WELCOME TO IWPR'S REPORTING CENTRAL ASIA, No. 595 Part 2, November 20, 2009
IS UZBEK GUERRILLA FORCE PLANNING HOMECOMING? Islamic Movement of Uzbekistan
has relocated next door to Tajikistan, but analysts doubt it will move back
into Central Asia. By Ainagul Abdrakhmanova, Aida Kasymalieva, Inga
Sikorskaya, and Anara Yusupova in Bishkek, and Lola Olimova and ?rdasher
Tahamtan in Dushanbe
SHOULD CENTRAL ASIA FEAR TALEBAN SPILLOVER? Upsurge in militant activity in
Central Asia will be contained, although security should be stepped up in
border areas. By Sanobar Shermatova in Moscow
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IS UZBEK GUERRILLA FORCE PLANNING HOMECOMING?
Islamic Movement of Uzbekistan has relocated next door to Tajikistan, but
analysts doubt it will move back into Central Asia.
By Ainagul Abdrakhmanova, Aida Kasymalieva, Inga Sikorskaya, and Anara Yusupova
in Bishkek, and Lola Olimova and ?rdasher Tahamtan in Dushanbe
Central Asias most feared Islamic group is back in the news, with reports that
it has regrouped in northern Afghanistan close to the border with Tajikistan.
At first sight, the Islamic Movement of Uzbekistan, IMU, looks positioned to
mount a repeat of the incursions it mounted in Kyrgyzstan, Uzbekistan and
Tajikistan a decade ago, especially as a string of armed attacks were reported
over the summer.
Despite the reported death of its leader Tohir Yoldash, the IMU still seems to
be a cohesive military force with a radical Islamist agenda. With powerful
alliances with the Taleban and al-Qaeda, it could in theory pose a serious
security threat to the former Soviet states of Central Asia.
When IWPR reporters questioned security experts in the region, they agreed that
sporadic outbreaks of violence in Uzbekistan and Tajikistan, in particular,
make the threat of renewed insurgent activity possible. But they said that for
the moment, this would not be on a scale that Central Asian governments could
not handle, and the IMU lacked a substantial following in the region.
If Yoldash is indeed dead which a recent report throws into some doubt
there are questions about whether the IMU will survive in its present form
under a new leader or break up into smaller factions. Some experts also suggest
that the group has relocated to Afghanistan not entirely by choice, but because
the combination of a major Pakistani ground offensive and United States
unmanned planes on a mission to pick off al-Qaedas top men is making their
stay in South Waziristan untenable.
UZBEK MILITANTS ON THE MOVE
This autumn, Afghan officials have expressed repeated concern that the Taleban
are shifting forces to the north of the country. Talking to journalists on
September 23, Afghan General Mustafa Patang said hundreds of militants had
arrived in the north.
IMU forces are part of this flow, and many seem to have turned up in Kunduz
province, which adjoins Tajikistan, although they have also been sighted in
other northern provinces. (See IWPRs report on this: Could IMU Chief's Death
Curb Rebel Force in Afghanistan?, ARR No. 340, 07-Oct-09.)
Tohir Yoldashs men have come to northern Afghanistan and have caused much of
our recent insecurity, General Khalilullah Aminzada, security chief of Jowzjan
province in the northwest, told IWPR reporters in Afghanistan earlier this
Sanobar Shermatova, a Moscow-based Central Asia analyst, has argued in an
article entitled Should Central Asia Fear Taleban Spillover? that on the one
hand, the Uzbek militants have moved because their stronghold in South
Waziristan is no longer a safe haven; and on the other, that they have been
assigned Kunduz as their area of operation since they are familiar with the
The aim, she argues, may be to disrupt the new northern supply route now being
used by NATO and Coalition forces in Afghanistan, after Central Asian
governments offered routes through their territory.
Abdughani Mamadazimov, who heads the National Association of Political
Scientists of Tajikistan, agrees that the IMU is under increasing pressure in
Pakistan, not only from government troops and US air strikes, and points out
that some local Pashtun tribal leaders are hostile to what they regard as an
alien presence on their territory. There have been reports in recent years that
Uzbek militants have sided with their protector Baitullah Mehsud in fighting
with rival Pashtun tribal groups.
Mamadazimov likened the IMU to a wounded beast pursued by hunters and forced
to become agile and flexible, changing location frequently.
