The Terrorist Threat In Central Asia: Resurgence And Adaptation

Publication: Terrorism Monitor Volume: 2 Issue: 5

“Just because you’re paranoid, it doesn’t mean they aren’t out to get you” was a popular American political catchphrase at the time of the Watergate scandal of thirty years ago. It has new applicability to the consideration of the terrorist threat in Central Asia.

In Central Asia, governments have been characterized as using the terrorist threat to justify their continued suppression of the opposition, and also to justify human rights violations and the failure to reform economic, political, religious and social structures. Indeed, critics of these governments suggest that such policies are driving otherwise non-violent opposition groups towards terrorism as the only apparent alternative. The war on terrorism has also been a central factor in the generally improving relations these governments have with the United States, Russia and China. Yet the impact of the war on terror in the region has, ironically, obscured the nature of the existing terrorist threat. Even though these governments (and others, such as the Russian government) use the terrorist threat to justify repressive policies with every incentive to maximize and exaggerate the danger such distortions do not mean that the threat is any less real.

Post-2001, two developmentsthe defeat of the Islamic Movement of Turkestan (IMT; formerly the Islamic Movement of Uzbekistan, IMU) with its al Qaeda links, and the continued pressure against the Hizb ut-Tahrir (HuT), with its well-disciplined cell organizationhave led opposition groups to use different appeals in order to recruit mass support in Central Asia. Government crackdowns may have radicalized some members of these groups, but crackdowns are only one of a range of developments that have contributed to a recent resurgence in terrorist activities in Central Asia, including nationalism, resentment over foreign military bases, and opposition to the U.S. war in Iraq. All are motivating factors in a revived terrorist threat, one whose agents will seek a broad approach to recruiting opposition to the current regimes.

Even allowing for their governments’ attempts to portray them in the most dangerous possible light, there is little evidence to suggest that groups such as the IMT/IMU or HuT in Central Asia would provide the basis for an alternative, on the model of the recent “velvet revolution” in Georgia.


One of the most significant recent incidents took place in November of 2003, when Kyrgyzstan state security announced the capture of three HuT members who were planning to use explosives against the U.S. airbase at Manas. The trial of the three is scheduled to begin in spring 2004. Bishkek’s security services have also claimed that there are extensive links developing between the IMT/IMU and HuT. (They have also reported links between these groups and Uighur separatists based in China, claiming that recently captured IMT/IMU terrorists had forged papers from this source.) While it is difficult to independently evaluate these claims, the links may point to future cooperation in terrorist actions.

The HuT’s clandestine organization makes it a potential key source of leverage, one that could be used, despite the organization’s eschewing of terrorist violence, against the countries of Central Asia. Even those who may not share the HuT’s political goal of a restored caliphate may find it a useful tool for organizing opposition, whether the motivation is religious, nationalist or involves some other ideology. The West remains deeply divided over the nature of HuT; the organization is banned in Germany but legal in Britain (though, in practice, it is closely observed) and in the United States. How HuT evolves in Central Asia will provide insights into how best to interact with this group and its goals worldwide.


As with HuT, there are signs that the IMT/IMU has been resurgent in Central Asia throughout 2003. In February of 2004, two Uzbek and one Kyrgyz national, identified as IMT/IMU members who had been trained in Afghanistan and Chechnya, were sentenced to death in a trial in Bishkek for their involvement in bombings in Bishkek and Osh in 2002-3. Their targets, markets and a bank, had been selected because the U.S. embassy and a Turkish-owned hotel proved too difficult to strike.

In December 2003, U.S. Ambassador Stephen Young reported that there had been repeated attempts to target U.S. interests in Kyrgyzstan. “The clearest threat seems to be coming from the Islamic Movement of Uzbekistan, which despite being dealt a heavy blow in Afghanistan in the fall of 2001 has reemerged as an active organization in the region.” Even David Lewis, the head of the Central Asia Project of the Brussels-based International Crisis Group and a frequent critic of the policies of Central Asian governments, believes the IMU “still pose[s] a potential threat in small numbers.” The danger this group will likely pose in the near term is not as a militia trained to handle Kalashnikovs in training camps, but as a small cadre able to exploit the divisions and fissures within Central Asian countries.

