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Afghan insecurity raises spectre of online extremist recruitment of Kazakh youth

By Ksenia Bondal

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A Taliban fighter patrols along a street in Kabul on August 17. [Wakil Kohsar/AFP]

ALMATY -- With Afghanistan now in the hands of the Taliban, Kazakh activists and counter-extremism specialists are warning about the potential for online radicalisation of their country's youth.

Following a military offensive to take over Afghanistan's rural areas and provincial capitals, the Taliban moved into Kabul Sunday (August 15).

"The Taliban have won with the judgement of their swords and guns," former Afghan President Ashraf Ghani said in a statement posted to Facebook after fleeing the country.

Ghani said he left to prevent a "flood of bloodshed". He did not say where he had fled, but Afghan media group TOLOnews speculated he had fled to Tajikistan.

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Children who returned from Syria to Kazakhstan play at a rehabilitation centre in Mangystau Province, Kazakhstan. The screenshot is from a KNB video.

With the Taliban effectively in control of Afghanistan, observers have raised concerns that the country could become a breeding ground for international terrorist groups.

After the Taliban took power in Afghanistan for the first time in 1996 following a brutal civil war, the Islamic fundamentalist regime provided a safe haven for al-Qaeda to operate training camps, AFP reported.

Following an emergency meeting in New York, on Monday (August 16), the United Nations (UN) Security Council said the international community must ensure Afghanistan does not become a breeding ground for terrorism under the Taliban.

The 15-member council issued a joint statement after UN Secretary-General António Guterres told the meeting that the world must unite to combat the "global terrorist threat in Afghanistan".

The council statement "reaffirmed the importance of combating terrorism in Afghanistan" to ensure it "should not be used to threaten or attack any country, and that neither the Taliban nor any other Afghan group or individual should support terrorists operating on the territory of any other country."

Youth targets

The potential return of international terrorism means Kazakh teenagers and other youths who spend considerable time online could be the target of renewed online extremist recruiting, say experts.

The religious education of children, especially in middle and high school, is an important factor in preventing recruitment, said Asylbek Izbairov, an Almaty-based extremism prevention specialist.

Adolescents are idealists and maximalists who often disagree with their parents or peers, he said. "In this condition, they become vulnerable to psychological influence."

"If we consider that they spend a huge amount of time on the internet, then all these factors may be exploited by radical recruiters," he said.

Although the international coalition militarily crushed the "Islamic State" (IS) in Syria and Iraq in 2019, the situation in Afghanistan remains quite serious, Izbairov warned.

The Taliban have claimed in the past that they would not allow IS to become active in Afghanistan.

However, there is a potential ideological threat of "global jihad" directed at Central Asian youths, Izbairov said.

"If we do not carry out preventive work with youth and adolescents ... they could become easy prey for...recruiters," he said. "They will not summon them into their ranks or arm them and send them to fight, but they might conduct long-term deep psychological work on them."

"From a national security viewpoint, this is much more dangerous than if recruited youth simply went abroad to join militants," said Izbairov.

Worrisome tactics

Afghan children in the past have been recruited by extremist groups to make and deliver bombs or even as suicide bombers.

In 2011, then-Afghan President Hamid Karzai pardoned 24 boys, aged 8 to 18, whom authorities had arrested for trying to commit or planning terrorist acts, Info24.ru reported in 2019.

In 2019, the Badam-Bagh juvenile prison in Kabul -- formerly a women's prison -- was holding 47 boys whom authorities considered threats to national security, according to Info24.ru.

By age 13, recruited boys knew how to shoot firearms and how to make and deploy improvised explosive devices (IEDs), relatives of child terrorists told Info24.ru.

Kazakhstan never completed counter-terrorism work against recruitment by IS because that group became relatively silent after its battlefield decimation in 2019, said Yerlan Dosmagambetov of Almaty, a graduate student of religious studies at Al-Farabi Kazakh National University.

That apathy might cause problems down the road, he warned.

If the Taliban establish a common cause with IS in Afghanistan, "that would be frightening because Afghanistan is closer to Kazakhstan than Syria is", he said.

Once terrorist recruiters get their hands on malleable new recruits, they drum some basic ideas into their heads: accusing a state of "takfir" (lack of religious faith), as well as calling it an "infidel" and "taghuti" (idolatrous) state, said Temirlan Sovetov of Nur-Sultan, a religious scholar.

IS extremists actively use nasheeds, or religious chants, to alter recruits' consciousness, said Sovetov.

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