When a small band of armed "refugees" crossed the Pamir Mountains from Tajikistan and seized a small village in Kyrgyzstan in August 1999, they did not appear to pose much of a threat.
It has since become clear that the storming of the international stage by those gunmen shattered the hopes of Central Asian governments that they could escape Pakistan- and Afghanistan-style Islamist insurgencies. It also set in motion events that would seriously damage relations among the three states that share the restive Ferghana Valley.
A full 10 years after the Islamic Movement of Uzbekistan (IMU) announced its arrival with the Pamir crossing and villague seizures
, the group is now hunted across Central and South Asia and its name is frequently linked to the Taliban and Al-Qaeda.
The IMU's alliances with those two groups began after the IMU joined the Taliban's efforts to fight forces commanded by Ahmad Shah Mas'ud in Afghanistan in the late 1990s.
Then militants from across the Muslim world, particularly Arabs and increasing numbers from former Soviet states with Muslim majorities, flocked to Afghanistan for training, indoctrination, and refuge.
The IMU was among them, and after the terrorist attacks of September 11, 2001 led to a U.S.-led invasion of Afghanistan, IMU members fought alongside Al-Qaeda.
An intense U.S. bombing campaign in northeastern Afghanistan in late 2001 killed IMU military commander Jumanboy Khojaev (nom de guerre: Juma Namangani). The movement's idealogue, Tahir Yuldash, led the surviving fighters' flight to Pakistan, where many are believed to remain.
Recently, as local resentment has risen and military efforts to oust extremists alongside Pakistan's western borders intensified, the IMU's name has increasingly cropped up both there and in Central Asian states lying to the north.Exponential Growth
Pakistani journalist and regional expert Ahmed Rashid has followed Islamist militancy in the South-Central Asian region for three decades. He says that when the IMU escaped to Pakistan's western tribal areas with Al-Qaeda and the Taliban in 2001, they numbered not more than a few hundred militants.
That's no longer the case, he adds.
Rashid estimates the ranks of the militants in Afghanistan and Pakistan at "maybe four or five thousand."
"The reason [for the increase] is that they have been able to establish a network that goes into Central Asia through Afghanistan, through Iran and through Turkmenistan," Rashid says. "And they have been able to bring out young recruits, especially after the Andijon massacre [in May 2005] by [Uzbek] President [Islam] Karimov, when a lot of young Uzbeks were trying to escape their regime."
In early 2004, Pakistani media started reporting that Qari Tahir, Yuldash's nom de guerre, was leading fighting against Pakistani troops. Under immense Western pressure, the Pakistani Army had just begun what later became an extended campaign against Taliban and Al-Qaeda elements. No Longer Welcome?
Rashid says Central Asian militants have a complicated relationship with the Afghan and Pakistani Taliban and Al-Qaeda, and that some have become their mercenaries.
But widespread local perceptions that blamed Central Asians -- and Uzbeks in particular -- for kidnappings and assassinations eventually turned their erstwhile hosts against them.
IMU ideological leader Tahir Yuldash (undated)
In February 2007, local Taliban and Waziri Pashtun tribesmen in the South Waziristan tribal region fought Uzbeks under Yuldash's command and forced them to seek shelter with Baitullah Mehsud in another part of South Waziristan. Later that year, Mehsud emerged as the leader of an alliance of Pakistani Taliban groups. He exercised control over Taliban networks in Bajaur and Swat, 400 kilometers north of Waziristan, where Central Asian militants were cited in significant numbers over the past two years.
Rashid says it is difficult to determine where they stand today, but that it's clear that "there are many groups amongst them and there is rivalry amongst them."
He says some groups have become "mercenaries in the sense that they hire themselves out to Pakistani Taliban commanders or Afghan Taliban commanders -- and in that sense they are fighting against each other as much as with each other."
"It's been eight years now and we have seen a lot of developments," Rashid says, "but a lot of these developments are not clear to outsiders, simply because this movement has remained underground -- and its leadership, for example, is not clear."Reinventing Themselves
Although Tahir Yuldash is still considered its main leader, Pakistani media reports suggest the ranks of the IMU have been influenced greatly by rival groups and the increasing presence of Tajiks, Turkmen, and other Central Asians.
Rashid says that while in Pakistan, the IMU attempted to transform itself into the Islamic Movement of Turkestan, but is now competing with new groups that are much more ideologically motivated and have forged closer alliances within the jihadist world.
As the increased focus on Pakistani tribal areas as a militant sanctuary prompted periodic Pakistani military forays and attacks by unmanned spy planes, militants like IMU gunmen might be seeking new sanctuaries.
Rashid says the conditions in some Central Asian states might be conducive to "a resurgence of these groups in Central Asia."
"I think they are counting on the fact that Uzbekistan, Tajikistan, and Kyrgyzstan are all facing extremely difficult economic situations -- the increase of poverty, joblessness, the loss of remittances from workers who are working in other parts of the former Soviet Union," Rashid says. "They are probably trying to take advantage of this very, very extreme economic situation that exists in Central Asia."Back In The Headlines
As if on cue, a flurry of reports has emerged of the IMU returning to Central Asia, sparking fears
throughout the region.
Since late May, attacks in Uzbekistan, Kyrgyzstan, and Tajikistan have all been blamed on the IMU.
Uzbekistan was the first in late May, when a small armed group crossed from Kyrgyzstan and attacked a border post, then a police station. The Uzbek government accused Kyrgyzstan of laxity in its internal security efforts, similar allegations to ones made in 1999 and 2000.
Kyrgyz authorities subsequently launched a security operation in the country's section of the Ferghana Valley.
In late June, a spokesman for the governor of Kyrgyzstan's Jalal-Abad Province reported that an encounter with IMU members had resulted in the death of one Kyrgyz security serviceman. At least nine people designated as IMU fighters had been killed in Kyrgyzstan by early July.
Preparing for an evening meal in the Tajik village of Garm, where weeks of rumor and security activity heightened fears that IMU militants were back in action
The problem then appeared to shift to Tajikistan. There were already reports that civil-war-era Islamic opposition field commander Mullo Abdullo had crossed from Afghanistan into Tajikistan in May with around 100 IMU fighters. In July, government security forces and the army reportedly clashed with armed fighters in the eastern Tavil-Dara region.
Tajikistan's Interior Ministry claimed on August 5 that 11 IMU militants had been killed and 20 captured in the operation in Tavil-Dara. Mullo Abdullo was not among them.
Twelve suspected IMU members went on trial in Uzbekistan at the start of August. Tajikistan's Supreme Court sentenced six IMU members at the end of July to jail terms.
The Kyrgyz, Tajik, and Uzbek governments do not appear to be coordinating their efforts to deal with the return of the IMU.
John MacLeod, acting director of the Central Asian program at the London-based Institute for War and Peace Reporting, says such a lack of cooperation is unsurprising, given their histories.
"I think in the Ferghana Valley if there is a resurgence in Islamic militancy, we'll see the Tajiks and the Kyrgyz and the Uzbeks very much doing their own thing on the security front," MacLeod says.
Observers might not have long to wait.
In late July, Tajik Interior Minister Abdurahim Qahhorov was already warning that the surge of operations by international coalition forces in Afghanistan might increase the likelihood of "terrorists, or anybody else who wants to live and seek safe haven" crossing into Tajik, Kyrgyz, and Uzbek territories.