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Return of the Jihad

Central Asian authorities see the hand of an old foe at work in some recent attacks, but are they really fighting shadows instead? by Igor Rotar 28 August 2007 OSH, Kyrgyzstan | The July arrests in Afghanistan of men linked to a militant Islamic movement from Uzbekistan, and a trial of some of the group’s alleged members in Tajikistan, add weight to charges that extremists have renewed their efforts in the heart of Central Asia.

But some say the authorities are seeing conspiracies where they don’t exist in order to justify their own excesses. And they say official overreaction could be fueling the very activity it is meant to extinguish.

The Tajik and Kyrgyz governments have claimed recently that the Islamic Movement of Uzbekistan (IMU) has stepped up attacks in the Ferghana Valley, the most densely populated region in Central Asia, taking in parts of Tajikistan, Kyrgyzstan, and Uzbekistan. Afghan security forces announced in early July that they had arrested several men with connections to the group.

The IMU was formed in the late 1990s to overthrow the government of Uzbek President Islam Karimov and establish an Islamic state. It is on several countries’ lists of terrorist organizations and on the UN’s list of organizations associated with the Taliban, Al Qaeda, and Osama bin Laden.

The Tajik and Kyrgyz governments blamed the IMU for a 12 May 2006 attack that killed several people on the border of the two countries. Shortly afterward, officials rounded up dozens of people allegedly linked to the IMU in Kyrgyzstan and Tajikistan.

The Ferghana Valley

In August 2006, security forces followed up by killing Muhammadrafik Kamalov, one of southern Kyrgyzstan’s most prominent imams.

Bakyt Bekibaev, director of the National Security Service in Osh, told journalists at a press conference that two members of the IMU wanted in connection with the 2006 attack were found in Kamalov’s car. Bekibaev said passengers in the car had opened fire when security forces tried to stop the car after receiving a tip that terrorists were inside, and the security forces fired back.

Three people in the car, including Kamalov, were killed in the shootout. According to independent observers from Osh, Kamalov blamed Uzbek President Islam Karimov for the 1995 disappearance of Ivovali Kori Mirzoev, an imam from Andijan whose whereabouts are still unknown, and Kamalov openly sympathized with opponents of the Uzbek government.

Sadullo Nizomov, a lawyer for the accused IMU members standing trial in Tajikistan, acknowledges that a powerful terrorist network is working in the Ferghana Valley to overthrow Karimov, but he says his clients are not part of it.

The group includes Tajiks and Uzbeks, Nizomov said. One of its leaders was Rasul Ahunov, an Uzbek citizen killed by Kyrgyz security forces in September.

According to Nizomov, Ahunov and at least three other Uzbek members of the group lived in northern Tajikistan under assumed names with forged Tajik passports. They collected money for the group’s operations, including funds from those members working in Russia, the lawyer said.

“I think that the real leaders of the organization are still free. The 14 young Tajiks who are on trial now were just duped. They were tricked into entering a bunker where they studied the Koran and soldiering for 14 days. They were threatened with decapitation if they didn’t follow orders,” Nizomov said. The men face charges of assault and illegal weapons possession.


Some doubt, though, that an established militant group is behind the attacks.

Six months ago, a video message from Tahir Yuldashev, the IMU’s ideological founder, was distributed throughout the Uzbek-populated districts of Kyrgyzstan. In it, Yuldashev said it is not yet time for the fight in Central Asia. Instead, he said, “Today, our primary goal is to emancipate Iraq and Afghanistan from the American occupation.”

Many analysts in the region say the governments use the term IMU to refer to any movement aiming to overthrow the Uzbek government. According to an August report by the International Crisis Group think tank, the IMU “is generally thought to be but a shadow of the force that launched military incursions into Kyrgyzstan and Uzbekistan in 1999 and 2000.”

Even some Tajik authorities have told Crisis Group investigators that some of those arrested for attacks in the past two years have been IMU sympathizers rather than “armed combatants or terrorists” the report states.

Alexandr Knyazev, a political scientist with the Kyrgyz-Russian Slavic University in Bishkek, said that although the Ferghana Valley is divided among three countries, it remains a cultural unit. So it was natural that when the Uzbek government brutally cracked down on protesters in the Ferghana Valley town of Andijan in 2005, “The activities of the militants simply moved to the Kyrgyz and Tajik parts of the valley.”