FROM UZBEKISTAN TO WAZIRISTAN
The seeds of the IMU grew in Uzbekistans Fergana Valley in the early Nineties,
when Yoldash was a leading figure in an Islamic group called Adolat based in
the city of Namangan in Fergana Valley. A crackdown ordered by President Islam
Karimov forced members to flee the country, and many became caught up in a
civil war in neighbouring Tajikistan, where they fought alongside Islamist
forces against the government, with Jumaboy Khojaev, otherwise known as Juma
Namangani, as their military commander.
It was after the Tajik conflict ended in 1997 that the IMU emerged as a
distinct force whose agenda was to topple secular governments in Central Asian
states, first and foremost in its homeland Uzbekistan. To this end, IMU
guerrillas launched a series of raids into Uzbekistan and Kyrgyzstan in 1999
and 2000. These attacks made international headlines and alerted regional
governments to shortcomings in their security forces, but did not pose an
existential threat to these states.
By this time, with bases in Afghanistan, the group had formed an alliance with
that countrys Taleban rulers, and when the US-led Coalition arrived in late
2001, the IMU put up resistance in Kunduz. Namangani was killed, and the
survivors escaped to Pakistans lawless fringes
Yoldash, who had played more of an ideological role while Namangani led the
troops, now stepped in as overall leader. According to Shermatova, the high
casualties the IMU sustained in Kunduz led Yoldash to announce a change in
strategy. Shifting from a specifically Central Asian focus, the IMU joined the
global jihad against the West, she said.
In South Waziristan, the tribal agency where it remained until recent months,
the IMU reportedly maintained close ties with Baitullah Mehsud, the Pakistani
Taleban leader killed by a US rocket in early August.
The IMU has preserved its distinctive Uzbek identity, producing propaganda
videos and speeches by Yoldash which mix global jihadi rhetoric with Central
These days, though, it is hard to say how many IMU members are actually from
Andrei Grozin, director of the Central Asian department at the Commonwealth of
Independent States Institute in Moscow, believes the IMU is no longer the
purely Uzbek organisation it once was, but instead a large organised group
of foreign mercenaries.
It is mainly a tool that is used by the leadership of other organisations like
the Taleban and al-Qaeda, he said.
The IMUs future was cast into doubt by reports that Yoldash had been wounded
in a US rocket on August 27 and died shortly afterwards. Pakistani intelligence
sources confirmed his death, and it appeared that, like his ally Baitullah
Mehsud, killed in a similar manner earlier that month, the IMU leader actually
However, reports have now appeared that Yoldash has surfaced. The
Washington-based Middle East Media Research Institute said on November 16 that
the IMU had released a propaganda video that included a talk by Yoldash.
It remains unclear whether the footage offers clues as to whether it really is
new. Although an IMU spokesman denied reports of Yoldashs death soon after
they first appeared in September, this is the first time since then that a
purported statement from the leader himself has appeared.
Orozbek Moldaliev, who heads Religion, Politics and Security, a think-tank in
Kyrgyzstan, believes Yoldash will be hard to replace.
He devoted 21 years to this movement. He and Juma Namangani complemented one
another well, said Moldaliev. After his death, there will be a leadership
struggle, and this far it is not clear whether it will lead to a split, or
whether someone will be able to keep the movement together.
According to Miroslav Niazov, former secretary of the Kyrgyz Security Council,
Yoldash was an extraordinarily influential figure who commanded authority and
was able to gather forces and like-minded people around him to make a serious
impact on the Central Asian region.
Tashpulat Yoldashev, an Uzbek political analyst now living abroad, predicts
that internal divisions will cause the IMU to fall into several parts, but he
added that its sponsors those who provide funding for groups of this kind
would prevent it from disappearing.
If it wanted to refocus its energies on Central Asia, the IMU would be hard
pushed to recruit support, as it has little support on the ground, analysts
Marat Mamadshoev, editor-in-chief of the Asia Plus newspaper in Tajikistan,
believes the groups influence is over-estimated. The IMU doesnt currently
pose a real thereat to the regions security, he said The authoritarian
regimes that dominate the region do not have broad-based public support, but
neither does the IMU in Uzbekistan, except in a few areas.
Nematullo Mirsaidov, chief editor of the Tretyi Vzglyad newspaper based in
Isfara in northern Tajikistan, is similarly dismissive. Aside from carrying
out terrorist attacks, it is incapable of doing anything more substantial,
something that would alter the public mood, he said.
UPSURGE IN VIOLENCE, BUT STILL LOCALISED
Militant groups are active in Central Asia, albeit on a small scale. Over the
spring and summer, an armed group believed to consist of militants previously
based in Pakistan established itself in the eastern mountains of Tajikistan. It
was dispersed after some skirmishes with government security forces.(For
reports on these incursions, read Chasing Phantoms in the Tajik Mountains and
Taming Tajikistans Eastern Valleys.
