Dispatch: Islamist Militancy in Kazakhstan

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Eurasia Analyst Eugene Chausovsky discusses the recent unrest in Kazakhstan and the prospects for regional instability.


Kazakhstan continues to simmer from violence over the weekend in the
energy-producing province of Mangistau in the west of the country, where
clashes occurred between protesters and police. These clashes come amid
a rise in overall violence in Kazakhstan this year, but it is the
unprecedented role of Islamist militancy in this violence that puts the
stability of the country and the wider region in jeopardy.

Central Asia is no stranger to instability, whether that be violence or
Islamist militancy. However, before this year, instability in Central
Asia had been concentrated in three countries - Kyrgyzstan, Tajikistan,
and Uzbekistan - and particularly the strategic Fergana Valley region
that these three states share.

This region was especially volatile in the late 90’s and early 2000’s,
when Islamist militant groups - most notably the Islamic Movement of
Uzbekistan (IMU) - initiated a series of transnational attacks in
Tajikistan, Kyrgyzstan, and Uzbekistan with the aim of overthrowing
Uzbek President Islam Karimov and establishing an Islamist regime in the
wider region.

This posed a serious threat to all 3 countries, but the 9/11 attacks and
ensuing US invasion of Afghanistan proved to be a spoiler to the IMU and
other Islamist militants in the region. In exchange for providing
logistical support to the U.S. in launching its invasion, the US provided
security assistance to these countries, which helped clamp down on
militants in the region as well as destroying their sanctuaries in the
Afghanistan/Pakistan border area to where they sought refuge.

This led to a period of relative calm in terms of militant activity in
the region until August 2010, when a prison break in Tajikistan led to
several attacks by alleged militants with reported ties to IMU against
security services in the Rasht Valley, which is a rebel stronghold in the east of
the country. Kyrgyzstan also faced a flare up in its security situation
earlier in the year, when a revolution and then ethnic violence in the
southern provinces of Osh and Jalal-Abad subsequently led to claims of
IMU and other militant activity in the region.

Throughout all of this, one country that was relatively immune to
militant violence and instability was Kazakhstan due to its geographic
isolation from Fergana and relatively better economic position. Only in
2011 did Kazakhstan see violence start to rise significantly, with the
country experiencing its first suicide terrorist attack in its modern
history in May and several shootings of police across the country in
places like Aktau, Almaty and Taraz. There are a number of factors that
led to this increase in violence, such as the worsening economic
situation in the country and the government’s crackdown on religion.

A lot of the issues Kazakhstan is currently facing - such as protests
and economic grievances from energy workers - are not altogether new,
however, they are happening in a new and tense environment of growing
militancy. Even events that are not related to Islamist militants, like
the protests in western Kazakhstan, have received calls for solidarity
from Kazakh militant groups like Soldiers of the Caliphate. And while
these attacks and the effectiveness demonstrated by the militants are
still relatively limited, they do make 2011 an unprecedented year in
terms of security problems in the country and bring an unclear and
dangerous situation in the country moving forward.

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