The trials that have taken place across Uzbekistan this fall have not fully clarified the key question of responsibility for the attacks, even as they have reignited a familiar debate over the methods Uzbek authorities use in their fight against religious extremism. But an unexpected breakthrough in the long-running case came on 11 November, when Kazakhstan's National Security Committee (KNB) announced that it has broken up a terrorist group with links to the violence in Uzbekistan. The new information suggests that remnants of the Islamic Movement of Uzbekistan (IMU), which lost much of its organizational capacity when U.S.-led forces toppled the Taliban regime, have regrouped in a neo-IMU. And while it confirms some important aspects of earlier statements by Uzbek officials, it also raises new questions about the terror threat in Central Asia.
Vladimir Bozhko, first deputy chairman of Kazakhstan's National Security Committee (KNB), announced at a press conference in Astana on 11 November that Kazakh security forces have broken up a terrorist group in Kazakhstan with links to Al-Qaeda, Khabar news agency reported. The KNB arrested nine Kazakh citizens and four Uzbek citizens, and detained four Kazakh women trained as suicide bombers. Kazakh officials said that the group managed to recruit 50 Uzbek citizens and 20 Kazakh citizens since it began its activities in mid-2002. In the course of the arrests, police confiscated weapons, forged documents, and a large quantity of extremist propaganda, including a videotaped address by Al-Qaeda leader Osama Bin Laden.
The so-called Mujahedin of Central Asia Group was linked to the Islamic Movement of Uzbekistan (IMU), a group with known Al-Qaeda ties, through one of its leaders, Zhakshybek Biimurzaev, a native of Kyrgyzstan and former IMU fighter. Biimurzaev directed the Mujahedin's activities in Kazakhstan, while Ahmad Bekmirzaev (spelled Bekmirzoev, Bekmurzaev, or Bekmurzoev in some reports), another IMU veteran, directed the Uzbek wing. Bekmirzaev was killed in a shoot-out with Uzbek police outside Tashkent on 30 March.
KNB officials said that members of the group were involved in terrorist attacks in Uzbekistan in late March-early April and three suicide bombings in Tashkent on 30 July, Kazinform reported. The bombings targeted the U.S. and Israeli embassies and the Uzbek Prosecutor-General's Office, killing four Uzbek law-enforcement personnel and the three suicide attackers. Khabar news agency quoted Zhakshybek Biimurzaev, the group's commander in Kazakhstan, as saying, "This year there were three terror attacks in Tashkent in July. I organized them on the instruction of my amir [commander] Usman. Three Kazakh citizens took part in them. I was opposed to this, but the amir ordered it." Later, Biimurzaev received orders from his commander to carry out another terror attack Bozhko said that the group's top leaders, who were located outside of Central Asia, had planned to assassinate a high-ranking Uzbek official.
According to Bozhko, the group's regional leaders, Bekmirzaev and Biimurzaev, received their training at terrorist camps in Afghanistan and Tajikistan, two areas where the IMU was active in the period before 2001. (In a curious detail, Biimurzaev was said to have trained with Khattab, the notorious Arab jihadist who was killed in Chechnya in 2002 under unclear circumstances.) Other members were sent for training to what Bozhko termed Al-Qaeda and Taliban camps, presumably in the remote regions of Pakistan where their remnants are believed to have fled after the U.S.-led invasion of Afghanistan. The group targeted Uzbekistan, Bozhko said, "because [the Uzbek authorities] purportedly oppress Muslims," Interfax-Kazakhstan reported. Members also referred to the United States and Israel, the Tashkent embassies of which were attacked by suicide bombers on 30 July, as "enemies of Islam."
The news conference in Astana underscored that ties to the violence in Uzbekistan spread throughout the region. As Uzbek authorities had previously announced, Avaz Shoyusupov, one of the suicide attackers on 30 July, was a Kazakh citizen. Two other Kazakh citizens, Isa Eruov and Makhira Ibragimova, the latter the wife of Bekmirzaev, blew themselves up in Uzbekistan in spring 2004, "Kazakhstan Today" reported. Biimurzaev was arrested with the help of Kyrgyzstan's National Security Service. One of his aides, Aidos Usmonov (described by Khabar as an Uzbek citizen and spelled Obboz Osmonov), was caught in Pavlodar, Kazakhstan on his way back from Russia, where he had allegedly been seeking new recruits. Bozhko noted that the Uzbek citizens arrested in Kazakhstan will be extradited to Uzbekistan once Kazakh officials complete their investigation.