Officials identified some of the militants involved as having IMU links, and
last month they reported that police had killed four suspected IMU members and
In the south of Kyrgyzstan, there were also sporadic clashes between militants
and the security forces. (See Upsurge in Militant Presence in Kyrgyzstan, from
July.) In October, Kyrgyz border guards were fired on by unidentified armed men
trying to cross over from Tajikistan.
In Uzbekistan, a series of attacks appeared to target police as representatives
of the state.
In late May, a police checkpoint on the outskirts of Khanabad, near the city of
Andijan, came under attack. A policeman and one of the attackers were wounded
in the exchange of fire, according to the Uzbek prosecutors office. The next
day, a suicide bomber killed himself and a policeman in Andijan itself.
In August the deputy head of the interior ministrys counter-terrorism
department, Colonel Hasan Asadov, was killed. Two Muslim clerics were attacked
in July in apparently related incidents Abror Abrorov, deputy head of the
Kukeldash madrassa in Tashkent was murdered, and the capitals chief imam or
mosque leader, Anvar-Qori Tursunov, was the target of a failed assassination
attempt. It seems most likely that both clerics were singled out by militants
for being too close to government and for preaching against radicalism.
At the end of August, security forces conducting a sweep in the capital
Tashkent cornered a group of armed men and engaged them in a sustained
gunbattle, killing two or three of them, according to various reports.
The question now being asked is whether these attacks were coordinated, and
masterminded by the IMU as a precursor to a larger incursion.
Mirsaidov believes that might be the case.
Its most likely that all these incidents were elements of an operation
designed to test the authorities military strength and the popular mood, he
said. If the outcome had been successful, there might have been incursions by
more substantial forces. Its no coincidence that the clashes happened in those
areas where militants would be able to enter [from Afghanistan], and where the
local population might have been supportive. But it didnt come off.
Others are less certain that the IMU or allied groups have a grand plan.
The acts of terrorism taking place here [in Central Asia generally] are
largely spontaneous, said Mamadshoev. Theres no unified leadership, and
frankly I dont see any kind of logic to them.
ARE OTHER GROUPS INVOLVED?
If it is the case, as many analysts interviewed for this report suggest, that
the IMU is not the driving force behind sporadic militant attacks in the
Central Asian states, could other groups with a stronger presence on the ground
be playing a part?
Within Central Asia, officials often accuse Hizb ut-Tahrir of complicity in
violent incidents. This group has a radical agenda replacing secular
governments with an Islamic state but always insists it is against violence.
Many analysts say there is little hard evidence to connect Hizb ut-Tahrir with
armed attacks in the region, although one of those interviewed, Mirsaidov, said
it was possible that the group has renounced non-violent struggle [and] its
members may be behind the attacks on law-enforcement agencies.
(For a report from April on Hizb ut-Tahrir in Kyrgyzstan, see Kyrgyzstan: Does
Tough Policing Spell End of Islamic Radicalism?)
Moldaliev argues that a distinction should be made between movements like Hizb
ut-Tahrir which seek to recruit as large a following as possible, and armed
groups like the IMU which espouse violence and maintain a smaller but more
Shermatova believes it highly unlikely that Hizb ut-Tahrir or Tablighi
Jamaat, a prosyletising group now active in Central Asia, are involved in
violence, even if officials sometimes level that accusation against them.
At the same time, she said, organisations preaching radical Islam may provide
militants with a recruiting ground. The authorities suspect that they supply
members for more radical groups. Experts believe that some members of these
non-jihadi religious groups go off and join armed groups under the influence of
preachers, she said.
Another possible suspect is the Islamic Jihad Group, which split off from the
IMU in Pakistan after an apparent disagreement over strategy.
Vitaly Ponomarev, a Central Asia expert with the Moscow-based Human Rights
group Memorial, points out that although information about the Islamic Jihad
Group remains sketchy, it has claimed responsibility for previous violence in
It is more secretive than the IMU, but that is no reason to ignore it
completely, especially now that theres sufficient evidence to say it is
becoming more active in Central Asia, said Ponomarev.
Assessments of the IMUs role and influence are complicated by the tendency for
Central Asian governments to blame it for violence in the region, even when
evidence for this is thin on the ground. Analysts advise treating such claims
Moldaliev said it was common practice for investigators to cite both the IMU
and Hizb ut-Tahrir as culprits after attacks took place.
