New threat or con­ve­nient tar­get?

Ac­tivists worry over Rus­sia’s swift crack­down on Cen­tral Asian mi­grants af­ter St. Peters­burg bomb­ing

The Washington Post Sunday - - THE WORLD - BY DAVID FILIPOV david.filipov@wash­post.com Zhyldyz Bek­baeva in Jalal-Abad, Kyr­gyzs­tan, con­trib­uted to this re­port.

moscow — The ar­rests are de­ci­sive, dra­matic and na­tion­ally tele­vised.

As the cam­era rolls, masked Rus­sian coun­ter­in­tel­li­gence agents jump out of a van and dash across a field out­side Moscow. They take down a man in a blue coat, pin him to the pave­ment and pull a pis­tol from his pants. This is Abror Az­i­mov, the TV an­nouncer says, “one of the or­ga­niz­ers” of last month’s bomb­ing of a St. Peters­burg sub­way train, which killed 16 peo­ple.

In the next scene, agents ar­rest Az­i­mov’s older brother, Akram. They pull a gre­nade from a bag he is car­ry­ing. The el­der brother, the an­nouncer says, is also an ac­com­plice in the bomb­ing.

The de­ten­tions, broad­cast re­cently on one of Rus­sia’s most­watched news pro­grams, are de­signed to show law en­force­ment’s re­solve. They give the pub­lic a name for a new en­emy in Rus­sia’s strug­gle against do­mes­tic ter­ror­ism: mi­grant work­ers from Cen­tral Asia. And, some rights ad­vo­cates worry, they are the har­bin­ger of a new wave of re­pres­sion against a vul­ner­a­ble mi­nor­ity.

The Az­i­movs are part of a group of about 20 sus­pects rounded up in the weeks fol­low­ing the at­tack in what Rus­sian law en­force­ment au­thor­i­ties say is an ag­gres­sive pur­suit of Is­lamist ex­trem­ists in­volved in the bomb­ing. All the sus­pects re­port­edly hail from pre­dom­i­nantly Mus­lim, strife-torn for­mer Soviet re­publics of Cen­tral Asia, from which, Rus­sian Pres­i­dent Vladimir Putin re­cently es­ti­mated, sev­eral thou­sand peo­ple have left to join the Is­lamic State.

Rus­sian au­thor­i­ties say they are act­ing pru­dently to pro­tect their coun­try from a clear and present threat. Last month, Alexan­der Bort­nikov, direc­tor of the Fed­eral Se­cu­rity Ser­vice, or FSB, said agents had thwarted 16 ter­ror­ist at­tacks across Rus­sia in 2016, most of which in­volved mi­grants from other for­mer Soviet re­publics.

But some worry that mi­grant work­ers from Cen­tral Asia make con­ve­nient tar­gets. In the 2013 cam­paign for Moscow mayor, both the even­tual win­ner, Sergey Sobyanin, and the run­ner-up, op­po­si­tion leader Alexei Navalny, cam­paigned on tough stances to­ward eco­nomic mi­grants from the re­gion.

“They are treated like sec­ond­class hu­mans in Rus­sia,” said Tanya Lok­shina, Rus­sia pro­gram direc­tor for Hu­man Rights Watch.

Clam­p­down fears grow

As the “caliphate” crum­bles and the Is­lamist mil­i­tants re­turn from the Mid­dle East, the con­cern in Moscow is that they will travel to Rus­sia to in­fil­trate the large pop­u­la­tion of Mus­lim eco­nomic mi­grants from Cen­tral Asia — be­tween 2.7 mil­lion and 4.2 mil­lion peo­ple, ac­cord­ing to a 2016 study pub­lished by the Moscow-based journal Rus­sia in Global Af­fairs.

Cit­i­zens of Kyr­gyzs­tan — the home coun­try of the Az­i­movs and Ak­barzhon Dzhalilov, the sus­pected sui­cide bomber in the St. Peters­burg at­tack — can travel to Rus­sia with­out a visa, as can those from Ta­jik­istan and Uzbek­istan. These coun­tries in­ter­sect in the Ferghana Val­ley, a volatile re­gion that has seen a growth of strin­gent ver­sions of Is­lam and the re­cruit­ment of hun­dreds of mil­i­tants to fight in the Is­lamic State.

Cen­tral Asian mi­grants, who come to fill the low-pay­ing jobs that Rus­sians of­ten refuse, be­come vul­ner­a­ble to Is­lamist mil­i­tant pro­pa­ganda be­cause of their “rather dif­fi­cult so­cial-eco­nomic po­si­tion” in Rus­sia, said An­drei Kazant­sev, a spe­cial­ist on Cen­tral Asia and a mem­ber of the Val­dai Dis­cus­sion Club, a Moscow think tank.

Some an­a­lysts are sus­pi­cious of the au­thor­i­ties’ speed in iden­ti­fy­ing the al­leged or­ga­niz­ers of the St. Peters­burg bomb­ing. Kazant­sev is not, at­tribut­ing the re­sults to the sheer num­ber of po­lice and coun­ter­in­tel­li­gence agents ded­i­cated to the in­ves­ti­ga­tion.

Three days af­ter the bomb­ing, Rus­sian in­ves­ti­ga­tors said they had ar­rested eight pos­si­ble ac­com­plices in the sub­way at­tack. Along with the footage of the Az­i­movs’ ar­rest, Rus­sian tele­vi­sion has broad­cast sev­eral FSB videos show­ing agents kick­ing down doors, tak­ing sus­pected mil­i­tants into cus­tody and dis­play­ing what nar­ra­tors de­scribe as bomb com­po­nents. One video showed the bod­ies of two men, shot by agents, the nar­ra­tor says, af­ter they put up a fight.

