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Three main problems in countering extremism and terrorism in Central Asia

Terrorism-related issues are highly politicized and securitized in Kazakhstan and in Central Asia in general. Whereas it is necessary for the governments to maintain stability and national security, counter-terrorism efforts sometimes undermine the state’s credibility.

There are three main problems with counter-terrorism efforts in Central Asia. The first, and most significant, problem is the legal framework that regulates this sphere. Laws on terrorism are almost the same in all five countries and they all are filled with vague terminology. As a result, the governments use this vagueness to strengthen their monopoly on the use of force. Because the wording of the laws on countering extremism is vague, it allows the government to use the law on a case-by-case basis to punish opposition activists. In addition, the governments have created a narrative of fear by using these legal traps to strengthen the state’s monopoly on the use of force. As a result, the security services prosecute 'potential' ISIS sleeper cells or supporters, in particular in Kazakhstan and Kyrgyzstan. Despite all the efforts to fight online terrorism, the Central Asian governments have not managed to stop terrorists from using the internet to plan their activities. Rather, the governments’ approach to counter extremism has so far resulted in limitations and violations of civil liberties.

The second problem is that Central Asian countries prefer to cooperate on counterterrorism with non-regional actors, e.g. the United States, the EU, Russia, Turkey and others, or within the UN, OSCE, the Collective Security Treaty Organization, the Shanghai Cooperation Organization, rather than establish intra-regional dialogue to address this issue properly, especially with Afghanistan. 2018 field trip to Kabul and meetings with high-level officials reinforced the absence of cross border cooperation with the Afghan security forces on travel of terrorists, as Central Asians are not ready to collaborate daily with their Afghan counterparts.

Recent special operations focusing on bringing foreign terrorist fighters, including women and children from Syria back to the region in 2019 (Kazakhstan, Uzbekistan and Tajikistan) were the result of successful cooperation with big powers rather than a regional decision. A well-established dialogue on terrorism and extremism issues should be established, as it will result in a better approach towards information sharing, borders and profiling. Additionally, this will help address the threats that might arise from the Afghan terrorist groups.

The third problem has to do with the governments’ (non)communication about terrorist threats. Whereas the level of terrorism threat is relatively low, regional governments do not communicate with the public in case of an actual threat of a terrorist attack, forgetting the main audience and leaving it behind when an incident occurs. As a result, it is extremely difficult to counter terrorism in non-democratic societies, where everyday communication between the government agencies and the public is minimal. The lack of trust between both sides poses a great challenge for improving these relations. The absence of alternative and/or independent media makes this task even more difficult.

Strengthening the legitimate use of force to ensure domestic security is necessary, yet the Central Asian governments’ current approach demonstrates a major imbalance in the citizens’ civil liberties and security. In Central Asia, where political rights and civil liberties, in particular freedom of (online) expression, freedom of speech, freedom of assembly and freedom of religion, have been significantly limited for the sake of stability, social media has also been manipulated by the governments. People across the region are now being arrested for posting, sharing or ‘liking’ politically, nationally or religiously “incorrect” or sensitive content on social media on the pretext of countering extremism. Citizens’ unawareness and lack of knowledge when it comes to behavior during terrorist attack and what extremism is and what is not are also of great importance. Along with the missing communication on potential threats, it is also necessary to educate people, communicate with them and inform them in a timely manner which actions are appropriate, and which are not.

These and other relevant issues should be further explored during the implementation phase of the new EU Strategy on Central Asia, which outlines ad hoc measures on countering violent extremism challenges in Central Asia in order to create resilient societies across borders.

SEnECA blog contribution by Anna Gussarova, Director of the Central Asia Institute for Strategic Studies (CAISS) in Almaty, Kazakhstan