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Security delegation meets in Kazakhstan to assess new terror threat

A security delegation from the United States has met with officials in Kazakhstan in the wake of a foiled terror attack against the central Asian nation, an intelligence source told AMI. The incident that spawned the security meeting came less than a month following a four-day gun battle that rocked Aktobe in early June.

The security meeting took place "within the past week," said the source, who said the American participants came from "a mix of pertinent agencies." The source did not clarify whether the participants all traveled from outside of Kazakhstan in order to attend the meeting. "The purpose was to assess any potential emerging terror threat."

"We have people in place in Astana," a second intelligence source said, referencing the capital city. "I expect a number of them took part."

The meeting sprang from "a sense of urgency connected to two possibly connected events," the second source said.

The first event was the four-day rampage beginning June 5, when assailants robbed two gun stores in Aktobe and stormed a military base, near the northwest border with Russia. The attacks prompted ongoing gunfights with security forces, leaving some 25 dead and more than 40 injured in what was termed the deadliest internal attacks in the country's history.

The second event was on June 29, when officials detained several members of a group accused of planning what the Kazakh National Security Committee termed "terrorist acts using improvised explosive devices."

During the arrests, one of the suspects reportedly killed himself by detonating an IED.

The government of Kazakhstan said both incidents were the work of Salafists, who adhere to a strict form of Sunni Islam that advocates jihad, and who reject other forms of Islam.

In a statement following the June attacks, Kazakhstan President Nursultan Nazarbayev said that the assaults were directed by outside actors, raising the specter of Kazakhstan in the crosshairs of foreign-directed jihad.

"We had two close together attacks from Salafists," said an expatriate who gave his name only as Aslan, for fear of compromising family members remaining in Kazakhstan. Aslan left home for the United States five years ago when he felt that the Nazarbayev government had become too restrictive. Said Aslan: "Are these attacks the sign of things to come?"

That is what the American security delegation aimed to address in its meeting in Astana, sources said.

"Obviously, we want to look at that," the first intelligence source said.

Terrorism and dissent might not spring from a clear cause, though, one expert said.

"What happened? We objectively know that it happened," said economist Steve Hanke, a Johns Hopkins University professor who previously served as an advisor to Nazarbayev, speaking in reference to the June attacks.

But the attacks might have less to do with external than internal influences, Hanke said.

"In the past, there have been little revolts and eruptions that always have been tamped down," Hanke said. "To some extent they have been connected with corruption scandals or banking problems."

Added the economist: "You always have to look at money and banking and the economy."

In that sense, Kazakhstan has had much recent turmoil.

According to the CIA World Factbook, the Kazakhstan economy has reeled from financial crises that, among other things, caused its currency, the tenge, to be devalued twice since 2014.

"My own family lost money, not from personal fault, just from the tenge being worth not as much," the expatriate Aslan said.

Other internal problems include proposed land reforms that opponents say will hurt or dispossess small farmers. When citizens staged protests this year against the proposed reforms, many were arrested.

These and other issues could factor into ongoing security problems, the intelligence source acknowledged — as did the economics professor.

"Little grievances can take on a life of their own," Hanke said. "The general public that might not have any grievances or be part of the plot might be willing to join the crowd or look the other way."

Despite the internal issues, Kazahktan, a former Soviet republic, has maintained a measure of international stability, balancing its foreign relations in such a way as to remain friendly with the United States, Russia and China.

Security in Central Asia has far reaching implications, a U.S. government official told Congress last month.

In a June 9 testimony, Daniel Rosenblum, the Deputy Assistant Secretary of State for South and Central Asian Affairs, said that a deteriorating Central Asia could weaken security elsewhere.

"We seek to prevent violence and the emergence of conditions that could result in states becoming havens for terrorist groups hostile to the United States," Rosenblum told the House Foreign Affairs Committee.

Hence the meeting to discuss the presence of Salafists in Kazakhstan.

What ultimately came of the meeting?

"Information," the intelligence source said.

The situation was determined secure enough, meanwhile, for international astronauts to depart for space from Kazakhstan.

On Thursday local time, three space travelers — from the United States, Russia and Japan — blasted off from Kazakhstan's Baikonur Cosmodrome, headed for the International Space Station. The crew expects to return in four months.