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Central Asia Report: March 8, 2004

8 March 2004, Volume 4, Number 10

CENTRAL ASIA: THE WEEK AT A GLANCE. Azerbaijani President Ilham Aliyev's official visit to Kazakhstan appeared to nudge the two countries closer to eventual cooperation on oil exports, as Kazakh President Nursultan Nazarbaev said that he is "convinced" that Kazakh oil will flow through the Baku-Tbilisi-Ceyhan (BTC) pipeline. Kazakhstan currently transports the bulk of its oil abroad through Russia, so the decision to diversify export routes would seem to be a logical one. The array of geopolitical factors involved -- primarily along the dual axes of Kazakh-Russian and Kazakh-U.S. relations -- will give Nazarbaev an excellent opportunity to display his skill at "multivectored" foreign policy. Ample time remains for maneuvering, however, with BTC slated for completion in 2005 and Kazakhstan's giant Kashagan oil field to come on line in 2007 or 2008.

International organizations warned of the threat posed to the region by HIV/AIDS and drugs. The International Narcotics Control Board, an independent UN body, released its annual report on illegal drug trafficking on 3 March, citing Tajikistan as an increasingly popular supply route for Afghanistan's burgeoning heroin production. Nearly 6 tons of heroin was seized on the Tajik-Afghan border in 2003. The same report criticized Turkmenistan for insufficient cooperation with international efforts to stem the flow of illegal narcotics. Meanwhile, a World Bank official warned that Central Asia could face a devastating HIV/AIDS epidemic over the next 10 years unless the region's countries take immediate efforts to halt the spread of the disease.

The secretive Islamist organization Hizb ut-Tahrir (HT) continued to surface in news reports. Kazakhstan sentenced a 23-year-old activist to three years in prison in Shymkent. In Tajikistan, where authorities arrested a group of 14 to 22 HT activists in mid-February, new arrests took place. According to law-enforcement sources, the latest arrestees included one of the top three figures in the HT network in the Kulob region.

Foreign NGOs in Uzbekistan received a reprieve when the Uzbek government extended by one month a 1 March deadline for NGOs to register with the Justice Ministry. In a move that drew widespread criticism and sparked fears of increased harassment, the Uzbek government announced on 19 February that foreign NGOs already registered with the Foreign Ministry would have to reregister with the Justice Ministry by 1 March.

On the political front, Darigha Nazarbaeva, daughter of Kazakh President Nazarbaev, denied rumors that she plans to use her newly created Asar Party to oust her father. She predicted instead that Nazarbaev will be re-elected in 2006 and will serve as his country's president until his term ends in 2013. Meanwhile, 13 members of the Central Committee of the Communist Party of Kazakhstan (KPK) split off to form the Communist Party of the Republic of Kazakhstan. According to at least one report, the dissident Communists could take with them 25,000 of the KPK's 56,000 members. And in Tajikistan, the opposition Taraqqiyot (Progress) Party sent an open letter to President Imomali Rakhmonov and a number of foreign organizations to protest the Justice Ministry's refusal to register the party. Deputy Justice Minister Rustam Mengliev criticized Taraqqiyot for "aggravating the situation" and said that the Justice Ministry is still considering the party's application.

RADICAL ISLAM IN CENTRAL ASIA: NEW REPORTS AND FAMILIAR QUESTIONS. The threat of radical Islam remains the most contentious and galvanizing issue in Central Asia. Though views differ widely on the extent of the threat, a certain consensus unites specialists on the dubious efficacy of current official efforts to fight it. Somewhat less consensus is evident in specific recommendations to curb the spread of the perceived danger. Meanwhile, even as virtually all observers agree that conditions in the region provide fertile ground for future radical activities, they evince a general despondency about the prospects for improvement in the foreseeable future.

Recent Reports

A spate of recent reports from the region shows ongoing Islamist activity and law-enforcement efforts to contain it. One report details the state of affairs in the Islamic Movement of Uzbekistan (IMU) in Pakistan and Afghanistan. Other reports suggest that Hizb ut-Tahrir (HT), an organization that now stands at the center of concerns over rising Islamist activity in Central Asia, is increasingly tailoring its recruiting efforts to match local dynamics in Tajikistan and Kazakhstan, targeting individuals from the dominant ethnic group with a higher education and ties to state institutions.

