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Central Asia: Are Radical Groups Joining Forces?

Since the U.S.-led war on terrorism toppled the Taliban regime, a number of terrorist groups based in Afghanistan, like the Islamic Movement of Uzbekistan, have scattered. But some sources say that despite lying low since the U.S. attacks, the IMU and other radical Islamic groups of Central Asia have recently unified their forces in order to intensify militant activities in the region.

Prague, 8 October 2002 (RFE/RL) -- Despite U.S. military achievements in the war on Afghan-based terrorism, the threat of terrorist developments in Central Asia remains.

Regional governments say the physical presence of thousands of U.S. troops in Uzbekistan and Kyrgyzstan have forced radical groups like the Islamic Movement of Uzbekistan, or IMU, to keep a low profile for the time being. But they do not believe the activities of such groups have been stopped entirely.

One official expressing such concern is Kalyk Imankulov, the head of the Kyrgyz National Security Service.

Imankulov said he has obtained information indicating that members of different radical groups may be attempting to join forces in a single organization. He said groups like the IMU, Hizb ut-Tahrir, Uighur separatists, and Tajik and Kyrgyz Islamists are uniting, calling themselves the Islamic Movement of Central Asia. Under the guidance of the IMU, he said, the new group's aim is to create an Islamic caliphate that will begin in Uzbekistan before expanding to Tajikistan and Kyrgyzstan and moving on to the rest of Central Asia and northwest China.

Imankulov and other state officials declined to comment on the issue to RFE/RL. But the statement has triggered a debate among regional experts on whether the creation of such a union is really feasible.

Ahmed Rashid is the Pakistan-based author of "Jihad: The Rise of Militant Islam in Central Asia" and other books on Islamic fundamentalism in the region. He said the unification of various radical Islamic groups of Central Asia in one regional organization is not likely under current circumstances. "Frankly, I think it is very difficult for all these various groups to be able to unite in a situation where all the borders are very tightly patrolled. There is an American military and intelligence presence in Central Asia and in Afghanistan. And of course, Russian intelligence is also very, very active," Rashid said.

Rashid said the idea of gathering militants scattered by the U.S. campaign in Afghanistan is already difficult. To then expect them to unite in a single, ideologically consistent organization, he said, is even more unlikely. He cited as an example the banned Islamist organization Hizb ut-Tahrir, which supports the creation of a caliphate but without the violent means often advocated by groups like the IMU. "Hizb ut-Tahrir has denounced terrorism and violence, and they have said that they would bring about a change for an Islamic regime [a caliphate] through peaceful means, [a strategy that is radically different from the IMU agenda]," Rashid said.

Rashid said that lumping Hizb ut-Tahrir and the IMU together in the same category of radical groups -- as Imankulov did in his recent remarks -- may be an indication that Kyrgyz officials are not aware of the real developments within the various Islamic groups of Central Asia.

Rashid said Imankulov's remarks may instead be an excuse for the state to further crack down on unsanctioned Islamic groups that it says represent a security threat. He said exaggerating the terrorist threat in Central Asia may help regional leaders coax greater political and financial support from the United States.

Abduljelil Karkash is president of the East Turkistan Information Center based in Munich. He agrees that Imankulov's statement may be aimed at heightening anxiety over the terrorist threat in Central Asia. He said the goals of the various groups mentioned by the Kyrgyz official are too disparate to be served by a single organization.

Karkash said the goal of Uighur separatists from China's Xinjiang Province is to achieve independence from Beijing, something that has little in common with the IMU's agenda, or Hizb ut-Tahrir's aim of building a caliphate in Central Asia. "How can these different groups unite [in a single organization]? The [IMU] -- a bunch of people who can't pray or read the Koran in their own country -- is not capable of building an Islamic state and has no power to unite other nations [under this slogan]," Karkash said.

Karkash added that the East Turkistan Islamic Movement (formerly the Eastern Turkistan Liberation Movement) -- a Uighur separatist group recently added to the U.S. State Department's list of international terrorist organizations -- is not seeking to build an Islamic state in Central Asia but to liberate Uighurs from Chinese control.

Karkash said unification with the IMU, a group closely linked to Al-Qaeda, would do considerable damage to the Uighur independence movement and play into the hands of the Chinese government, which has been trying to link the separatist movement to international terrorism.

While questioning the legitimacy of the Kyrgyz security official's claim, both Rashid and Karkash agreed that some new developments are under way within various Islamic groups of Central Asia.

Rashid said that scattered militants from the IMU and other regional radical groups may soon unite under a new leader, but possibly not Tahir Yuldash, the IMU's current political leader. "I think that the bigger danger is that some of the elements of the IMU may try to link up with Gulbuddin Hekmatyar, the radical Afghan-Pashtun leader who has now returned to Afghanistan and who is opposing the government of President Hamid Karzai. I think that these scattered IMU groups in Pakistan and Afghanistan may be more likely to link up with Hekmatyar at the moment rather than try to make some very grand Islamic alliance across Central Asia," Rashid said.

Rashid believes that regardless of which figure, Tahir Yuldash or Gulbuddin Hekmatyar, might unite the scattered IMU militants, at the moment the group is not capable of carrying out a major military action in any of the Central Asian countries like those in 1999 and 2000. Rashid said that instead of a wide-scale military invasion, the IMU may try to hit Western, in particular, U.S., interests in Central Asia. "I think the danger that the IMU may attack or try to attack American forces in Central Asia is something very likely. I don't think that the IMU has such large numbers of forces as they had in the past. And I think that we are not going to see any major kind of military action," Rashid said.

The possibility of military action by the IMU against U.S. targets has been raised repeatedly by Kyrgyz, Uzbek, and Tajik officials in talks with U.S. authorities. Fighting terrorism remains a key official concern among the region's leaders and was a top issue of discussion during this weekend's summit of Central Asian leaders in Dushanbe.