A mysterious video was uploaded to Telegram on January 7 showing four supposed terrorists with a Kalashnikov and a Kazakh flag who claimed to be members of a group called the "Kazakh Liberation Front", or KLF.
Speaking for the group, one of the four members went on make political demands on the Kazakh state, using technology to distort his voice. All four were wearing ski masks and their eyes were obscured by black bars added to the video.
The spokesman said the group is actively fighting in various cities across Kazakhstan as part of the ongoing anti-government protests that broke out on January 2.
The group said the involvement of the Russia-led “peacekeeping” forces in the country’s civil unrest was the start of an occupation, encouraging citizens to “fight back, create resistance groups and organise attacks” against the Kazakh government and Russian military.
It didn’t take long for the video to break the confines of Telegram and go viral on Twitter. Conflict researcher @war_noir was one of the first English language accounts to share the recording, which had clocked 90,000 views at the time of writing. A number of Twitter users openly supported the group’s formation without questioning the authenticity of the footage.
The video is timely, as the KLF’s announcement came shortly after Kazakh President Tokayev blamed “foreign-trained terrorists” for the violent protests, and gave law enforcement the order to “shoot to kill without warning”. Residents in Almaty have been warned to stay at home after a curfew was imposed last week as “anti-terrorist” actions are being conducted.
Tokayev has also used the claims of an attack orchestrated by international terrorists to trigger Article 4 of the Collective Security Treaty Organisation (CSTO) that allows him to call on the other members to send military aid to restore public order.
And there is some evidence for terrorists acting in Kazakhstan. As bne IntelliNews reported, there has been plenty of footage shared on social media of civilians arming themselves, although a question mark remains over the authenticity of this footage.
The Kazakh authorities have been much more successful in their ability to control access to information in this crisis. Social media was allowed to operate unfettered during Ukraine’s EuroMaidan revolution in 2014, and Belarus' President Alexander Lukashenko was unable to close down the Telegram messaging service during the mass protests in Minsk in the summer of 2020, which caused him a major headache. But the Kazakh authorities successfully shuttered the internet entirely during this protest. That gave it complete control of the information flow, as the population have only state TV and calls to relatives and friends to rely on to get information on what is going on.
The other source of reporting is Russian state-owned media and in particular, the only source of English-language reporting is the Kremlin’s flagship RT broadcaster. Both the Kazakh authorities and Russians have a vested interest in hamming up the conflict and the role of international terrorists in particular. As bne IntelliNews has reported, a Russian state-owned news agency TASS report of soldiers firing on protesters on Republic Square on January 5 appears to be fake, but has been widely reported on both state and international news outlets.
Getting accurate and verifiable information has been extremely hard. Two of the best known international correspondents who have been working in the country for years – Joana Lillis and Paul Bartlett – happened to be outside Kazakhstan on a Christmas break and have been refused entry on their return to report on the story. bne IntelliNews’ own correspondent in Almaty is currently one of the only English-language reporters working on the protest story.
Amongst the many videos is one from January 5 allegedly showing protesters raiding an armoury, and photos released by the Kazakh Ministry of Internal Affairs the same day depicted numerous weapon seized from protesters, including handguns and rifles. The existance of an anti-government militia sounds plausible.
Yet Tokayev’s claims of orchestrating “foreign-trained terrorists” didn’t have any basis until the appearance of the KLF video.
Many questions remain that undermine the authenticity of the video. The biggest problem is this is the first appearance of the group that has played no recorded role in Kazakh politics until now. If KLF are who they say they are, it is also the first documented militia group involved in the unrest. And the Kazakh authorities have released no evidence to back up their claim that international terrorist organisations are involved in the unrest, nor has it named the KLF as one of those groups.
Another red flag is the group’s use of Russian to deliver their message and KLF’s manifesto, published on its Telegram channel, is written in Russian. Although widely spoken, the country’s predominant language is Kazakh. A Kazakh patriotic group would presumably speak in their national language when encouraging violence against a foreign force, or at least have a Kazakh slogan, particularly when they are against what they call “Russian occupation”.