In Tajikistan, the authorities arrested a group of HT activists in Khujand in February. Various reports placed the number of individuals detained between 14 and 22., an independent Internet publication funded by George Soros's Open Society foundation, reported on 25 February that the men were all aged 20-22 and from middle-class families. Moreover, they were all ethnic Tajiks "whose parents came from the most 'Tajik regions' of southern Tajikistan." Previously, ethnic Uzbeks and Uzbek citizens from the Ferghana Valley had figured prominently in reports of HT activity in Tajikistan. Asia Plus-Blitz also reported that three of the activists were relatives of officials in the Kulob city government and prosecutor's office.

In Kazakhstan, a court in Shymkent sentenced 23-year-old Nurzhan Zhakipov to three years in prison for HT activities on 2 March. In a 3 March report, Kazinform contrasted the Zhakipov case with another HT-related incident in November 2003: "Not long ago in Shymkent, Arysi, and a number of other regions in the Southern Kazakhstan Okrug, some 20 HT members were tried. In November, they took to the streets for an unsanctioned demonstration in which their organization called for the overthrow of [Uzbek President Islam] 'Karimov's regime.' They were fined 18,900 tenges ($135) each; two participants who resisted arrest were sentenced to 10 days in jail. The majority of the people who have been 'nabbed' in connection with HT are poorly educated and ignorant. This is why Zhakipov so surprised the journalists at his trial -- he is a man from an urban family who attended Soviet school and received a higher education...." A 5 March report in "Kazakhstanskaya pravda" noted that "while the recruitment activities of HT emissaries in Kazakhstan initially focused on low-income individuals, recent efforts have targeted potential members among government officials, law-enforcement authorities, well-off businessmen, intellectuals, and students."

In Kyrgyzstan, on 17 February a court in Bishkek sentenced two IMU members -- both Uzbek citizens -- to death for their role in a December 2002 explosion at a Bishkek market that killed seven people. A 2 March report in "Vechernii Bishkek" described how "unofficial" mullahs -- possibly with HT ties -- in the southern Aravan region are inculcating the tenets of radical Islam in young people. According to the report, if 100-120 young people in the area are receiving a religious education from "official clerics," an equal number is learning different lessons from what the article terms "nontraditionalists."

A 1 March report by Deutsche Welle focused on IMU members, many of whom fled to Pakistan after the U.S.-led antiterrorist operation smashed the Taliban movement, and with it the IMU's stronghold in Afghanistan. According to the report, a group of approximately 120 militants has relocated to Pakistan's northern Baluchistan Province. The group consists of fighters from Central Asia, Tatarstan, ethnic Russian converts to Islam, and people from the Caucasus; many of them are IMU members. Operating in groups of 25-30, they have recently moved to mountainous regions of Pakistan, including the city of Quetta, capital of Baluchistan Province.

The same report featured an interview with a former IMU member, who said that the IMU's leaders now reside in Wana, Pakistan. The movement's leader remains Tohir Yo'ldosh. His first deputy for financial affairs is Dilshod Hojiyev. The military commander is Ulug'bek Holik, nom de guerre Muhammad Ayub. All of the men are originally from Uzbekistan's Namangan Oblast.

The IMU maintains a number of unofficial "daftars," or offices, in Tajikistan, Afghanistan, Iran, Pakistan, and Turkey. An office in Karachi handles financial contributions, primarily from Arab countries. According to the main source for the report, a 34-year-old Uzbek native of Navoiy Oblast who recently took advantage of an amnesty offer and returned home from Pakistan, the fighters also earn money on their own "through military operations financed by Pakistani special services against American forces in Afghanistan and through raids in Kashmir."

The source also told Deutsche Welle that a split has taken place in the IMU, with a group of combat-weary fighters rebelling against Yo'ldosh. In order to combat the dissenters, Yo'ldosh apparently summoned Ilhom Hojiyev, nom de guerre Commander Abdurahmon, from Tajikistan. Ilhom Hojiyev is the cousin of Juma Namangani, the IMU military commander believed to have been killed when the Taliban fell.

