Central Asia

Moscow on alert for Muslim militancy
By Sergei Blagov

MOSCOW - Although armed Islamic militants have not been active in mountainous Central Asia for two years, government officials in the region voice concern over threats of Muslim militancy, and Moscow has dispatched a high-ranking security envoy to the volatile region to assure its Central Asian allies.

The emergence of the Russia-led Collective Security Council (CSC) of six post-Soviet states as an international organization enlisting new member states would allow a zone of stability to be created from Asia to the Atlantic, General Valery Nikolayenko was quoted by RIA news agency as saying in Bishkek, Kyrgyzstan on September 17. Not only post-Soviet states could join the CSC, he said, but he failed to elaborate.

Nikolayenko, head of the CSC, which includes Russia, Kazakstan, Kyrgyzstan, Tajikistan, Belarus and Armenia, traveled to Tajikistan from September 11-13, and then to Kyrgyzstan to discuss issues of "military and political cooperation".

Yet despite Nikolayenko's encouraging message, these days Kyrgyz officials repeatedly voice security concerns. On September 16, Kyrgyz National Security Service head Kalyk Imankulov claimed that Muslim militants belonging to various groups had banded together to form the Islamic Movement of Central Asia (IMCA). Imankulov alleged that the IMCA may attempt to carry out acts of sabotage in order to move towards its ultimate goal of creating an Islamic caliphate.

According to Imankulov, the IMCA is headed by the interim chief of the Islamic Movement of Uzbekistan (IMU), Tahir Yuldashev, and includes Kyrgyz, Tajik, Uzbek, Chechen and Xinjiang separatists. He also claimed that these Islamic militants had set up bases in Afghanistan's Badakhshan province.

Muslim extremists in Central Asia are reportedly dominated by the IMU, once led by Juma (aka Jumaboi) Namangani, a former Soviet paratrooper and Afghan war veteran. The IMU fighters crossed into Kyrgyzstan in August 1999 and August 2000, seeking to enter Uzbekistan from the north through Kyrgyzstan. Subsequently, Namangani was reported to have been killed in the course of the Taliban demise, yet these reports are yet to be confirmed.

Moreover, Imankulov also claimed that the banned Hizb-ut-Tahrir Kyrgyz Islamic party of some 3,500 members keeps ties with Muslim militants and al-Qaeda, allegedly aiming at creating an Islamic caliphate in the Ferghana Valley, a hub of Islamic radicalism. Earlier, in September, Kyrgyz Prime Minister Nikolai Tanayev warned that radical members of the Hizb-ut-Tahrir movement could engage in armed action.

Last February, Hizb-ut-Tahrir leader Adakham Baltabayev and seven other activists were arrested in southern Kyrgyzstan. Last August, the Kyrgyz authorities seized an arms depot, allegedly belonging to Hizb-ut-Tahrir, in the Jalal-Abad region, currently a hotbed of anti-government protests.

Within the past few months Kyrgyz, Tajik and Uzbek officials have voiced concern over the perceived threat of an armed incursion by Muslim militants. Kyrgyz Defense Minister Esen Topoyev claimed that a few hundred Islamic militants were located in Afghanistan's Badakhshan province, and another 1,500 fighters in Paktia province. Moreover, Tajik officials have claimed that Namangani was alive, regrouping and hoping to launch a strike into the Ferghana Valley.

However, the Central Asian governments are yet to provide any independently verifiable evidence that Muslim extremists have sustained capabilities of resuming their Central Asian insurgency.

After meeting with Kyrgyz President Askar Akayev, Defense Minister Esen Topoyev and Deputy Security Council Secretary Askarbek Mameyev, the CSC's Nikolayenko stated that there was no threat of outside invasion in the region.

Moreover, earlier this month, Akayev traveled to Russia to meet President Vladimir Putin. It is "important" for Kyrgyzstan to get advice on international politics from Russia, Akayev was quoted as saying by RIA on September 9. Putin reportedly stated that Russia viewed Kyrgyzstan as its "strategic partner and ally".

Putin and Akayev reportedly discussed the unsuccessful assassination attempt against the acting chief of the Kyrgyz presidential administration, Misir Ashirkulov. The Kyrgyz government has quoted the incident as evidence of the growing threat of Muslim radicalism and political violence.

Ashirkulov survived a grenade attack on September 6 carried out by unknown assailants. On September 11, Ashirkulov was moved to a Moscow elite hospital for further treatment. Putin promised his Kyrgyz counterpart assistance in investigation of the incident.

It is understood that vocal public warnings of the perceived threat of Muslim militancy might serve as a pretext for some Central Asian leaders to ensure economic and military assistance from Russia and the US simultaneously.

Notably, Russia and Kyrgyzstan have maintained close political and military ties, and Akayev has tended to support the Kremlin's policies in the region. In response, Moscow has backed Akayev's regime and warned against "interference in Kyrgyz internal affairs" in connection with continued protests in southern Kyrgyzstan.

Kyrgyz volatility raises questions about the viability of some post-Soviet groupings, including attempts of security integration. Kyrgyzstan is a member of a number of international groupings, notably the CSC and the Shanghai Cooperation Organization (SCO), which also includes Kazakhstan, Tajikistan, Uzbekistan, China and Russia. The SCO summit on June 7 in St Petersburg, Russia decided to launch a joint anti-terrorist center in Bishkek.

Therefore, Moscow seemingly views Kyrgyzstan as a sort of security outpost of Russian-led post-Soviet groupings in the heart of Central Asia. Yet it remains a matter of debate whether Kyrgyzstan could sustain a role of security hub with a backdrop of domestic volatility and the perceived threat of Muslim militancy.

(©2002 Asia Times Online Co Ltd. All rights reserved. Please contact content@atimes.com for information on our sales and syndication policies.)
Sep 19, 2002


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