Violent incidents in Tajikistan and Kyrgyzstan seem to be symptoms of instability rather than a new wave of organised Islamic militancy. By Dadodjan Azimov in London (Institute of War and Peace Reporting).
A spate of violent incidents in the Fergana Valley this year has sparked concern that militant Islamic groups are undergoing a resurgence. The violence, focusing on the Tajik-Kyrgyz border region, has been cited by officials as proof that the paramilitary Islamic Movement of Uzbekistan is back in action and the banned Hizb-ut-Tahrir group has taken up arms. However, Central Asian analysts interviewed by IWPR say the picture is less clear-cut, and that sporadic armed clashes between suspected militants and the security forces do not add up to a coordinated campaign by a resurgent guerrilla grouping. In addition, they say, to simply blame the obvious culprits – the IMU and Hizb-ut-Tahrir - is to oversimplify a complex picture made up of armed groups, economic problems and poor government.
TURBULENT REGIONAL BACKDROP
The incidents include a prison break, clashes between armed men and security forces on both sides of the Kyrgyz-Tajik border, and the killing of a prominent Muslim cleric in southern Kyrgyzstan. In some cases the militants deliberately staged the attacks, in others gunfire was exchanged as a result of raids conducted by the security services. Commentators note that these outbreaks of violence come in the wake of two major events that reverberated around the region last year, and many see a direct connection. Weeks of demonstrations in Kyrgyzstan culminated in the popular uprising of March 24 which ousted the government of President Askar Akaev and led to prolonged political instability. A month and a half later, on May 13, Uzbek security forces used live fire to break up a demonstration in Andijan, killing hundreds and forcing many residents to flee to neighbouring Kyrgyzstan.
The shock waves of Andijan, coupled with the undercurrent of tension in Kyrgyzstan, created an environment in which militancy could thrive. “The Fergana Valley is a single ethno-cultural region, and events in Andijan obviously increased tensions in neighbouring Tajikistan and Kyrgyzstan,” said Igor Rotar, adding that that another important factor was “the legal vacuum that emerged in post-revolutionary Kyrgyzstan.” Most of the valley lies within Uzbekistan, and has been the heartland of Islamic resistance to President Islam Karimov's regime over the past 15 years. Waves of arrests over that period, first of prominent clerics, then their supporters, then suspected IMU supporters, and more recently real or alleged members of Hizb-ut-Tahrir, have kept the situation more or less under control through repressive measures.
Many analysts argue that the Uzbek policy has been counterproductive, generating hostility to the regime rather than laying the foundations for true stability. “In the short term it has been very successful in terms of preventing any further violence in Uzbekistan,” said a western analyst in Tashkent who asked to remain anonymous, referring specifically to Uzbek government tactics since Andijan. “The recent sacking of the hokim [governor] of Andijan and the president's comments confirm, however, that until social conditions improve, and other outlets of protest are allowed, Islamic radicalism may remain the only means for people to express their frustrations.” The Andijan protests were sparked by a trial of local men accused of being part of a different and little-known group identified as “Akromia”. It is not clear whether such a group actually existed, as there was little independent proof available apart from that provided by prosecutors in a notoriously flawed judicial system.
INCIDENTS CLEARLY INTERCONNECTED The continuing high level of control exerted by security forces in Uzbekistan means, paradoxically, that violent incidents are focused just outside its borders. The authorities in both Tajikistan and Kyrgyzstan have expressed concern at what they see as a resurgence in Islamic militant activity in their respective parts of the Fergana valley. The biggest of several related incidents occurred in May, when armed men raided a Tajik frontier post on the border with Kyrgyzstan. After plundering guns, the group forced its way into the Batken region in Kyrgyz territory, where the military deployed hundreds of troops to pursue them. The fighting left three Tajik border guards and six Kyrgyz soldiers and customs officers dead. Four attackers were killed and one was captured. The identity of the armed group was unclear, although officials suggested links both with Hizb-ut-Tahrir and the IMU, whose guerrillas were active in Batken in 1999-2001.
