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South/Central Asia: Is Talk Of IMU Aimed At Courting Outsiders?

This 1999 photo shows guards on the Uzbek-Kyrgyz border on alert for IMU members (ITAR-TASS) July 2, 2007 (RFE/RL) -- Afghanistan's National Security Directorate announced today that at least seven men with alleged connections to the Islamic Movement of Uzbekistan (IMU) have been arrested in two northern provinces, Faryab and Jowzjan.

The announcement is the latest warning of radical Islamist activity in Central and South Asia.

In neighboring Tajikistan, authorities detained 10 suspected IMU members in late June as a trial there continued of 14 others facing similar allegations.

Tajik and Uzbek defense officials warned last week of "increasing threats posed by terrorist and extremist groups" in Central Asia.

But could the region's leaders be inflating the threat posed by extremist groups in order to portray their countries as the front line against terrorism and boost their leverage ahead of a summit of the Shanghai Cooperation Organization (SCO)?

Shady Past

The IMU is regarded by U.S. and the members of the SCO as a terrorist group. Officials have in the past pointed to senior leadership and training ties between the IMU and Al-Qaeda.

At an SCO meeting in Bishkek on June 27, Tajik Defense Minister Sherali Khairulloev predicted that militant groups would be more active throughout Central and South Asia as the last of the current crop of opium poppies are harvested in Afghanistan.

"Al-Qaeda, Taliban, and IMU followers will intensify their activities starting from July," Khairulloev said. "As far as their impact on Fergana Valley is concerned, we are more concerned about the Islamic Movement of Uzbekistan. As you know, they are being financed by some foreign governments, and they have to justify their existence -- because if there is no activity, there would be no financing."

Speaking alongside his Central Asian counterparts, Khairulloev said that Tajikistan and Uzbekistan have sought to tighten their borders to intercept IMU members' movements.

Skeptic Abound

Despite official warnings -- and prominent arrests and trials of suspected IMU supporters -- some observers say there is no evidence to support claims that militants are more active.

Critics accuse Central Asia's bullying governments of playing up perceived threats to justify crackdowns on dissent at home and to portray themselves as crucial to international counterterrorism efforts.

Michael Hall, head of the Central Asian project for the International Crisis Group (ICG), a nonprofit analytical and advocacy group, said authorities in the region are likely to issue more statements highlighting the IMU threat ahead of a major summit in August of the SCO.

Hall said he thinks officials want to show fellow SCO members Russia and China that they are valuable counterterrorism allies who deserve greater support.

IMU 'Remnants'

Hall said that while there has long been some degree of threat in Central Asia, the IMU is actually weaker now than before the United States declared its "war on terror" in 2001.

"There probably are remnants of the IMU in Central Asia to this day," Hall said. "But to what extent they are linked to what is left of the IMU currently based in Pakistan -- to what extent they are connected with one another and to what extent they are capable of pulling off any major acts of terrorism -- I think it is very difficult to make any clear statement on that front. I think [that] in many cases the threat posed by the groups is certainly, to a certain extent, exaggerated."

Matthew Clements, Eurasia editor in the Country Risk Department for the U.K.-based Jane's Information Group, argued that if there is any danger of radicalism in Central Asia, it stems from authorities' pressure on religious and political freedom, as well as a lack of socioeconomic opportunity.

"I think the danger of this [situation] is that elements of this could become more radicalized -- and this is mainly due to government action [and] to the fact that these people feel that their socioeconomic well-being is being put second by the government," Clements said. "[They feel] that they are not being politically represented. And also because the populations are being cracked down upon by the governments. And these crackdowns themselves are likely to engender greater feelings of radicalism."

Creating Sympathy?

Hikmatulloh Saifullozoda heads the "Dialog" think tank in the Tajik capital, Dushanbe, and is a prominent member of Tajikistan's Islamic Renaissance Party (IRP) -- the only officially registered Islamic party in Central Asia. He said that while radical Islamic underground groups might have a limited number of followers in Central Asia, they don't enjoy much popular support. Saifullozoda questioned whether what he labels authorities' "unnecessary pressure" on religious freedom might help religious extremists win sympathy.

He also warned governments against provoking public anger by needlessly intervening on sensitive issues like conservative women's wearing of head scarves.

"If the authorities solve these social problems, and as long as they do not interfere in sensitive issues -- which could take an unexpected turn -- I think no one would support the radical groups," Saifullozoda said.

There is a general consensus among analysts that groups like the IMU currently are not capable of destabilizing the region on any grand scale. But that does not mean they could not try to launch isolated acts of terror.

Observers pointed out that democratic reforms -- fostering freedom of speech, religion, and political activities -- could reduce the risk of radical groups winning public support.

They also suggested that governments could help their own cause through efforts to raise living standards by creating jobs and battling corruption.

In poverty-stricken regions like Central and South Asia, these observers warned, social unrest can take on virtually any form. And regardless of the immediate threat they present, radical groups like the IMU have a lot of experience at harnessing public disenchantment.

Islam And Politics In Central Asia

Islam And Politics In Central Asia
The Khodji Mashrab Mosque in Dushanbe (TASS file photo)

ACTIVISTS AND AUTOCRATS: Eric McGlinchey, assistant professor of government and politics at George Mason University, told an RFE/RL briefing that Islam-centered political movements present the most coherent challenge to autocratic governments in Central Asia.


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    Farangis Najibullah

    Farangis Najibullah is a senior correspondent for RFE/RL who has reported on a wide range of topics from Central Asia, including the region’s ongoing struggle with the coronavirus pandemic and its economic impact. She has extensively covered efforts by Central Asian states to repatriate their citizens who joined Islamic State in Syria and Iraq.