In Uzbekistan itself, harsh measures against any hint of Islamist activity remain the order of the day, with courts routinely meting out long prison terms for any real or suspected HT involvement. But with severe restrictions on media, the situation is difficult to gauge. Human rights organizations charge that some 5,000 political prisoners are better characterized as victims of a repressive regime than as wild-eyed Islamists intent on installing a fundamentalist regime of their own. Meanwhile, Uzbekistan's role as a strategic partner of the United States in the war on terror has politicized the debate over the threat of radical Islam, often to the detriment of dispassionate analysis.

The Main Players: HT and the IMU

As the reports above indicate, Hizb ut-Tahrir (the party's full name translates from the Arabic as "Party of Islamic Liberation") and the IMU and are the primary loci of concern in Central Asia.

HT's rise to prominence in Central Asia marks a departure from the usual pattern for radical groups. Most groups achieve notoriety through the "propaganda of the deed," committing acts of terror or making obvious attempts to seize power. Instead, HT has drawn notice for its radical program and conspiratorial organizational structure. The organization's stated goals are the restoration of the caliphate and the establishment of strict Islamic law. It operates through a network of secretive party cells reminiscent of the underground network the Bolsheviks employed as they laid the groundwork for their successful seizure of power in Russia in 1917.

Founded in the early 1950s by Palestinians in Jordan, HT is today active in more than 30 countries worldwide, including Western Europe. It arrived in Central Asia in the mid-1990s and is now active in Kazakhstan, Kyrgyzstan, Tajikistan, and Uzbekistan. Only in the latter is it seen as having a possibly significant presence, however. According to a 30 June report by the International Crisis Group, "Estimates of [HT's] strength vary widely, but a rough figure is probably 15,000-20,000 throughout Central Asia."

As noted above, the perception of HT as a threat stems from the radical nature of the organization's program, which implies the overthrow of all of the region's current regimes. U.S. Assistant Secretary of State for European and Eurasian Affairs Elizabeth Jones told the House Committee on International Relations on 29 October: "[HT] is stridently anti-Western. Although there is no confirmed evidence of HT's involvement in violent actions as an organization, HT propaganda has praised martyrdom operations against Israel and called for attacks against coalition forces in Iraq. HT leaflets have also claimed that the United States and the United Kingdom are at war with Islam, and have called for all Muslims to defend the faith and engage in jihad against these countries. It seeks to replace the regimes of the region with a supranational Islamic caliphate."

The IMU has followed a more traditional path. Historian Fiona Hill of the Brookings Institution provided a useful summary of the group's history and activities in her prepared statement to the above-mentioned House committee hearings:

"The IMU was a self-proclaimed radical Islamic and political group, which was formed around 1997 by two ethnic Uzbeks from the Ferghana Valley with the express goal of overthrowing the government of President Islam Karimov and establishing an Islamic state in Uzbekistan. Having been expelled from Uzbekistan in the early 1990s, the two founders of the IMU (Juma Namangani, the group's military leader and a former Afghan veteran, and [Tohir Yo'ldosh], its political leader) followed the pattern of other Islamic militant leaders. They traveled variously and separately in Muslim countries including Pakistan, Saudi Arabia, Iran, and the United Arab Emirates -- as well as to Chechnya -- and established contacts with Islamic movements, financial sources, and intelligence services. After the 1996 Taliban takeover of Afghanistan, the IMU founders established close relations with Taliban leaders and were reported to have secured the support and financial backing of Osama bin Laden in their creation of the IMU.

"From 1997-2001, using the remove mountainous regions of Tajikistan as its base, the IMU carried out kidnappings, assassinations, and other atrocities, including a series of armed raids deep into Kyrgyzstan and Uzbekistan that also targeted foreign visitors and tourists. Eventually, the IMU relocated its base of operations permanently to Afghanistan, extended its mandate to overthrow all regional governments -- changing its name to the Islamic Party of Turkestan [IPT] -- and threw in its lot with the Taliban. President [George W.] Bush named the IMU as one of the terrorist movements linked to Osama bin Laden's Al-Qaeda network in his speech to Congress on 20 September 2001. At this juncture, reports from the region and Western intelligence sources put the numbers of IMU militants at between 3,000-5,000....

