The political instability that has become a feature of the Kyrgyz political landscape since the March 2005 color revolution has created a window of opportunity for Islamic radicals to increase their activities and possibly inspire terrorist attacks inside the country. Such views, often expounded by Kyrgyz officials as they promote or even exaggerate the threat of Islamist-inspired terrorism, are being suggested publicly by sources within the Kyrgyz National Security Service (SNB). Kyrgyz intelligence have now disclosed that the Hizb-ut-Tahrir organization. Although not regarded outside Central Asia as a terrorist group, but one promoting radical ideals through peaceful means, Bishkek has banned the group since 2003, and it now has apparently stepped up its activities in Kyrgyzstan. Moreover, they fear, without concrete information on the sources of funding for the organization, officials cannot know if it may be adopting new tactics within the country aimed at recruiting activists in influential positions.
The SNB believes that Hizb-ut-Tahrir is continuing to carry out recruitment and propaganda mainly among students, middle-class Muslims, as well as representatives of large- and medium-sized businesses. Significantly, they are advancing the anxiety that it has begun recruitment work aimed at secret service officers and military personnel. The SNB justifies this view, partly on the basis of militants killed in May 2006 carrying the card of a high-ranking official, known to head a law-enforcement agency in the Fergana Valley. There are also fears that individuals disaffected by the problems of the official opposition party may instead turn toward Hizb-ut-Tahrir, purely for political rather than religious reasons.
Reacting to the recent IMU threat against the Kyrgyz, Tajik, and Uzbek leaders, the SNB and the Interior Ministry confirmed they do not even know who is financing Hizb-ut-Tahrir activities inside Kyrgyzstan. SNB success in apprehending Hizb-ut-Tahrir members are well publicized but usually only the distributors of leaflets are caught (Moya stolitsa novosti, September 19).
Kyrgyz President Kurmanbek Bakiyev has warned repeatedly that those underestimating Hizb-ut-Tahrir are making a mistake. Although the intelligence services within Central Asia generally regard Hizb-ut-Tahrir with suspicion, there is no clear evidence linking the movement with any known terrorist group. Nonetheless, the fear that the IMU may utilize the movement’s network of cells to carry out attacks is a very real one for the relevant security agencies.
On September 25 officers from the Osh regional interior directorate’s counter-terrorism department seized a revolver with seven cartridges, six cartridges for a TOZ-8 rifle, and four cartridges for a Kalashnikov assault rifle. The search, at a property in Osh, also located one booklet and 25 leaflets of a religious extremist nature. Such leaflet discoveries, on their own, offer little that can provide the authorities with a clearer understanding of the alleged nexus between terrorist groups and Hizb-ut-Tahrir (Akipress, September 25).
Unusually, however, unidentified Hizb-ut-Tahrir cell leaders in southern Kyrgyzstan have denied links with terrorists, telling Makhamadzhan Urumbayev, a journalist for Vecherny Bishkek, that they rejected the tactics being used by the IMU, saying it lacked “concrete political goals.” One member of a southern Kyrgyz Hizb-ut-Tahrir cell distanced himself from the IMU, saying, “First of all, to my mind, these people did not have concrete political goals from the very beginning. They only have some poor and insignificant demands. Do you remember the events in Namanagan [eastern Uzbekistan] in the early 1990s, when they took the microphone away from [Uzbek President] Islam Karimov and voiced their senseless demands? Later on, someone seemed to give them advice and they started raising the thesis of jihad and declared themselves mujahideen.”
Members of these cells do not regard other radical groups operating within the Fergana Valley as posing any significant danger for Bakiyev’s regime. In their view Akramiya, Uzun Soqollar (Long Beards), and Islom Lashkarlari (Islamic army), all represent a limited threat to Kyrgyzstan (Vecherny Bishkek, September 15).
Hizb-ut-Tahrir, therefore, in order to assuage critics and deny any violent intent or links with those promoting political violence, vehemently refute accusations that they foster such links, as one member said in Jalalabad, “I think this threat is very much exaggerated. It is very unlikely that they will be capable of achieving anything with such capacity, a handful of armed people and vague ideas. However, politicians in different countries pursue their own goals by using their existence as a smoke screen.”
Kyrgyz security agencies are placing a growing emphasis on monitoring changes in the activities of Hizb-ut-Tahrir cells, revealing their nervousness about the risk of recruitment from within their ranks. Bakiyev equally attaches high importance to tasking the SNB with closely observing the movement, especially within southern Kyrgyzstan. New recruitment methods and increased activity alone do not justify Bishkek’s sensitivity to the possible threat from Hizb-ut-Tahrir members. Perhaps a more disturbing is the lack of reliable information on the sources of funding and fuller exploration of links between the wider concept of “extremism” and terrorism. The SNB’s public comments on these issues reflects genuine security fears; yet taking the predictable denials of Hizb-ut-Tahrir into account, does Bakiyev have anything to gain from demonizing the movement still further?