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Breaking Down 'Central Asia's Bin Laden'

Undated photo of Yuldash

Undated photo of Yuldash

Tahir Yuldash, the legendary alleged leader of the so-called Islamic Movement of Uzbekistan (IMU), says he and his band of multinational mujahedin played a significant role in bringing down former Pakistani President Pervez Musharraf last week. So beware, all you other autocratic anti-Muslim dictators out there! You're next to fall -- followed by the free world as we know it.

That's the message, at least, that Yuldash conveys in an audio recording received by RFE/RL's Uzbek Service this week.

But like so much else about this mystery man from the city of Namangan, Yuldash's latest rant is as apocryphal as ever. Indeed, the only thing clear about it is its propaganda value for Islam Karimov himself.

According to the official narrative, the Uzbek president has long been Public Enemy No.1 for Yuldash, whom Karimov has portrayed as a sort of Central Asian Osama bin Laden bent on toppling the Tashkent strongman and ushering in Islamist rule across the region. That narrative, bolstered by alleged terrorist attacks in Uzbekistan over the past decade and Western fears of instability in that strategic state, has proven immensely useful in Karimov's efforts to portray himself as a bulwark against Islamist extremism -- a heroic hard man unafraid of employing any means necessary to prevent a tsunami of Central Asian jihadists from crashing into Afghanistan and Pakistan and the wider world.

Once upon a time, in the late 1990s, Yuldash appeared to threaten Karimov. But ever since fleeing his hideout in Afghanistan in late 2001 for Pakistan's tribal areas, the mystery surrounding him only thickened. Who is this guy -- really? How many men does he command? Where does he fit in among the various tribal forces and foreign militants reportedly working with other pro-Taliban extremists in the wilds of northwest Pakistan?

More importantly: what ties, if any, has Yuldash ever had with Karimov, a man who wields almost total control through his feared intelligence services? A strongman who, some say, would not be beyond staging a few attacks (or steering a few "militants" to do so) to stir up fears over Uzbek terror -- and spur Western governments to embrace him as the last dike before the deluge.

And what ties, if any, has Yuldash ever had to Russia, whose forces reportedly airlifted the IMU leader and his fellow fighters to Afghanistan after the end of the Tajik civil war in the late 1990s? Alisher Saipov, the ethnic-Uzbek Kyrgyz journalist murdered last year, certainly did some interesting reporting about that question.

In his 15-minute tape, which RFE/RL did not air, Yuldash never once mentions Karimov or Uzbekistan by name. Instead, he praises his fighters for helping the broader battle to bring down Musharraf. "In the revolution begun on the territory of Afghanistan and Pakistan, the [IMU] mujahedin are standing in the front row, putting the first bricks in the foundations of an Islamic state," Yuldash says. He also calls on Muslims -- Uzbeks, presumably -- to join his jihad rather than toil as migrant laborers in places like Kazakhstan or Russia.

Yuldash, rumors of whose death (and life?) have been greatly exaggerated over the years, has in recent times sought to portray his goals as extending beyond Uzbekistan to include the global struggle for Islamist rule. But in listening to his latest soliloquy, the struggle he still seems to serve most is the propaganda jihad for his purported mortal enemy back in Tashkent.

-- Jeffrey Donovan

About This Blog

Written by RFE/RL editors and correspondents, Transmission serves up news, comment, and the odd silly dictator story. While our primary concern is with foreign policy, Transmission is also a place for the ideas -- some serious, some irreverent -- that bubble up from our bureaus. The name recognizes RFE/RL's role as a surrogate broadcaster to places without free media. You can write us at