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Qishloq Ovozi

A police officer responds in Almaty after a gunman targeted police and left seven people dead.

Kazakhstan has been going through some tough times recently.

There were widespread protests against government land-reform plans in late April that culminated in countrywide rallies against government policies on May 21. Hundreds of people were arrested in the days leading up to and on the day of that protest.

Then in June, an armed group roamed the streets of the northwestern city of Aqtobe in an incident that left 28 people dead, most of them from the armed group, and that has just been followed by a killing spree by a lone gunman in the commercial capital, Almaty.

Certainly, these are occurrences the general population would like to be informed about, especially when the situation is evolving rapidly. But it has been difficult to receive accurate information -- or sometimes even any information -- from media and officials, especially from the country’s president, while these events unfolded.

In this most recent incident, on the morning of July 18, reports said policemen in Almaty had been shot, that attacks might be happening at three places in the city simultaneously, and that people should stay indoors.

Some local television channels “decided” to suspend broadcasting. So many of those who heeded the warning to stay indoors were left to use cell phones or the Internet to receive information about what was happening in Almaty. Kazakh officials have warned repeatedly against relying on information spread via social networks.

Some of those television channels that went off the air explained they had planned to do maintenance at that time and stuck to their schedules, despite the crisis situation unfolding in Almaty. When they did resume broadcasting, many of the channels had prepared reports about events in Almaty. The Khabar channel had a reporting team at the scene when it came back on the air in the early afternoon.

The temporary suspension of broadcasting is actually to be expected. Regulations adopted in 2014 obligate owners of media outlets -- print, radio, or television -- to hand over texts of their reports to the local "komendatura," the officials in charge of preserving order during a state of emergency, 24 hours before the reports are published or broadcast.

No one at the television stations said that was the reason for being off the air, but management is surely aware of these rules.

Kazakh President Nursultan Nazarbaev
Kazakh President Nursultan Nazarbaev

After the suspect in the attacks was apprehended in Almaty, President Nursultan Nazarbaev said, “It is important to rigidly suppress panicky rumors…and inform the public about Almaty events.”

It was a quick response from Nazarbaev, since he remained silent and out of the public eye for several days in the wake of the June 5 attack in Aqtobe and after the unsanctioned demonstrations on May 21.

The Kazakh president seems lately to prefer allowing top officials to speak when crises break out, but this, too, has led to some confusion, mainly due to what appears to be a rift between the Interior Ministry and the National Security Committee (KNB).

Commenting on the Almaty attacker, KNB chief Vladimir Zhumakanov, who was appointed to his position at the end of last year, said the assailant was a terrorist who had been imprisoned for robbery and had fallen under the influence of Islamic radicals while incarcerated.

The Interior Ministry later portrayed the Almaty attacker as a petty criminal who, having been released from jail, decided to target police in revenge for being imprisoned. Interior Minister Kalmukhanbet Kasymov said on July 19 that the gunman said during questioning that his initial plan had been to attack judges and employees of the Prosecutor-General’s Office.

Following the June 5 violence in Aqtobe, when police were still searching for fugitives, KNB chief Zhumankanov was shown on television on June 7 briefing President Nazarbaev about the situation. Zhumakanov told Nazarbaev there was information earlier that day about an attack on a kindergarten and children’s summer camp. But shortly after that, the Interior Ministry released a statement denying there were attacks at either place.

Kazakhstan has been relatively free from acts of violence, mass killings, terrorism, and large-scale unrest throughout its nearly 25 years as an independent country. Incidents so far in 2016 have shown authorities still need to learn some things about how to respond to such crises when they occur.

But part of that response should be assigning some official or officials to keep a steady line of communication open to the public through the country’s media.

RFE/RL’s Kazakh Service, known locally as Azattyq, contributed to this report
The vast majority of Uzbek militants in the Middle East are in Syria. Their numbers are nearly impossible to estimate, likely hundreds, possibly more than 1,000. (file photo)

The actions of less than 1 percent of Central Asians are giving the entire region an odious reputation as a prime recruiting ground for Islamic extremist groups. In Syria and Iraq, for example, there have been reports and videos of Kazakhs, Kyrgyz, Tajiks, Turkmen, and Uzbeks who have joined some extremist group there.

Of all the peoples living in Central Asia today, Uzbeks are the most likely to be reported in militant groups from Afghanistan and Pakistan to Syria and Yemen. There are at least several explanations for why this is true, the most obvious being they are the largest ethnic group in Central Asia.

The most notorious Central Asian militant group to date is the Islamic Movement of Uzbekistan (IMU), which has resurfaced in the news recently, but there are also Uzbeks in the ranks of Al-Qaeda and the extremist group Islamic State (IS).

