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Analysis: Extremist Threats, And Doubts, In Kyrgyzstan, Tajikistan

  • Daniel Kimmage

Guards on the Uzbek border with Kyrgyzstan in October 1999 (ITAR-TASS) WASHINGTON, July 24, 2006 (RFE/RL) -- A spate of violent incidents and arrests in Kyrgyzstan and Tajikistan has officials in both countries warning of a renewed terrorist threat. The warnings are familiar, as are the questions about the evidence of terrorists that accompany the warnings. What is noteworthy this time is the regional context, which points to closer ties between Kyrgyzstan and Uzbekistan as relations deteriorate between Tashkent and Dushanbe.

Kyrgyzstan has had a hot summer. On July 14, security forces in Jalalabad killed five suspected members of the Islamic Movement of Uzbekistan (IMU). A spokesman for Kyrgyzstan's National Security Service (SNB) said that the men had been involved in bombings in the Uzbek capital Tashkent and a 2003 attack on a market in Bishkek. A police source in Jalalabad said the militants had "planned to use a Kamaz truck loaded with explosives to destroy the regional police department" in Jalalabad.

According to the SNB, the men were also linked to two separate incidents in Jalalabad on July 9 and July 10 in which a traffic policeman was killed and two policemen were wounded.

At a meeting with Kyrgyz President Kurmanbek Bakiev on July 17, SNB head Busurmankul Tabaldiev told Bakiev that planning for the July 14 operation began after a cross-border incursion on May 12.

In that incident, a group of armed men crossed from Tajikistan to Kyrgyzstan, killing three Tajik border guards and a Kyrgyz customs official. Kyrgyz security agencies mobilized more than 200 men to find and neutralize the armed group, killing four militants, capturing one, and losing four men in the operation. Officials in Tajikistan and Kyrgyzstan were quick to point to IMU involvement in the incursion -- although other sources suggested a drug-smuggling group may have been behind the violence.

Tajik Tumult

Meanwhile, neighboring Tajikistan has also been the source of reports of heightened militant activity. At a July 17 briefing in Dushanbe, Interior Minister Humdin Sharifov told journalists that Tajik police have arrested 10 IMU members in the first half of 2006, Regnum and RFE/RL's Tajik Service reported. Sharifov blamed IMU members for a string of violent attacks in Tajikistan, including two bomb blasts in Dushanbe in 2005, an attack on an Interior Ministry facility in Qayroqqum in January, and the murder of a Defense Ministry official. Sharipov claimed that the IMU members made their way to Tajikistan from Uzbekistan, where they arrived after undergoing training in Afghanistan, Regnum reported.

In the course of arrests and trials, Tajik officials have provided some details of the IMU's alleged activities. After police arrested four suspected IMU members in Soghd Province on July 14, a police source told Asia Plus-Blitz that security forces searched the suspects' homes and found "laptops with files containing texts of a religious and extremist nature calling for jihad, a DVD with a call for 'holy war,' and extremist literature in the Uzbek language."

At the May 22 sentencing of seven individuals for IMU-linked extremist activities, RFE/RL's Tajik Service reported that Sughd prosecutor Abdughaffor Qalandarov said that the local IMU cell was planning terrorist acts on Tajik territory and at one time had links to IMU leader Juma Namangani (who is believed to have been killed during U.S.-led military operations in Afghanistan in 2001). It should be noted, however, that a defense lawyer stated: "[The defendants] themselves said in court that they were not terrorists or members of any extremist group. They were forced under torture to admit to these crimes."

Relations With Uzbekistan

Reports of IMU activity in Kyrgyzstan and Tajikistan come at a time when relations between those two countries and Uzbekistan -- where the government of President Islam Karimov has long been the ultimate target of the IMU -- are heading in very different directions. Tajik-Uzbek relations -- never noted for their warmth -- have recently taken a marked turn for the worse amid tit-for-tat spying allegations and Tajik charges that Uzbekistan has allowed more than 10 training camps for supporters of Colonel Mahmud Khudoiberdiev -- who was behind a failed 1998 coup attempt in Tajikistan -- to operate on Uzbek territory. More recently, Uzbekistan cut off gas shipments to Tajikistan on July 20 over arrears of $7.64 million that Uzbekistan says it is owed, fergana.ru reported. In a reciprocal move, Tajikisan, which claims it owes only $3 million, blocked shipments of Uzbek gas through Tajikistan to eastern Uzbekistan, AP reported.

Meanwhile, Uzbek-Kyrgyz ties, which hit a low in 2005 when Kyrgyzstan sheltered hundreds of refugees from Uzbekistan after unrest in Andijon, have begun to show signs of increased counterterrorism cooperation. When Kyrgyz President Kurmanbek Bakiev met with SNB head Busurmankul Tabaldiev on July 17 to discuss the operation in which five suspected IMU members were killed in Jalalabad, Bakiev noted that he recently spoke by phone with Uzbek President Islam Karimov, with the two agreeing to step up cooperation between the two countries' law-enforcement agencies to combat threats. Kyrgyzstan's "Bely parokhod" reported on July 19 that Kyrgyz security forces were in close contact with their Uzbek colleagues in the lead-up to the July 14 Jalalabad operation. Bakiev and Karimov also met on the sidelines of the July 21-22 Commonwealth of Independent States summit at the Kremlin.

