Twin attacks on Tatarstan’s top Islamic clerics shake the republic

Eurasia Daily Monitor
July 20, 2012 — Volume 9, Issue 138

Experts Warn North Caucasus Violence Could Spread to Russia’s Volga Region

On July 19, a double attack against the official Islamic leadership of Tatarstan took place in the republic’s capital, Kazan. In the space of 15 minutes, the mufti of the republic, Ildus Faizov, and his deputy, Valiullu Yakupov, came under attack in two different locations. Yakupov was gunned down at the entrance of the apartment block where he lived. Faizov’s car was blown up, but the mufti survived as he managed to get out of the car after an initial smaller explosion. However, both of his legs were broken in the incident (

The president of Tatarstan, Rustam Minnikhanov, announced a $30,000 reward for any information leading to the perpetrators of the crime (

Mikhail Babich, Moscow’s envoy to the Volga federal district, which includes Tatarstan, stated that the authorities considered the double attack on the religious leaders of the republic as an act of terror ( President Vladimir Putin called the attack in Tatarstan a “worrying signal” and called on the Russian people to reaffirm the unity of the country ( According to other reports, Faizov survived three explosions in his car only because he did not sit in the passenger’s seat, but drove the car. The attack took place a day before the start of the holy Muslim month of Ramadan and large antiterrorist exercises planned in Tatarstan. The brazenness of the attack likely indicated rising capabilities of the Islamic groups in this republic, who are the primary suspects behind the attack, and a corresponding failure of the security services (The Moscow Times, July 20). On July 20, five people were arrested on suspicion of involvement in the attack – one of the arrested was an Uzbekistani citizen (, July 20).

Putin’s remark about “unity of the country” may be the key to understanding the situation in Tatarstan. This oil rich republic is one of the handful of Russian regions that are financially self-sufficient. Tatarstan has constantly sought greater political autonomy since the collapse of the Soviet Union and has been able to make its voice heard because of its economic and political weight. The Tatars are the second largest ethnic group in Russia after ethnic Russians, comprising just over 50 percent of Tatarstan’s total population of 3.8 million. They are also present in large numbers in other Volga regions, especially in neighboring Bashkortostan, where over one million ethnic Tatars reside (2010 census, Tatarstan managed to retain many of its constitutional privileges that other republics of the Russian Federation were forced to abandon. For example, the republican constitution says Tatarstan is “a democratic state with rule of law” that is united with the Russian Federation through the republic’s constitution, the constitution of the Russian Federation and a bilateral agreement (

Tatarstan’s traditional independent stance in Russian domestic politics makes it a likely target for the increasingly authoritarian and nationalist leadership in Moscow. At the same time, Moscow’s pressure on Tatarstan to reduce the republic’s distinctness and autonomy is causing a backlash among Tatar nationalists and political elites. In this tense environment, it is also natural for Islam to play a role. Paradoxically, the more successful Moscow is in suppressing Tatar identity and reducing Tatarstan’s autonomy, the greater the role Islam is likely to play there as a mobilizing and militant force. Whether or not Moscow is deliberately working to antagonize Tatar nationalists and breed an Islamic insurgency in the republic and then conveniently crush both is hard to say, but that is the direction in which events in the republic are moving.

Ildus Faizov became Tatarstan’s mufti in the beginning of 2011 amid a scandal. The previous mufti of Tatarstan, Gusman Iskhakov, was forced to step down in January 2011, following clashes between the security forces and the Salafis in the republic’s Nurlat district in November 2010. The republican leadership and the police stated they would not tolerate any “non-traditional” Muslim forces in the republic, referring primarily to those who followed Salafi teachings. According to some estimates, as of 2011 the number of Salafis in Tatarstan had reached up to 3,000, while 120 Tatars were studying in religious institutions in Saudi Arabia. Some experts were calling for “de-Salafization” of the republic, warning against the “Ingush-Dagestani development scenario” (

