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Qishloq Ovozi

Is Almazbek Atambaev reaping what he sowed?

Former Kyrgyz President Almazbek Atambaev might be reaping what he had sown when he was in the top office. Toward the end of his six-year term, he was outspoken and often his political opponents suffered legal setbacks.

Atambaev has been out of office since late November 2017 and, on May 17, parliament deputy Iskhak Masaliev of the Onuguu-Progress party proposed lifting immunity for former presidents. The idea received support from 87 of the 101 deputies present (Kyrgyzstan’s parliament has 120 seats).

The move comes as the investigation into missing funds for the Bishkek Thermal Power Plant (TPP) continues.

China provided Kyrgyzstan with a $386 million loan to overhaul and modernize the plant. The deal was signed during Chinese President Xi Jinping’s visit to Kyrgyzstan in 2013. But an accident at the Bishkek TPP in late January 2018 -- the coldest period of the winter -- took the plant completely out of operation for several days.

A subsequent investigation, still in progress, has already determined millions of dollars from the loan were either misspent or vanished and the trail of the investigation is leading to Atambaev-era officials.

RFE/RL's media-relations manager, Muhammad Tahir, moderated a discussion on Atambaev’s future and what moves against him could mean for Kyrgyzstan’s future.

Participating in the conversation from Bishkek, we had Edil Baisalov, political activist and noted political analyst and commentator as well as a former Kyrgyz official. From Washington we were joined by Erica Marat, associate professor and director of the Homeland Defense Fellowship Program at the College of International Security Affairs at the National Defense University and the author of numerous works on Central Asia. Kyrgyzstan’s domestic politics have always fascinated me, so I had some things to say also.

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Thousands of Central Asians are believed to have traveled to Iraq and Syria to fight alongside extremist groups, such as Islamic State. (illustrative photo)

Kyrgyzstan appears to be waging a major battle on its own soil against alleged members of "international terrorist organizations."

In less than 12 months, there have been at least 28 security operations that resulted in apprehending suspects who Kyrgyz authorities say were connected to terrorist groups in Syria and Iraq.

The picture is not at all clear, but the frequency of detentions is striking.

Before diving into the topic, some background.

Kyrgyzstan is widely recognized as being more open than other Central Asian republics. Media are generally able to cover a greater variety of stories, including the apprehension of suspected militants; but that also suggests Kyrgyzstan might be the easiest country in the region for militants or people connected to international terrorist groups to enter.

While there are undoubtedly militants returning elsewhere in the region, it is possible their numbers are more limited outside of Kyrgyzstan, given the more rigorous screening in countries like, say, Uzbekistan or Tajikistan.

All the same, Kyrgyzstan might provide a window on the question: Are Central Asia's militants returning in higher numbers from the Middle East?

We'll look here at reported apprehensions of militants on Kyrgyz territory from October 2016 until March 2018. I keep fairly close records of events throughout Central Asia, but it is entirely possible that I missed some reports -- so more people might have been taken into custody on charges stemming from alleged links to terrorists than are listed here.

I am only including those said to have been connected to terrorist groups in Syria and Iraq. This report does not refer to alleged members of groups that could be considered more "local," such as Hizb ut-Tahrir, Jamaat Tablighi, or Yakyn Inkar, although alleged members of those organizations were also detained during the October 2016-March 2018 period.

Kyrgyz authorities have estimated that some 600 of their fellow citizens left to join extremist groups in Syria and Iraq, including women and children. Some were killed there. But like other Central Asian governments, particularly Uzbekistan and Tajikistan's governments, Kyrgyzstan is concerned about the survivors and where they go once they decide to leave the fighting in the Middle East.

On August 30, 2016, a suicide bomber attempted to ram through the gates of the Chinese Embassy in Kyrgyzstan's capital, Bishkek. The bomber was the only one killed, but several people were injured. In early October 2016, a video was posted on the Internet purportedly showing citizens of Kyrgyzstan who had joined the militant group Islamic State (IS) in Syria.