The Kyrgyz authorities subsequently made a number of arrests, and said they had “indisputable evidence” that the detainees were Hizb-ut-Tahrir members. In October, three men including an Uzbekistan national were sentenced to death for the raid, two others were given ten years in prison and a woman was given a suspended sentence. Kyrgyzstan has introduced a moratorium on the death penalty, so the men are not in imminent danger of execution. The Tajik authorities suggested the raid was carried out by some of the same individuals who attacked a prison in the town of Kairakkum in January, freeing a man who was facing charges of arms possession and links to “illegal armed groups”.
Towards the end of the summer, the Kyrgyz security forces embarked on a security clampdown in the south of the country, both as a direct response to the May clashes and because they said they had intelligence indicating that insurgents were making plans to cross from Tajikistan. In the course of one such operation, a man accused of being a leading IMU figure, Rasul Akhun, died in early September following a firefight with Kyrgyz police in the city of Osh. The National Security Committee said he too was linked to the May raid. A month earlier, a leading cleric called Rafiq Qori Kamoluddin was shot dead along with two other men. The authorities claimed he had IMU links, but friends and relatives denied this. The cleric was based in the town of Karasuu right on the border with Uzbekistan, and reportedly commanded a lot of respect among local Muslims. Significantly, this operation involved Uzbek as well as Kyrgyz security officers. President Kurmanbek Bakiev's policy of close cooperation with Uzbekistan on security and counter-terrorism is designed to fend off criticisms from Tashkent that the more liberal administration in Kyrgyzstan has not done enough to clamp down on political Islam.
THE USUAL SUSPECTS?
The Andijan crackdown contributed to creating an environment conducive to instability in the wider Fergana Valley region, although in the Kyrgyz part of the valley there are also domestic political causes that cannot be discounted, either. “Tashkent's repressions [after Andijan] have been forcing radical Muslims to seek refuge in neighbouring areas of Tajikistan and Kyrgyzstan,” said Rotar. The Tashkent-based western analyst added, “I think the refugee flow from Andijan… probably contributed some individuals to those organising in both Kyrgyzstan and Tajikistan, and the general crackdown maybe strengthened the resolve of the most hardened, though at the same time it warned off those who were only loosely connected to these movements.”
Inside Uzbekistan, he said, Islamic militancy has probably not been eradicated, but it has been “driven even further underground and [is] maybe smaller in size, but more hardened and desperate enough to carry out further attacks”. What remains unclear whether the IMU or Hizb-ut-Tahrir as organisations are active in Kyrgyz and Tajik areas of the Fergana valley, and whether either group – or perhaps a different one - is building up the capacity to mount more sustained guerrilla actions. Governments in the region say they are. “These border incidents are a consequence of activity by religious movements,” said Jolbars Jorabekov, head of the Kyrgyz government agency for religious affairs. “The situation in Kyrgyzstan is extremely unstable. Religious movements become visible at such times, when there is unrest. If the situation is stabilised, these groups too will decline.”
In Jorabekov's view, the most likely suspect is a more radical version of Hizb-ut-Tahrir. The party, originally of Middle Eastern origin, gained a foothold in Uzbekistan and subsequently spread to neighbouring Central Asian states in the late Nineties. It survives despite being banned and having its members arrested across the region, especially in Uzbekistan where the number of detentions runs into the thousands. Although it calls for the overthrow of regional governments, Hizb-ut-Tahrir literature calls for peaceful action. But officials like Jorabekov talk of an “extremist wing of Hizb-ut-Tahrir” that may now support violence. “Their approach is now completely different,” he said. “Five years ago they were more inclined to engage in proselytising, whereas now they are more hard-line, more extreme.” Commenting on the May attacks, Batken regional prosecutor Ryskul Baktybaev said in July that it was clear that Hizb-ut-Tahrir was no longer the “peace-loving organisation” of the early Nineties when it first appeared in Central Asia, and that followers were involved with other extremist Islamic groups.
