Counter-Terrorism: The Mysteries Of Central Asia


August 11, 2016: On July 18th the Central Asian nation of Kazakhstan experienced a rare act of Islamic terrorism in the capital. Or did it? One civilian and three policemen were killed by a lone gunmen, who was arrested. The government was expecting more violence because on June 5th and 6th as many as eleven terrorists attacked a police station and a gun shop. At least six people died and over 30 were wounded. Most of the attackers were shot or arrested. The June attack took place further north, near the Russian border and was the largest act of violence to hit Kazakhstan in decades. While the government labeled these two incidents Islamic terrorism most Kazakhs believe it was more likely connected with gangsters, vigilantes and drugs. These three are more likely to cause problems than Islamic terrorism which, in Kazakhstan, has always been more of a fear than a reality.

Despite reality in 2011 Kazakhstan implemented a new religious law meant to stem the growth of Islamic radical groups. One interesting item in the new law was a ban on prayer rooms in government buildings. Apparently there was a disturbing growth in Islamic piety among government employees. Other items in the new law order all religious organizations (including foreign missionaries) to re-register with the government. The government was trying to shut down new mosques founded by Islamic conservative clergy. The Central Asian governments tend to be poorly run dictatorships, thus religion has a greater appeal to people who have little hope otherwise. Banning headscarves and religious schools won't solve the problem, it will just force in underground. There has been a growth in Islamic radical groups, but not anywhere near the levels found in Afghanistan and Pakistan.

Since the 1990s Central Asian nations have been increasing their counter-terror efforts. But there has not been much Central Asian Islamic terrorism to confront. There has been a growth in corruption and bad government. The best thing the Islamic radicals have going for them is a promise to replace current dictatorships with clean government. Not all people in the region want a religious dictatorship, because they have noted that "Islamic Republics" (as in Iran and Afghanistan) don't work so good either. And there are bigger problems to worry about.

The five former republics of the Soviet Union (Uzbekistan, Kazakhstan, Turkmenistan, Tajikistan and Kyrgyzstan) that now comprise most of Central Asia are finding drug gangs more of a threat than corrupt politicians and Islamic radicals. The only Central Asian border that provides any impediment to drug smuggling is that between Tajikistan and Afghanistan. That's because there are some foreign troops there, and lots of foreign anti-drug money deployed along the 1,300 kilometer border. Every year, many interceptions are made, tons of drugs are seized and there are numerous deaths among smugglers and border guards. A lot gets through, either because of skill, luck or bribes. The drugs make their way into Russia and then Europe, getting sold off to addicts along the way.

The drug profits buy guns and influence. But the drugs also bring addiction and more criminal activity. Like some countries in South America, the drug gangs are becoming more powerful than the governments. The Islamic fundamentalists, subsidized by Saudi Arabian religious organizations, are there preaching a strict form of Islam and the importance of living according to the Koran. The preachers quietly call for "Islamic" government. Russia is trying to get the governments of the five "stans" to clean up their act, and has formed an anti-terrorism alliance with them to provide air power and commandoes as a backup for any insurgent disaster. But most of the armed Islamic rebels were killed in Afghanistan in late 2001, and the biggest armed threat at the moment is the drug gangs. And these guys don't want to fight or take over the government; they just want to make money. Local police and soldiers are willing to take the bribes from the drug gangs, but this just makes the people more willing to accept armed Islamic radicals, who won't take bribes and will crack down on all the criminal activity.

Yet there are some Islamic terrorists operating in Central Asia, which is why the U.S., Russia and China have gotten involved. In 2010 the U.S. government made arrangements to allow U.S. Army Special Forces troops to enter Kyrgyzstan, Tajikistan, Turkmenistan or Uzbekistan when chasing or hunting down Islamic terrorists. Permission can be denied, for whatever reason, but the diplomatic agreements are in place to enable the Special Forces to quickly contact the right people in each country, if there is a looming need to cross the border, and then rapidly get a decision about access. These cross-border operations are never publicized and, as much as possible, kept secret. Any credit for Islamic terrorists killed or captured across the Afghan border is given to local forces. Often, the local troops have been trained by American Special Forces, which is one of the reasons the cross-border agreements were made. Each of the countries involved now have troops who can keep up with Special Forces operators, and understand how they operate. Another reason for the agreements is the benefit of having the Americans track down the terrorists before they become a problem in the area they were fleeing to. For example, Kyrgyzstan does not border Afghanistan, but it contains a chunk of the Fergana Valley, a fertile, densely populated area popular with Islamic terror groups. Islamic terrorists from Pakistan or Afghanistan pass through Tajikistan on their way to Kyrgyzstan and the Fergana, often with American Special Forces in pursuit. The arrangement has never been used, except to justify greater international cooperation in fighting drug gangs.




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