After two years of violent clashes between security forces and Islamic militants, Central Asia is bracing itself for a resumption of hostilities this summer. The extent of this year’s violence will be largely determined by the actions of the elusive Islamic Movement of Uzbekistan (IMU). But while regional security forces have been strengthened in anticipation of clashes, theories on the motives of the IMU and the threat posed by it are divergent.
The IMU leadership claims that its goal is to replace Uzbekistan’s secular government with Islamic rule. “Our aim is to overthrow the existing power in Uzbekistan, to free hundreds of our jailed brothers and sisters - Muslims of Uzbekistan - and to create in Uzbekistan a regime in which people can freely practise their religion,” the IMU co-leader, Tahir Yuldash, told Radio Liberty in Prague in a rare interview following clashes in Kyrgyzstan in 1999. He added that his militants had launched a large-scale operation, which, he threatened, would escalate.
Uzbek and Kyrgyz officials dismiss the IMU as a criminal gang, heavily involved in drug trafficking and determined to bring about regional instability. Bolot Januzakov, head of the Kyrgyzstan security service, told IRIN that the IMU was “a bunch of criminals that use Islamic slogans” with the aim of destabilising the region to facilitate drug trafficking through Central Asia. There was strong evidence linking the militants to elements in Afghanistan, from where they had received weapons and training, he said.
A US military delegation, following a recent visit to the Ferghana Valley - which straddles three borders and is home to 10 million Tajiks, Uzbeks and Kyrgyz - reached the conclusion that the IMU threat was insignificant. In a report released by the Pentagon in April, US Lt-Col William Lahue said that whereas the IMU “did not pose a significant threat”, there was a real “danger of social havoc”, especially in the Ferghana Valley, which suffered from acute poverty and high unemployment. Lahue said Islamic groups had accordingly been able to feed off the resulting discontent and attract local volunteers to their cause. The region needed economic reform in order to stop the spread of radical Islam, Lahue maintained.
Claims by local analysts concur that the militant movement appears to be gaining momentum as it engages support from moderate Muslims who are unemployed and disillusioned with the post-Soviet authorities. Ahmadjan Saipjanov, a journalist in Osh, Kyrgyzstan, told IRIN that the militants had been taking advantage of the widespread disillusionment following the break-up of the former Soviet Union. “The IMU is following the Tajik peace talks scenario. During the Tajik civil war, the IMU were fighting alongside the United Tajik Opposition against the government.
They learnt intricate tactics from their Tajik compatriots, and are applying these in Kyrgyzstan and Uzbekistan,” said Saipjanov. Although the IMU leadership has repeatedly stated that it wishes to overthrow the Uzbek government, Saipjanov said the militants may have a more pragmatic aim - to force the Uzbek government into a power-sharing arrangement similar to that in post-civil war Tajikistan.
The five-year civil war in Tajikistan only ended in 1997 when President Emomali Rahmonov was forced to negotiate with the Islamic United Tajik Opposition (UTO). A reconciliation process eventually led to a power-sharing agreement, with the opposition taking a 30 percent stake in the new government. Saipjanov’s view was that the IMU, which had fought alongside the UTO during the civil war, had a similar agenda in Uzbekistan. According to Saipjanov, IMU military action against the security forces maintained pressure on the authorities, while a high incidence of hostage-taking was aimed at raising worldwide awareness in the hope of bringing international pressure to bear on the Uzbek government.
A former UTO representative and now a Tajik official, Sharif Hikmatzade, confirms this view. He urges Uzbekistan to find a legal and constitutional solution. “Uzbekistan’s government should create a legal, constitutional way for Juma Namangani [the IMU leader in charge of field operations] to play some role in Uzbekistan’s political arena,” he said. Hikmatzade believes that a viable political role for the IMU in Uzbekistan would render the need for violence redundant. However, the response of the regional authorities to the IMU has been heavy-handed. They have cracked down on religious groups and perceived militant sympathisers.
After heavy clashes with militants last year, the Kyrgyz government sharply increased military spending to strengthen its security forces. There has also been a proliferation of security agreements throughout Central Asia to improve cross-border cooperation in combating militancy and illegal activities. Kyrgyzstan’s interior ministry estimates that about 80 people were detained last year for illegally distributing religious propaganda. Of these, 39 have received jail sentences for violating article 299 of the Criminal Code, which prohibits the incitement of religious hatred.
But while tightening security arrangements may address the symptoms, many observers stress the need for the root causes of insecurity - poverty and disillusionment - to be addressed. Investigative journalist Ahmed Rashid said the ranks of the IMU were continuously swelling, because regional governments had failed to provide their peoples with stable economic development and employment opportunities.
According to local opinion, it will take more than security measures to address the widespread disillusionment. Janybek Berdiev, unemployed in Batken, Kyrgyzstan, described the results of the discontent which could potentially swell the ranks of Islamic militant movements. “Many young people have left Batken for Bishkek [the Kyrgyz capital] and Osh. Those who stayed are desperate for money. Several people joined Juma [Namangani] last year because of money. They say they are paid in dollars,” he said. UNDP estimates that the unemployment rate has reached 80 percent in the Ferghana Valley.
Another Muslim organisation, the Hizb ut-Tahrir (Liberation Party), is seen as sympathetic to the IMU. The movement was founded in Palestine in 1953 and aims to unite all Muslims under a single caliphate with an administration to be governed by Shari’ah (Islamic) law. The movement is banned in most countries, but in Uzbekistan’s part of the Ferghana Valley it has increasing support from men between 25 and 30 years of age.
Igor Rotar, an analyst with the Jamestown Foundation, met members of the Hizb ut-Tahrir in May. “My new acquaintances created an impression of honest young men with fanatical convictions, somewhat reminiscent of the young communists of the 1920s.
They were so certain of the importance of their arguments that within an hour they tried to convert me to Islam,” he said. Although Hizb ut-Tahrir professes to be pacifist, members have admitted that there would be ready support for the IMU if it ever managed to penetrate the Ferghana Valley.
However, it appears that the Uzbek government has finally realised that countering the threat may take more than tough security measures. Uzbek President Islam Karimov has announced an amnesty for young people involved in religious groups, according to Uzbekistan’s Turkiston Press Agency.
Rahmatulla Saidazimov, Uzbek language instructor at Ferghana State University, told IRIN that the authorities had also embarked on educational projects in the hope that secondary education would steer young people towards secular rather than religious studies. “The main goal was to attract young and unemployed people to some form of schooling, and to keep them busy studying,” he said.
This article was produced by IRIN News while it was part of the United Nations Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs. Please send queries on copyright or liability to the UN. For more information: https://shop.un.org/rights-permissions