Kazakhstanis returning from Syria and Iraq face difficult road home

By Arman Kaliyev


A Kazakhstani serviceman is shown in Almaty Province in September 2016. Kazakhstani border guards are on alert as their militant compatriots return home from defeat in Syria and Iraq. [Kazakhstani Defence Ministry]

ASTANA -- Hundreds of young Kazakhstanis who fought for "Islamic State" (IS) in Syria and Iraq are facing an unwelcome return home and will be watched by the National Security Committee (KNB), say specialists and officials.

About 400 Kazakhstanis have left the country to join IS since 2011, President Nursultan Nazarbayev said November 13 during the 3rd session of the Astana Club, a group that discusses international affairs, reported November 16.

Previous estimates, including by Deputy Foreign Minister Yerzhan Ashikbayev, have placed the number at about 500, including the wives and children of fighters.

They are returning home after suffering defeat, said Nazabayev.

Moreover, Kazakhstanis are no longer leaving the country to join IS, according to the KNB, as reported by Interfax Kazakhstan.

The last known group of Kazakhstanis-turned-insurgents left for the Middle East in 2016, when authorities registered 69 such cases, the KNB said. Authorities detected no such cases in 2017.

Closing the road back home

However, Kazakhstan's government has made it harder for former insurgents to return home.

In April, Nazarbayev told Mir24 TV that those who left the country and joined extremist organisations abroad would be stripped of their citizenship.

Nazarbayev signed such a law on July 11 authorising revocation of citizenship of Kazakhstanis convicted of forming or joining terrorist groups, among other crimes.

The legislation does not automatically strip Kazakhstanis of their citizenship, according to Yuliya Denisenko, director of the Astana-based Association of Centres for the Study of Religions and a member of the Kazakhstani government's Council for Relations with Religious Associations.

The appropriate ruling needs to be delivered by courts, which still have to prove that the accused actually fought alongside extremist organisations, she told Caravanserai.

Those who do return will likely be convicted of aiding and abetting terrorism, Murat Telibekov, director of the Almaty-based Union of Muslims of Kazakhstan, told Caravanserai.

Building the foundation of society

The intentions that those returning from Syria have when they come back -- and whether society can feel safe -- is another matter, Denisenko said.

"That depends on the competence of our intelligence agencies, since in reality a terrorist attack can be prevented either when a terrorist crosses the border or when he is preparing to commit one," she said. "Singling out [a terrorist] in a crowd and stopping him is very hard."

In terms of the overall fight against radicalisation, Denisenko said better results would come if "the foundation is knocked out from under the feet of [extremist] recruiters".

This "foundation" can include social, political and psychological factors, she said. In other words, the more stable the overall situation is, the tougher it is to sow the seeds of animosity among youth, she said.

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