AKTOBE, Kazakhstan -- Kazakhstan's pursuit of militants netted a group of high school students in Aktobe, renewing concerns about terrorist recruiters and the vulnerability of youth.
"Seven residents of Aktobe Province were convicted for creating and taking part in a terrorist group, for propagandising terrorism and for inciting religious hatred," a provincial inter-district court said in a January 6 statement. "Several of those convicted were underage high school students."
Authorities later revealed that four of the defendants were between 15 and 18 years old and were attending high school.
Prison sentences for the defendants ranged from six to nine years, even for the juveniles convicted, local media reported.
"When passing sentence, the court considered all the mitigating and aggravating circumstances [...] as well as the fact that those convicted committed grave and especially grave crimes linked to terrorism on the grounds of religious hatred," the court statement said.
Big ambitions, but a short history
The convicted militants met in two venues to plot attacks -- a schoolyard and an apartment, the court found. They had in their possession two hunting rifles and ambitions to attack police, nightclubs and shopping malls.
The group began holding meetings August 19 with Sagynysh Kudaibergenov as its "emir" and Yeleman Baltabayev as treasurer. The court said Kudaibergenov even had ambitions to strike abroad.
Abilkhair Zhalgas and Nurzhan Sabitov, also convicted, agreed to join the group and participate in committing terrorist acts.
Its operating life was short, though: police arrested seven members of the group August 28-30. The court did not report the status of an alleged eighth member of the group.
Authorities found a familiar story of online radicalisation as they unravelled the group's history.
Kuanysh Yesengulov, another of the convicted militants, used the VKontakte social networking application on his phone to spread terrorist messages, police said. He set up a pseudonymous home page as a platform for calls to "jihad".
Most of the militants' social media profiles have been taken down, either by their families or law enforcement.
"If they had extremist materials, then law enforcement [might have] removed the pages," Ivan Korneyev, an IT specialist from Taraz, told Caravanserai.
However, one convicted militant's VKontakte page is still up, Caravanserai found.
On the page, one video shows children, presumably in Syria in an "Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant" (ISIL) camp, firing at targets.
"In this video ... we see a group of juveniles firing pistols and automatic weapons and shouting religious slogans," Sanjar Suleimenov, a Taraz theologian, told Caravanserai.
"Often, terrorists do not hide their face in their videos," said Gulnaz Razdykova, director of the Pavlodar-based think tank Centre for Analysis and Development of Inter-Faith Relations.
"Someone who films himself this way makes it clear to security agencies that he has nothing to lose," she told Caravanserai. "[The militant groups] film them in such videos on purpose, so they can't go back home later."
Preventing youth radicalisation
Alarmed at the ability of terrorists to brainwash youth, Kazakhstan is working systematically to defuse the threat.
One of the bodies acting against the threat is the Centre for Analysis and Development of Inter-Faith Relations, which has branches in every province and is operated by the respective provincial government.
"Outreach to young people ... means meetings, roundtables, conferences ... and work done through the mass media and internet," Aziza Jumagaliyeva, a department head at the centre in Petropavlovsk, North Kazakhstan Province, told Caravanserai.
Almost all the events involve the screening of educational videos and the distribution of informative booklets, she said.
The work goes on nationwide, with the Petropavlovsk centre alone holding 334 awareness-raising events in 2016 "that reached more than 15,500 people", Jumagaliyeva said.
"The centre regularly posts information on pressing religious topics on its own website," she added.