“There is a direct link between members of Hizb-ut-Tahrir and the IMU,” he said. Other analysts accept that there may have been some crossover between Hizb-ut-Tahrir and other groups, but insist this does not mean a formal merger. “It's possible that some radical members of Hizb-ut-Tahrir have joined the IMU,” said Sanobar Shermatova, a Moscow-based journalist and Central Asian expert. But she insisted, “I don't believe Hizb-ut-Tahrir is taking part in arranging acts of terrorism.” Sadikjan Mahmudov, a lawyer with the Osh-based human rights group Ray of Solomon who has defended Hizb-ut-Tahrir members in the past, does not think they were involved in the recent violence, “I am confident that they will never shift from their peaceful strategy and raise their hand against anyone in pursuit of their political agenda.” Observers believe that the IMU and Hizb-ut-Tahrir are so different in their roots and aims that they would find it almost impossible to agree a common strategy.
Vitaly Ponamaryov, a Central Asia expert with the Moscow-based Human Rights group Memorial, said, “Hizb ut Tahrir is not a local group, but an international organisation with its own traditions and strategy which has existed over many years. “All this talk of the two groups joining forces is being put about by the Uzbek and Kyrgyz secret services. I don't believe there is hard evidence that the two [IMU and Hizb-ut-Tahrir] are coming together.” As for the culprits in the May raid and related violence, Ponomarev said, “The allegiances of this group are problematic…. In the past we seen a lot of cases where the authorities manipulated the identity of the groups [involved] without providing strong enough proof.”
IMU SEEN AS SPENT FORCE
What about the IMU itself? The guerrilla group mounted annual insurgent raids into Kyrgyzstan and Uzbekistan in 1999-2001, but these stopped after IMU fighters based in northern Afghanistan were defeated and dispersed along with their Taleban allies in the United States-led coalition assault. After the IMU's military leader Juma Namangani was reported killed in this fighting, political leader Tohir Yoldash is believed to be in charge of IMU remnants allied with al-Qaeda and the Taleban, and hiding out in lawless border areas of Pakistan. The IMU has its roots in a Muslim group called Adolat that operated in the Uzbek city of Namangan in the early Nineties. After the authorities clamped down on it, many members fled the country, joining Islamist guerrillas fighting the government in Tajikistan's civil war, and later teaming up with the Taleban.
Shermatova believes any IMU members still remaining in Central Asia would find it hard to regroup. “Small groups do exist in Tajikistan and Kyrgyzstan, who are unable to go back to Uzbekistan. But they have no future as they don't represent a large, cohesive force with clear plans,” she said. “These groups engage in minor robbery and they don't have a clear political agenda.” She concluded, “I do not consider that the IMU has any chance of undergoing a revival so that it reaches the scale it operated on in 1999-2000…. The fact that there are individuals but that they aren't conducting big operations is further proof of how weak the IMU has become.” Sadikjan Kamaluddin, the head of the Centre for Islamic Cooperation in Kyrgyzstan, agreed that many of the armed men described as Islamic militants were in fact engaged in crime – specifically drug smuggling.
The part of the Fergana Valley which has seen recent violence lies on the route for trafficking Afghan-made heroin north to Russia and European markets. “You shouldn't think that because the IMU [people] are citing Islam, they are really acting in pursuit of Islam. In reality they are involved in trafficking drugs. Islam is just a cover.” ISLAMIC GROUPS FIGHTING PROPAGANDA WAR Ponomaryov pointed out that one reason why the IMU has stirred renewed concerns in Central Asia is simply that it is becoming more proficient at public relations – even without a strong organisation on the ground.
IMU leader Yoldosh sent an audio recording to the BBC, RFE/RL and other outlets to celebrate the September 11, 2001 attacks on the United States, and promised to “punish” the Uzbek, Tajik and Kyrgyz presidents for clamping down on Islamic groups. Yoldosh also put out a video message – widely available in southern Kyrgyzstan, as Ponomarev attests – in which he devoted a considerable amount of time to attacking Hizb-ut-Tahrir. According to Ponomarev, “Radical Islamic groups are becoming more active – only in terms of their propaganda. They are busily distributing material… [because of] a change in technology. With the advent on the [Central Asian] market of cheap video and audio equipment from China, Islamic radical groups are using these technologies to distribute videos, so that leafleting is slowly becoming a thing of the past.”