Saturday, 12 November 2011

An evolution in Kazakh militant tactics?

Another militant attack has hit Kazakhstan, this time in the southern city of Taraz near the border with Kyrgyzstan. The country's deputy prosecutor general said that a lone gunman went on the rampage, killing five security officers, two civilians, and finally, setting off his explosive belt, himself. 

The attack is the single most deadly to have hit Kazakhstan in its year of discontent, which began with the suicide attack in Aktobe on May 17. It also marks a geographic expansion of the militant campaign, which has so far been concentrated in the west (with rare attacks in Almaty and Astana).

The full details of the Taraz attack are still a little sketchy and may never be fully revealed, but two things stand out from existing accounts. 

Firstly, the attacker - identified as 'Kariyev' - was fairly amateurish. He began by shooting dead two police officers who were tailing him, suggesting he was unable to disguise his intent and forced to begin his operation before intended. This goes some way to explaining the rest of the attack, in which Kariyev travelled between locations shooting police officers - and two civilians - as he did so, before blowing himself up as a police officer attempted to disarm him.

This is in line with other militant attacks in Kazakhstan, which appeared to have been the work of fairly unskilled operators who have, for instance, killed only themselves in premature bombings. The attacker was also alone, suggesting that a multi-member team could not be assembled for the attack. 

However the second point is that this may mark a tactical evolution of sorts. Kariyev may have simply been a suicide bomber on his way to a security service target, and armed as a precaution, when his cover was blown. But the Associated Press claims that at one point Kariyev went home to pick up a grenade launcher, a serious piece of kit which raises the possibility that this was a complex attack - a gun and grenade rampage ending with a suicide bombing, the favoured tactic of the Haqqani network in Afghanistan (among many others).

Previous attacks in Kazakhstan this year have been direct suicide bombings or gun attacks on security personnel. A combined attack suggests that the militants are becoming more confident, and capable of launching attacks outside their usual area of operations. The relative amateurishness of the attack does not contradict this.

Suspicion will fall on the Jund Al-Khilafah, the little-known militant group based on the Afghan-Pakistan border which threatened attacks in response to Kazakhstan's new restrictive law on religion, and claimed responsibility for the unsuccessful October 31st bombings in Atyrau. 

But questions remain over the relationship between Jund Al-Khilafah and the Kazakh militants. Are they sending ethnic Kazakh fighters back from Afghanistan to start a new wave of violence? Are they providing local militants with arms and training? Or are they simply inspiring religious Kazakhs to take up arms against the government?

Answers will be difficult to come by, but given the pace of attacks, it seems that the Taraz attack won't be the last in Kazakhstan's new struggle with Islamist militants.

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