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Security was heightened in Kyrgyzstan after those events, but security operations do not appear to have netted many suspected terrorists on Kyrgyz territory.

A New Year's Eve attack on the Reina nightclub in Istanbul that killed 39 people and wounded at least 70 others was initially blamed on a citizen of Kyrgyzstan, but that turned out to be untrue (the suspect, now in custody, is an Uzbek national). By the second half of January 2017, Kyrgyzstan's attention had turned toward the crash of a Turkish cargo plane outside Bishkek's Manas airport that had killed 35 Kyrgyz and claims by the leader of the Ata-Meken opposition party, Omurbek Tekebaev, that some of the cargo aboard that plane belonged to Kyrgyzstan's then president, Almazbek Atambaev.

But terrorism was not altogether forgotten. On February 9, the head of Kyrgyzstan's State Service for the Implementation of Sentences, Taalaybek Japarov, said, "State prisons hold more than 300 people convicted of extremism and terrorism." Japarov said the number of people "convicted of such crimes is growing faster than other crimes," but he did not provide any supporting details for that statement.

Akbarjon Jalilov is believed to have blown himself up on a subway train in St. Petersburg, killing more than a dozen people. (file photo)
Akbarjon Jalilov is believed to have blown himself up on a subway train in St. Petersburg, killing more than a dozen people. (file photo)

On April 3, 2017, Akbarjon Jalilov, a Kyrgyz citizen, boarded a subway train in St. Petersburg and detonated a bomb he was carrying, killing himself and 14 other people, and injuring more than 40 others.

Kyrgyz Foreign Minister Erlan Abdyldaev was in Moscow at the time. On April 4, he told reporters in the Russian capital, "Kyrgyzstan will do everything it can to fight against the evil of terrorism."

In retrospect, Abdyldaev's statement looks like more than a throwaway line; it appears to have heralded the start of a sweeping counterterrorism campaign back in Kyrgyzstan.

By the end of April, the State Committee for National Security (GKNB) had detained three Kyrgyz citizens who were suspected of having fought in Syria and had returned: one in Osh in early April, another in Osh on April 20, and the third in Jalal-Abat a few days after that, according to TASS and Interfax reports.

Scant Details

There was little information about those taken into custody, and in later reports this would be the pattern of many of the detentions of the next 12 months. The first person detained in Osh was 25 years old and the GKNB accused him of being a member of Jabhat an-Nusra. According to the GKNB, the second "militant" detained in Osh was "born in 1994...recruited in 2013 and sent to Syria," and "it was established the person detained personally took part in mass executions of prisoners by the militants." In February 2016, he was purportedly given a mission "to commit terrorist attacks in the CIS during Victory Day (May 9) celebrations." On April 24, the GKNB said it caught a "member of an international terrorist organization" from Jalal-Abat Province who had joined militants in Syria in 2016. He allegedly returned to Kyrgyzstan to recruit people to go to Syria.

The term "international terrorist organization" is frequently seen in the reports of detentions based on extremism charges.

The GKNB said on June 28 that it caught four citizens of Kyrgyzstan who were from "an international terrorist organization" that was planning a series of attacks in Kyrgyzstan. On July 19, the GKNB said it detained "M.B., born in 1980," in the Kara-Suu district of Osh Province, who it alleged was a member of an international terrorist organization and had "participated in the armed conflict in the Syria-Iraq area."

On August 14, an alleged recruiter for an "international terrorist organization" was caught; on August 19 there was another such suspect, "H.H.," born in 1994 Osh Province; and on September 25, it was "M.M.," born in 1995; on October 23, it was a Jalal-Abat Province man born in 1986 (Interfax); on December 11, "N.Kh." born 1989; on December 28, a militant "who had returned from Syria and was plotting to stage a series of terrorist attacks in Kyrgyzstan (Interfax); on February 16, the "active member of an underground terrorist group," born 1992 who trained in Syria; and a "terrorist" was reported detained on March 12.