Several Twitter users also highlighted video claiming to show Ukrainian militants threatening terrorist attacks against the Netherlands. The investigative platform Bellingcat proved that the video was fake and likely staged by the Internet Research Agency, an institute infamous for churning out online disinformation and Kremlin propaganda. The video’s setting, timing and rhetoric, which includes the Ukrainian militants claiming to have “guys in the Netherlands ready to obey any order”, undoubtedly parallels KLF’s tone.
Others on social media said the spokesman’s accent is distinctly Ukrainian. A poll of native Russian speaks on Twitter conducted by bne IntelliNews sharing the video found that 40% of the respondents identified a Ukrainian accent, 24% said the accent was Russian, another 25% said there was no discernible accent, but only 10% said the accent was Kazakh.
The group is threatening to take action against the members of the CSTO force. A message sent on the evening of January 7 to the KLF Telegram channel threatens Belarusian CSTO forces. They allegedly know “all movements of the occupation troops on the territory of Kazakhstan, as well as personal data on the officers”, asking Belarusian commander, Colonel Dmitry Sobol, not to “carry out criminal orders” for his personal safety. They end the message with: “You are on the radar of our informers, and so far we are only watching. You have very little time left.”
In van Linge’s opinion, “a mysterious video where Kazakh insurgents are threatening violence against CSTO forces would be just what Putin and others needed to justify the very same CSTO forces being present in Kazakhstan” he said on his Telegram channel. “Since there are no known anti-government terrorist groups in Kazakhstan, the Kremlin needs to fabricate one into existence using a tried and tested propaganda campaign.”
Pro-Kremlin Twitter users latched on to the video and accused the US of backing the KLF, feeding into the popular disinformation narrative that the West is funding or agitating the protests. One of the Kremlin’s underlying narratives in any revolution or conflict is that Russia is there as a peacekeeper whilst a bellicose West surreptitiously intervenes to expand its sphere of influence.
Even if KLF are successfully proved to be fictitious, the Russian and Kazakh governments, and their supporters, will only denounce the investigation as Western propaganda, as was the case with the Flight MH17 and Skripal investigations. In this sense, the damage is done, and KLF’s video is already enough evidence to back their “foreign-trained terrorist” narrative.
The video continues to be shared online, although no mainstream media organisation has reported on the militia or its video so far. A few specialist or small media outlets have reported on the story: within the EU, a Cypriot news outlet with around 20,000 Facebook followers, Gegonotstomikroskpio.com, published an article describing KLF as terrorists encouraging “civil war”. The website also promotes disinformation and conspiracy theories often propagated by the Kremlin, including COVID-19 and vaccine scepticism, as well as support for Belarusian autocrat Alexander Lukashenko.
The story has made a much bigger impact in Russian-language media. Multiple news websites report on KLF with absolute certainty of their existence, although these are still small outlets. The Russian news site The Daily Storm included a quote from Kirill Seymenov, a member of the Moscow think-tank Russian International Affairs Council, who seems to support the legitimacy of KLF: “I think there will be many more organisations. If people have a lot of weapons in their hands, they will of course try to turn into some kind of group.”
Another Russian website, Independent Gazette, stated that the rebels are Ukrainian military and that the voice-over has a Ukrainian accent, which in the Russian media world is a slur, as the Kremlin’s line is that the Maidan revolution in 2014 was orchestrated by far-right Ukrainian nationalists.
The various repoprts muddy the waters, a tactic the Kremlin has used to defang reports it is not happy with. So many versions of the story come out that at the end of the day the public don't know what to believe any more. If it’s revealed that KLF does exist, then legitimate media have a hard job catching up with the baseless conspiracy theories already circulating online.
No credible source has verified the KLF existence so far. Its existence should be taken with a pinch of salt. Nevertheless, Russian and Kazakhstan state media are making hay from the release of the video.