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Terrorism's 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.
Peaceful jihad
(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 attacks.

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 and extremism.

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 Badakhshan province.

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.

(Copyright 2004 Asia Times Online Ltd. All rights reserved. Please contact content@atimes.com for information on our sales and syndication policies.)


Mar 31, 2004



 

 

 
   
         
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