WELCOME TO IWPR'S REPORTING CENTRAL ASIA, No. 473, 4 December, 2006
ARE ISLAMIC MILITANTS REGROUPING IN THE FERGANA VALLEY? Violent incidents in
Tajikistan and Kyrgyzstan seem to be symptoms of instability rather than a new
wave of organised Islamic militancy. By Dadodjan Azimov in London
KYRGYZ FIND COMPROMISE WORKS BETTER THAN CONFLICT Other Central Asian leaders
see only chaos and weak leadership in Kyrgyzstan, but they are missing the
point concessions are sign of strength, not weakness. By Gulnara Iskakova in
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ARE ISLAMIC MILITANTS REGROUPING IN THE FERGANA VALLEY?
Violent incidents in Tajikistan and Kyrgyzstan seem to be symptoms of
instability rather than a new wave of organised Islamic militancy.
By Dadodjan Azimov in London
A spate of violent incidents in the Fergana Valley this year has sparked
concern that militant Islamic groups are undergoing a resurgence. The violence,
focusing on the Tajik-Kyrgyz border region, has been cited by officials as
proof that the paramilitary Islamic Movement of Uzbekistan is back in action
and the banned Hizb-ut-Tahrir group has taken up arms.
However, Central Asian analysts interviewed by IWPR say the picture is less
clear-cut, and that sporadic armed clashes between suspected militants and the
security forces do not add up to a coordinated campaign by a resurgent
In addition, they say, to simply blame the obvious culprits the IMU and
Hizb-ut-Tahrir - is to oversimplify a complex picture made up of armed groups,
economic problems and poor government.
TURBULENT REGIONAL BACKDROP
The incidents include a prison break, clashes between armed men and security
forces on both sides of the Kyrgyz-Tajik border, and the killing of a prominent
Muslim cleric in southern Kyrgyzstan. In some cases the militants deliberately
staged the attacks, in others gunfire was exchanged as a result of raids
conducted by the security services.
Commentators note that these outbreaks of violence come in the wake of two
major events that reverberated around the region last year, and many see a
direct connection. Weeks of demonstrations in Kyrgyzstan culminated in the
popular uprising of March 24 which ousted the government of President Askar
Akaev and led to prolonged political instability.
A month and a half later, on May 13, Uzbek security forces used live fire to
break up a demonstration in Andijan, killing hundreds and forcing many
residents to flee to neighbouring Kyrgyzstan.
The shock waves of Andijan, coupled with the undercurrent of tension in
Kyrgyzstan, created an environment in which militancy could thrive.
The Fergana Valley is a single ethno-cultural region, and events in Andijan
obviously increased tensions in neighbouring Tajikistan and Kyrgyzstan, said
Igor Rotar, adding that that another important factor was the legal vacuum
that emerged in post-revolutionary Kyrgyzstan.
Most of the valley lies within Uzbekistan, and has been the heartland of
Islamic resistance to President Islam Karimovs regime over the past 15 years.
Waves of arrests over that period, first of prominent clerics, then their
supporters, then suspected IMU supporters, and more recently real or alleged
members of Hizb-ut-Tahrir, have kept the situation more or less under control
through repressive measures.
Many analysts argue that the Uzbek policy has been counterproductive,
generating hostility to the regime rather than laying the foundations for true
In the short term it has been very successful in terms of preventing any
further violence in Uzbekistan, said a western analyst in Tashkent who asked
to remain anonymous, referring specifically to Uzbek government tactics since
Andijan. The recent sacking of the hokim [governor] of Andijan and the
president's comments confirm, however, that until social conditions improve,
and other outlets of protest are allowed, Islamic radicalism may remain the
only means for people to express their frustrations.
The Andijan protests were sparked by a trial of local men accused of being part
of a different and little-known group identified as Akromia. It is not clear
whether such a group actually existed, as there was little independent proof
available apart from that provided by prosecutors in a notoriously flawed
INCIDENTS CLEARLY INTERCONNECTED
The continuing high level of control exerted by security forces in Uzbekistan
means, paradoxically, that violent incidents are focused just outside its
borders. The authorities in both Tajikistan and Kyrgyzstan have expressed
concern at what they see as a resurgence in Islamic militant activity in their
respective parts of the Fergana valley.