In another sign of possible Kyrgyz-Uzbek cooperation, a police spokesperson in Osh confirmed to akipress.org on July 20 that Gulmira Maqsudova, the daughter of Akram Yuldoshev, was arrested in Osh on July 18 on forgery charges. Akram Yuldoshev, who has been imprisoned in Uzbekistan since 1999, is the purported leader of Akramiya, a group the Uzbek authorities have alleged was behind the unrest in Andijon in May 2005 (a claim that has been vigorously disputed). Fergana.ru reported that Maqsudova is one of nine people who have been arrested in Osh in connection with Akramiya and the Andijon events. The news agency said they face charges of forgery, organizing a criminal group, and preparing acts of terror.

Adopting The 'Uzbek Approach'

Two overarching issues emerge from these events. The first is how increased counterterrorism cooperation between Kyrgyzstan and Uzbekistan will affect the domestic situation in Kyrgyzstan. Recent events indicate that the Kyrgyz authorities are taking a harder line in fighting extremism, which would be in keeping with Tashkent's policies.

Further evidence of this came on July 19, when Kyrgyz Interior Minister Murat Sutalinov asked for armored vehicles and better automatic weapons at a meeting to discuss fighting terrorists and members of the banned extremist group Hizb ut-Tahrir, news agency 24.kg reported.

Another sign of possible Uzbek influence on Kyrgyz counterterrorism efforts is the tendency to conflate Hizb ut-Tahrir -- which advocates the establishment of a caliphate throughout Central Asia but officially eschews violence -- with the IMU, a terrorist organization with ties to Al-Qaeda. This conflation has long been a staple of Uzbek official pronouncements and has figured prominently in a number of trials in Uzbekistan.

A July 14 report by the Institute for War and Peace Reporting (IWPR) highlighted this tendency in Kyrgyzstan, quoting Batken regional prosecutor Ryskul Baktybaev as saying, "There is a direct link between members of Hizb ut-Tahrir and the IMU." (Kyrgyz Ombudsman Tursunbai Bakir-uulu specifically criticized this approach, telling IWPR that the two organizations are "opposing trends that hate each other and accuse one another of not being true Muslims.")

The IMU Question

The second issue is the veracity of official Kyrgyz and Tajik reports of stepped-up IMU activity. This is a long-standing problem throughout the region, as Central Asian governments have a well-documented history of using the threat of extremism to justify politically motivated crackdowns, alleging militant activity without providing credible evidence, failing to conduct adequate investigations in the wake of violent incidents, and obtaining convictions with confessions extracted under highly dubious circumstances.

The track record does not necessarily invalidate officials' recent statements, but it makes it difficult to draw conclusions beyond the above-noted indications that Kyrgyz authorities may be adopting a more "Uzbek-style" approach to combating extremism.

Against this backdrop, the current status of the IMU remains unclear. In February, RFE/RL examined a range of answers to the question"Is The Islamic Movement Of Uzbekistan Really Back?" No consensus emerged among regional experts. But an intriguing report by Syed Saleem Shahzad in the Asia Times Online on July 8 suggested that the IMU, which fled Afghanistan after the rout of the Taliban in 2001, may be on the rise again in Pakistan.

Shahzad's report is based on a late June interview conducted in northern Pakistan with "Abdullah," the son of a man identified as Sheikh Ibrahim, IMU leader Tohir Yuldoshev's second-in-command. Stating that "the money is now with [Tohir Yuldoshev]," Abdullah said that he did not know the source of the funds but "personally witnessed" Yuldoshev receiving money in recent years from private individuals in Turkey and Saudi Arabia.

Abdullah also stated that Russian media reports of contacts between Yuldoshev and the CIA led to a split within the IMU and cast a pall over Yuldoshev's traditionally close relations with Al-Qaeda. According to Abdullah, Yuldoshev subsequently circulated a recorded message explaining that allegations of CIA ties were a "smear campaign" that began after Yuldoshev rejected a proposal from unidentified Russians who "offered him a deal to finance him and provide arms and ammunition to fight against the Americans in Afghanistan, on conditions that he give up his struggle in Uzbekistan." With this episode apparently behind him, Yuldoshev has been more active of late in joint efforts with Taliban commanders to fight U.S.-led forces in Afghanistan, Asia Times Online reported.

The account contained no information about IMU operations in Central Asia. But if Abdullah's claims and the report of a rejuvenated Yuldoshev in Pakistan and Afghanistan are accurate, they would suggest that a heightened level of IMU activity on its home turf is not beyond the realm of possibility.
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