RFE/RL's Uzbek Service, known locally as Ozodlik, has been looking into the current state of Uzbek militants and uncovered some interesting details about them.

We'll start with the IMU. The IMU was thought to have ceased to exist as of the end of 2015.

Its most recent leader, Usman Ghazi, declared an oath of allegiance to IS in the summer of 2015 and late last year led a large group of his fighters from their sanctuary in Pakistan's tribal region to the Zabul Province in southeastern Afghanistan to join a Taliban splinter group under Mansur Dadullah that was loyal to IS. The traditional Taliban of then-leader Mullah Mansur joined with local ethnic Hazara forces that had suffered at the hands of the IMU, and together they annihilated the IMU in battles in late October and early November.

Nearly all the approximately 200 fighters, including Ghazi, were killed.

IMU fighters in northeastern Afghanistan came under Tajik leadership -- a group called either Jamaat Ansarullah or Jundallah. Those in northwestern Afghanistan appear to have been largely absorbed by local Taliban groups.

IMU Reforming?

But on June 6, a statement purportedly from the IMU was released. The statement mentions Ghazi's announcement that the IMU was joining IS but later refers to many "scholars" who said IS leader "Abu Bakr Baghdadi is not a caliph of Muslims but only an Ameer [Emir] of the 'Islamic State' group."

The statement says "the activities of the Islamic Movement of Uzbekistan did not stop," admits that its fighters were "dispersed in many faraway fields" and then later states the IMU will "stand shoulder-to-shoulder with… Muslim brothers of Afghanistan."

Ozodlik spoke with people who said the IMU was reforming under the leadership of former IMU leader Tohir Yuldash's son in the Fayzabad area in northeastern Afghanistan's Badakhshan Province. Tohir Yuldash was killed in a drone strike in Pakistan's tribal area in August 2009.

Ozodlik spoke to someone close to Uzbekistan's Interior Ministry. Under condition of anonymity, this person said the number of IMU fighters in northern Afghanistan was likely somewhere between 60 and 100, far lower than figures given by officials in Central Asia, Afghanistan, or Russia.

Asked why the Uzbek government claims there are hundreds of IMU fighters in northern Afghanistan, the source said, "To get money." They told Ozodlik that mid-level security officials in the border area know the real IMU numbers but report higher figures to keep their departments open, and people employed.

Clearly, authorities in Tashkent are still concerned about events in northern Afghanistan. RFE/RL's Gandhara website recently reported Uzbek security forces were conducting cross-border raids into Afghanistan, sometimes capturing Afghans and taking them back to Uzbekistan.

High Casualty Rate

Further away, Uzbeks are taking part in fighting in Syria and Iraq. Ozodlik contacted sources in Uzbekistan, Turkey, and Russia to get information about those groups of Uzbeks.

The vast majority of Uzbek militants in the Middle East are in Syria and most of those are in or near Raqqa. It has been reported that some are in IS but others are in extremist groups fighting against IS. Their numbers are nearly impossible to estimate, likely hundreds, possibly more than 1,000. They suffer a high casualty rate, which makes guesses at counting them even more difficult.

Some are veteran fighters from the IMU but most are not. They were recruited among migrant laborers in Russia and Turkey [See Noah Tucker's work on the Registan website] and most of these, according to Ozodlik's sources, are Uzbeks from Kyrgyzstan.

Ozodlik spoke with people involved in or familiar with recruitment efforts for extremist groups in Syria or Iraq. These "recruiters," or perhaps human traffickers would be a more appropriate term, are paid up to $10,000 for sending Uzbeks without military experience to extremist groups in the Middle East.An IMU veteran on the other hand, can be worth $30,000 or more to the person who successfully recruits and delivers such an experienced fighter.

So Uzbek militants are out there but their numbers are small. Depictions in some media give the idea that there are many thousands of them but a more sober estimate would be somewhere around 2,000 spread out from the Arabian Peninsula to Pakistan's tribal region.

Among the other Central Asian peoples, the number is even smaller.

That is something worth considering when assessing security aid to the Central Asian governments, particularly to the Uzbek government.

Sirojiddin Tolibov of Ozodlik contributed to this report

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About This Blog

Qishloq Ovozi is a blog by RFE/RL Central Asia specialist Bruce Pannier that aims to look at the events that are shaping Central Asia and its respective countries, connect some of the dots to shed light on why those processes are occurring, and identify the agents of change.

Bruce Pannier
Bruce Pannier

Content draws on the extensive knowledge and contacts of RFE/RL's Central Asian services but also allow scholars in the West, particularly younger scholars who will be tomorrow’s experts on the region, opportunities to share their views on the evolving situation at this Eurasian crossroad.

The name means "Village Voice" in Uzbek. But don't be fooled, Qishloq Ovozi is about all of Central Asia.