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 since 2019, including 12 returned in February. The government continued to implement its five-year (2018-22) program against “religious extremism” and terrorism, but NGOs and independent observers expressed concerns that terrorism and “extremism” laws were applied broadly, in some cases against political opponents and adherents of non-violent religious movements.
2021 Terrorist Incidents: There were no reported terrorist incidents in Kazakhstan in 2021.
Legislation, Law Enforcement, and Border Security: Kazakhstan has a comprehensive CT legal framework. The lead CT agency is the Committee for National Security (KNB), which coordinates efforts at both the central and local levels. The government approved an ambitious five-year, $900 million program in 2018 to counter religious extremism and terrorism. Law-enforcement officers and prosecutors continued to have wide discretion to determine what qualifies as terrorism or extremism. President Tokayev signed amendments into law in December abolishing the death penalty, including for terrorism-related crimes.
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 those suspected of active participation in terrorism while allowing others to reintegrate into their communities, where they have access to state-supported theological counseling and psychological, social, and educational services. After returning more than 600 of its citizens from Iraq and Syria in 2019, Kazakhstan repatriated an additional 12 from northeast Syria in February, including four men, one woman, and seven children.
Law-enforcement units demonstrated a strong capacity to detect, deter, and respond to terrorist incidents. There appeared to be an increase in extremism and terrorism-related prosecutions. For example, from January to July, the country registered 139 criminal offenses related to extremism and terrorism, a 19.8 percent increase from 2020. Local researchers have estimated that up to 90 percent of charges filed under laws against terrorism and “extremism” do not involve real or planned violent acts, and in some cases appeared to be connected to political opposition activity. For example, in February, a criminal court in Atyrau placed prominent local political activist Max Bokayev on the list of people suspected of financing terrorism and extremism, barred him from public activities, and imposed restrictions on his bank accounts. Courts also continued to deliver harsh sentences for the promotion of extremism online. For example, a Shymkent court handed down sentences of seven to eight years’ imprisonment to two individuals for “propaganda of terrorism” online and “incitement of religious hatred.”
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 consistent with UNSCR 2396. This 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 September the migration police in Turkistan region detained two Kazakhstani citizens for organizing an “illegal migration channel” that helped three Afghan citizens illegally enter Kazakhstan, and in October law-enforcement officers in Kostanay reported preventing an illegal border crossing by two Afghan citizens, though individuals charged with “illegal border crossing” could be labor migrants or asylum seekers, rather than terrorists. Through a 10-year contract with a multinational security technology company, Kazakhstan has been working since 2018 to install and operate an API/PNR system to screen travelers.
Countering the Financing of Terrorism: Kazakhstan belongs to the EAG, and the nation’s Committee on Financial Monitoring is a member of the Egmont Group. In preparation for an EAG mutual evaluation planned for completion in 2023, three Financial Asset Task Force recommendations on virtual-asset service providers, politically exposed persons, and transparency and beneficial owners were sent to the legislature for consideration. The Prosecutor General’s Office transferred seven terrorist financing cases to the court system during the first 10 months of 2021, up from three during the same period in 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 “extremism” through social programs and economic opportunities. Working with religious experts, psychologists, and theologians, the Ministry of Information and Social Development (MISD) 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 December, MISD reported that in 2021 the government had identified and removed more than 181,000 online materials promoting “religious extremism” and terrorism, a more than eightfold increase over the previous year. The government also continued to implement rehabilitation and reintegration programs for individuals convicted of extremism-related offenses and their relatives. Aktau and Karaganda are members of 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, the U.S. Agency for International Development piloted several initiatives, including a mentorship program for former low-level extremism offenders, a project to improve family support services in Aktobe, and a life-skills program in technical colleges in at-risk communities.
The U.S. Department of State’s CT Bureau continued implementation of technical assistance projects focused on prison-based support for programs that advance community-based rehabilitation and reintegration efforts for returnees from Syria and Iraq. As a member of the C5+1 (the Central Asian countries of Kazakhstan, the Kyrgyz Republic, Tajikistan, Turkmenistan, and Uzbekistan, plus the United States) diplomatic platform, Kazakhstan participates in the associated C5+1 Security Working Group, which concentrates on regional CT and CVE cooperation. Kazakhstan also participates in CT-related exercises and training through membership in the Collective Security Treaty Organization and the Shanghai Cooperation Organization (SCO).