with goals similar to those of the Hezb but not limited to propaganda, plotting to assassinate state officials and plant bombs in public areas in order to create chaos in the country. It would appear that Al-Takfir has cells in the Almaty, Aktobe, Atyrau regions and Almaty city.

The latest strike against extremist cells in Kazakhstan came on January 9. “The Aktobe Region criminal court sentenced the group's leader and one associate to nine years in prison. Another member of the terrorist cell received a six-year sentence and four more minors received eight- and six-year sentences,” Sputniknews reported. 

Tajikistan

Here authorities are trying to engage public opinion through a constant information flow. “Tajikistan issued an international warrant to arrest the leader of its ‘private forces’ Gulmorad Halimov for joining ISIS and accused him of treason. Halimov, who was trained in the United States, appeared in a video threatening U.S. and Russia,” a recent Reuters article under the suggestive header “Turkic peoples face accusations of terrorism” posted on January 23 read. “Tajikistan’s Interior Ministry has claimed that the country’s security agencies managed to thwart 36 terrorist attacks in 2016 and stopped around 50 people from mounting attacks on government buildings,” a recent report by Eurasianet reads. “More than 400 people were detained last year in Tajikistan on suspicion of belonging to various terrorist groups, Interior Minister Ramazon Rahimzoda said. Over the same period, 40 people joined Islamic State, he claimed.”

“Rahimzoda estimated that there are still around 1,100 Tajik citizens in Syria and Iraq fighting within the ranks of Islamic State,” the report reads further down. “He added that this relatively low number was down to his ministry’s efforts in reaching out to the public. Rahimzoda said that in 2015, 22 people were forcibly returned to Tajikistan from Syria and Iraq. Another 80 people came back of their own will and were cleared of all criminal charges, he said.” The official admitted, though, that up to 15,000 “militants” are in position across the Afghan border with Tajikistan, ready to attack when ordered to do so.

China

Further to the east, there is the “Chinese dimension” in the Central-Asian terrorist cobweb. “China is tightening border controls in its northwestern Xinjiang region amid rising terrorism threats, the regional governor was quoted as saying,” the Associated Press reported on January 9 this year. “State media reported Shohrat Zakir made the pledge in a speech at the region’s main annual political meeting on Monday, saying increased measures taken in the last year would be further strengthened. The crackdown seeks to prevent suspected insurgents both from leaving Xinjiang to fight abroad and from returning to the region after receiving military training overseas.” “Chinese police have shot dead three ‘violent terror suspects’ in the western Xinjiang region,” the Straits Times reported the following day, based on information published by Reuters and Agence France Presse. “The incident is the Chinese government's latest clash with militants who, Beijing says, want to break the region away from China.” 

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