Prague, 27 April 2004 (RFE/RL) -- One of the front lines in the global fight against international terrorism is Central Asia.
That role was underscored during the past month, when a series of attacks by reported extremists swept through the Uzbek capital Tashkent and a second city, Bukhara.
The attacks also underscore the curious fact that extremism in Central Asia is largely limited to Uzbekistan.
The Uzbek government blames Jamo'at, a little-known Islamic group, for the attacks, which left 47 people dead -- mainly the assailants -- and has put the entire region on edge. The outburst of violence serves as an unpleasant reminder that the region is far from stable, despite the U.S.-led assault on the Taliban and Al-Qaeda to the south, in Afghanistan. The attacks also underscore the curious fact that extremism in Central Asia is largely limited to Uzbekistan.
Jamo'at has not released a statement explaining why the attacks were launched, or even claiming that it was responsible. But if the violence can be attributed to the group, that puts Jamo'at together with the Islamic Movement of Uzbekistan and Hizb ut-Tahrir as groups that have appeared in Central Asia since the late 1990s with the apparent goal of overthrowing the Uzbek government.
That raises the obvious question: why are certain elements specifically trying to overthrow the Uzbek government?
Oleg Panfilov is the director of the Moscow-based Center for Journalism in Extreme Situations. He said one reason for the apparent focus on Uzbekistan is that President Islam Karimov is seen to head the most restrictive government in the region.
"Karimov's regime is a more dangerous regime for the development of any other kind of ideology. Karimov's regime is also dangerous because when he eliminated the democratic opposition, he in fact left an ideological void, and Karimov, by doing this, painted himself into a corner," he said.
With 25 million people, Uzbekistan has the largest population in Central Asia and is located in the heart of the region. It has the largest army and a significant police force and security network to enforce Karimov's policies. By comparison, the governments of neighboring countries -- Kazakhstan, Kyrgyzstan, Tajikistan, and Turkmenistan -- are considerably weaker.
Alex Vatanka is the editor in chief at the London-based analytical group Jane's Sentinel. Vatanka said that, at least with the Islamic Movement of Uzbekistan (IMU) and Hizb ut-Tahrir, the focus on Uzbekistan can be explained by the groups' large Uzbek membership. "The composition of these Islamist movements -- and if you look closely at these groups, essentially we're talking about two groups, the IMU and Hizb ut-Tahrir -- both these seem to have quite a lot of Uzbeks among their ranks," he said. "And that tells us something about the Uzbek society. On the one side is the composition, and essentially I would think it is natural for people who are from Uzbekistan to focus on their own government as opposed to paying attention to Turkmenistan or Tajikistan."
The majority of those arrested for belonging to both these Islamic groups are ethnic Uzbeks. The leadership of the IMU is undeniably Uzbek and one of the group's leaders, Tohir Yuldash, was reportedly with a group of Uzbeks, Chechens, and Arabs in the Waziristan tribal area of Pakistan last month.
Hizb ut-Tahrir is more difficult to study, as the group works in small cells. Alleged Hizb ut-Tahrir members have been arrested in Tajikistan and Uzbekistan.
When the IMU invaded southern Kyrgyzstan in the summer of 1999, the group stated clearly that its ultimate goal was the invasion of Uzbekistan, the overthrow of President Karimov and his regime, and the creation of an Islamic state in its place.
Leaflets from Hizb ut-Tahrir, now found virtually everywhere in Central Asia, call for the overthrow of the Uzbek government, regularly insult President Karimov, and call for the creation of an Islamic caliphate.
Vatanka said for these groups, the focus on the Uzbek regime could be simply the perception that Karimov represents the greatest threat to their goals of establishing a regional Islamic state. "If you look at Central Asia, Karimov is by far the biggest obstacle for anyone who had an Islamist, or pan-Islamist, agenda," he said. "If you get rid of this -- let's use their own terminology -- this 'snake,' then you could hope for some sort of domino effect. I think Karimov, his regime, the security apparatus they have in place, they are the most effective to tackle the issues of Islamism. And if you can get rid of them, or this particular government, then your chances of overthrowing a weaker government are better."
This possibility is no doubt apparent to neighboring countries. The IMU fought with Kyrgyz troops in the summers of 1999 and 2000, killing scores of Kyrgyz soldiers. Despite Tajik government denials, it seems fairly certain now that the IMU had bases in Tajikistan's Tavil-Dara area.
Kazakhstan also increased its military spending and tightened security along its borders with Uzbekistan and Kyrgyzstan in response to the incursions.
Hizb ut-Tahrir members have never been accused of having committed a violent act. But for their support of the Islamic caliphate, they have been arrested in northern Tajikistan, the Osh area of Kyrgyzstan, and the southern areas of Kazakhstan, all areas near the Uzbek border and all areas with large Uzbek populations.
But in the last year or so, Hizb ut-Tahrir members have also been arrested in northern Kazakhstan, the Bishkek area of Kyrgyzstan, and in the Tajik capital Dushanbe, areas that are not near the Uzbek border or known for having significant numbers of ethnic Uzbeks.
All the same, the Hizb ut-Tahrir leaflets confiscated in all these areas remain constant in its message: overthrow the Uzbek government and President Karimov.
How does Jamo'at fit into the pattern? This week, Kazakhstan said there is a link between Jamo'at and a similar group in Kazakhstan. The director of the Shanghai Cooperation Organization's antiterrorist center in Tashkent, Vyacheslav Kasymov, said mobile phones found at the homes of suspects in Uzbekistan showed they had called phone numbers in Kazakhstan.