Kazakhstan's intelligence agency has estimated that there are around 300 Kazakh nationals fighting with Islamic State (IS) in Iraq and Syria, around half of whom are women.
The chairman of the Kazakh National Security Committee (KNB), Nurtai Abykaev, said that "over 300" Kazakh militants in Islamic State had formed their own jamaat (fighting unit).
Abykaev made the comments at a recent meeting of the Council of Heads of Security Authorities and Special Services of the Commonwealth of Independent States (CIS) in the Kazakh capital, Astana.
Where Does The Figure Of 300 Militants Come From?
The latest estimate by Kazakhstan's KNB that 300 militants including 150 women are in Syria most likely comes from a video that circulated on the Internet (and since deleted) in November 2013 showed a group of around 150 Kazakh militants, allegedly in Syria.
That video showed a Kazakh man, named as Sayfaddin al-Kazakhi ("the Kazakh"), who said that waging jihad was a duty for every Muslim.
Later in the video, other Kazakh militants explained that they had come to Syria with their wives and children.
"Beards, Turned-Up Trousers..."
The fact that concerns about the domestic threat posed by Islamic State militants from Kazakhstan are percolating through to ordinary citizens is reflected in local news reports, which have talked about the threat posed by "Wahhabi" Muslims.
One report cited a local Almaty man, Sergei Strelnikov, as saying that he saw a "group of men who looked like Wahhabi [a strictly Orthodox Sunni stream of Islam] militants" in the Kazakh city.
"I'm sitting waiting for a friend, and this group of Wahhabis starts to gather. Bearded, turned-up trousers, of all ages. It wasn't clear what they were up to. Around forty guys, healthy, they were driving cars...I felt uneasy," Strelnikov told Kazakhstan's Tantv outlet.
Tantv clarified Strelnikov's concerns by saying that IS extremists are usually "young men under 29:"
"According to official data, most of the radicals are young men aged up to 29. This is the most battle-ready and most manipulable segment of the population," the site explained.
To further make its point about the murky domestic threat from IS, Tantv quotes a political scientist, Dosym Satpaev, who suggests that IS extremists can be anyone, not just socially marginalized individuals:
"We are living in the third wave, when militants who fought for an Islamic Caliphate are starting to return home. The huge risk is that they will start diversionary activities in Kazakhstan. And, if before these people were from the margins -- uneducated, unemployed, or those with a criminal past -- now the makeup of the militants has substantially changed," Satpaev said.
Serious Concerns About IS
Beyond the scare stories about "bearded Wahhabis," however, there are serious concerns in Kazakhstan -- and the wider region -- about Islamic State, including the threat that local Muslims could be radicalized by the group.
The Council of Heads of Security Authorities and Special Services of the CIS meeting noted that one of the most worrying aspects of the rise of Islamic State is the rate at which the extremist Sunni group is able to recruit militants, according to the KNB report.
In Abykaev's view, Kazakhstan is concerned that Islamic State recruiters are introducing young Kazakh nationals to radical views and sending them to fight with Islamic State in Syria and Iraq. Another concern is that young Kazakhs are becoming "self-radicalized" via material published on the Internet.
The director of Russia's FSB security agency, Aleksandr Bortnikov, said that during the last few months the number of Islamic State militants from the Russian Federation had jumped to 1,500 from a previous estimate of around 1,100 militants.
The Council of Heads of Security Authorities and Special Services noted, however, that the threat of radicalization was not limited to the CIS region but was one that spanned the globe.
Counterterrorism Measures Against IS
According to the KNB news report, the Council of Heads of Security Authorities and Special Services posited a number of measures to deal with the domestic terrorism threat posed by Islamic State.
Russia has already introduced new legislation in an attempt to stem the tide of its nationals going to Syria to fight. To allow its courts to prosecute Russian nationals caught returning from fighting with Islamic State and other militant groups in Syria, in November 2013 Russia made an amendment to its 2006 Antiterrorism Law, making it a criminal offense to participate "on the territory of a foreign state in an armed formation that is not considered legal by that state, for aims that contradict the interests of the Russian Federation." The offense is punishable by up to six years in prison.
Kazakhstan and other CIS countries are also considering similar legislation, the KNB said.
Other countermeasures are set to include investigation and search operations to identify individuals who join Islamic State in order to fight in Syria or Iraq. Such operations will involve intelligence sharing between Russia, Kazakhstan, and other CIS countries.
According to Bortnikov, intelligence services will also be closely monitoring any individuals who return home after fighting in Syria and who pose a real threat to domestic security in Russia, Kazakhstan, and the wider CIS region.
Bortnikov said that Russian security authorities had already taken measures to "neutralize both individual former IS militants and entire groups."
-- Joanna Paraszczuk