All these were alleged members of "international terrorist organizations" who had trained and taken part in fighting in the "Syria-Iraq area." Which groups they purportedly joined or worked with was unclear.

There were also citizens of Kyrgyzstan who were identified as having been members of specific extremist groups active in the Middle East. "Ya.U.," reported detained on June 14, 2017, was said to be a member of Jamaat Tawhid wa Jihad; reports from July 21 said a 22-year-old Osh resident was a member of IS; and two suspected IS members were killed in a shoot-out in Chui Province on August 29; an IS militant detained during a counterterrorism operation on September 2 (Interfax); a "militant" from Osh Province who joined Jabhat an-Nusra and was reported detained on October 12; "U.A.," from Jalal-Abat, who October 13 reports said had joined Ahrar al-Sham (Interfax and TASS); and a 21-year-old resident of Jalal-Abat who a December 14 report said was a member of Jabhat an-Nusra.

Those were all citizens of Kyrgyzstan, but they are not the only people taken into custody in Kyrgyzstan between April 2017 and March 2018.

CIS Recruiters?

Citizens of unnamed countries in the Commonwealth of Independent States (CIS) have also come to Kyrgyzstan to recruit people to go to the "Syria-Iraq area," according to Kyrgyzstan's GKNB.

An August 11 report alleged that a "citizen of a CIS country" who was recruiting for an "international terrorist organization" had been caught; on October 14 there was an Interfax report that a "citizen from one of the CIS countries" was detained for recruiting people to go to Syria; a November 1 TASS report referred to two "citizens of a CIS country" being taken into custody for recruiting people to go to the Syria-Iraq area; a December 15 report said a 25-year-old citizen of a CIS country who came to Kyrgyzstan to "conduct recruiting activities" was caught, according to Interfax and TASS; on December 27, the GKNB said it apprehended a citizen from a CIS country who had arrived from Syria and was trying to go on to Russia to carry out terrorist attacks (Interfax); on January 29, the GKNB said it caught three citizens of a CIS country who all participated in hostilities in Iraq and Syria and were trying to create terrorist cells in Kyrgyzstan; and a February 2 report said the GKNB detained a citizen of a CIS country who had "formed and led" a terrorist group in Kyrgyzstan" on orders from a leader of an international terrorist organization.

Who Are These People?

A number of the reports say that names are being withheld "in the interests of the investigation(s)." In more than half the reports, initials are given, often with age and place of birth or residence. Reports suggest they have been placed in "pretrial detention."

But that is where their stories tend to end.

I found one TASS report from August 10 on the Batken provincial court sentencing three people convicted of being IS members to lengthy prison terms. The report only says the three were caught "several months ago" during a counterterrorism operation. So these three might not be any of those people listed above.

Some of the reports of these detentions mention the suspects (they are never called suspects, they are always referred to as "militants" or "terrorists") had material for making explosives, or possibly some small arms; often extremist literature was also found during these counterterrorism operations. Some, as noted, were in Kyrgyzstan to recruit new cadres. But most had "plans" to carry out terrorist attacks, though the details of these attacks are never made clear.

From October 2016 to the end of March 2017, I can find no report of anyone being detained in Kyrgyzstan for being a member of "international terrorist organizations." Again, it is possible there were such reports; but there could not have been many, as it would they would have shown up somewhere in the thousands of pages of reports I collected during that time.

Yet after the St. Petersburg subway bombing, some 40 people were detained and two killed in less than 12 months.

Were these detained people in Kyrgyzstan unnoticed until authorities started their extended counterterrorism operations? Is Bishkek simply trying to show the Kremlin, and perhaps others, that it is serious about eliminating potential terrorist threats in the aftermath of the St. Petersburg subway bombing? Is there something else happening here?

These are some of the many questions Kyrgyzstan's recent campaign elicits.

The views expressed in this blog post do not necessarily reflect those of RFE/RL. Many thanks to Noah Tucker, a senior editor for RFE/RL's Uzbek Service, for our conversations about this topic.

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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. Content will draw 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.

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