The well-known journalist and expert on Islamic organizations in Russia, Maksim Shevchenko, stated that the attack against Tatarstan’s mufti may have been purely criminal, caused by a mundane conflict over the distribution of funds ( The chairman of the Islamic Committee of Russia, Geidar Jemal, said that police officers who had been fired may have taken revenge by organizing the attack. Of course, the Salafis are among the most likely suspects in the attack (, July 19). Alexei Malashenko of the Carnegie Moscow Center warned that if the government did not do the right thing, the situation in the Volga region, including Tatarstan, would follow the North Caucasus’ path of radicalization. Already, Malashenko said, people from Central Asia and the North Caucasus have started “to infiltrate” the Volga region. Tatar expert Rais Suleimanov stated that the republic was following the North Caucasian path, as extremists from the North Caucasus were spreading radical ideas among Tatar Muslims. Suleimanov rejected suggestions vilifying the Russian security services, saying that these theories tried to justify “Wahhabism and religious terrorism” (, July 19).

According to a report in the Russian newspaper Nezavisimaya Gazeta, 10 out of 50 mosques in the city of Kazan are under the strong influence of Muslim leaders from the North Caucasus. The author of the report, Gleb Postnov, asserts that infiltrating radical Islamic teachers into the Volga regions is the policy of North Caucasus militant leader Doku Umarov. It is noteworthy that, according to Postnov, radical Tatar youth who are not necessarily Islamic are trying to mimic North Caucasian cultural features. The report tries to equate the Islamic radicals and Tatar nationalists (

Neither side in the emergent conflict in Tatarstan – certainly not the government – appears to be willing to engage in a dialogue with the other. This means that the conflict is likely to worsen. While Moscow might be tempted to use the presence of radical Islamists in Tatarstan as a pretext for cracking down on Tatarstan’s nationalists, this move would likely create more problems for Moscow than it would actually solve. Massive repression against “the wrong type of Islam” is still possible in the Volga region, since the Russian government often tends to overreact. Issues related to bilateral relations between Moscow and Kazan, however, will not dissipate and Islam will seek its role in this complex relationship.

–Valery Dzutsev


…while bomb blast near Almaty illustrates troubling trend of growing religious extremism in Kazakhstan

Bomb Blast Connected to Terrorist Activity in Kazakhstan Kills Eight People in Almaty Province

On July 11, an explosion occurred at a house in the village of Tausamal in Almaty province in Kazakhstan. Eight men (including four children) were killed. Prosecutors in Kazakhstan’s Almaty region launched a criminal inquiry on July 12 into the explosion. Criminal cases were opened under Article 24 Part One (plotting to commit a terrorist act) of the Penal Code and under Article 233 (terrorism) of the Penal Code. The cases could be handed over to the republic’s National Security Committee. The area around the house where the blast occurred was cordoned off. A search through the rubble led to the discovery of firearms, police ammunition and Muslim literature (The Kazakh Telegraph Agency, July 13).

The President of Kazakhstan Nursultan Nazarbayev without delay reacted to the explosion. “The law-enforcement agencies are responsible for the preservation of stability and rule of law in the country. As the President of the country, I am not satisfied with the work done by the law-enforcement agencies and the National Security Committee, in particular. Those efforts that we are making are not effective enough,” President Nazarbayev said at a counter-terrorism meeting in Astana on July 12. At the end of the meeting, Nazarbayev ordered that measures be taken to monitor terrorist threats, better coordinate the work of various law enforcement bodies, improve the skills of their personnel and tighten the security of sites vulnerable to terrorist attacks. (Kazakhstan Today, July 12).

The Head of State also listened to Prime Minister Karim Massimov’s report on the results of the first stage of an evaluation of the work of senior officials of the central and regional law enforcement forces. According to Massimov’s report, 20 percent of law enforcement officers had not passed the state-wide attestation process, and 10 percent resigned before it started (Kazakhstan Today, July 12). The Kazakhstani President initiated the reform of the security and law enforcement system in 2010, with the aim of making the country’s law enforcement agencies meet international standards. It is expected that significant structural changes will take place in the Interior Ministry, the judiciary system, the national security committee and police.

Prior to the wave of terrorist attacks in 2011, the problem of Islamic radicalism in Kazakhstan was less ubiquitous than in the other Central Asian republics. But now, the situation is changing dramatically. From 2011-2012, more than one hundred criminal acts connected with terrorism and extremism occurred in Kazakhstan. A few dozen civilians and policemen were killed by terrorists. The authorities are now officially beginning to recognize the existence of illegal armed groups operating within the country.

