Although armed Islamic groups in Central Asia have been largely neutralized since 9/11, oppression of moderate, non-violent Muslim organizations could lead to the radicalization of a new generation, some analysts warn.
Although recent reports suggest that the outlawed Islamic Movement of Uzbekistan (IMU) has been regrouping and could threaten stability in Central Asia, experts and regional observers remain unconvinced. The IMU is a coalition of Islamic militants from Uzbekistan and other Central Asian states opposed to Uzbek President Islam Karimov's secular regime.
The armed IMU and non-violent Hizb-ut Tahrir movement are the most well known radical Islamists in Central Asia. The IMU is on the US State Department's formalized list of 33 Foreign Terrorist Groups, while Hizb-ut Tahrir is operating freely from its London headquarters, but is legally banned in all Central Asian states. Hizb-ut Tahrir's ideology envisages a strict Islamic state and the re-establishment of the medieval Arab caliphate in the region.
The IMU is believed to have been responsible for five car bombs in Tashkent in February 1999. Militants also took foreigners hostage in 1999 and 2000, including four US citizens who were mountain climbing in August 2000, and four Japanese geologists and eight Kyrgyz soldiers in August 1999. In Operation Enduring Freedom launched in late 2001, the US-led counter terrorism coalition had been captured, killed, and dispersed many of the IMU's militants who were fighting with the Taliban in Afghanistan and severely degraded the movement's ability to attack Uzbek or Coalition interests in the near term.
A Questionable Threat
But Stephen Young, the US Ambassador to Kyrgyzstan, said last month that there had been efforts by militants in Central Asia to target US interests. "The clearest threat seems to be coming from the Islamic Movement of Uzbekistan, which despite being dealt a heavy blow in Afghanistan in the fall of 2001, has re-emerged as an active organization here in Central Asia," Young said.
David Lewis, the head of the Central Asia Project of the International Crisis Group (ICG), a Brussels-based conflict-resolution group, told IRIN from the southern Kyrgyz city of Osh that there had been some regrouping of the IMU. "But I think in most cases their activities have been somewhat exaggerated. They do still pose a potential threat in small numbers to the region, but they are probably not quite as effective as perhaps some people in security forces think they are," he said.
The ICG said in a recent report on radical Islamic groups in Central Asia, that reports of IMU members returning to central Tajikistan or the southern regions of Uzbekistan were frequent but very difficult to substantiate. The report added that while there was some evidence that the IMU was trying to regroup, there was also evidence that many of its members had merged into the wider Taliban movement, busy trying to foment Jihad against US-led forces in neighboring Afghanistan.
But individuals and groups sympathetic to, or inspired by, the IMU remain active in Central Asia. An alleged member of the IMU was arrested in Uzbekistan in 2003 and charged with blowing up an exchange booth in Osh in May 2003, and a market in the Kyrgyz capital Bishkek in December 2002. "Explosions in the Oberon market of Bishkek last year and in Osh this year have been carried out by the members of the organization that names itself as IMU," Bolot Januzakov, deputy head of the Kyrgyz Presidential administration told IRIN from Bishkek.
Other regional observers remain unconvinced. "I think the IMU military force has been destroyed in the war [on terror]," Ahmed Rashid, the author of books on the Taliban movement and militant Islam in Central Asia, told IRIN from the Pakistani city of Lahore. Asked whether the IMU was an explicit threat to the region, Rashid said: "It's an exaggeration, at some stage of the game the IMU could once again become a political force, but as a military force, I don't think it's possible. The IMU only became a military force because it had the support of the Taliban, Al-Qaeda, Islamist elements in Tajikistan, where it had bases, all those factors have now gone," the eminent author said.
He went on to say that it was well-known that IMU political leader Takhir Yuldashev was in hiding in the tribal belt between Pakistan and Afghanistan, and he had probably had a few IMU fighters with him. "I think it's not a military threat, it is still a political threat because of the network of underground supporters in Central Asia, which have not really been touched by the Americans or local security forces," Rashid noted.
Januzakov said that Kyrgyzstan was not going to drop its guard and would continue hunting down IMU sympathizers and other militants. "They [IMU] have blended among the population and they can unite at any time and can start creating tensions. One must not exclude this danger," he said, adding that the armed forces and law-enforcement bodies of Kyrgyzstan were taking the necessary measures to be ready for any changes in the situation.
Others fear militant Islamic groups like the IMU could remake themselves as political entities, capitalizing on widespread resentment of the authoritarian governments that characterize the region. Rashid believes that in order to tackle the issue, the political systems in Uzbekistan and Kyrgyzstan needed to open up and embrace opposition groups. "Particularly in Uzbekistan there needs to be a party political system. President Karimov does not allow opposition parties to exist, there is more harassment of political and human rights groups now than there was ever before 9/11 and I think the Americans have done very little to contribute to an opening up of the political scene," he said.
According to the ICG, there is some sympathy for Hizb-ut Tahrir and the IMU in the Fergana Valley, shared by Uzbekistan, Kyrgyzstan and Tajikistan and for the IMU in the Surkhandarya and Kashkadarya regions of Uzbekistan, which have borne the brunt of government efforts to control independent Islam in Uzbekistan. Residents of these areas do not necessarily sympathize with the objectives to establish a caliphate but many are searching for alternatives to the closed political systems they live under.
Tashkent has faced strong international criticism for its crackdown on human rights activists, independent media and some peaceful Muslim organizations, like Hizb-ut Tahrir members. Some reports stated that there are currently up to 4,000-5,000 Hizb-ut Tahrir members in Uzbek prisons.
In Kyrgyzstan, the authorities are said to be cracking down on Hizb-ut Tahrir members as well, while in neighboring Tajikistan, there are continuing reports about the arrest and trial of the organization’s followers. As for Turkmenistan, there have been few reports about Hizb-ut Tahrir activities, but in this most repressive of Central Asian states where virtually everything non-governmental is banned or outlawed, Hizb-ut Tahrir appears to have virtually no open support, analysts said.
Some sources estimate the overall number of the organizations' followers in Central Asia to be roughly 15,000 to 20,000. However, it is difficult to obtain an accurate figure as the organization has got a highly secretive structure with just four to five people in each hujra, or cell, operating completely independently of other groups of sympathizers.
The danger is that further harassment of non-violent groups, including Hizb-ut Tahrir, could radicalize and marginalize them, leading to the creation of a new generation of angry young men willing to pick up the gun. If this process happens on a large scale, it could negate any gains emanating from the US-led war on terror in Central Asia and beyond. "There is no doubt that there is a network of sympathizers and supporters of radical Islam inside Central Asia, who are still very much there and very much underground," Rashid warned.
IRIN, January 14, 2004