The biggest of several related incidents occurred in May, when armed men raided
a Tajik frontier post on the border with Kyrgyzstan. After plundering guns, the
group forced its way into the Batken region in Kyrgyz territory, where the
military deployed hundreds of troops to pursue them. The fighting left three
Tajik border guards and six Kyrgyz soldiers and customs officers dead. Four
attackers were killed and one was captured.
The identity of the armed group was unclear, although officials suggested links
both with Hizb-ut-Tahrir and the IMU, whose guerrillas were active in Batken in
The Kyrgyz authorities subsequently made a number of arrests, and said they had
indisputable evidence that the detainees were Hizb-ut-Tahrir members.
In October, three men including an Uzbekistan national were sentenced to death
for the raid, two others were given ten years in prison and a woman was given a
suspended sentence. Kyrgyzstan has introduced a moratorium on the death
penalty, so the men are not in imminent danger of execution.
The Tajik authorities suggested the raid was carried out by some of the same
individuals who attacked a prison in the town of Kairakkum in January, freeing
a man who was facing charges of arms possession and links to illegal armed
Towards the end of the summer, the Kyrgyz security forces embarked on a
security clampdown in the south of the country, both as a direct response to
the May clashes and because they said they had intelligence indicating that
insurgents were making plans to cross from Tajikistan.
In the course of one such operation, a man accused of being a leading IMU
figure, Rasul Akhun, died in early September following a firefight with Kyrgyz
police in the city of Osh. The National Security Committee said he too was
linked to the May raid.
A month earlier, a leading cleric called Rafiq Qori Kamoluddin was shot dead
along with two other men. The authorities claimed he had IMU links, but friends
and relatives denied this. The cleric was based in the town of Karasuu right on
the border with Uzbekistan, and reportedly commanded a lot of respect among
Significantly, this operation involved Uzbek as well as Kyrgyz security
officers. President Kurmanbek Bakievs policy of close cooperation with
Uzbekistan on security and counter-terrorism is designed to fend off criticisms
from Tashkent that the more liberal administration in Kyrgyzstan has not done
enough to clamp down on political Islam.
THE USUAL SUSPECTS?
The Andijan crackdown contributed to creating an environment conducive to
instability in the wider Fergana Valley region, although in the Kyrgyz part of
the valley there are also domestic political causes that cannot be discounted,
Tashkents repressions [after Andijan] have been forcing radical Muslims to
seek refuge in neighbouring areas of Tajikistan and Kyrgyzstan, said Rotar.
The Tashkent-based western analyst added, I think the refugee flow from
probably contributed some individuals to those organising in both
Kyrgyzstan and Tajikistan, and the general crackdown maybe strengthened the
resolve of the most hardened, though at the same time it warned off those who
were only loosely connected to these movements.
Inside Uzbekistan, he said, Islamic militancy has probably not been eradicated,
but it has been driven even further underground and [is] maybe smaller in
size, but more hardened and desperate enough to carry out further attacks.
What remains unclear whether the IMU or Hizb-ut-Tahrir as organisations are
active in Kyrgyz and Tajik areas of the Fergana valley, and whether either
group or perhaps a different one - is building up the capacity to mount more
sustained guerrilla actions.
Governments in the region say they are. These border incidents are a
consequence of activity by religious movements, said Jolbars Jorabekov, head
of the Kyrgyz government agency for religious affairs. The situation in
Kyrgyzstan is extremely unstable. Religious movements become visible at such
times, when there is unrest. If the situation is stabilised, these groups too
In Jorabekovs view, the most likely suspect is a more radical version of
Hizb-ut-Tahrir. The party, originally of Middle Eastern origin, gained a
foothold in Uzbekistan and subsequently spread to neighbouring Central Asian
states in the late Nineties. It survives despite being banned and having its
members arrested across the region, especially in Uzbekistan where the number
of detentions runs into the thousands.
Although it calls for the overthrow of regional governments, Hizb-ut-Tahrir
literature calls for peaceful action. But officials like Jorabekov talk of an
extremist wing of Hizb-ut-Tahrir that may now support violence.
Their approach is now completely different, he said. Five years ago they
were more inclined to engage in proselytising, whereas now they are more
hard-line, more extreme.
Commenting on the May attacks, Batken regional prosecutor Ryskul Baktybaev said
in July that it was clear that Hizb-ut-Tahrir was no longer the peace-loving
organisation of the early Nineties when it first appeared in Central Asia, and
that followers were involved with other extremist Islamic groups. There is a
direct link between members of Hizb-ut-Tahrir and the IMU, he said.