Details Of Attacks Still Murky
The initial press conference adds significantly to our understanding of what took place in Uzbekistan earlier this year, although more information will have to come to light to clarify the details. In its general outlines, the account presented by Kazakh authorities in Astana on 11 November confirms some of the charges at the Tashkent trial of 15 defendants that began on 26 July and ended on 24 August. A 31 July press release by Uzbekistan's Foreign Ministry indicates that the 15 defendants, who were charged with participation in the violence on 29 March-1 April in Tashkent and Bukhara, were led by Bekmirzaev, described by Kazakh authorities as the group's commander in Uzbekistan. During the trial, the defendants identified a picture of Avaz Shoyusupov, the Kazakh citizen who blew himself up in the lobby of the Uzbek Prosecutor-General's Office in Tashkent on 30 July, and said that they met him in Kazakhstan in early 2004.
The Uzbek press release notes that some of the defendants underwent training at camps in Pakistan's Southern Waziristan province, where Deutsche Welle has reported activity by IMU remnants, as well as in Kazakhstan. At the 11 November press conference, however, Bozhko stated categorically that "there were no camps and bases for training terrorists on the territory of our country." But the Uzbek press release describes the "auxiliary camps" in Kazakhstan where some of the 15 defendants underwent training at "private apartments" in Shymkent and elsewhere, which would seem to indicate that the apparent dispute between Uzbek and Kazakh officials concerns terminology.
But serious questions arise over the group's alleged organizational affiliation. The Uzbek trial stressed the ideological influence of Hizb ut-Tahrir (HT), noting that several of the defendants were members of the banned extremist organization. In a nationally televised address on 31 July, the day after the suicide attacks on the U.S. and Israeli embassies and the Prosecutor-General's Office, Uzbek President Islam Karimov stated that the suicide attackers and the 15 defendants "belong to the same group." In the same address, he chided the media for suggesting IMU involvement in the attacks and, citing the confessions of the 15 defendants, stressed the role of HT ideology in the terror attacks.
Yet the Kazakh news conference, which in other respects confirms the official Uzbek version of events, said nothing about HT and implied a direct link to the IMU through Bekmirzaev and Biimurzaev. For its part, HT, which espouses the radical aim of establishing a caliphate in Central Asia while claiming to eschew violence, has repeatedly denied any involvement in terror attacks in Uzbekistan.
Given the histories of the two organizations and the information that is common to both official Uzbek and Kazakh accounts, the involvement of a "neo-IMU" in the attacks in Uzbekistan appears more likely than the sudden transformation of HT into a violent terrorist organization. Before the U.S.-led operation in Afghanistan destroyed its base of operations, the IMU carried out violent attacks on the Uzbek government, and the IMU is well within the ideological orbit of violent jihad, especially after its leadership developed close ties with Al-Qaeda in Afghanistan. The neo-IMU would seem to consist of surviving members of the original IMU who fled Afghanistan after late 2001 and regrouped elsewhere, some in remote areas of Pakistan and others in Central Asia. The neo-IMU may also have drawn current or former adherents of HT in Central Asia, and particularly Uzbekistan, who wished to take more direct action.
The insistence by Uzbek authorities that most, if not all, roads lead to HT may represent a refusal to deviate from what has now been official policy for several years -- that HT represents the greatest threat to stability in Uzbek society. In the context of this policy, the focus on HT in defendants' testimony could have resulted from the actions of overzealous investigators and prosecutors. An 18 August letter from Human Rights Watch to President Karimov raised the issue of coercion in the abovementioned trial of 15 defendants, stating, "the prosecution's case is based entirely on the defendants' confessions, and the defense has so far failed to inquire at trial as to the conditions under which such confessions were made."
Whether or not subsequent reports confirm the existence of a neo-IMU, we have enough information at present to draw several conclusions about the group. First, its financial resources seem limited, which is likely to impact its organizational capacity. At the news conference in Kazakhstan, Bozhko said that while the Mujahedin received some funding from abroad, they financed their operations with two armed robberies in which three people were killed. A terrorist organization willing to risk armed robbery is clearly in some financial difficulty. Reports noted that attackers in Tashkent in the spring assaulted policemen on patrol and stole their weapons, a further indication of limited means. Second, the foiled plan to assassinate a high-ranking Uzbek official, taken in conjunction with past attacks that targeted police and the Prosecutor-General's Office, suggests a commitment to attacking symbols of the Uzbek government. Future operations may unfold along similar lines. Third, future operations will be problematic. According to the information provided at the Astana news conference, Kazakh security forces have broken up one group and will surely be looking for others.
Counterterrorism cooperation has been increasing in the region, and Uzbek, and possibly Kyrgyz, security forces will also be stepping up their efforts to clamp down on suspected militant activity.