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Bayat: Nothing But Questions

The discovery of a new extremist group in Tajikistan poses troubling questions. For now, those questions have less to do with the phenomenon of Islamic radicalism than with the extravagant coverage the issue often receives in the media.

Bayat -- from the Arabic word for an oath of allegiance, an important concept in early Islamic history -- burst onto the scene on 12 April, when Tajik prosecutors announced the arrest of 20 people in the northern Isfara district. The suspects are charged with crimes ranging from arson to murder, and specifically the 12 January killing of Baptist pastor Sergei Bassarab. A 27 April report by the Institute for War and Peace Reporting (IWPR) summed up the little that is known about Bayat. IWPR cited unnamed security sources who describe a radical Islamist organization with possible ties to the Taliban and the Islamic Movement of Uzbekistan (IMU), a group that has been linked to Osama bin Laden and Al-Qaeda. But Tajik officials have provided scant additional information, and the report closes with a statement by prosecutors that Bayat was merely "a group of hooligans who have no political motives."
A 13 April article described Bayat as a "terrorist organization whose tentacles have encompassed all of Central Asia."

Those looking to trumpet the arrival of a dangerous new extremist group do not have to manufacture evidence. According to a 24 April article in Tajikistan's "Leninabadskaya pravda," Bayat has been the object of a five-month-long investigation by the Prosecutor-General's Office and Interior Ministry that has resulted in 25 criminal cases against seven individuals who have admitted ties to the IMU. The article describes Bayat as a group that arose in 1992 and fought in Tajikistan's 1992-1997 civil war on the side of the United Tajik Opposition. Its leader today is 48-year-old Hodi Fattoyev, also known as Qori Hodi. Many members of the group apparently received a religious education in Saudi Arabia.

Other alleged links to the Arab world go beyond education. Avesta news agency reported on 20 April that Tajik special services do not rule out a link between Bayat and Bay'at al-Imam (which can be roughly translated as "the oath of allegiance to the prayer leader"), an Arab extremist group linked to Abu Mu'sab al-Zarqawi, whom U.S. forces allege to be the commander of Al-Qaeda operations in Iraq. Abdallah Abu Rumman, a Jordanian newspaper editor, told "Al-Sharq al-Awsat" on 8 March, "I met Abu Mu'sab al-Zarqawi [in prison] in September 1996. He was the leader of a group of political prisoners who called themselves 'Bay'at al-Imam.'" Abu Rumman also notes that Hizb ut-Tahrir, a nonviolent Islamist group banned in many countries for its radical goal of reestablishing a caliphate throughout the Muslim world, maintained a presence in the Jordanian prison where Al-Zarqawi was an inmate in 1996-1999.

Even more sensational details emerge from a lurid series of articles in Kyrgyzstan's "Vechernii bishkek." A 13 April article described Bayat as a "terrorist organization whose tentacles have encompassed all of Central Asia." The article continues with a breathless excursion into the radical underbrush, replete with an extensive clandestine recruiting network, military training camps in Afghanistan, and a veritable army of "trained combatants...merely awaiting the signal to bomb Tajikistan from within."

It is perhaps worth noting that most of the preceding is little more than conjecture. First, Tajik officials have made conflicting statements about Bayat. The 20 April report by Avesta news agency cites one source in the Prosecutor-General's Office as saying that Bayat "is nothing but a hooligan group that has no political purposes," and another source in "Tajik special services" as saying that there may be links between Bayat and Bay'at al-Imam and the IMU. When Nabijon Rahimov, a prosecutor in the Soghd Region where the Bayat arrests took place, gave a news conference on 18 May, he would say only that "the investigation is not over yet," Avesta reported.

Second, the link between Bayat and Bay'at al-Imam is nothing more than a semantic coincidence in the absence supporting evidence. As IWPR reported on 27 April, Bayat appears to be specific to the village of Chorkuh, "where Islam is unusually strong." Nothing else would seem to indicate a larger broader presence. At the 18 May news conference, Rahimov stressed that all 18 Bayat suspects currently in custody come from Chorkuh. In fact, it is entirely possible that Bayat is nothing more than a rural criminal gang with a fancy name.

Still, the overall picture is far from reassuring. Hizb ut-Tahrir, which espouses radical goals while eschewing radical methods, appears to be on the rise in Tajikistan. (At the same news conference where he discussed Bayat, prosecutor Rahimov told journalists that 33 criminal cases involving Hizb ut-Tahrir have been opened in Soghd Region in the first quarter of 2004.) Deputy Prime Minister Hoji Akbar Turajonzoda recently called the spread of Hizb ut-Tahrir in Tajikistan a threat to the stability of the country and the region, RFE/RL's Tajik Service reported on 17 May.

The question for now is whether Bayat should even be considered in evaluating this larger picture. Views diverge widely on Hizb ut-Tahrir, but no one disputes its existence. Instead, disagreements arise over the extent of the threat it poses and the possibility that Central Asian governments are using this threat as an excuse to jail potential troublemakers. With Bayat, we still lack basic information. The excursion above shows that, with a subject as charged as Islamic extremism, a lack of basic information is not necessarily an obstacle to far-reaching conclusions.