ASTANA -- Since the beginning of the year, authorities in Kazakhstan have identified 900 websites and revealed 54 printed documents containing illegal content, as well as seizing 13 extremist books from prison inmates, according to the Ministry for Religious Affairs and Civil Society.
"The Ministry of Information and Communications [MIC] determines which websites contain destructive content," Bakytjan Kulekeyev, acting chairman of the ministry's Religious Affairs Committee, told Caravanserai.
Four other agencies -- the Interior (MVD) and Religious Affairs ministries, the National Security Committee (KNB) and the General Prosecutor's Office -- are involved in that process, he added.
"Each of these agencies sends information on illegal websites to the MIC," he said. "If some article on a religious topic looks suspicious, analysts at the Ministry for Religious Affairs review it" and decide whether to block the website containing this publication.
"All materials with religious content –- publications, literature, souvenirs -- must go through textual analysis at the Ministry for Religious Affairs," he added.
The effort comes as hundreds of Kazakhstani citizens fight as insurgents in Syria and Iraq.
Kazakhstani law has penalties in place for those who distribute "destructive content".
Individuals face fines of up to 113,500 KZT ($352), while organisations are liable for up to 453,800 KZT ($1,600).
Penalties are especially severe for inciting various forms of hatred. They include four to seven years of imprisonment.
Observers warn of growing number of extremist sites
From 2015 to 2016, the number of extremist websites acknowledged by the authorities has grown considerably.
"In 2015, the Ministry for Religious Affairs analysed more than 6,000 websites," Kulekeyev told Caravanserai. "Among them, 414 sites contained illegal materials. In 2016, the authorities studied 10,700 sites and ruled 1,495 them to have destructive content."
Proselytisation over the internet requires several stages, Aidar Abuov, director of the Astana-based International Centre of Cultures and Religions, told Caravanserai.
"On their websites, recruiters tell the readers that they cannot convey true knowledge about Islam via online communication -- but they advise with whom they can meet in person," he said.
Full-fledged recruitment takes place face to face, he said.
"And then, at the meeting, they hand over popular propaganda books written in understandable language," he said.
Printed extremist material vs. online propaganda
Extremists see certain advantages in promoting radical views through printed materials like books and brochures, said Almaty-based security consultant Rasul Rysmambetov.
"First, you don't need electricity," he told Caravanserai. "Second, just keeping it, or carrying it around in a pocket, gives a neophyte a sense of belonging, and involvement in a supposedly important pious activity."
In addition, authorities have a harder time "searching for printed matter than keeping track of website and mobile app use", he said.
Print publications allow readers to study a topic in greater depth, said Abuov.
"Websites ... are good only for grabbing attention," he said.