The Islamic Movement of Uzbekistan (IMU) is showing renewed confidence in Central Asia and has apparently increased its capacity to carry out terrorist acts within the region. A speech marking the anniversary of the 9/11 terrorist attacks, purportedly given by IMU leader Tahir Yuldashev, was recently distributed to the BBC and Fergana.ru. The message contained a new threat towards the leaders of Uzbekistan, Tajikistan, and Kyrgyzstan. Predictably, Yuldashev claimed that the IMU remains strong and denied that the movement had given up or intended to do so (Fergana.ru, September 13).
“We will avenge Muslims in Central Asia or in Russia. We insist that all regimes in the region put an end to the practice of persecution of Muslims, the practice of harassment and terror. [Uzbek President Islam] Karimov, [Tajik President Emomali] Rahmonov, and [Kyrgyz President Kurmanbek] Bakiyev had better remember that they will be punished for the crimes they are committing,” Yuldashev warned. The rhetoric identified common cause with al-Qaeda and the Taliban, which is not surprising, but the promise to exact revenge for the Uzbek security crackdown in Andijan in May 2005, combined with the portrayal of the IMU as a champion of the rights of repressed Muslims in the region, has two significant implications. First, by linking the terrorist intentions of the IMU remnants reportedly hiding in the so-called tribal zone straddling Afghanistan and Pakistan with the Andijan issue begs the question: how far do the repressive actions of the Central Asian regimes foment terrorism? Equally, the propaganda effect of the IMU defending ordinary Muslims against their oppressive governments will further complicate existing efforts to win the hearts and minds of the population in order to undermine support for extremism.
Although the IMU was decimated in the initial stages of Operation Enduring Freedom in 2001, they have since re-grouped and received support from other sources as well as the resurgent Taliban. They pose an unquantifiable threat within Central Asia. Unfortunately, the response to terrorism in the region has been subjected to the tendency of the indigenous governments to exaggerate the threat, extending it to cover religious organizations such as Hizb-ut-Tahrir. By using the threat of terrorism to exact greater assistance from members of the coalition in the war on terror, the distinction has blurred between the actual threat posed by terrorism and that which the state authorities advance publicly.
Sporadic evidence concerning the capabilities of the regional security structures to assess and respond adequately to terrorism matches political affirmations of reliance on Russia and China. Tajikistan’s President Rahmonov recently evaluated the activities of the Shanghai Cooperation Organization (SCO) highly, noting the group’s efforts to solve regional economic and military problems. Opening the fifth meeting of the SCO Heads of Government Council on September 15, Rahmonov spoke of the success of SCO members as they broadened and consolidated political and economic cooperation.
However, differences in tone were evident among the Central Asian prime ministers. Kazakhstan’s Prime Minister Daniyal Akhmetov offered the view that the SCO has been much more successful in promoting economic cooperation than in achieving a political alliance. Akhmetov believes that the SCO will play a vital role in the realization of energy strategy programs. On the other hand, Uzbekistan’s Prime Minister Rustam Azimov described the meeting as confirmation that a solidarity of views exists among SCO members in economic terms and their readiness to counter security threats (Itar-Tass, Interfax, September 15; Kazinform, September 16).
The suggestion of an increased terrorist threat level within the region, emanating from the IMU or related groups, brings sharply into focus the limited security capabilities of these countries. Despite receiving help from Western assistance programs, Tajikistan and Kyrgyzstan, as well as Uzbekistan, still have restricted security assets for monitoring terrorists. It is not unexpected, therefore, that the SCO is regarded as a safe mechanism through which Dushanbe, Bishkek, and Tashkent can pursue enhanced regional security. Dushanbe has agreed to hold joint anti-terrorist drills later this month with China, in order to underscore Beijing’s willingness to help the Tajiks to develop further their meager counter-terrorist capabilities (Interfax, September 15).
The precise nature of the IMU threat towards Karimov, Rahmonov, and Bakiyev remains unknown. There is no known previous pattern of political assassination, although it persists as a remote yet highly dangerous lingering threat. Assassinations could have devastating consequences within Central Asia. It is more likely that the IMU leadership wants to overstate its capabilities, promote fear and uncertainty, and utilize the existing political dissatisfaction among the populations of Central Asia to engender more support for its aims and for the organization itself. In recent years an IMU threat has been a factor in countering regional terrorism; however, the potential for the IMU to alter its tactics and move away from insurgency or bombings will cause concern within the region. These countries will also look towards Russia and China to provide warnings of imminent action or to help deal with the aftermath of an actual incident. Nonetheless, the specter of terrorist activity spawned in order to redress the balance or exact revenge over Andijan will fuel the debate beyond the region as to how far the actions of these regimes creates conditions within which terrorism will flourish.