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Central Asia: Is Islamic Movement Of Uzbekistan Really Back?

The Ferghana Valley (RFE/RL) Authorities in Central Asia suggest that an outlawed group responsible for terrorist attacks in the past poses a renewed threat in the region. The Islamic Movement of Uzbekistan (IMU) was thought to have been largely destroyed in the U.S.-led military campaign in Afghanistan. But officials in Tajikistan have blamed several recent incidents on the IMU, and they say the group has been increasingly active since an uprising was suppressed in neighboring Uzbekistan eight months ago.

PRAGUE, 2 February 2006 (RFE/RL) -- The most recent mention by Tajik officials came on 27 January from Abdugaffor Qalandarov, the chief prosecutor in Tajikistan's northern Soghd Province.

Qalandarov was speaking two days after a prison raid by masked gunmen in the Ghayroghum district of northern Tajikistan freed a prisoner with alleged IMU ties. He warned that the IMU has been increasingly active since an uprising and subsequent crackdown by security forces in Andijon, in eastern Uzbekistan, in May.

Qalandarov claimed the IMU has become even more dangerous than the banned Hizb ut-Tahrir, an Islamist group that seeks the creation of a global caliphate.

"[Hizb ut-Tahrir] is not as dangerous as the IMU," Qalandarov said. "We detained some [IMU] members and hold them responsible. We confiscated weapons and ammunition, including a Kalashnikov machine gun, a Makarov pistol, a grenade launcher, and military uniforms."

Tajik officials said they think the suspected IMU members who attacked the Tajik detention facility are hiding in the Batken region of southern Kyrgyzstan. Tajik and Kyrgyz security officials are meeting in the Tajik city of Isfarah today to discuss a joint plan to capture those responsible for the prison raid.

Useful Bugbear?

It is the cross-border aspect of the recent incidents that has authorities throughout the region concerned. But observers are quick to note that governments in Central Asia's post-Soviet republics have sought to use the Islamist threat to consolidate their already-firm grip on power.

Ahmed Rashid is the author of "Jihad: The Rise Of Militant Islam In Central Asia." He told RFE/RL that he has doubts about official statements warning of an IMU revival.

"Certainly we know that the IMU leaders are alive and well in the border regions between Afghanistan and Pakistan," Rashid said. "There have also been accusations in Uzbekistan linking the IMU to killings there. But frankly, we have very little evidence on the ground that the IMU has been able to revive its movement in Uzbekistan and Tajikistan. We should remember that Tajik and Uzbek authorities have a habit of first saying that Hizb ut-Tahrir now is a big danger, and then, a few months later, saying the IMU is a big danger -- and not giving any evidence."

History Of Terror

The IMU's stated goal from 1999 was the overthrow of Uzbek President Islam Karimov and its replacement with a caliphate -- an Islamic state. Over time, the group has expanded its goal to include the creation of an Islamic state encompassing all of Central Asia.

Uzbek authorities blamed the IMU for deadly bombings in Tashkent in February 1999, and labeled the group a terrorist organization.

The group is also thought to have been responsible for numerous kidnappings, including that of four American mountaineers in August 2000. After IMU militants raided southern Uzbekistan and Kyrgyzstan in the summer 1999 and 2000, the U.S. State Department placed the group on its list of terrorist organizations.

Its membership is believed to have totaled about 4,000 at its peak, and the IMU renamed itself the "Islamic Party of Turkestan" five years ago. The group also made clear its wider goal of establishing a caliphate to include Muslim-dominated provinces of western China that it calls "Eastern Turkestan."

Thinning Ranks

IMU militants fought in Afghanistan alongside Taliban and Al-Qaeda forces. Its ranks were thought to have been massively depleted when the international community intervened in Afghanistan in late 2001.

At the time, reports suggested IMU military leader Juma Namangani had been killed. But those reports have never been independently confirmed.

A 34-year-old native of Uzbekistan spoke to RFE/RL on condition of anonymity about the IMU. He said he was an IMU member for more than two years, until late September 2001.

"After America's twin towers [of theWorld Trade Center] exploded on 11 September [2001], the U.S. bombed Afghanistan's Kabul," he said. "We realized that Taliban rule was over and decided to leave Afghanistan. [Namangani] was in Mazar-e Sharif. Mostly [ethnic] Uzbeks and some Tajiks live in Qunduz and Mazar-e Sharif. Namangani, who was in that area at the time, was killed in the first air strike by Americans. Yes, he was gone after the first [bombing]."

But the former IMU member claimed the group's political leader, Tahir Yuldosh, managed to survive and regroup. He claimed Yuldosh's forces are now hiding in the tribal belt along the Afghan-Pakistani border.

"No, [Tahir Yuldosh] sought refuge with other -- Afghan -- members of Taliban," he said. "He went to a mountainous area, forcing people to join him, and set up his camp there. He is still holding them by force. The lucky ones managed to escape; others are still there in special camps. There is no way to leave. If they tried, they'd face danger from two sides. [On the one side] there are Pakistani government [forces] who will shoot them. [On the other, there is] Tahir himself, who will shoot them too."

Strength Uncertain

The IMU membership is unlikely to exceed 200 men, according to analyst Ahmed Rashid. But Rashid added that the group's underground strength is still a question.

"I am sure they have an underground presence; I am sure that militants and [IMU political leader] Tahir Yuldosh, who is still in the Pakistan-Afghanistan border region, are in touch with their underground supporters in Central Asia," Rahid said. "[But] broadly speaking, I think the governments in Central Asia see that Hizb ut-Tahrir is a faster-rising movement than the IMU."

Rashid argued that there have been no clear signs that the IMU is regrouping or moving into Tajik territory in recent months.

Warnings from the region's governments of IMU activities invariably serve to remind many observers that those same officials have been keen to invoke counterterrorism to strengthen their political hands.

Arkady Dubnov, a Central Asia correspondent for the Moscow-based "Vremya novostei" daily, told RFE/RL that Tajik authorities' recent statements should be seen in the light of upcoming presidential election there.

"Tajikistan wants to demonstrate that threats to internal stability and to the regime are only external ones, and that the [President] Imomali Rakhmonov regime has the full support of the elite and of most political parties -- and no dissent or opposition is left. It is very similar to Tashkent's position; Uzbek authorities said there was an external factor in the Andijon events," Dubnov said.

Central Asia has seen a strong Islamic revival in the past decade. Many IMU leaders and militants have come from the Ferghana Valley -- which straddles Uzbekistan, Tajikistan, and Kyrgyzstan. It is a politically and economically depressed region that has provided fertile ground for Islamist militants.

(RFE/RL's Tajik Service contributed to this report.)

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