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Central Asia, Al-Qaeda New Recruiting Ground?

The Islamic Movement of Uzbekistan and its offshoot, the Islamic Jihad Union (pictured in this 2009 video still), have often been blamed for terrorist activites in the region.
Does Central Asia now have its first homegrown Al-Qaeda member?

Islam Niyozmatov, an Uzbek citizen and a suspected member of Al-Qaeda, has been arrested in neighboring Tajikistan, according to a spokesman for the Tajik Interior Ministry.

"Niyozmatov was trained in Al-Qaeda terrorist camps in Pakistan in 2005-06, and he has taken part in several terrorist operations plotted by this organization," ministry spokesman Mahmadullo Asadulloev told RFE/RL.

He added that officials have convincing evidence to believe Niyozmatov is indeed an Al-Qaeda member.

According to the official, it's the first time a citizen of a Central Asian country has been charged with Al-Qaeda membership in Tajikistan.

Over the past several years, officials and security experts have repeatedly pointed out potential Al-Qaeda threats to Central Asia.

"The real threat in this region is less from the Taliban but from Al-Qaeda, which trains international terrorists," Richard Holbrooke, the U.S. special envoy to Afghanistan and Pakistan, said during a visit to Central Asia in February 2010.

Central Asian officials have long expressed concerns over Al-Qaeda-affiliated organizations, such as the Islamic Movement of Uzbekistan (IMU), infiltrating Central Asia.

The IMU and its offshoot, the Islamic Jihad Group, are believed to be closely allied with Al-Qaeda and the Taliban in Pakistan's tribal areas bordering Afghanistan.

Several bombings and terrorist attacks and raids in Uzbekistan, southern Kyrgyzstan, and Tajikistan have been blamed on these banned organizations.

After initially reporting the arrest of the first native Central Asian Al-Qaeda member in Tajikistan, the country's officials are reluctant to give further details about the suspect's background and allegations surrounding the case.

Expert opinion is divided over the arrest. Some security analysts suggest officials could be exaggerating the suspect's affiliation to Al-Qaeda to attract Western attention and aid.

Others, however, say that Al-Qaeda's recruitment of Central Asian youth has always been a question of "when." They say the most vulnerable to recruitment are people who struggle to find their place in society as a result of the lack of opportunity, poverty, and rampant corruption in the region.

-- Farangis Najibullah