According to Kozy-Korpesh Djanburchin, a deputy secretary of the security council of Kazakhstan, around 10 percent of the country’s population is composed of highly religious people who strictly follow religious practices, while the number of those willing to learn more about religion and engage in religious practices is ever growing. Even though an increasingly religious population is not a source of potential conflict per se, “there is a risk that some of the international terrorist and religious-extremist organizations are taking purposeful steps to secure a lasting presence on the territory of Central Asia, including our country,” Djanburchin explained. According to Djanburchin, at least 300 people engaged in terrorism and extremism have been convicted in this country since 2005 (Kazakhstan Today, July 12).

Evgeniy Zhovtis, the leader of the Kazakhstan International Bureau for Human Rights and Rule of Law sees clear parallels between the current situation in Kazakhstan and the situation at the beginning of the 1990s in Uzbekistan. “Social problems and corruption provoke religious extremism. As in Uzbekistan, the Kazakhstani authorities are starting to severely crack down on religious radicals.” As Zhovtis noted, about five years ago, the authorities quite rarely arrested Islamic radicals, but now this is the usual practice. The human rights defender believes that only a few convicted Islamic radicals are really terrorists. He argues that the authorities established an isolated detention center in Chimkent province (southern Kazakhstan). “There is a pretrial detention center for Islamic radicals arrested throughout Kazakhstan. The authorities established it because [extremist] Islamic propaganda turned out to be rather successful among convicts [in the country’s regular prison system],” Zhovtis told Jamestown on July 14.

“The external factor, that is, help originating from abroad going to Kazakhstan’s terrorists – is not the main cause of terrorist activity in Kazakhstan,” Dr. Aleksey Malashenko, the leading researcher at the Carnegie Moscow Center, explained to Jamestown on July 17. According to Dr. Malashenko, the external factor is very serious for Uzbekistan, Tajikistan and partly Kyrgyzstan. A lot of men from these republics were trained in Islamic radical military camps in Afghanistan and North Pakistan. But as the researcher believes, only a few Kazakhs were trained in Afghanistan. “Of more importance for the growth of religious extremism in Kazakhstan is social tension and, perhaps, the competition between different Kazakh tribes. Now the most tense situation is in western Kazakhstan – where the Adai tribe lives. The Zhanaozen rebellion happened, exactly, in the Adai area,” Malashenko noted.

Analyst and director of the Fergana news agency Daniil Kislov holds a similar view. “The activity of terrorists in Kazakhstan is explained merely by internal factors. This is corruption, and the enormous social inequality and the growth of interference of Kazakh authorities in the life of believers” Daniil Kislov argued in an interview with Jamestown on July 18.

Dr. Dosim Satpaev, the director of the Almaty-based think-tank Risk Assessment Group, disagrees with Dr. Malashenko and Mr. Kislov, however. “During the last twenty years, Kazakh Muslims have extensively been in contact with Muslims from abroad. Many Kazakhstanis studied in Islamic universities in Egypt, Turkey and Saudi Arabia. Some of them believe that an Islamic state is the optimal model for Kazakhstan. Some Kazakhstanis fought against the international coalition in Afghanistan and some of them returned home” Dr. Satpaev told Jamestown on July 18. According to the researcher, this external factor for Kazakhstan could become more important in the future. “The influence of foreign Islamic radicals is much higher in Uzbekistan and Tajikistan than in Kazakhstan. But if foreign Islamic radicals manage to destabilize the situation in Tajikistan and Kyrgyzstan, then after that they will concentrate their efforts on Kazakhstan,” Satpaev asserted.

However, as Dr. Satpaev admits, for now the importance of the external factor for Kazakhstan’s internal security should not be overestimated. “After the collapse of the Soviet Union, an ideological vacuum developed in Kazakhstan. People were disappointed with the communist system, but they are not happy with the new system either. Many people are starting to identify corruption and social inequality with capitalism, and many of them are beginning to think that only the Islamic model can resolve social problems. These views generate serious preconditions for Islamic terrorism,” Dosim Satpaev noted. Thus, ongoing systemic domestic reforms, carried out in parallel with more effective policing, will clearly be vital in order to tackle the threat of extremism in Kazakhstan before it becomes a more widespread problem in the republic.

–Igor Rotar


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