Other analysts accept that there may have been some crossover between
Hizb-ut-Tahrir and other groups, but insist this does not mean a formal merger.
Its possible that some radical members of Hizb-ut-Tahrir have joined the
IMU, said Sanobar Shermatova, a Moscow-based journalist and Central Asian
expert. But she insisted, I dont believe Hizb-ut-Tahrir is taking part in
arranging acts of terrorism.
Sadikjan Mahmudov, a lawyer with the Osh-based human rights group Ray of
Solomon who has defended Hizb-ut-Tahrir members in the past, does not think
they were involved in the recent violence, I am confident that they will never
shift from their peaceful strategy and raise their hand against anyone in
pursuit of their political agenda.
Observers believe that the IMU and Hizb-ut-Tahrir are so different in their
roots and aims that they would find it almost impossible to agree a common
Vitaly Ponamaryov, a Central Asia expert with the Moscow-based Human Rights
group Memorial, said, Hizb ut Tahrir is not a local group, but an
international organisation with its own traditions and strategy which has
existed over many years.
All this talk of the two groups joining forces is being put about by the Uzbek
and Kyrgyz secret services. I dont believe there is hard evidence that the two
[IMU and Hizb-ut-Tahrir] are coming together.
As for the culprits in the May raid and related violence, Ponomarev said, The
allegiances of this group are problematic
. In the past we seen a lot of cases
where the authorities manipulated the identity of the groups [involved] without
providing strong enough proof.
IMU SEEN AS SPENT FORCE
What about the IMU itself? The guerrilla group mounted annual insurgent raids
into Kyrgyzstan and Uzbekistan in 1999-2001, but these stopped after IMU
fighters based in northern Afghanistan were defeated and dispersed along with
their Taleban allies in the United States-led coalition assault.
After the IMUs military leader Juma Namangani was reported killed in this
fighting, political leader Tohir Yoldash is believed to be in charge of IMU
remnants allied with al-Qaeda and the Taleban, and hiding out in lawless border
areas of Pakistan.
The IMU has its roots in a Muslim group called Adolat that operated in the
Uzbek city of Namangan in the early Nineties. After the authorities clamped
down on it, many members fled the country, joining Islamist guerrillas fighting
the government in Tajikistans civil war, and later teaming up with the
Shermatova believes any IMU members still remaining in Central Asia would find
it hard to regroup. Small groups do exist in Tajikistan and Kyrgyzstan, who
are unable to go back to Uzbekistan. But they have no future as they dont
represent a large, cohesive force with clear plans, she said. These groups
engage in minor robbery and they dont have a clear political agenda.
She concluded, I do not consider that the IMU has any chance of undergoing a
revival so that it reaches the scale it operated on in 1999-2000
. The fact
that there are individuals but that they arent conducting big operations is
further proof of how weak the IMU has become.
Sadikjan Kamaluddin, the head of the Centre for Islamic Cooperation in
Kyrgyzstan, agreed that many of the armed men described as Islamic militants
were in fact engaged in crime specifically drug smuggling. The part of the
Fergana Valley which has seen recent violence lies on the route for trafficking
Afghan-made heroin north to Russia and European markets.
You shouldnt think that because the IMU [people] are citing Islam, they are
really acting in pursuit of Islam. In reality they are involved in trafficking
drugs. Islam is just a cover.
ISLAMIC GROUPS FIGHTING PROPAGANDA WAR
Ponomaryov pointed out that one reason why the IMU has stirred renewed concerns
in Central Asia is simply that it is becoming more proficient at public
relations even without a strong organisation on the ground.
IMU leader Yoldosh sent an audio recording to the BBC, RFE/RL and other outlets
to celebrate the September 11, 2001 attacks on the United States, and promised
to punish the Uzbek, Tajik and Kyrgyz presidents for clamping down on Islamic
Yoldosh also put out a video message widely available in southern Kyrgyzstan,
as Ponomarev attests in which he devoted a considerable amount of time to
According to Ponomarev, Radical Islamic groups are becoming more active only
in terms of their propaganda. They are busily distributing material
of] a change in technology. With the advent on the [Central Asian] market of
cheap video and audio equipment from China, Islamic radical groups are using
these technologies to distribute videos, so that leafleting is slowly becoming
a thing of the past.
TOUGH GOVERNMENT AND UNDERLYING POVERTY
Although bad governance and chronic social and economic problems in the Fergana
Valley, a particularly poor region of Central Asia, are not the only reason why
Islamic radicalism has strong roots here, many commentators argue that they are
certainly a contributory factor.
