By Alexander Bogatik
A Kazakhstani police officer stands guard in Baikonur in March 2015. Law enforcement is working to break up extremist cells in Kazakhstan. [Kirill Kudryavtsev/AFP]
ASTANA -- Kazakhstani authorities are questioning a recently detained group of suspected extremists.
The National Security Committee (KNB) detained 16 suspected members of the banned Takfir wal-Hijra extremist organisation during raids simultaneously conducted on December 21 in Almaty, Aktobe and Atyrau provinces, and Almaty city.
The group, whose name means "Excommunication and Exodus" in Arabic, was founded in Egypt in the 1960s. A Kazakhstani court banned it from operating in Kazakhstan in 2014.
A number of other countries have prohibited the group within their territory, including Kyrgyzstan, Tajikistan and Uzbekistan, according to the KNB.
"Their [detained members'] places of residence are being searched, and other investigatory and legal proceedings are under way," the KNB's press service said.
One detainee, Aleksey, gave a TV interview to Channel One Eurasia on December 24 with police present, but the channel obscured his face. The interview was aired December 25.
"Kazakhstani cells [of Takfir wal-Hijra] were run from abroad," he told journalists. "We had to maintain secrecy and not speak too much over the phone. They told us that Kazakhstan is not a Muslim country but an infidel state that does not live according to sharia law."
The followers feared quitting because their leaders "would beat them up" if they tried, another detainee, Marat, said in the same TV broadcast.
The organisation's leaders did not allow members to "take their children to school or to possess any IDs", he said.
They called such behavior "takfir" (the act of an unbeliever), he said.
"Leaders and active members of Takfir wal-Hijra have been placed in preventive detention," Madi Sarpekov, the prosecutor of Ile District, Almaty Province, said on the Channel One Eurasia TV broadcast.
"About half of the detainees will be serving as witnesses for the investigation," Sarpekov said, adding that those who co-operate with police and confess "will not be prosecuted, according to the law".
Takfir wal-Hijra members promote "takfirism", or accusing others of apostasy, which is an ideological underpinning of al-Qaeda, the "Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant" (ISIL) and many other terrorist organisations, according to the KNB.
"Takfir wal-Hijra followers endorse the actions of terrorists in Syria and Iraq and wholly reject secular governance and the country's constitutional laws," the KNB said in a statement December 21.
"Takfir wal-Hijra is an extremist organisation that endorses international terrorist groups," Aset Kujagulov, a religious scholar from Shymkent, told Caravanserai. "I don't know of any terror attacks in Central Asia that members of the radical organisation have committed, but their extremist ideology is entirely capable of breeding very real terrorists."
"They don't have any relation to traditional Islam," theologian Serik Tajibayev from Almaty told Caravanserai. "Takfir wal-Hijra followers are fighting in Syria. What does that have to do with Islam?!"
"Kazakhstan maintains a general list of terrorist and extremist organisations which courts have outlawed in the country," said Gulnaz Razdykova, director of the Pavlodar-based Centre for the Analysis and Development of Inter-Faith Relations.
"The list contains 21 religious, 2 occult, 17 international terrorist and 4 international extremist organisations, including Takfir wal-Hijra," she told Caravanserai.
Takfir wal-Hijra members "are misleading people, giving them incorrect and distorted tenets of faith, and luring them into extremist organisations", she said. "Recently, they have been waging an active and aggressive propaganda campaign and have noticeably stepped up their activity."
"Few understand that any involvement, to say nothing of financing or promoting the organisation's ideology, is punishable by law," Aydos Otorbekov, a lawyer from Janatas, told Caravanserai. "All you have to do is give a neighbour a booklet from this organisation, and that's it -- you're now involved in an extremist organisation's activity."
All Kazakhstani law enforcement agencies are seeking to find individuals who promote extremism and circulate extremist literature, a police officer in South Kazakhstan Province who requested anonymity told Caravanserai.
The local police "receive instructions from above ... and also act based on reports from vigilant citizens", he said, adding that they make a point of investigating "newcomers who haven't registered [with the authorities]."
Any suspicious literature they find in such individuals' possession immediately goes away "for forensic analysis", he said.
Militants who regard Afghanistan and Pakistan as 'Khorasan Province' in their idea of a caliphate could move the theatre of war from the Middle East to Central Asia, observers warn.
In case of questions about religious issues, where would you look for answers first?