eastward expansion: Uzbekistan
By Sergei Blagov
MOSCOW - Terrorist attacks in Uzbekistan contradict claims that the
American-led offensive in Afghanistan has effectively destroyed the
hotbed of Muslim radicalism in Central Asia.
Uzbek officials say that a series of attacks over the past few days - including
suicide bombings and shootings - killed 19 people and injured at least 26
others. On Tuesday, a car bomb exploded at a police checkpoint on the outskirts
of the capital Tashkent, injuring a number of people.
President Islam Karimov addressed the nation and said that the bombings had
been plotted by "outside forces and foreign extremists". Uzbek
prosecutor-general Rashid Kadyrov argued that
With internal repression
[in Uzbekistan] still at its peak, sooner or later the peaceful jihadis [of the
Hizb ut-Tahrir] may exchange the pamphlet for the bomb.
(Nov 25, '04)
Asia Times Online
the attacks were carried out by Islamic extremists, notably the Hizb ut-Tahrir
al-Islami (Party of Islamic Liberation). He said that suicide bombings were
previously unknown to Uzbekistan, and indicated foreign involvement in the
Two suicide bombings in Tashkent and an explosion in the ancient town of
Bukhara have rocked the nation. One of the Tashkent market blasts was
reportedly set off by a female suicide bomber and targeted a group of
policemen. So far, there have been no reports of high-profile suicide bombings
in Uzbekistan - or elsewhere in Central Asia for that matter.
Authorities claim that the materials used in the explosives were similar to
those used in a series of simultaneous bombings in Tashkent in February 1999,
an alleged assassination attempt against Karimov, which was blamed on the
Islamic Movement of Uzbekistan (IMU).
The IMU was once led by Juma (aka Jumaboi) Namangani, a former Soviet
paratrooper and Afghan war veteran. IMU fighters crossed into Kyrgyzstan in
1999 and 2000, seeking to enter Uzbekistan from the north through that country.
Subsequently, Namangani was reported to have been killed in the course of the
Taliban demise in 2001, yet these reports are yet to be confirmed. Moreover,
Tajikistan officials have claimed that Namangani is alive, regrouping and
hoping to launch a strike into the Ferghana Valley.
IMU activity re-surfaced recently away from Central Asia, in Pakistan. The
Pakistani military's offensive in the tribal areas in South Waziristan, near
the Afghan border, indicated that government troops might have wounded Tahir
Yuldashev, the IMU's leading commander.
Uzbekistan has taken notice of the developments in Pakistan. On March 23,
Karimov called on Islamabad to hand over any Uzbek citizens taken prisoner in
South Waziristan. The Uzbek leader also claimed that the IMU and Yuldashev were
"almost dead, if not physically, then morally". It took just a week for
Karimov's rhetoric to prove over-optimistic.
However, on March 29, Foreign Minister Sadyk Safayev reportedly declined to
indicate whether the attacks could have been linked to Pakistan's crackdown.
In the past, many IMU militants, mostly Uzbeks, joined the Taliban and fought
for years alongside Uighurs and Chechens against the Northern Alliance, which
consists mostly of ethnic Tajiks. For them, Tashkent has become an obvious
target because Uzbekistan has been a strong supporter of the United States-led
campaign in Afghanistan, and American troops are using a former Soviet air base
at the southern city of Khanabad to support operations against the resurgent
Taliban in Afghanistan.
There have been media allegations of the IMU's complicity outside Central Asia.
On March 1, a report in the Russian daily Nezavisimaya Gazeta alleged that IMU
operatives were active in Kabul, as well as in Turkey, Iran and Pakistan. The
daily quoted IMU defectors as alleging that in its recent inroads into
Afghanistan and Kashmir, the IMU had been backed by anti-Western elements in
Pakistan's security services.
Moreover, it has been claimed that an effort is under way to unify radical
Islamic groups in Central Asia, including those among the Hizb ut-Tahrir
al-Islami, Uighur separatists, the IMU, and possibly Chechen separatists.