In a similar vein, the Crisis Group notes that “security officials in Kyrgyzstan and
Tajikistan have expressed concern that the clampdown on religious opposition of all kinds in Uzbekistan might cause militants to enter their countries.”

But Knyazev said, “It would be a mistake to call those people members of IMU and Akramiya (a network of business people in Uzbekistan that the government and some analysts say advocated jihad and the establishment of an Islamic state). The only thing that unites these different radical groups is their hatred for the current Uzbek government.”

Zhamsibek Zakirov, an adviser on religious affairs for the Kyrgyz government, said officials are simply confused by the profusion of Islamic groups. “Islamic radical organizations are sprouting like mushrooms after the rain, and day by day the number of new members grows dramatically.”

Tahir Yuldashev, the ideological leader of the Islamic Movement of Uzbekistan. Courtesy of news agency.

The 14 on trial now come from the same town where Rasul Ahunov lived illegally, according to Abdurahim Ahorov, director of the regional office of the Tajik Interior Ministry. That town, Isfara, sits near the Kyrgyz-Tajik border. The territory of Tajikistan narrows in that area, and IMU members fought their way across it in 1999 and 2000, from Kyrgyzstan, through Tajikistan, to Uzbekistan. “The situation at the cross-border zone between the three countries creates a perfect base for the activity of the Islamic radicals,” Ahorov said.

The population of Isfara is much more religious than elsewhere in Tajikistan. In 2005, secret police captured 20 alleged members of a radical group named Bayat. According to the authorities, the members of this organization killed Sergey Bessarab, a Protestant missionary, and burned down a wine shop and several mosques whose imams had cooperated with the government.

During the capture, members of Bayat opened fire on the secret police. Muzasharif Islamudinov, then-mayor of Isfara, said at the time, “Bayat became known in our district for the first time only in 1997 when the police arrested a citizen of Uzbekistan who was a close relative of one of the leaders of IMU for a murder. It was at that time that investigators found that the murderer had been in close contact with the secret organization of Bayat.”

According to a statement from the Tajik authorities, Tajik members of Bayat have fought for the Taliban in Afghanistan, and today some are locked up at the U.S. military prison at Guantanamo Bay, Cuba.

One analyst, who wished to remain anonymous because he works in the Isfara administration, said the group fills a vacuum. “Although the IMU aspires to play a uniting role for the Muslims of Central Asia, in reality it is just a Turkic organization,” the analyst said. “For hundreds of years, the Turkic and Tajik people in the region have vied for a leadership role. … Failing health and the eventual death of a leader of the Islamic Revival Party of Tajikistan, Said Abdullo Nuri, has made the party a less effective opponent of the Tajik government. In this situation, independent Muslims are simply forced to look for alternative parties within the Islamic Revival framework.”

But lawyer Nizomov is skeptical. “In its case, the government accuses my clients of having a relationship with Bayat,” he said. “In order to make the case more provocative, the government is trying to prove a link between the two radical organizations IMU and Bayat. I defended so-called Bayat members at their trial two years ago, and I am confident that this kind of organization doesn’t exist. As for the murder of the Protestant missionary, he was killed by a single person, and the rest of the so-called Bayat members were tried based on false accusations.”

Muhiddin Kabiri, head of the Islamic Revival Party of Tajikistan, agrees with Nizomov to some extent. “I don’t think that the current trial of the IMU members is falsified. However, in my opinion, the so-called Bayat case was totally fabricated in 2005. The word ‘Bayat’ means ‘oath’ in Tajik. During the trial in 2005, the accused told the court that they had given an oath to serve for Islam. The court decided that this was only the name of the organization, nothing more.”

Phantom or menace, these groups have an impact either way. For even the threat of their existence has helped to justify religious repression in some Central Asian countries.

As the Crisis Group report warns, claims of the resurgence of extremist groups may seem exaggerated, but if such claims continue to feed the crackdowns on religious liberty and civil society, particularly in Uzbekistan, “the danger that they could become a self-fulfilling prophecy will grow.”
Igor Rotar is a journalist based in Osh, Kyrgyzstan.
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