On the fifth anniversary of the September 11 attacks, Islamic Movement of Uzbekistan (IMU) leader Tahir Yuldashev sent a direct threat to Central Asian governments. He warned, “The mujahideen haven’t forgotten the Muslims executed in Andijan last year. We will avenge Muslims in Central Asia or in Russia…Karimov, Rakhmonov and Bakiyev had better remember…that they will be punished for the crimes they are committing” (Geo.kz, September 12). The three leaders named by Yuldashev are the presidents of Uzbekistan, Tajikistan and Kyrgyzstan respectively. All three of the aforementioned countries have been the targets of resurgent jihadi violence during the last two years, which escalated following the May 2005 Andijan uprising in the Ferghana Valley.
The Ferghana Valley, the birthplace of IMU leaders Yuldashev and the deceased Juma Namangani, has been under heightened surveillance since the events in Andijan. Uzbekistan, which boasts one of the post-Soviet world’s most efficient security apparatuses, has been able to thwart a number of terrorist plots, including an alleged plan to blow up the tunnel over the Kamchik pass and cut off the Ferghana Valley from Tashkent (RIA Novosti, September 15, 2005). Kyrgyzstan, however, already unstable as a result of the Tulip Revolution in March 2005, has come under fierce attacks since late last year with a bomb attack on an administrative building in Osh and a cross-border incursion into Batken province on May 12 (Komsomolskaia Pravda, December 27, 2005). The attack was foiled and several militants were killed, reflecting the failure of terrorist groups to destabilize the entire region as they did in 1999-2000. Kyrgyzstan’s responses to the increased attacks have been immediate and forceful; dozens of Hizb ut-Tahrir (HuT) members, a group once tolerated by the Kyrgyz authorities, have been arrested, and in July five suspected members of the IMU were killed in a shootout with security forces in Djalalabad province (AKI Press, July 14). Six alleged members of the IMU and HuT are currently on trial in Kyrgyzstan and more than 120 people have been detained on extremism charges since the beginning of the year (Kyrgyz Public Educational Television, August 30).
On September 15, alleged IMU cadre Imam Ruhiddin Fakhriddinov was sentenced to 17 years by an Uzbek court while another high-ranking member of the IMU, Dilshodbek Hojiyev, is currently on trial in Tashkent. Across the border, six members of the IMU were sentenced to lengthy jail sentences in Tajikistan (Itar-Tass, May 22). In addition, bombings in January and July 2005 in Dushanbe were confirmed by Tajik security services as being part of an IMU plot, and IMU elements in northern Tajikistan were involved in the murder of officials as well as an attack on a prison in January this year, freeing a fellow group member (Interfax, January 28).
Memories of the late 1990s are still fresh in the region, when the IMU made repeated attacks on border posts in Batken, Kyrgyzstan in an attempt to establish a launching pad for attacks in Uzbekistan. Previously, Tajikistan and Kazakhstan had also been targets for the same purpose. Five years after the U.S.-led intervention in Afghanistan, the weakened IMU no longer holds a training camp/base of operations in Tavildara, Tajikistan and most of its militants are based in the Northern Province of Sughd and in the Kyrgyz provinces of Osh and Djalalabad bordering Uzbekistan, their main target. In July of this year, Tajik security services arrested 10 members of the IMU in Khujand, while all recent terrorism-related activities and arrests in Kyrgyzstan have taken place in provinces bordering Uzbekistan’s Ferghana Valley (sngnews.ru, July 17; Kyrgyz Television 1, September 7). While the country has thus far been spared, Kazakhstan’s southern city of Shimkent (100 km from Tashkent) was used as a base of operations by the IMU-linked Jamaat of Mujahideen of Central Asia to strike at Uzbekistan in July 2004.
Despite tension over Bishkek’s initial refusal to hand over Uzbek refugees from Andijan, differences have been pushed aside and Kyrgyz and Uzbek security forces are cooperating on an unprecedented level, exchanging information and conducting joint operations. Anti-terrorism cooperation between Central Asian states has been improving rapidly, and many Uzbek militants have been extradited to Uzbekistan from neighboring Central Asian countries as well as from Russia and Pakistan. While this cooperation has been actively encouraged by Western governments and international organizations in the region, it solidified under Russian pressure since Moscow was concerned about the destabilization of its near-abroad. Central Asian states’ response to extremism has lately tended to mimic the often-decried heavy handed approach of the Uzbek and Russian governments. On August 6, during a joint Kyrgyz-Uzbek operation in Osh, Kyrgyz security forces shot dead Muhammadrafik Kamalov, a Kyrgyz imam accused of sheltering IMU members. The same imam is mentioned by name in Yuldashev’s September 11 message as a “martyred scholar.”
Mirroring the improved cooperation of Central Asian security services, the IMU is increasingly collaborating with other groups/cells in order to carry out attacks; officials point out such groups as Akramiya, Bayat and HuT. HuT, a self-proclaimed non-violent Islamist movement, is most often mentioned; recruitment has increased since the Andijan events, especially in Central Asian areas bordering the Ferghana Valley. Security officials believe that the HuT is at least involved in logistical and financial support for other violent groups. This trend has been observed in Kyrgyzstan, particularly in the Osh region where a violent HuT cell may have emerged. In March of this year, Kyrgyz law enforcement uncovered a cell regrouping members of both the IMU and the HuT (AKI Press, March 31). A month earlier, HuT members were arrested with explosives in their possession (AKI Press, February 14). While the HuT and the IMU have different tactics, their goals are essentially identical and with the current “anti-extremist” campaigns across the region, it is probable that some new IMU members are actually radicalized HuT members who have decided to take the path of violent action.
Nevertheless, notwithstanding the growing clout of the HuT in the region, recent events testify that despite being significantly weakened by the U.S.-led intervention in Afghanistan, in the short and medium term the IMU still presents the most immediate threat to Central Asian regimes. In rising through the ranks of the al-Qaeda/Taliban alliance, Yuldashev has adopted their globalized perspective and aligned the IMU’s aims accordingly. This is apparent in his reference to “martyrs” Shamil Basaev and Abu Musab al-Zarqawi, as well as the reference to the United States in his recent message: “We are confident of the defeat of the USA and U.S.-led Jews, Christians and Crusaders.” While the warnings to Central Asian governments are taken very seriously by those targets, the latter statements suggest that wider concern toward the IMU is also justified.