"It was only the U.S. intervention in Afghanistan that curtailed IMU activities in Central Asia. The IMU's military commander was killed in action with the Taliban near Mazar-e Sharif in Afghanistan in November 2001, and its political leader went into hiding."

The Threat: Real or Imagined?

With the geographically isolated IMU still regrouping militarily and HT maintaining a policy of nonviolent organization building, observers differ, sometimes profoundly, in their assessments. The majority view is that the increasingly repressive regimes in Central Asia, and in Uzbekistan in particular, themselves pose the greatest threat to regional stability by creating ideally wretched conditions to nurture an implacably radical opposition. Meanwhile, a vocal minority insists that the IMU, HT, and perhaps other movements that have yet to catch the public eye, still represent the gravest danger.

Examples of the former view abound. In her prepared statement to the House committee, Fiona Hill wrote, "I would suggest that harsh government repression of dissent is as much, if not more of, a threat to Central Asian stability today and in the immediate future as the radical Islamic movements...." Martha Brill Olcott, senior associate at the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace, seconded this view in her own prepared statement: "The Central Asian elites are exaggerating the threat to the state that is posed by those advocating radical Islamic ideologies, and U.S. policymakers will be making a grave mistake if they allow shared goals in the war on terror to blind us to the short-sighted and potentially dangerous policies that are being pursued in the region with regards to religion."

In a Spring 2003 article in the "Journal of International Affairs," Edward W. Walker wrote: "there is little risk that Islamists will come to power in the region soon, especially now that the collapse of the Taliban means Afghanistan is no longer a safe haven. The greater risk is that Central Asia's ruling elites will use the specter of Islamism as an excuse to avoid economic and political reforms that would mitigate the conditions under which militant Islamism takes root and survives."

A 22 December 2003 study by the International Crisis Group titled "Is Radical Islam Inevitable in Central Asia: Priorities for Engagement," suggested a similar conclusion. The study warned that "if Kyrgyzstan, Tajikistan and Uzbekistan are to avoid the fate of other countries in which terrorist or extremist movements have is imperative to build open political systems.... Authoritarian regimes relying on fear and repression, while stifling individual freedoms, will only discredit democracy and push people to act outside constitutional frameworks."

This view is not universally held. In his prepared statement to the House committee, Ariel Cohen of the Heritage Foundation noted the unsavory nature of the region's authoritarian regimes without defining it as the most pressing danger. Instead, he stressed that "anti-Americanism, extremism, and preaching the violent overthrow of existing regimes make Hizb ut-Tahrir a prime suspect in the next wave of violent action in Central Asia...." He concluded: "Hizb ut-Tahrir represents a growing medium- and long-term threat to geopolitical stability and the secular regimes of Central Asia and ultimately poses a potential threat to other regions of the world. It seeks to overthrow and destroy existing regimes and establish a Shari'a-based caliphate. Hizb may launch terrorist attacks against U.S. targets and allies, operating either alone or in cooperation with other global terror groups such as Al-Qaeda. A Hizb takeover of any Central Asian state could provide the global radical terror movement with a geographic base and access to the expertise and technology to manufacture weapons of mass destruction."

Prospects and Conclusions

Even those observers who disagree on the extent of the Islamist threat generally concur that the current drift of the region's regimes is less than encouraging. In fact, the leitmotif of recent writing on radical Islam in Central Asia is the following contradiction: writers insist that the best remedy for Central Asia's ailments is to strengthen civil society, pursue economic reforms, encourage greater political participation, expand basic freedoms, and improve socioeconomic conditions for the populace; yet the same writers glumly conclude that the dominant trend is movement in the opposite direction. Conditions are worsening -- slowly in countries like Kazakhstan, Kyrgyzstan, and Tajikistan, and with gathering speed in Uzbekistan.

But the miserable conditions that observers note are not particular to Central Asia. Sadly, many of the world's countries are dismal places ruled by dingy regimes. Those places where Islamist movements have come to power -- Iran, Sudan, and Afghanistan, for example -- have suffered from pervasive misgovernment, gross socioeconomic inequalities, and a dearth of basic freedoms. But many other nations labor under similar curses, and Islamists have had scant success in exploiting them to their advantage.