One limitation on the size of the IMT/IMU is the organization’s failure to find a replacement for its pre-2001 sanctuary in Afghanistan. The group’s political leader, Takhir Yuldashev, remains a fugitive in the Pakistan-Afghanistan borderland. His ability to connect with radical Islamic Pakistani allies suggests that the relationship between the IMT/IMU and extra-regional Islamic radicals has survived the fall of the Taliban regime in Afghanistan. There are continued reports of large numbers (several hundred) of IMT/IMU personnel continuing to operate in Kashmir and of small numbers infiltrating into Afghanistan from sanctuaries in Pakistan to fight alongside al Qaeda and Taliban remnants.


Post 9/11, foreign support for Islamic radicalism remains strong in Central Asia. Moreover, experience with the HuT has demonstrated that it is difficult to separate support for groups without a terrorist background from assistance for actual terrorist groups when the two share a common support infrastructure. In Central Asia, the source of foreign support is often identified as “Wahhabi,” although this is usually used more as a pejorative than a meaningfully descriptive term.

However, reportssuch as one issued in 2003 by the Bonn-based Friedrich Ebert Stiftunghave identified support from multiple sources in Saudi Arabia, the Gulf states and Pakistan. The support includes proselytizing and the building of mosques in Kyrgyzstan. Underground madrassahs have also been established in Kyrgyzstan and Tajikistan, while financial aid has been provided for students from Tajikistan at madrassahs in Pakistan. Funds for IMT/IMU units in Central Asia reportedly come through Pakistan. The only government in the region that has been able to prevent such influences totallythat of Turkmenistanis also the most thoroughly repressive. This is hardly the solution that the United States is likely to propose to the other governments of Central Asia. Nonetheless, regional observers such as Olivier Roy see nationalist and other more familiar resentmentsrather than the pre-9/11 image of a re-established umma, that is, an Islamic community transcending the institution of the stateas being more likely to promote terrorist actions.


In the near term, the HuT’s connection to terrorism will likely remain indistinct. Yet despite its stance against terrorism, many of its members are likely to be sympathetic to those who use religious or nationalist justifications for terrorist acts. They are also likely to offer them the benefit of support from HuT networks, which are built from covert cells and exist even in Britain. In 2002-2003 the IMT/IMU followed the pattern set by al Qaeda and the Talibanthat of striking soft targets to show that they are still operational. It is uncertain whether they will continue this. But even if the IMT/IMU does not repeat any of the bombings of 2002-03, acts that focused international attention on the group’s resurgence, it is likely to remain a danger.

Though he does not identify an imminent terrorist threat to the stability of the region, the veteran observer of Central Asia, Ahmed Rashid, has written: “There is no doubt that there is a network of sympathizers and supporters of radical Islam inside Central Asia, who are still very much there and very much underground.” There are a number of reasons why this threat could escalate in the future. Although critics of the governments in the region emphasize what they suggest is their unreformable nature, terrorist elements in Central Asia also have many other potential sources from which to draw strength.

In addition to adding nationalism and anti-Americanism to a previously pan-Islamic orientation, these groups can build on lingering resentments from conflicts in the Fergana Valley and Tajikistan. Moreover, the continuing resurgence of narcotics cultivation in Afghanistan could provide these groups with lucrative trafficking opportunities. It appears that the IMT/IMU has retained its strong connections to narcotics traffickers, connections that include the sharing of smuggling routes. Finally, Central Asia’s roots in the former Soviet Union have provided skills that could be used by terrorist groups. Those who were members of the Soviet Army, for example, will at least have basic military skills. Former members of the Soviet Communist Party will understand the basis of political organization. Such abilities have contributed to the resilience of the Chechen resistance and have made the threat posed by Chechen-trained terrorists in Central Asia a significant one.

Governments in Central Asia continue to be criticized for using the terrorist threat to justify repressive policies. But this sort of invocation of the terrorist threat does not diminish the continued danger that the terrorism threat poses. While terrorism in Central Asia today is generally small scale and underground, it is rebounding. Those linked to terrorism can exploit both changing eventssuch as the U.S. war in Iraqand their own inherent strengths to create a threat that could lead to regional instability.