On the other hand, if Uzbek allegations of the Hizb ut-Tahrir's involvement in
the bombings are confirmed, it would mark the first time that the group has
been implicated directly in a terrorist attack. The group claims to be
nonviolent, but its ultimate goal is still jihad against kafr (non-believers),
the overthrow of existing political regimes and their replacement with a
caliphate (khilafah in Arabic), a theocratic dictatorship based on the
Sharia (religious Islamic law).
Hizb ut-Tahrir now has an estimated 5,000 to 10,000 members, and many
supporters in Uzbekistan, Kazakhstan, Kyrgyzstan and Tajikistan. At least 500
are already behind bars in Uzbekistan alone. Most of its members are believed
to be ethnic Uzbeks. Moreover, Hizb ut-Tahrir has reportedly extended its
influence into China's traditionally Muslim Xinjiang Uighur Autonomous Region.
The Hizb used to reject terrorism, believing the murder of innocent bystanders
to be a violation of Islamic law. However, the use of "heavy-handed repression"
by Central Asian governments, notably by Uzbek authorities, seems to have
encouraged the Hizb ut-Tahrir to adopt more confrontational tactics.
However, according to a RFE/RL report, Imran Waheed, a spokesperson for the
Hizb ut-Tahrir in London, denied his group's involvement. He said that Hizb
ut-Tahrir was nonviolent and condemned the killing of innocent civilians: "Our
understanding of the whole issue is that attacking innocent civilians is
condemned by Islam. So it is unacceptable this attack in Tashkent and we know
historically that in the past the government has orchestrated several such
attacks itself in order to crack down on peaceful and nonviolent Islamic
movements, such as Hizb ut-Tahrir, as we saw previously with the bombings in
Tashkent a few years ago."
Uzbekistan is a member of the Shanghai Cooperation Organization, which groups
together Russia, China, Tajikistan, Uzbekistan, Kazakhstan and Kyrgyzstan. The
group has drafted "the Shanghai anti-terror convention" and decided that the
organization would have a regional anti-terrorist force in the Kyrgyz capital,
Bishkek. The force is to tackle jointly such threats as terrorism, separatism
There have been no reports that Uzbekistan sought assistance from the
anti-terrorist force. However, in the wake of bombings in Uzbekistan,
Kazakhstan has increased border security and Kyrgyz border guards followed suit
along the Uzbek frontier.
Two years ago, Kyrgyz security officials claimed that Muslim militants
belonging to various groups had banded together to form the Islamic Movement of
Central Asia (IMCA) to plot terrorist attacks and move towards the ultimate
goal of creating an Islamic caliphate in the Ferghana Valley, a hub of Islamic
radicalism. According to Kyrgyz officials, the IMCA has been headed by
Yuldashev - the man believed to be active in Pakistan - and includes Kyrgyz,
Tajik, Uzbek, Chechen and Xinjiang separatists with bases in Afghanistan's
Since late 2002, there have been warnings that al-Qaeda would support terrorist
attacks in Central Asia. However, strikes were expected in Kyrgyzstan or
Tajikistan, both of which lack the capabilities that Uzbek authorities possess
to crack down on anti-government activity.
Now, as the US and the North Atlantic Treaty Organization are still preoccupied
with democracy-building in Afghanistan, governments in Central Asia and beyond
have reason to worry about potential threats from militants that fought
alongside Afghanistan's Taliban militia.
For instance, Russia has been struggling to suppress Chechen rebels and other
Muslim extremists. Moscow has banned the Hizb ut-Tahrir and extradited some
suspects to their home countries in Central Asia. No big wonder that on Monday
the Russian Foreign Ministry promptly denounced the Uzbek bombings. Foreign
Minister Sergei Lavrov also urged to destroy "the nest of terrorism" in
Afghanistan. Russian officials have previously complained that the
international operation in Afghanistan merely dispersed - and failed to destroy
- the Taliban and other Muslim radicals.
Beijing could have reasons for concern as well. There have been reports of
cooperation between militant groups like IMU and IMCA and Uighur separatists,
who, like Hizb ut-Tahrir, have never formally advocated violence.
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Mar 31, 2004
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