Given that investigations are kept under wraps and given the nature of legal
practice generally in Central Asia, its difficult to establish IMU
complicity, he said. Theres always a temptation to exaggerate the threat a
bit, especially when [law enforcement] budgets are under review.
According to Uzbek political analyst Yoldashev, It plays into the hands of
Central Asian governments to position themselves as the victims of Islamic
extremism and terrorism, and to blame innocent people with the aim of obtaining
more assistance from the US and European Union and of justifying repressive
RISKS FROM LOCAL GRIEVANCES, NOT GLOBAL JIHAD
Niazov, the former secretary of Kyrgyzstans Security Council, believes the IMU
still has some life left in it.
It isnt about how numerous the IMU is, but rather about what kind of support
it has, he said.
Niazov said that while Islamic groups were not in a position to mount a serious
military threat to Central Asian states, the danger was that other factors
would come together to create instability which they could then take advantage
The conditions would have to be right for it, he explained. But the
conditions are there for a social upheaval disputes over water, land and
borders, fast-rising prices and low wages, unemployment and migration. These
small and disparate point of tension could become systemic and grow into one
So one cannot say that these [radical Islamic] forces will spark an upheaval,
but they could exploit the unfavourable situation in the region to take charge
of that upheaval.
To defuse the risks of widespread violence led by radicals like the IMU,
Shermatova believes Central Asian governments should adopt a mix of security
and social policies.
Counter-insurgency tactics might include better border controls to stop people
bribing their way across, while offering an amnesty to militants who return
from Afghanistan and Pakistan might have a positive effect, she said.
But governments must also tackle the social and economic problems that drive
people towards extremist views . Just one step clearing away corruption and
bureaucracy so as to allow small businesses to take off and thrive would be
revolutionary in its effects, Shermatova said.
Poverty gives rise to discontent and encourages the search for political
methods of changing society, she added.
Ainagul Abdrakhmanova and Anara Yusupova (a pseudonym) are IWPR-trained
reporters in Kyrgyzstan; Aida Kasymalieva and Inga Sikorskaya are IWPR editors
based in Bishkek. Lola Olimova is an IWPR editor in Dushanbe and ?rdasher
Tahamtan is the pseudonym of a journalist in Tajikistan.
SHOULD CENTRAL ASIA FEAR TALEBAN SPILLOVER?
Upsurge in militant activity in Central Asia will be contained, although
security should be stepped up in border areas.
By Sanobar Shermatova in Moscow
In the eight years the United States-led Coalition has been in action in
Afghanistan, the northern provinces have remained largely calm until
recently, that is.
Taleban attacks focused on southern Afghanistan, and the overland routes via
which Coalition forces brought in fuel and ammunition from Pakistan.
There was never a hint of a Taleban threat to Coalition airbases in Uzbekistan
and Kyrgyzstan, or to the airfield in Tajikistan used by the French.
The decision by Central Asian states to allow their territories to be used to
bring in military freight into Afghanistan via the northern route changes
The new supply line carries with it the risk that the Central Asian region
could be dragged into the Afghan conflict.
This danger was highlighted in stark terms in September, when the Taleban
stepped up their activities in Kunduz province, a region close to Tajikistan
which is controlled by German troops in the NATO force and which until this
year was quiet.
When the Taleban seized two fuel tankers in Kunduz in early September, NATO
responded with an air strike that resulted in a number of civilian deaths,
causing an international crisis. Attacks on German military vehicles have also
been reported in the region.
Afghan officials say Taleban activity in Kunduz has also involved non-Afghan
militants of Central Asian origin. One senior commander, General Mustafa
Patang, told journalists on September 12 that hundreds of militants had come
to northern Afghanistan from the tribal areas of Pakistan.
On October 12, President Hamid Karzai confirmed that the Taleban were moving
men to the north adding that they were using military helicopters to do so.
The bulk of these foreign fighters are assumed to belong to the Islamic
Movement of Uzbekistan, IMU, which was active in Central Asia in the late
Nineties before relocating to Afghanistan and then, after 2001, lawless parts
of Pakistan. Estimates of their numbers range wildly from a few hundred to
However, these Central Asian militants are not entirely homogenous. One known
group affiliated to the IMU is the Islamic Jihad Union, which has apparent
connections with Turkish and Afghan émigrés in Germany. The German police
believe the group was planning to bomb airports, restaurants and cafes, an
American military base and the Uzbek embassy in that country. The aim was
apparently to prompt Germans to call on their government to withdraw troops
from Afghanistan and from the military base in the Uzbek border town of Termez.
The IMU itself appears to have shifted its priorities from toppling the Uzbek
government to the broader international jihad agenda. In practical terms, its
focus has been fighting the enemy on its doorstep the Pakistani government.
