Terrorist attacks in Central Asian republics threaten to disrupt trade and bilateral cooperation with Russia and China.
Whilst the spectre of terrorism has gained notoriety across the Middle East, most notably in Syria, Iraq and Afghanistan, as well as in Europe via the Paris attacks there is a little known war occurring in the Central Asian republics of the former Soviet Union.
Three weeks ago, Nurgaly Bilisbekov, a deputy chairman of the Kazakh National Security Committee (NSC) said that the Kazakh security forces had prevented nine terrorist attacks in the country since the start of 2016. The proposed terrorist attacks had been planned in areas of dense population as well as attacks on facilities and employees of the law enforcement and special state authorities.
Bilisbekov confirmed that 25 people have been arrested and charged with terrorism-related crimes in Kazakhstan in 2016. In addition over 500 Kazakh nationals, recruited by terrorist organisations, have been prevented by the NSC from leaving the country in the last five years.
On October 10, NSC officers detained three members of a radical group in Almaty, suspected of planning terrorist attacks against law enforcement and special agencies according to NSC. They recovered components of improvised explosive devices and detonators as well as religious and extremist materials, calling for terrorist attacks.
These sporadic terrorist attacks are not confined to just Kazakhstan. In mid-September two improvised explosive devices in the centre of Bishkek, Kyrgyzstan, were disarmed by the Kyrgyz National Security forces. Rahat Sulaymanov, the press secretary for the Kyrgyz National Security Committee confirmed that passers-by found two black plastic bags containing explosive devices and notified the local police.
In further developments, the Kyrgyz Deputy Minister of Foreign Affairs Emil Kajkiev met with US Ambassador Sheila Gwaltney and UK Ambassador Robin Ord-Smith to discuss the information about the high probability of terrorist attacks in the Kyrgyz Republic published on the websites of both embassies. They both claimed that they had received messages about an increased threat of terrorist acts in October against the Kyrgyz authorities and foreign diplomats, possibly including kidnapping and hostage-taking. Despite all parties agreeing to exchange information and continue to work together to combat terrorism, the Kyrgyz State National Security Committee worryingly stated that the embassies did not provide any information to the security service of the republic.
It is clear that these two republics are taking these terrorist threats very seriously as witnessed by the recent exercises dubbed “Rubezh 2016”, which brought together over a thousand of special operations troops from Kyrgyzstan, Kazakhstan and Russia at the Edelweiss training ground in Central Asia. The exercises were aimed at training the interoperability of armed and police forces during counter-terrorist operations and repelling attacks on law enforcement authorities.
In August another republic, Tajikistan, along with Afghanistan, China and Pakistan set up a “Quadrilateral Cooperation and Coordination Mechanism” to jointly combat terrorism, further advancing security cooperation between this group of nations. Their aim is to assess counter-terrorism situations, share intelligence and formulate robust anti-terrorist measures incorporating anti-terrorist training. There is a perceived general threat from terrorism in Tajikistan where attacks could also be indiscriminate with a threat of kidnap ever present.
The recent death of Uzbekistan’s president Islam Karimov could pose serious challenges in areas such as counterterrorism. Since 9/11, Uzbekistan has been critical at times of US foreign policy objectives in Central and South Asia, including in Afghanistan and in efforts to curb Russian influence in the region.
During Karimov’s reign, Uzbekistan faced a series of terrorist threats, most prominently the Islamic Movement of Uzbekistan (IMU). Karimov’s death could potentially leave a vacuum to be exploited by the IMU, which may seek to overthrow the Uzbek government and which has declared allegiance to the Islamic State.
In early 2016, Russia expressed a desire to develop and strengthen cooperation with Turkmenistan in both bilateral and international issues, including the fight against terrorism, illegal drug trade, and organised crime. The intergovernmental commission on trade and economic cooperation has been underway for some time already and is a very active partnership.
There can be no doubt that Kazakhstan and the other Central Asian states, Kyrgyzstan, Uzbekistan, Turkmenistan and Tajikistan are hugely important players in the Eurasian Trade Zone and also in the One Belt One Road project. It should therefore come as no surprise that we are seeing terrorist cells and organisations active in this region and attempting to cause as much disruption as possible. In many senses these nations are the glue which binds China and Russia together. It should also come as no surprise who would seek to inflict as much damage as possible within these nations and seek to gain a foothold to disrupt trade and bilateral cooperation with both China and Russia.