In fact, the single greatest failure of the Islamist movement to date is its inability to fashion a global movement to match its global agenda. In Iran, Sudan, and Afghanistan, indigenous movements came to power with indigenous agendas under particularly favorable indigenous conditions. Though their stated aims at times extended beyond their borders, these dissimilar movements proved largely incapable of expanding their influence beyond the ethnic, sectarian, linguistic, and state boundaries in which they arose.

This fact has not been lost on Central Asia's regimes. Even Uzbekistan, the most heavy-handed among them in its repression of Islamist activity, hammers away at this tension between the national and the supranational in its official anti-Islamist propaganda. For example, an article in Uzbek on the pro-government website takes an explicitly nationalist stance against HT's pan-Islamic program:

"According to HT's strategy, Uzbek territory that was acquired [for Islam] through 'a jihad war' is not Uzbek territory; rather, the Uzbek people have the right to use those lands. The right to exercise sovereignty over Uzbekistan's territory would, according to their ideology, belong to the centralized structure of the reconstituted Islamic caliphate...[HT supporters] say prayers, fast, and know a few lines of the Koran, but they have no profound knowledge of the basic tenets of the Islamic faith. Nevertheless, they claim that their ideas represent absolute truth. These self-proclaimed 'defenders and armies of Islam' appear to be marionettes in the hands of those who hope to Arabize Central Asia."

But if pan-Islamic movements have often foundered on contradictions between the national and supranational, this failure does not in and of itself consign radical groups with supranational aims to the ash heap of history. The global terrorist International as exemplified by Al-Qaeda, for example, has proved itself capable of mounting destructive attacks in diverse locations. It is here that conditions in Central Asia are particularly worrisome. In an October 2001 article in "Prospect" (No. 68), Anatol Lieven of the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace recalls:

"I gained certain insights into the roots of Muslims extremism during my work as a stringer for 'The Times' in Pakistan and Afghanistan in the late 1980s -- not only through meeting some precursors of the Taliban among the Afghan Mujadedin, but among radical groups in Pakistan. I especially remember a long conversation with some young members of a 'fundamentalist' group in Lahore. Some of them came from longstanding Lahori families, others from recent migrants from the countryside. None were from the bottom of society. Instead, they came from that classic breeding ground of fascistic and religious extremism, the proud but struggling lower middle class and actual or former upper peasantry.

"They were under threat not only of sinking into the immiserated, semi-employed proletariat...but of only being able to escape and rise through entry into the junior ranks of organized crime, and especially heroin smuggling....

"In these depressing circumstances, adherence to a radical Islamist network provided a sense of cultural security, a new community and some degree of social support -- modest, but still better than anything the state can provide."

In his prepared statement to the House committee, Stephen Blank, a professor of national security affairs at the Strategic Studies Institute of the U.S. Army War College, disputed arguments linking poverty and extremism, echoing Lieven's comments: "we have rarely seen that the Islamist parties or movements or their recruits are the result of the kind of poverty and societal degradation that we find in Central Asia. If anything we find the opposite, that these recruits are often from educated upwardly mobile backgrounds whose ascent is somehow blocked or 'cramped' by the structure of the existing society...."

It is in this context that one notes with some concern the anecdotal evidence of better-educated and better-connected recruits to HT. HT itself does not appear to represent an imminent threat to the entrenched regimes of Central Asia, nor does it seem to have a coherent blueprint for achieving its radical goals. But its increasing ability to draw a new class of adherents, if confirmed by further evidence, may indicate that HT is on the verge of an organizational breakthrough, or that it may soon serve as a stepping stone to more direct, and possibly more destructive, forms of extremist activity.

The preceding suggests that observers need to move from general questions about the "threat of radical Islam in Central Asia" to specific queries about the precise numbers and backgrounds of new sympathizers, as well as any ties between existing organizations like HT and other groups with a more proactive agenda. Though some information is available, too much of it stems from media controlled or hobbled by regimes with a vested interest in presenting a specific version of a "threat" that they can then exploit for their own purposes. The information needed to answer the questions posed above cannot be gleaned from tidy reports of varying veracity; it must often be obtained the old-fashioned way -- on the shifting ground where it first emerges. From our present vantage point, the availability such vital information may well be the most pressing issue of all.