Overview: Kazakhstan remained on guard against the potential for both externally directed and homegrown terrorist attacks. The government continued rehabilitation and reintegration efforts for more than 600 Kazakhstani FTFs and family members repatriated from Syria and Iraq in 2019, several dozen of whom faced criminal prosecution for participation in terrorist activity abroad. The government continued to implement its five-year (2018-22) program against “religious extremism” and terrorism, but ongoing restrictions on religious practice continued to prompt concerns among some outside experts that the government’s efforts may be counterproductive. NGOs expressed concern that laws aimed at countering extremism were used arbitrarily.
2020 Terrorist Incidents: There were no reported terrorist incidents in Kazakhstan in 2020.
Legislation, Law Enforcement, and Border Security: Kazakhstan has a comprehensive CT legal framework. The country’s lead CT agency is the Committee for National Security (KNB), which coordinates efforts at both the central and local levels. In 2018 the government approved an ambitious five-year, $900 million program to counter “religious extremism” and terrorism. Law enforcement officers and prosecutors continued to have wide discretion to determine what qualifies as terrorism or extremism, leaving political opponents and promoters of unsanctioned religious groups vulnerable to prosecution.
Kazakhstani law bans its citizens from fighting in foreign wars. The government has taken a two-pronged approach to citizens returning from Iraq and Syria, prosecuting fighters and others suspected of active participation in terrorism while enrolling the remainder in rehabilitation programming and allowing them to reintegrate into their communities, where they had access to state-supported theological counseling and psychological, social, and educational services. In May, President Kassym-Jomart Tokayev signed amendments formalizing the legal basis for such assistance. In June, KNB publicly estimated that 90 Kazakhstani citizens remained in conflict zones in Afghanistan, Iraq, and Syria.
Law enforcement units demonstrated a strong capacity to detect, deter, and respond to terrorist incidents. Throughout 2020, KNB announced arrests of terrorist suspects, including two alleged supporters of the ISIS who were detained separately in Almaty and Nur-Sultan in March on charges of preparing attacks, as well as two alleged members of a “destructive religious movement” who were detained in Zhanaozen in August on charges of illegally manufacturing and distributing firearms. Courts continued to deliver harsh sentences for the promotion of “extremism” online. For example, in July, a man in Baikonur was sentenced to 3½ years in prison on charges of “inciting religious hatred” after distributing material deemed extremist on popular social networks. Local researchers have estimated that as much as 90 percent of charges filed under laws against terrorism and extremism do not involve violent acts or planned violent acts, and in some cases such charges appeared to be connected to political opposition activity. In November, officials publicly reported that about 1,000 Kazakhstani citizens had been imprisoned for terrorism and “extremism” in recent years.
Kazakhstan’s Border Guard Service (part of the KNB) and other agencies proactively worked to prevent Kazakhstanis and foreign citizens with suspected terrorist links from traveling to, from, or through Kazakhstan in keeping with UNSCR 2396. These efforts included the use of specialized equipment to interdict suspicious or unauthorized travelers at both official and unofficial air, land, and sea crossing points. For example, in June, the Border Guards detained 12 Afghan citizens crossing Kazakhstan’s southern border on foot after detecting their movement by drone. In November the Border Guards reported stopping nearly 100 individuals for violations of Kazakhstan’s border along the Caspian Sea. Kazakhstan is also working to acquire and implement an API/PNR system to screen travelers.
Countering the Financing of Terrorism: Kazakhstan belongs to the EAG, and the Committee on Financial Monitoring of the Ministry of Finance is a member of the Egmont Group. In May, President Tokayev signed amendments to Kazakhstan’s legislation on penalizing activities relating to money laundering and financing terror, in preparation for an EAG mutual evaluation in 2022. The amendments included changes to monitoring procedures for financial institutions, such as customer due diligence requirements, internal controls, and reporting of suspicious transactions. The amendments also require more types of financial institutions, such as pawn shops and microfinance organizations, to implement these procedures. The Prosecutor General’s Office reported that three terrorist financing cases were transferred to the court system during the first 10 months of 2020.
Countering Violent Extremism: Even as Kazakhstan’s five-year strategy places a heavy emphasis on law enforcement, it also includes efforts to promulgate officially approved versions of Islam to youth and provide alternatives to what it describes as “extremism” through social programs and economic opportunities. Working with religious experts, psychologists, and theologians, the Ministry of Information and Social Development conducted direct outreach in communities across the country; maintained an educational website on religion, state policy, and prevention of terrorism; and operated a nationwide hotline offering consultations on religious questions. At the same time, the government continued to block online content it considered extremist. In November, officials publicly reported they had deleted 25,000 “illegal” materials from the internet and over the course of the year limited access to 13,000 others. The government also continued to implement rehabilitation and reintegration programs for individuals convicted of extremism-related offenses and their relatives, including those repatriated from Syria and Iraq. Kazakhstan supported 17 regional rehabilitation and reintegration centers for FTFs and family members repatriated from Syria and Iraq. Aktau and Karaganda became the first two cities in Kazakhstan to join the Strong Cities Network.
International and Regional Cooperation: Kazakhstan partnered with the United States and international organizations such as UNDP, UNODC, and the OSCE on a variety of CT and CVE projects. For example, USAID piloted a life-skills curriculum for 75 technical and vocational students in Zhezkazgan to address specific vulnerabilities of youth in at-risk communities to violent extremism. The Department of State’s CT Bureau also initiated technical assistance projects focused on prison-based and community-based rehabilitation and reintegration efforts for returnees from Syria and Iraq. As a member of the C5+1 diplomatic platform, Kazakhstan participates in the associated C5+1 Security Working Group, which concentrates on regional CT and CVE cooperation. Kazakhstan also participated in a national-level workshop implemented by UNODC on compliance with UNSCR 2396 in February.
Kazakhstan also participates in CT-related exercises and training through membership in the Collective Security Treaty Organization, the Commonwealth of Independent States, and the Shanghai Cooperation Organization (SCO). Kazakhstan’s Parliament in February ratified the SCO Convention on Combating Terrorism, Separatism and Extremism. The same month, KNB publicly reported that, since 2015, Kazakhstan had detained and extradited about 200 citizens of other SCO member states suspected of terrorist, “separatist,” or “extremist” activity, while 30 Kazakhstani citizens had been similarly detained in other SCO countries. In May an Austrian court sentenced a Kazakhstani citizen to 12 years in prison for fighting with a group affiliated with the Islamic State in Syria; Kazakhstan requested his extradition, but Austria denied the request on the grounds that court proceedings in Kazakhstan would be inconsistent with the European Convention on Human Rights.