Tackling the Roots of Uzbek Terror

Publication: Terrorism Monitor Volume: 16 Issue: 8

IMU image of child fighters in training (Source: al-Jazeera)

Uzbek nationals have carried out five major terrorist attacks across Europe and the United States since 2016, the most devastating of which occurred at Istanbul’s Ataturk Airport, in June 2016, and the city’s Raina Nightclub on New Year’s Eve 2017. The attacks, respectively, left 41 and 39 people dead. Further attacks in the Swedish capital of Stockholm, St Petersburg, Russia and New York killed a total of 28 people.

Uzbekistan is the most populous nation in Central Asia, and it borders Afghanistan, as well as the strategically important nations of Tajikistan, Kazakhstan and Turkmenistan. Although little reported in the Western media, it has proved to be fertile ground for Islamic radicals since the collapse of the Soviet Union in 1991, due largely to a mixture of economic hardship and the harsh repression of religious and political dissent.

Resisting Repression

Uzbekistan’s long serving authoritarian leader Islam Karimov died in 2016. His death ended a 25-year reign during which, intent on thwarting the influence of radical Islam emanating from Afghanistan, Karimov turned the nation into a repressive police state. Karimov began a crackdown on Islam in 1994 that culminated in 2005 in the Andijan tragedy, which some sources estimate left as many as 1,000 people dead. [1] However, a recent report by Colonel Jeffery Hartman, the former U.S. defense attaché to Uzbekistan, indicates that this number was likely closer to 200. [2]

Thousands of Uzbeks had gathered in Andijan’s Babur Square, demanding bread, jobs and greater access to education. The government claimed the gathering had been instigated by armed anti-government elements from the Islamic Movement of Uzbekistan (IMU).  According to witnesses, Uzbek security forces opened fire, indiscriminately killing women and children (Gazeta.ru, May 13, 2005). The Andijan tragedy remains highly controversial: the Uzbek government maintains it acted against terrorists, while witnesses say security forces repressed legitimate local voices calling for reform (Fergana.news, July 12, 2005).

Uzbekistan’s current leader, Shavkat Mirziyaev, has promised to address the repression of the past, stating that “it is necessary to reform the civil service institution, [and] introduce effective measures to combat corruption” (MoFA, December 22, 2017).  Thus far, however, there has been little action to match the rhetoric, and the danger remains that young Uzbeks, faced with repression and instability, will seek alternatives and become radicalized. Over the past quarter-century, many Uzbeks have been driven into the arms of jihadist groups—first into domestic organizations like the formerly Taliban-aligned IMU and now increasingly into the arms of Islamic State (IS).

The IMU’s stated goal was to overthrow the Karimov regime and replace it with an Islamic caliphate. Its top military commander, Juma Namangani, honed his combat skills in the Soviet forces that invaded Afghanistan in the 1980s and in the civil war that broke out in Tajikistan in 1992.  In 1998, he teamed up with the self-proclaimed preacher Tahir Yuldashev in the Fergana Valley to establish the IMU.

From bases in Afghanistan, the IMU made incursions into southern Kyrgyzstan and focused on reaching the Uzbek capital of Tashkent in 1999 and 2000. The late 1990s proved to be a high point for the group, however. Namangani was killed in a U.S. airstrike in Afghanistan in 2001, and Yuldashev was killed in fighting along the Afghan-Pakistan border, where his group had taken refuge, in 2009 (Central Asia-Caucasus Analyst, November 21, 2001; Fergana.news, September 9, 2009).

At the height of their power, Namangani and Yuldashev relied on IMU militants who were battle-tested soldiers from the Soviet war in Afghanistan, the Tajik Civil War and the Chechen wars. The IMU funded its activities through the drug trade, using smuggling routes in Central Asia that tapped into the Russian and European markets. The breakdown of stability in northern Afghanistan and the potential for a Dagestani insurgency in Russia’s southwest promise a return to this type of narco-terrorism in the region (The Moscow Times, February 27). The beneficiaries of this will likely be Uzbek fighters with IS in Syria, who appear set to take the place of IMU as the standard bearer of Uzbek militancy (Central Asia-Caucasus Analyst, May 3, 2016).

Noah Tucker, editor of Registan.net, estimates there are 500-1,000 Uzbeks fighting for IS in Syria and Iraq. Most troubling is the presence of teenage boys fighting for IS, sometimes known as “Cubs of the Caliphate” (al-Jazeera, October 25, 2017). By some estimates, as many as 600 children serving in IS in the region, many conducting grizzly executions of prisoners. In a video released by IS on August 26, 2016, five young boys in military fatigues can be seen killing Kurdish fighters.

A Troubled Region

At the very least, high-profile attacks by Uzbek nationals in Europe and the United States, as well as the abuse of Central Asian children by IS in Syria and Iraq, should turn the international spotlight on the conditions that push Uzbeks into extremism. Weak education, corruption, economic hardship and the severe repression of Islam leave many Uzbeks susceptible to extremist rhetoric that promises meaning and freedom in the form of jihad.

IS recruitment strategies work remarkably well in Uzbekistan and the neighboring countries of Central Asia, which have, for many years, faced similar economic and religious challenges. In her 2003 Congressional testimony, Fiona Hill, now President Donald Trump’s National Security Council senior director for European and Russian affairs, stated that “repression and persecution exacerbate existing social and political problems, discredit regional governments domestically and internationally, and increase suspicion of official institutions among the population … It is not difficult to imagine that many moderate, non-religious dissidents would be driven to more extremist views by the intolerant policies of the Uzbek regime.” [3]

Although it is likely the Uzbek security forces will continue to use repressive measures as they seek to tackle the jihadist threat, a more nuanced approach like that recommended by Fiona Hill in 2003 would likely have a greater chance of success. Absent such an approach, it is clear that Uzbeks and other Central Asians will continue to be radicalized at home and abroad, with dire consequences for the citizens of western capitals who understand little about this obscure but vital region.

 

 

NOTES

[1] Uzbekistan. Class Dismissed: Discriminatory Expulsions of Muslim Students. Publication. Vol. 11. No. 12D, Human Rights Watch, 1998.

See: https://www.hrw.org/reports/1999/uzbekistan/uzbek-02.htm

[2] Hartman, Jeffry W. The May 2005 Andijan Uprising: What We Know. Publication. Central Asia-Caucasus Institute & Silk Road Studies Program, Johns Hopkins University-SAIS, 2016.

See: http://isdp.eu/content/uploads/2016/06/2016-Hartman-the-May-2005-Andijan-Uprising-What-We-Know.pdf

[3] See Fiona Hill’s testimony the House Committee on International Relations Subcommittee on the Middle East and Central Asia (Brookings Institution, 23 July 2003).