The military has mounted periodic offensives in the tribal areas, and the IMU
has fought back on the side of the Pakistani Taleban. The IMU was closely
aligned with top militant leader Baitullah Mehsud, killed by a rocket from an
unmanned US plane in early August.
For its part, the Pakistani army told civilians in the tribal zone that its
offensive was not directed against the Pashtun population, but against the
foreign militants causing instability in the area.
Incessant Taleban attacks on the overland route from Pakistan through the
Khyber Pass into Afghanistan have brought a halt to Coalition convoys carrying
fuel and munitions.
Now that the northern route via Central Asia is being used, it would seem
logical from the Talebans perspective to apply pressure here, too.
The IMU is an obvious choice for the job many of its fighters spent time in
northern Afghanistan in the mid-Nineties when they were part of the Tajik
opposition guerrilla movement fighting the government in Dushanbe. The ethnic
factor is also important, since this part of Afghanistan is populated by Tajiks
Effectively, there are three front lines for defending Central Asia against a
spillover of the Afghan conflict in the shape of incursions by Taleban-allied
Given the arrival of the latter so close to the border, it did not come as a
complete surprise when there were sightings of them in Tajikistan and
Kyrgyzstan this spring and summer.
(For reports on these incursions, read Chasing Phantoms in the Tajik Mountains,
RCA No. 581, 24-Jun-09; Upsurge in Militant Presence in Kyrgyzstan, RCA No.
582, 03-Jul-09; and Taming Tajikistans Eastern Valleys, RCA No. 584,
The Tajik-Afghan frontier goes through difficult terrain and is porous in
parts, allowing drug traffickers and militants to slip across unnoticed. There
are mountain pathways providing routes through Tajikistan to Kyrgyzstan and
Uzbekistan. The IMU knows the ground well, since its guerrillas used the same
routes in 1999 and 2000 to mount raids on Kyrgyz and Uzbek territory. The fact
that armed groups appeared in roughly the same areas this year eastern
Tajikistan and southern Kyrgyzstan suggests that local law-enforcement is
still unable to monitor and intercept suspects using these drug routes.
The second defensive line, therefore, runs along Central Asias borders with
Afghanistan to reduce opportunities for infiltration. It should be recalled
that both the German base in Termez and the French forces in Tajikistan are
within easy reach of the border.
The third line of defence lies deeper inside Central Asia. Militant groups, for
example in Pakistan and the North Caucasus, are quick to adapt and will rapidly
extend their attacks to new areas so as to disperse the forces arrayed against
them. Weakening the security forces also has the aim of undermining the
governments they support.
There have been several examples of such targeted attacks in Uzbekistan in
recent months. In May, police were targeted in and around the eastern city of
Andijan, while in August the deputy head of the interior ministrys
counter-terrorism department, Colonel Hasan Asadov, was killed.
Two Muslim clerics were attacked around the same time in what seem to have been
related incidents. Abror Abrorov, deputy head of the Kukeldash madrassa in
Tashkent was murdered in mid-July, and the capitals chief imam or mosque
leader, Anvar-Qori Tursunov, was targeted in a failed assassination attempt at
the end of the month. It seems most likely that both clerics were singled out
by militants for being too close to government and for preaching against
While attacks on police and clerics are unprecedented in Uzbekistan, they are
fairly standard practice in Pakistan and the North Caucasus. It seems
reasonable to predict that militants will use these tactics again in the
Central Asian context.
Yet in contrast to other parts of the world, they will find their room for
manoeuvre severely constrained in Central Asia. There are no places of refuge
where they can hide out and no stockpiles of arms, and the local population
will not supply them with food and intelligence information. The fact that the
armed group which tried to establish itself in Tajikistan was eventually
confronted and dispersed by government troops shows that there are limits to
such insurgent efforts.
Assuming that the militants will be unable to start operating deep inside
Central Asia, there is thus little chance that these states will become drawn
into the conflict with the Taliban and IMU in Afghanistan.
It is therefore the defensive lines on either side of the Aghan border that
will be decisive.
The Coalition members and the Central Asian states are aware of the dangers
posed by the Taleban relocating to northern Afghanistan. After security
services from Afghanistan, Pakistan, Germany and the Central Asian states
gathered in Dushanbe last month, they remained tight-lipped about the outcome,
but coping with the new challenge from the northern Taleban must have been at
the top of their agenda.
Sanobar Shermatova is a Moscow-based expert on Central Asian affairs and sits
on the RIA Novosti news agencys advisory council.
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