As Jurabekov of the Kyrgyz government agency for religious affairs pointed out,
The Fergana valley is the most densely populated region in the world. The
paucity of land and social problems provide fertile ground for religious
extremism to emerge.
Like many other analysts, Shermatova believes the persistence of groups of IMU
remnants and others is a symptom of instability rather than its cause. The
real problem is not the Islamic groups, but broader issues, she said, listing
these as the porous borders in the region, the often difficult relationship
between the Tajik and Uzbek governments, and the troubled situation in southern
Kyrgyzstan, which manifests itself in the form of crime and corruption.
One problem is that the heavy-handed tactics employed to round up suspected
militants may be counterproductive. This is a particular problem for
Kyrgyzstan, where strong-arm methods are a recent innovation.
Kyrgyzstan and Uzbekistan recently signed an agreement to work together on
counter-terrorism. This coordination leaves no space for the IMU to operate in,
but the methods employed by the security services often go beyond [what is
allowed by] the legal framework, said Shermatova.
Ponamarev took the same view, saying, I think the Bakiev government has
embarked on a very dangerous path. Its not just persecution; I have spoken to
people who suffered in the counter-terrorism operations carried out by the
security agencies in southern Kyrgyzstan, and there are hundreds of them. I
talked to people who were detained without an arrest warrant, whose homes were
raided and who suffered losses.
This creates a tense situation, and could push various Islamic groups towards
radicalisation specifically new ones that might emerge from the grassroots.
Across the border in Uzbekistan, things might be quieter for now but Alisher
Ilhomov, a Central Asian expert at Londons School of Oriental and African
Studies, says unrest in Uzbekistan including that in Andijan was driven by
economic concerns, not religious sentiment. And these underlying causes are
There has been a string of protests caused by mounting pressure from the
government, which wants to increase its grip on small and medium-sided
businesses, and from the tax authorities, he said.
Lastly, there are the troubled diplomatic relationships between regional states
to consider. Although all these governments are hostile to the IMU and
Hizb-ut-Tahrir, they have not always seen eye to eye on where the fault for the
militancy lies. The IMU and Hizb-ut-Tahrir both sprang originally from
Uzbekistan, but when the former began mounting attacks on Kyrgyz and Uzbek
territory from Tajikistan from the end of the Nineties, Tashkent blamed its
neighbours Kyrgyzstan for failing to repel the attackers, and Tajikistan for
allowing them to roam around mountain areas apparently unhindered.
There is a lot of politics behind the various reports of IMU activity, said
the western analyst in Tashkent. The regime in Uzbekistan is concerned to
portray the IMU as an external threat rather than a factor of internal
politics, and so they like to emphasise the way in which Tajikistan is
complicit in its reemergence and Kyrgyzstan not doing enough to control its
Regional governments now appear more closely aligned on security if nothing
else, not least because after Andijan, Uzbekistan drifted back towards the
Russian fold, making it easier for the Kyrgyz and Tajiks to interact with it
through post-Soviet regional groupings like the Collective Security Treaty
Such coordination may make it easier to police remote regions and deploy
military forces when needed to counter armed insurgents or criminals. But
dealing with armed bands of men roaming the countryside as on the
Tajik-Kyrgyz border this May is one thing, and policing urban areas so that
order is maintained, and real militants are arrested without the overwhelmingly
Muslim population being alienated, is another.
The question remains whether tough action like the joint Kyrgyz-Uzbek security
sweeps conducted in recent months is productive. As Rotar said, Innocent
people often get arrested. Torture is used during interrogations. That can
Dadodjan Azimov is a London-based Central Asia analyst.
KYRGYZ FIND COMPROMISE WORKS BETTER THAN CONFLICT
Other Central Asian leaders see only chaos and weak leadership in Kyrgyzstan,
but they are missing the point concessions are sign of strength, not
By Gulnara Iskakova in Bishkek
Some of Kyrgyzstans more authoritarian neighbours have been gloating over
political turbulence there, most recently the demonstrations in early November
that ended in an agreement on a new constitution.
Selective footage of the disturbances is shown on Kazak television as a lesson
to show just where political opposition and popular unrest can lead the point
being that this is definitely to be avoided. People are led to believe that
events in Kyrgyzstan are all about a simple regional power-struggle between the
north and south of the country.
