The Islamic State (IS) group is planning to carry out terrorist attacks in Uzbekistan in the spring, an officer with Uzbekistan's domestic intelligence agency, the National Security Service (SNB), has been reported as saying.
In comments to the CentralAsiaOnline.com website on February 2, SNB officer Alisher Khamdanov said that IS militants had "planned a series of terrorist attacks in Uzbekistan for the spring of 2015."
"There is a strong likelihood that that activities of Islamic State members detained in Uzbekistan [last year] are not limited to recruitment," Khamdanov said.
Khamdanov said that the Uzbek authorities were taking a number of measures to strengthen security along the border with Afghanistan as a result of the information about the IS group, as well as information about a large opium harvest in Afghanistan and ahead of Uzbekistan's presidential election in March.
The SNB officer went on to say that Uzbekistan's law enforcement agencies had "testimony from members of the Islamic Movement of Uzbekistan as well as members of the IS group who were arrested in Uzbekistan in November and December 2014."
The detainees were Uzbek citizens who underwent military training in Pakistan in 2013 and in 2014 returned to Uzbekistan to recruit young people to the IS group, Khamdanov said.
IS Threat: Real Or Hype?
Khamdanov's remarks about the IS group were quickly picked up and widely reported by outlets across Russia and Central Asia.
The remarks also come amid growing concerns in Central Asia about the threat posed by the IS group and by other extremist Islamist factions.
In December, Uzbek President Islam Karimov asked his Russian counterpart, Vladimir Putin, for assistance in combating the threat of extremism in the region, particularly the threat from Afghanistan and the rise of the IS group in Syria and Iraq.
However, while there is a credible threat to Uzbekistan and other Central Asian republics from the IS group, it is not possible to quantify that threat, says Kazakhstan-based freelance journalist Joanna Lillis. According to Lillis, Karimov has tended to play up the security threat from extremists, including from the IS group.
In assessing the credibility of the February 2 report about the IS group planning attacks in Uzbekistan, Lillis said that it was important to note the context of the story and consider the motives of the sources.
Lillis pointed out that the story was first reported by the CentralAsiaOnline.com website, an outlet sponsored by the U.S. Central Command and which has previously focused on aspects of Uzbekistan's security cooperation with the West. "The source [Khamdanov] is not a name that has appeared before as a SNB spokesperson," Lillis told RFE/RL.
While exact figures for the numbers of Uzbeks fighting in Syria are not known, there is plenty of evidence that Uzbeks -- both Uzbek nationals and ethnic Uzbeks from other Central Asian republics, particularly Kyrgyzstan -- are fighting in Syria. Uzbeks are fighting with the IS group and other factions, notably the Imam Bukhori Jamaat, which has pledged allegiance to the Afghan Taliban.
A recent report by the International Crisis Group found that ethnic Uzbeks, including Uzbek citizens, are most numerous among the Central Asians within the IS group. According to the report, and based on an interview with a Russian official in September 2014, the number of Uzbek citizens in Syria is "not the estimated 500 or so cited by Tashkent and may exceed 2,500."
-- Joanna Paraszczuk