The flaws in Kazakhstan’s approach to combating extremism

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In mid-July, the National Security Committee of Kazakhstan (KNB) detained three members of a radical Islamic group in the city of Satpaev in Karaganda province, with bladed weapons and extremist literature found during the search. According to the investigators, these individuals had established a terrorist group and were spreading hate speech.

In general, counterterrorism efforts have been strengthened in Kazakhstan since 2016, after shootings in June that year in the city of Aktobe, when assailants robbed local gun shops to carry out attacks across the city. Within the next months, similar attacks were carried out on a smaller scale in Karaganda and Almaty provinces. The terror attacks prompted the government to launch a crackdown on Islamic extremists that eventually resulted in modifying the country’s counterterrorism strategy.

Primarily, the law-enforcement agencies have scaled up their activities. In 2016, they acted against eight radical groups, some of which were said to be operating directly under international terrorist organizations. In 2017, the KNB arrested 10 individuals suspected of encouraging terrorism and promoting the extremist ideology of ISIS and other radical groups through social media.

Then the legal framework was adapted to this mission. Early this year, a bill was brought forward in the Kazakh Parliament defining who should be considered extremist and introducing the concept of “destructive religious movements.”

Separately worth noting is the fact that a special focus was placed on a foreign origin of terrorist activities in the country. So the amendments imply that students have to get a theological education in Kazakhstan before going abroad to study religion. The law is also meant to prevent young citizens of Kazakhstan who study in Middle Eastern states from spreading foreign ideas that contradict national ideology.

These proposed changes give rise to concerns about the law being potentially used for political purposes and suppressing the freedom of speech.

In Kazakhstan, the spread of extremist propaganda is increasingly in the government’s spotlight, as reflected in measures aimed at countering it. But whether these moves are effective is an open question

Indeed, in Kazakhstan, the spread of extremist propaganda is increasingly in the government’s spotlight, as reflected in measures aimed at countering it. But whether these moves are effective is an open question. Combating extremism is a very challenging task requiring an innovative approach. In this regard, the experiences of Europe and the US are quite instructive.

Commenting on the issue, Bennett Clifford, a research fellow in the Program on Extremism at George Washington University, has pointed out that in general, European countries – in particular Germany, the UK, and Denmark and other Scandinavian countries – employ much more innovative efforts than in the US.

“The counter-radicalization policies that have been most successful employ direct, one-on-one programmatic interventions rather than broad, sweeping ‘one-size-fits-all’ programs,” Clifford said.

“These programs are generally more effective because individuals often have very diverse pathways towards radicalization – if the factors that motivate each individual are different, then policies designed to counter radicalization need to take that into account.

“Innovative examples of counter-radicalization programs include Denmark’s Aarhus model, which uses a team of psychologists, social workers, community leaders, religious authorities, the friends and families of extremists, and former extremists to help young extremists move away from radical groups.”

So how are things going in Kazakhstan? There are concerns about the level of expertise of local officials engaged in preventing and countering radicalization. Millions of tenge are allocated annually to create online content that should help to keep people from being influenced by extremist propaganda and prevent the spread of radical ideas. Meanwhile, websites of many regional departments for religious affairs often remain boring and poorly designed and contain, basically, accounting information on meetings and roundtables.

Another challenge is corruption that among other things adversely affects the quality of counter-radicalization programs.

A total of 100 billion tenge (US$285 million) was spent on combating religious extremism in Kazakhstan from 2013 to 2017, with extremism prevention accounting for a third of that sum. Moreover, more than 286 billion tenge is expected to be spent by the government within the next five years to implement an action plan set out by the KNB. These funds are to be applied toward monitoring social networks and giving seminars.

However, looking at the experience of previous years, the question arises as to the appropriateness of such huge expenditures in times of economic crisis. A weak point here is regional departments for religious affairs, with numerous officials being brought to justice over the past few years for misappropriation of funds. Last spring, the media reported with reference to the Almaty region prosecutor’s office about 80 regional officials fined for misuse and ineffective spending of money allocated for the extremism prevention – about 6 billion tenge.

Last year, the deputy prosecutor general of Kazakhstan, Marat Akhmetzhanov, lashed out at the way the State Program on Countering Extremism and Terrorism was being implemented. He cited cases illustrative of the authorities spending large sums of money in their regions, but with no real activity. The departments for religious affairs in Karaganda, Akmola, Jambyl and other regions were mentioned.

All this indicates that what Kazakhstan actually needs to do is to enhance the quality of work in the area of preventing and countering extremism, rather than tightening the grip on civil society. In addition, addressing such issues as corruption and unemployment would definitely help to create a healthy social environment, where extremism will not take root.

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