As these media outlets stress that Kyrgyzstans March 2005 revolution and the
more recent protests have produced no results, they pass over in silence the
terrible events that happened in Andijan in May the same year.
It is true that stability and economic development remain elusive in
Kyrgyzstan, and also that regional divisions remain. Nor has the new
constitution the fruit of a compromise deal between President Kurmanbek
Bakiev and the opposition significantly altered the old order.
Yet within Kyrgyzstan, the general mood now that the demonstrations are over is
In an opposition rally held on Bishkeks main square from November 2 to 9,
political leaders said their supporters would remain there until their demands
are met inter alia, for the resignation of the tandem, the alliance of
southerner Bakiev with a prime minister from the north, Felix Kulov.
If there was a threat of destabilisation, it was came from an act of
provocation on the part of the authorities. Towards the end of a week of
opposition protests, public-sector employees were sent out into another big
city square for a counter-demonstration. This did not amount to much: a small
if vocal group of zealous individuals, assisted by a public address system, and
completely surrounded by row upon row of police officers.
In response to this assembly, the opposition rally began to be swelled by
people who up until that point had not joined the protests. Groups of
pro-opposition and pro-government engaged in minor skirmishes as the former
tried to question the latter about what they were up to. Young men from the
pro-government camp threw bottles and sticks at their opponents, and police
focused their attention on the opposition supporters, driving them away and
firing tear-gas projectiles at them. Many young people, some of them children,
Faced with a mounting threat of large-scale fighting and bloodshed, and fears
that violence might be provoked by those who wanted to see the crisis ended by
force, the two sides government and opposition - sat down at the negotiating
table and reached an agreement, so that the rally ended peacefully.
This peaceful conclusion of the political crisis is a victory for both sides,
and a sign of political maturity and responsibility on the part of both
president and opposition. The use of force would only have been countered with
more force, and attitudes would have hardened. If that had been allowed to
happen, any victorious outcome would have been illusory, and would have come at
a high price.
Political leaders in neighbouring states may well have thought that President
Bakiev should never have entered into talks with the opposition, still less
made concessions to it.
However, they rule their countries under different conditions from those that
apply in Kyrgyzstan. Any national leader has to take a realistic view of the
extent of his power and the conditions in which he exercises it. Kyrgyzstan has
no oil or gas to pay for meeting peoples material needs. Governments in
Kyrgyzstan are under pressures that the presidents of more authoritarian states
do not have for example population groups are prepared to go to desperate
lengths to protest against deprivation, extortion and injustice.
In some circumstances, making concessions is the wisest possible course of
action. It should not be seen as a sign of weakness on the part of either the
regime or the opposition that they agreed to hold talks with their
fellow-citizens in order to bring the conflict to a peaceful resolution.
Kyrgyzstan has again shown that it is able to live up to its reputation for
However, there are still plenty of problems ahead. The current leadership in
Kyrgyzstan has shown itself incapable of adapting to new conditions, and
continues to apply an authoritarian style of rule without effecting significant
What the government either underestimates or completely fails to understand is
that the average citizen has already changed a great deal he or she is
educated, informed and keen to be part of the political decision-making process.
It is no surprise, then, that people are prepared to give the opposition a
What is interesting about opposition statements is that they contain not just
criticism of the government, but also political and economic demands intended
to address the central problems facing the country. That suggests that
opposition leaders have progressed from personality-based politics to a more
genuine search for legitimacy; in other words they are fighting for ideas, not
for the victory or defeat of this or that individual or clan.
In fact, the opposition consists of people from both north and south, and the
protests cannot be categorised as regionally-based. The north-south divide is
actually more a feature of the Bakiev administration.
Because the new constitution was only one item on the protesters list of
demands, the compromise deal can be seen as a considerable concession on the
part of the opposition. Most other issues remain unresolved, leaving some
potential for another crisis to emerge.
For the moment, then, we have a situation where the Bakiev government does not
have the political will, competence or public support to properly address the
problems facing Kyrgyzstan. The opposition, meanwhile, is more ready to come up
with solutions, but it lacks the consistency and capacity to refine its ideas
and put them into practice.
Despite these problems, though, both of these political elites government and
opposition are continuing to behave in a responsible manner. They have
avoided a descent into civil conflict, they place a value on the lives and
well-being of their fellow citizens, and they are demonstrating a commitment to
Gulnara Iskakova is legal expert and associate professor at the American
University in Central Asia.
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