Uzbekistan’s president is launching a preemptive strike. He is warning citizens who have left the country to join Islamic extremist groups and train at terrorist camps that if they return home they will go to prison; and he’s telling citizens inside Uzbekistan if they know of plots for terrorist attacks and do not inform the authorities, they are going to prison too. The same day that Uzbek media carried news of the changes in the law, 33 Uzbek fighter in an Islamic militant group linked to Al-Qaeda, were reported killed in a Pakistani air strike in North Waziristan.
To be sure, Uzbek President Islam Karimov has an itchy trigger finger when he sees even the potential threat of Islamic militants. One should remember thousands of Muslims in the eastern Namangan and Andijon provinces almost toppled him just a couple of months after 1991 independence when they protested Karimov’s moves against religious officials and institutions. He has never viewed Islam-inspired challenges calmly since then. And probably as a result of these early encounters and later incidents of terrorism in Uzbekistan, Karimov has become the most tenacious hunter of jihadists in Central Asia, though rights groups note that he often snares more innocents than militants.
Now Karimov is facing the unpleasant prospect of a recurrence of history. Foreign forces are reducing their presence in Afghanistan and Afghan government forces are taking over security in their country. The last time Afghan government forces were responsible for security in Afghanistan, without any foreign military backing, the Taliban overran the country and became Central Asia’s neighbors.
They arrived at Uzbekistan’s border in August 1998. In February 1999, bombs exploded in the Uzbek capital, Tashkent (that the government blamed on an unlikely alliance of Islamic figures and secular opposition leaders); and in August 1999, militants from the previously unheard of Islamic Movement of Uzbekistan (IMU) descended from the mountains of Tajikistan into southern Kyrgyzstan and announced they were aiming to overthrow Karimov and his government. They were repelled in 1999, but they returned in 2000 and that time made it onto Uzbek territory before again being fended off.
Uzbeks recently killed in Pakistan were likely from the IMU or one of its splinter groups that set up bases in Pakistan after U.S. bombing chased them from their lairs in northern Afghanistan at the end of 2001.
During the years since they have been out of Uzbekistan, the Uzbek nationals roaming Afghanistan and the tribal areas of northwestern Pakistan’s tribal have become formidable fighters, and for several years now they are prized bomb-makers in Afghanistan. Most Afghans are illiterate, while Uzbekistan still has one of the highest standards of education in the region -- a legacy of Soviet times -- so Uzbeks could read instructions for making explosives. An ISAF statement from February 2013 noted the capture of six IMU militants, including an IMU leader who was “allegedly instrumental in manufacturing, procuring and distributing improvised explosive devices.”
The Pakistani military strike that killed the 33 Uzbeks, along with three German nationals, came in retaliation for militant bombings in Bannu and Rawalpindi that Pakistani authorities seem to believe were carried out by the Uzbeks.
The IMU website furqon.com confirmed an air strike and said one assault targeted an Uzbek fighter’s home in Pakistan but killed only his wife and small child. According to the militant group’s website, the Uzbek fighter said Pakistani military helicopters attacked the tribal town of Mirali on January 19 and returned for further strikes during the next three days. The militant claims four children, two women, and five mujahids were killed in a January 19 attack. He also concludes the attacks were retaliation for bombings in Bannu, Rawalpindi, and other Pakistani towns and cities. He said the other mujahids had dispersed to different villages in the Mirali area.
Closer to Uzbekistan, in neighboring Afghanistan, there was increased IMU activity across the northern part of the country in 2013. At least three militants, reportedly from the IMU, were killed in Baghlan Province, in July last year. Afghanistan’s Shamshad TV reported on increased IMU activity in the Sar-e Pol Province in May. Only Afghanistan’s Balkh Province separates those two provinces from Uzbekistan.
So the threat is out there, and the new law that Karimov just spoke of could be seen as among the first of many likely countermeasures Uzbekistan is taking to stave off the threat from its erstwhile native sons, and possibly daughters.
Authorities in neighboring Tajikistan just faced a similar legal dilemma in late December when sentencing five of the country’s nationals for taking part in fighting in Syria. There was no law criminalizing mercenaries, so the five were convicted of “participation in a criminal group” and given various prison sentences, none longer than two years. Uzbekistan’s new law closes this legal loophole.
The new law does essentially put any Uzbek national returning home after visiting unsettled areas in the Muslim world under suspicion, and Uzbek authorities have long been accused of casting a wide net in pursuit of security or, less kindly put, as part of ensuring the regime’s preservation. Thousands have been rounded up before in Uzbekistan when only dozens were guilty, and secular political opponents have found themselves lumped together with genuine jihadists more than once in security crackdowns.
On a side note, while Uzbeks are certainly among the militant groups in neighboring Afghanistan and Pakistan, they do not seem to be present in any large numbers in the Middle East, certainly not in Syria. When Syrian Grand Mufti Ahmad Badreddin Hassun claimed at the end of October there were some “100,000 mercenaries” fighting in Syria, he listed among them 360 citizens of Turkmenistan, 250 from Kazakhstan, and 190 from Tajikistan. No mention of Uzbeks.
Zamira Eshanova of RFE/RL’s Uzbek Service contributed this report