What began two years ago in Uzbekistan as a group of 20 so-called "bandits" has since turned into a small army of internationally recognized Islamic militants who are now a major problem for much of Central Asia. Recent reports say the armed force calling itself the "Islamic Movement of Uzbekistan," or IMU, has changed its name to the "Islamic Party of Turkestan" -- a change indicating the group's aspirations have expanded. RFE/RL correspondent Bruce Pannier reports.
Prague, 1 June 2001 (RFE/RL) -- When some 20 armed Uzbek men walked through the remote Pamir mountains into the southern Kyrgyz village of Zardaly almost two years ago (early August 1999), few would have predicted that was the start of a major security problem for much of Central Asia.
Within just a month, the group had grown in number to an estimated 1,000. Now their number is considered to have reached several thousand.
Central Asian authorities originally called them "bandits," who were said to have been engendered by the post-civil war chaos in Tajikistan. But the group called itself the Islamic Movement of Uzbekistan, or IMU, and said it was a mainly ethnic Uzbek organization bent on ousting Uzbek President Islam Karimov and overthrowing his government.
Early last month, it became clear that the movement, with no change in leadership, had changed its name to the Islamic Party of Turkestan, or IPT. The change may have reflected the movement's desire to be considered a political group, but it also showed it has expanded its aspirations. Turkestan is an area stretching from China's western Xinjiang Province to the Caspian Sea.
Ahmed Rashid is a Pakistani journalist who regularly follows developments in Central Asia. He tells RFE/RL the change in the movement's name reflects a broader perspective the group has recently adopted. On a visit to the region a few months ago, Rashid said he saw that it was obvious its leader, ethnic Uzbek Juma Namangani, needed to change his strategy.
"The amount of recruitment that was taking place by Juma Namangani amongst all the ethnic groups in Central Asia, as well as the Uighur Muslims from Xinjiang Province in China, [showed] that it was going to be a very short time before Namangani expressed the view of liberating the whole of Central Asia, rather than just Uzbekistan. The fact is that amongst the IMU there are Kazakhs, Kyrgyz, Tajiks, Uighurs, even some Chechens and, of course, Uzbeks."
Rashid believes that difficult social conditions across Central Asia are the main reason people of very different ethnic origins have joined Namangani's movement -- although, he adds, some may truly be fighting for the group's stated goal of establishing an Islamic state in the region. But Rashid says the overthrow of the Uzbek government remains a priority for the movement.
"His [Namangani's] principle aim is still the Fergana Valley [which runs through Uzbekistan, Kyrgyzstan, and Tajikistan] and toppling [Uzbek President Islam] Karimov because he is seeing a kind of domino effect. If Karimov is toppled and parts of Fergana are occupied by the Islamic movement then that will create a domino effect in Central Asia, given that all the other regimes are probably in a much weaker position than Uzbekistan's regime."
IMU incursions into Kyrgyzstan and Uzbekistan in the past two summers did not militarily advance its goals, but they did serve to remind the region's governments that the movement is a force that can not be ignored. Indeed, not only Central Asian governments are paying attention to the IMU. Russia, the United States, and China are among the countries to deliver military aid and provide security advice to the Central Asian governments concerned.
Russia, China, and -- to a lesser extent -- the United States all see the IMU as part of a much wider network of global terrorists. All accuse Afghanistan's Taliban movement of aiding the IMU, at the very least by providing safe bases for the movement.
But Russia and China, together with most Central Asian governments, also see the IMU as part of a network of Islamic groups that receive training in Afghanistan. They include fighters from Kashmir and Chechnya, and Uighur separatists from Xinjiang Province. Alleged international terrorist Osama bin Laden, now living in Afghanistan, is reportedly helping all these groups.
By renaming itself the Islamic Party of Turkestan, the Uzbek-led IMU in effect was announcing it also includes Kyrgyz, Kazakhs, and Uighurs in its project for a Central Asian Islamic state. In addition, according to some regional analysts, by designating itself as a "party" the group may hope to become a political force and integrate into regional governments in the way the United Tajik Opposition, or UTO, did at the end of the Tajik civil war.
After five years of fighting, the UTO and Tajik government reached a peace agreement in June 1997 that gave the former rebels a share in governing the country. Many war-time UTO leaders still occupy high-level positions in the Tajik government.
The Uzbek leadership of the IMU, now renamed IPT, fought alongside the UTO during the Tajik civil war. Namangani was in a unit under the command of Mirzo Ziyoyev, now Tajikistan's minister for emergency situations.
But analyst Rashid rejects the idea that the Tajik model could work for the IPT.
"If he [Namangani] was interested in power-sharing, it would have been much easier to have confined his movement to Uzbekistan. Now that the movement has taken a position against all the Central Asian governments, it is very difficult to conceive of any kind of power-sharing. Who are you asking for power-sharing with? Which government are you asking for power-sharing with?"
If Central Asian security services are correct in their warnings, it will not be long before it becomes clear how well Namangani has succeeded in uniting different ethnic elements behind his cause. The services predict that, as happened during the past two summers, the movement's armed fighters will descend from the mountains once the passes are clear of snow.
(Akram Faisullo of the Uzbek Service contributed to this report.)