Nur-Sultan, 231 Kazakhs repatriated from Syria over feared links with the Islamic State

The group includes 156 children, most under six, thought to be children of foreign fighters. At least 4,000 young people from Central Asia have been recruited by the Islamic Caliphate. It is important to “neutralise the threat imposed by terrorists before they return home on their own,” says one experts.

Nur-Sultan (AsiaNews/Agencies) – Kazakh authorities have repatriated 231 Kazakh citizens from Syria many of whom are believed to be members of the Islamic State group in that country, said Kazakh caretaker President Kassym-Jomart Tokayev[i] said.

On Monday, Kazakh Deputy Foreign Minister Yerzhan Ashikbayev told a press conference that the group includes 16 men, 59 women and 156 children, most under six with 18 orphans. The authorities believe that some of the fathers are foreign fighters.

Upon landing in Nur-Sultan,[ii] all the men and four women were taken into custody for ties to Islamic terrorism. In January, another 47 Kazakh nationals were repatriated from Syria.

The Central Asian nation is not the only former Soviet Republic to have detained alleged terrorists. Earlier this month, Tajikistan brought home 84 minors from Iraq (picture 2), the offspring of Tajik women married to fighters, in jail or on trial for IS membership.

The recruitment of young Muslims for IS’s war against Western powers is a long-standing issue In Central Asia. According to official sources, at least 4,000 people left the region through Russia and Middle East to fight in Syria and Iraq.

In 2015, the Kyrgyzstan’s ulema issued an edict to excommunicate the Islamic State as a way to counter the organisation’s ideological appeal. "True Islam has always opposed extremism and the killing of innocents," said one cleric.

To counter radical ideas among youth, the Kyrgyz government also banned Hajj (pilgrimage) to Makkah for those under 35.

Over the years, a number of Central Asians have been involved in international terrorism. Sayfullo Saipov, author of the Halloween massacre in New York in October 2017, came from Uzbekistan; Akbarzhon Jalilov, responsible for the St Petersburg metro attack in April 2017, was from Kyrgyzstan; Abdulkadir Masharipov, the jihadist behind the New Year's massacre at the Reina club in Istanbul in 2017, was Uzbek; Gulmurod Khalimov, a well-known commander in Tajikistan special forces, joined IS in 2015 and was killed in Syria in 2017.

Amanzhol Urazbayev, a reserve KNB[iii] colonel who frequently comments on security matters, said that Kazakhstan’s mission is not only humanitarian. “Also important is that the evacuation allows Kazakhstan to neutralise the threat imposed by terrorists before they return home on their own,” he explained.

However, other experts highlight the risk that Islamic terrorism can be used as a pretext by governments to suppress internal dissent.

[i] Mr Qasym-Zhomart Toqaev will hold office until June when presidential elections will be held, following long-time President Nursultan Nazarbayev's surprise resignation.

[ii] On 20 March 2019, the capital of Kazakhstan was renamed from Astana to Nur-Sultan in honour of the long-serving Kazakh President Nursultan Nazarbayev.

[iii] National Security Committee of the Republic of Kazakhstan.