Why Extremism Is On The Rise In Uzbekistan

Publication: Terrorism Monitor Volume: 2 Issue: 16

The July 30 attacks on the Prosecutor General’s Office, the U.S. Embassy, and the Israeli Embassy in Tashkent demonstrate the continued terrorist presence in the republic of Uzbekistan. These forces appear to be directing their efforts not only against the regime of Islam Karimov, but also the entire Western world. At the time of the explosion, this Jamestown correspondent was at the International Research and Exchanges Board (IREX) office, located approximately 200 meters from the Israeli embassy. He can testify that the explosion was so powerful that the windows in the IREX office were nearly shattered. Uzbek law enforcement officials managed to completely seal off the perimeter of the Israeli embassy within ten minutes of the explosion. Arriving at the scene, one witnessed police officers outfitted with combat helmets, body armor and automatic assault weapons lining the streets. Tashkent resident Iskander Khamidov described the explosion in this way: “Everything took place literally within seconds. The loud explosion was heard and then I saw the parts of human flesh strewn around the sidewalk.”

Several days later, the Islamic Movement of Uzbekistan (IMU) took responsibility for the attacks with the following message on an Islamist website: “The group of young Muslims from the Islamic Movement of Uzbekistan carried out operations against the embassies of the United States and Israel as well the Prosecutor General’s Office, which has recently transferred the criminal cases of several brothers from this group to the court.” [1] The U.S. Department of State designated the IMU a Foreign Terrorist Organization in 2000, following attempted coups by the IMU against the Karimov government during the summers of 1999 and 2000. However, following U.S.-led operations in Afghanistan, the IMU practically ceased its activities. At that time, some suggested that the American Air Force had destroyed IMU bases located on territories controlled by the Taliban, thereby severely curtailing its operational capabilities.

Just four days before this latest attack, the Supreme Court of Uzbekistan had commenced the trial of several individuals charged with organizing a series of bombings which took dozens of lives in March-April 2004. The defendants pled guilty at the first court hearing and one by one began to make statements about their ties with extremist organizations, including al-Qaeda, the IMU, and Hizb ut-Tahrir (HT).

22 year-old Farkhod Kazakbaev admitted that the Zhamoat (Society) – the network of extremist groups allegedly operating in Uzbekistan – has ties with both al-Qaeda and HT. According to Kazakbaev, the Uzbek national Nasriddin Jalalov, said to be personally subordinate to the Taliban leader Mullah Omar, heads this network. However, the authenticity of the defendants’ confessions have been questioned. During an interview, Human Rights Watch’s (HRW) Tashkent representative, Alison Gill, expressed her skepticism: “We are concerned about the way this trial is unfolding. For instance, the defendants’ lawyers are very passive. One is left with the impression that they are appointed for formal reasons in order to create the impression of a democratic trial.”

One day after the terrorist attacks, Uzbek President Islam Karimov laid blame for the explosions on HT. In a televised address to the nation on July 31, President Karimov stated, “From the outset there were rumors that these explosions were committed by the IMU. If the IMU takes responsibility for yesterday’s explosions, then the impression is formed as if the Hizb ut-Tahrir is innocent. However, this is precisely what they want us to believe.” Such an instantaneous accusation evokes suspicion. Even though HT is famous for its explicitly anti-Western and anti-Semitic statements (for instance, HT’s proclamations refer to Karimov as a “Jewish Kafir”), the organization repeatedly emphasizes its commitment to the creation of the Caliphate through peaceful means only. On August 1, the Internet site of the Muslim Community of Great Britain featured an official press release by the Islamist party Hizb ut-Tahrir. Signed by Imran Vahid, an HT representative in London, the letter states that HT is well-known as an Islamic political party and in its struggle it chooses only non-violent means for advancing its political agenda. Vahid rejected accusations of HT involvement in the July 30 attacks in Tashkent. He further noted that recent events in Tashkent have been used by Uzbek authorities to repress the activities of all independent Muslims under the guise of the war against “international terrorism.” [3]

In essence, many Uzbek human rights advocates agree with this view. Chairman of the prominent Uzbek human rights organization Society for Human Rights in Uzbekistan, Talib Yakubov, stated, “Both the explosions in late March and early April were committed by the Uzbek authorities in order to justify further repressions against Muslims. At the same time, the July explosions are intended to convince Western public opinion. By using this provocation, Karimov is trying to convince the West that the repression against Uzbek Muslims is justified.” Though such an opinion has yet to be supported with any evidence, it should be noted that the recent attacks did elicit an unexpected reaction among ordinary Uzbeks. The majority of Tashkent residents interviewed for this article were inclined to justify the actions of the terrorists. Such public resentment against the government can be explained to a large extent by the appalling economic conditions that the majority of Uzbeks face and widespread corruption throughout the government.

The living standard in Uzbekistan is one of the lowest of all the CIS. Statistical data about the salary distribution in Uzbekistan is highly classified, but it is known that the official minimal wage is equal to 5,540 Uzbek Soms ($5.50) per diem. However, according to estimates by independent experts, the average salary in the republic is no more than $20 per month. In rural areas it is not infrequent for the average family income to be lower than $10 per month. Crowds of gloomy, unshaven men with knapsacks squat along the road that encircles the capital of Uzbekistan. For the daily cost of $1 or $2, it is possible to hire these men who have come from provinces to earn money.

Given the situation, it is not uncommon to hear statements sympathetic towards Islamists even from the most secular individuals. “If they come to power, at least they won’t steal and take bribes,” was a frequently comment. Considering the present state of affairs, an increasing portion of the population is becoming convinced that any methods for ousting the present regime are justified. Many Tashkent residents repeatedly stated, “It is simply impossible to carry on, we are tired and we are ready for anything.”

At the same time, Uzbek Islamists skillfully exploit the current economic crisis, and Karimov’s support for Washington’s policies, in their propaganda activities. The author repeatedly heard from religious Uzbeks that “Western democracy turned out to [consist of] poverty and mass corruption.” Interviewees did not even suspect that there is very little in common between the Western model of development and the current Uzbek regime. Military operations by the U.S. and its allies also elicited very negative reactions among the religious parts of Uzbek society. In conversations, Uzbek Islamists emphasize that of all Central Asian leaders, only Karimov openly supported the U.S.-led military operation in Iraq in exchange for Washington’s support of the law enforcement structures in Uzbekistan. It is noteworthy that about two months ago, a group of prominent Uzbek human rights organizations sent a letter to the Bush administration requesting the cessation of financial assistance to Tashkent until the human rights situation in the republic improves. The letter also stated that support for the present Uzbek regime might create an unfavorable image of Washington in the population.

The recent bombings have had little impact on daily life in Tashkent. In contrast with the March-April 2004 terrorist acts, which generated a wave of repressions against practicing Muslims, thus far, no new mass arrests have been registered in Uzbekistan. Measures implemented by the authorities have been mostly of a cosmetic character. For instance, the road to the presidential residence outside of Tashkent is blocked off. There are more police patrols in the streets of the Uzbek capital and armed military personnel conduct thorough examinations of all vehicles entering the city. All entrances to expensive hotels have been equipped with metal detectors. But because the root causes of terrorism still have not been eradicated, it is hard to guarantee that the tragedy of July 30 will not be repeated.

Notes:

1. Vedomosti, August 2, 2004

2. ITAR-TASS, August 1, 2004

3. http://www.1294.org/press, August 1, 2004