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Al-Qaeda reaches into Central Asia
Extremist group supports, influences local groups
Analysis by Yevgeniya Nuranskaya
Over the years, extremists in Central Asia have escalated their activities from covert organising to open action – through spreading information, recruitment and attacks on the state.
With that, it has become apparent that major terrorist organisations are turning their attention to the three Central Asian countries they perceive as weakest in terms of governance, economics and infrastructure: Tajikistan, Kyrgyzstan, and Uzbekistan.
Only Uzbekistan avoided attacks last fall. A suicide bomber hit Khudzhand, Tajikistan, and the Bishkek Palace of Sports was bombed in Kyrgyzstan.
The usual organisers of such attacks – the Islamic Movement of Uzbekistan (IMU) and the Islamic Jihad Union (IJU) – were in no hurry to take responsibility. In Kyrgyzstan authorities officially blamed al-Qaeda for the first time.
Intelligence analysts believe defeats elsewhere, as well as a desire to support militants in Central Asia, are driving al-Qaeda to refocus on Central Asia.
Al-Qaeda and some fragments of the United Tajik Opposition (UTO) are believed to have participated in the ethnic clashes that occurred in Osh last summer, according to Kyrgyz State National Security Committee (GKNB) Director Keneshbek Duishebayev. UTO membership includes hundreds of participants from the Tajik Civil War in the 1990s.
Former President Kurmanbek Bakiyev’s son, Maxim, and Zhanysh Bakiyev (the president’s brother) met with negotiators and field commanders from the IMU, al-Qaeda, the Taliban and UTO in May in Bakhorak, Badakhshan Province, Afghanistan, Duishebayev said. The participants agreed “to render aid to the IMU in destabilising Kyrgyzstan,” and, “for this purpose the Bakiyevs promised to provide US $30m,” Duishebayev said.
After this deal, at least 15 professional militants – including snipers and highly skilled mine- and bomb-builders – poured into Kyrgyzstan from Pakistan, Duishebayev said. Their task was to shatter the society’s political, economic and social foundations and provoke a series of inter-ethnic and inter-faith conflicts and, finally – with the help of other terrorists – overthrow the Kyrgyz authorities with the purpose of creating their version of a caliphate. The GKNB doesn’t know where these militants went after the June events in Osh.
Both Maxim and Zhanysh Bakiyev have been charged with inciting violence by the Kyrgyz government in connection with the June violence, but have yet to be tried.
Shortly afterward, at a meeting in South Waziristan, representatives of almost all terrorist groups in the region unanimously concluded that Kyrgyzstan was the ideal setting for launching planned subversive activity.
IMU, IJU and al-Qaeda’s relationship
The IMU’s position in Central Asia is unclear. The IMU and IJU depend on al-Qaeda and are ready to carry out the tasks it assigns, analysts say.
It is clear that the IMU aims to destroy the constitutional order of these three countries. But the IMU militants seem not to completely trust al-Qaeda after the failure of joint IMU–al-Qaeda combat operations with the Taliban in Afghanistan and Pakistan.
Most likely, the leaders of each group will try to avoid conflict with each other and find common ground with the smaller terrorist groups that have similar interests and ideological lines. The bombings in Bishkek and Khudzhand confirmed the existence of such groups.
The IMU also has something that al-Qaeda doesn’t: a large number of camps in the southern Kyrgyz mountains and in Tajikistan’s Gorno-Badakhshan Oblast.
That’s where terrorists live between their periodic sorties; that’s where the trail of the Tajik militants disappeared after the civil war ended in 1997; and that’s where IMU militants fled after attacking Kyrgyzstan’s Batken Oblast 12 years ago. Local security officials have difficulty scouring the area because of the high, impassable alpine conditions – some peaks are 7,000m above sea level – though Tajik border guards periodically try without great success.
Terrorism’s roots in “incorrect Islam”
Terrorism often takes root in uneducated youth who fall under the spell of “incorrect Islam,” which teaches intolerance. Tajikistan, which has a long border with Afghanistan, is brimming with a pool of poorly educated Muslims, ripe for recruitment to terrorist training camps in Afghanistan, Pakistan, Chechnya and even in Tajikistan itself.
Officially there is no exchange of madrassa and religious studies students with Afghanistan and Pakistan. But there are accounts of young people travelling to Pakistan to study. In once such instance, a father travelled by foot with his son from Tajikistan through Afghanistan to enrol the boy in an extremist madrassa in Pakistan.
But extremist imams are also present in Central Asia. In December an Osh imam was removed from his position in a mosque. According to security officials he had received training in IMU camps and studied in foreign madrassas and had preached extremism. A number of similar cases have been reported in Tajikistan.
Precise data on the number of recruited youth doesn’t exist. But those who have abandoned the militancy say that once or twice a month groups of new recruits show up at the terrorist bases. A group might contain 30 members. Considering the number of terrorist bases – probably dozens in Tajikistan alone – the numbers are significant.
It’s worth noting that those who have decided to lay down arms often find themselves pursued and have to hide themselves and their families. Very few former terrorists have managed to survive.
Governments must understand their vulnerability
Central Asian governments should understand their own vulnerability. Counter-terrorism analysts and human rights groups say that among the leading causes of radicalization are a lack of economic opportunity and dissatisfaction with the government. The people are dissatisfied with inflation, corruption and the low standard of living, and they must deal with electricity and water shortages. The authorities are developing plans to improve conditions, but progress is slow.
The Kyrgyz, Tajik and Uzbek capitals remain stable for now, but the rural populations are disgruntled with the slow pace of modernisation. Uzbek and Tajik presidents Islam Karimov’s and Emomali Rakhmon’s authority are waning in the eyes of rural citizens, and the new Kyrgyz authorities have not yet gained credibility. Lack of regular dialogue between the region’s leaders makes the situation worse.
For now, we can now speak of al-Qaeda in terms of its first reconnaissance of the region and its effort to come to agreements with its “colleagues.” Evidence of al-Qaeda financially supporting other terrorist organisations hasn’t surfaced yet, but this is just a matter of time. However, the transfer of militants from one organisation to another is well established, with militant fighters and extremist clerics travelling back and forth.
We know the IMU is ready to fight for al-Qaeda and al-Qaeda is ready to reciprocate. The terrorists are recruiting young people from Kyrgyzstan, Tajikistan and Uzbekistan and even from Kazakhstan. It has become common for terrorist groups to use shared pools of mercenaries. This is convenient for them because the mercenaries do not care who the client is, or who the victims are, and they disguise their actions as acts of faith.
Yevgeniya Nuranskaya, a PhD candidate in political science at the Kyrgyz National University, graduated from the Jusup Balasagyn Kyrgyz National University with a focus on Oriental Studies. She has taught political science at a number of Kyrgyz and Tajik universities.