Tajikistan and Kyrgyzstan seem to be symptoms of instability rather than a new 
wave of organised Islamic militancy.  By Dadodjan Azimov in London 


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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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 
guerrilla grouping. 

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. 


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 Karimov’s 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 
judicial system. 


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 
local Muslims. 

Significantly, this operation involved Uzbek as well as Kyrgyz security 
officers. President Kurmanbek Bakiev’s 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 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, 

“Tashkent’s 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 
Andijan… 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 
will decline.” 

In Jorabekov’s 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. 

“It’s 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 don’t 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 don’t 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.” 


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 IMU’s 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 Tajikistan’s 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 don’t 
represent a large, cohesive force with clear plans,” she said. “These groups 
engage in minor robbery and they don’t 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 aren’t 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 shouldn’t 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.” 


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 
attacking Hizb-ut-Tahrir. 

According to Ponomarev, “Radical Islamic groups are becoming more active – only 
in terms of their propaganda. They are busily distributing material… [because 
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.”


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. It’s 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 London’s 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 
increase radicalisation.” 

Dadodjan Azimov is a London-based Central Asia analyst.



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 Kyrgyzstan’s 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 Kyrgyzstan’s 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 
not pessimistic.

In an opposition rally held on Bishkek’s 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, 
sustained injuries.

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 people’s 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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