No one doubts that Cen­tral Asia is pro­duc­ing Is­lamist mil­i­tants, but some Rus­sian ob­servers fear that the crack­down will ex­tend to blame­less civil­ians. They re­fer to Rus­sia’s re­sponse to mil­i­tancy in the North Cau­ca­sus re­gion along the coun­try’s south­ern border. There, fed­eral forces fought two civil wars in Rus­sia’s semi­au­tonomous repub­lic of Chech­nya. They are com­bat­ing a simmering Is­lamist in­sur­gency in the neigh­bor­ing repub­lic of Dages­tan, and fac­ing Is­lamic State fight­ers re­turn­ing home to these re­gions. Along with sus­pected mil­i­tants, rights ad­vo­cates say, thou­sands of in­no­cents have been sub­ject to im­pris­on­ment, tor­ture and sum­mary ex­e­cu­tion.

Arkady Dub­nov, an in­de­pen­dent Cen­tral Asia an­a­lyst based in Moscow, said that au­thor­i­ties are clearly “hur­ry­ing to prove the Cen­tral Asian con­nec­tion” to the St. Peters­burg at­tack, which is stok­ing “fear of mi­grants among the Rus­sian pop­u­la­tion.” He said au­thor­i­ties had pro­vided lit­tle ev­i­dence of the sus­pects’ ter­ror­ist links, other than “fake de­tails of an in­ves­ti­ga­tion and staged ar­rests.”

The Az­i­mov broth­ers’ mother, Vazira Mirza­khme­dova, said in a state­ment last month that she be­lieved her el­dest son, Akram, had been kid­napped by au­thor­i­ties from a hos­pi­tal in south­ern Kyr­gyzs­tan, and that the ar­rest out­side Moscow had been staged. In an in­ter­view in their home in Jalal-Abad, the Az­i­movs’ youngest brother, Bi­lal, said that “ev­ery­one in Rus­sia knows” that the ar­rests were “a setup, the­ater.”

When FSB agents pre­pare to de­tain an armed ter­ror­ist, he said, they nor­mally wear body ar­mor. In both of the tele­vised ar­rests, the agents do not ap­pear to be wear­ing pro­tec­tive vests un­der their jack­ets, and their guns are hol­stered, even though a nar­ra­tor says they knew the sus­pects would be armed.

In­ves­ti­ga­tors said that Akram Az­i­mov had ad­mit­ted that he and his brother had been ac­com­plices in the bomb­ing, but in court Az­i­mov de­nied in­volve­ment in the at­tack.

Rus­sia’s FSB did not re­spond to a re­quest for com­ment.

‘Base for rad­i­cal el­e­ments’

Jalal-Abad is in Kyr­gyzs­tan’s part of the Ferghana Val­ley. The area has pro­duced a prom­i­nent field com­man­der in Syria, Sirozhid­din Mukhtarov, known as Abu Salah al-Uzbeki, who is be­lieved to have been re­cruit­ing fight­ers from his na­tive re­gion since 2013. One Kyr­gyz news site has re­ported that Abu Salah or­dered the St. Peters­burg bomb­ing, although the SITE In­tel­li­gence Group, a pri­vate com­pany that mon­i­tors ter­ror­ist or­ga­ni­za­tions, re­ported last month that a group called the Imam Shamil Bat­tal­ion claimed re­spon­si­bil­ity for the at­tack.

A well-known imam in KaraSuu, Kyr­gyzs­tan, not far from Jalal-Abad, was con­victed in 2015 for pos­ses­sion of ex­trem­ist lit­er­a­ture.

“Lack of op­por­tu­ni­ties and ac­cess to good ed­u­ca­tion among youth, a poor la­bor mar­ket, con­flict ten­sions among eth­nic groups, po­lit­i­cal tur­bu­lence and wide­spread cor­rup­tion in the gov­ern­ment sys­tem leave a large part of the pop­u­la­tion vul­ner­a­ble and marginal­ized,” said Aky­lai Ka­ri­mova, an ac­tivist from the Ferghana Val­ley city of Osh, Kyr­gyzs­tan, who runs a U.N.-funded project to re­duce rad­i­cal­ism among young peo­ple. “These, in turn, be­come a per­fect base for rad­i­cal el­e­ments to spread among them.”

Un­til now, the eco­nomic re­wards of work­ing in Rus­sia, even in lower-pay­ing jobs, were worth en­dur­ing the se­cond-class treat­ment faced by many mi­grants. Ac­cord­ing to the 2016 study in Rus­sia in Global Af­fairs, 31 per­cent of Kyr­gyzs­tan’s gross do­mes­tic prod­uct came in the form of re­mit­tances from Rus­sia.

But the news of ar­rests af­ter the St. Peters­burg at­tack has changed some peo­ple’s minds, Ka­ri­mova said. “They seem lost, say­ing, ‘There is no point for us to go to Rus­sia now,’” she wrote in an email.

There is ev­i­dence that the tele­vised crack­down is hav­ing an ef­fect on Rus­sians, too. In a sur­vey of 1,800 Rus­sians taken in the wake of the bomb­ing, 60 per­cent said they be­lieved the threat of in­ter­na­tional ter­ror­ism has in­creased in re­cent years. But 75 per­cent said they be­lieved Rus­sian au­thor­i­ties could pro­tect them from it.

DAVID FILIPOV/THE WASH­ING­TON POST

Two women in tra­di­tional garb walk past a stall sell­ing stylish Western women’s cloth­ing in a sprawl­ing bazaar in Kara-Suu, Kyr­gyzs­tan.

Vazira Mirza­khme­dova, sit­ting with her grand­son, is the mother of Abror and Akram Az­i­mov, both ac­cused of the bomb­ing of a sub­way sta­tion in St. Peters­burg. She be­lieves her sons are in­no­cent.

THE WASH­ING­TON POST

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