Central Asian Insurgency Endures
by Ali M. Koknar, TRC Terrorism Research Associate
August 3, 2004
In the mid 1990s, Turkish Islamists supported the various Wahhabi Islamic fundamentalist movements in the Central Asian states, including the Islamic Movement of Uzbekistan (IMU), a banned Islamic opposition party which advocates the forceful overthrow of President Islam Karimov of Uzbekistan and the establishment of a caliphate or Islamic state. The IMU flourished in and around the Ferghana Valley, straddling Uzbekistan and Afghanistan, as the most favorable territory in Central Asia for establishing a caliphate given the fluidity of this region’s borders, its precarious ethnic mix, its extreme poverty and the prevalence of a devout Muslim population. The IMU was placed on the US State Department’s Foreign Terrorist Organizations (FTO) list in 2000.
In 1997, the Turkish Prime Minister Necmettin Erbakan (who was to deposed in a quasi-coup in 1998) met with Taher Yoldashev, the leader of IMU in Turkey and allegedly gave him 100,00 dollars. A photograph of the meeting was later presented as evidence by Turkish prosecutors when they sued to have Erbakan’s Islamist Refah Party closed for anti-secular activities. Since the withdrawal of the Soviet forces from Afghanistan, Turkish Special Forces and the Turkish intelligence service had been supporting General Abdurrashid Dostum, the ethnic Uzbek leader of the anti-Taliban Afghan militia, Junbish-e Milli, with three million dollars in cash, military hardware, and advisors. As a result of Refah’s affinity with the Wahhabi movements in Central Asia, Turkish government support to Dostum was shut down, which contributed to the fall of most of Northern Afghanistan into Taliban’s hands in mid-1997.
Following the February 1999 Tashkent bombings, the Turkish Police arrested IMU’s foreign affairs director Zayniddin Askarov and Rustam Mamatkulov, who had arrived in Turkey via Iran, as they both had done so many times during the two years prior to their arrest. The Turkish police had maintained surveillance on the two IMU members as they had contact with Turkish Islamic extremists and Iranian officials on their previous visits. Askarov and Mamatkulov were extradited to Uzbekistan where they stood trial for the Tashkent bombings. Among many individuals arrested by Uzbek authorities after the Tashkent bombings were three Turkish businessmen, who were tried, found guilty, not of involvement in the bombings, but of spreading unauthorized fundamentalist Islamist propaganda, and sentenced to prison in 2000. These followers of the charismatic Turkish preacher and religious order leader, Fethullah Gulen, known as Fethullahci, were prosecuted in Uzbekistan and the Karimov government closed down their privately run schools. The Fethullahci, a seemingly moderate, yet enthusiastically missionary Sunni religious order, ventured into all of the Turkic republics and even into Russia, after the breakup of the Soviet Union, starting businesses and schools with seed money from their community in Turkey. Despite the fact that they followed a pro-government line, no matter which country they established themselves in, they were not spared Karimov’s wrath. Around the same time, the Turkish government also engaged in a crackdown against the Fethullahci organization inside Turkey, forcing Fethullah Gulen to flee to the US.
The permissive environment, in which the Turkish authorities allowed various Central Asian opposition groups to operate, created distrust and resentment on the part of Uzbekistan. In 1999, Islam Karimov retaliated by shutting down Turkish-run schools, even those run by the Turkish government, sending the Turkish Ambassador in Tashkent back to Turkey, making life difficult for Turkish businessmen in his country, and by recalling hundreds of Uzbek students in Turkey on suspicion that his opposition was recruiting them. The following year, the Turkish President, Foreign Minister, Chief of Staff, and Interior Minister all took separate trips to Uzbekistan, Turkmenistan, Kyrgyzstan, and Kazakhstan, launching a fresh campaign to win hearts and minds. This time around, hoping to win them over not with idealistic notions of common ethnicity, but by helping Central Asian leaders quell a mounting threat from the IMU. Two plane-loads of small arms, ammunition, two-way radios, night vision and infrared equipment, and body armor to Uzbekistan for guards patrolling its 130 kilometer border with Afghanistan, delivered before the Turkish Interior Minister’s visit, helped the message to be received clearly. In 2003, the Turkish Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan paid visits to Tashkent and Samarkand, The self-proclaimed ‘reformed-Islamist’ Erdogan’s visit, first by a Turkish Prime Minister in five years, was ironic, as Uzbekistan battled militants of the IMU, who enjoyed Erdogan’s political godfather, Erbakan’s support only five years prior.
Despite the flow of aid and training assistance after the September 11 attacks, and the fall of the Taliban regime in Afghanistan, terrorism in Central Asian states has not been wiped out. The Kyrgyz National Security Service (NSS) claimed that IMU, was working to re-invent itself by bringing Kyrgyz, Tajik, and Uighur fundamentalists under an umbrella organization known as the ‘Islamic Movement of Central Asia’, reflecting an alarming resurgence in radical activity in the region, targeting western diplomatic missions and the anti-terrorism Coalition presence in Kazakhstan and Kyrgyzstan. A November 2002 assassination attempt (in which six Turkish nationals were alleged to have been involved) targeting President Niyazov in Ashkhabad missed him, but injured a number of people, showed that even the neutral Turkmenistan is not immune to terrorism. In April 2004, four Kyrgyz terrorists, whom a Bishkek court convicted of planning to attack US forces at Manas airbase, admitted to receiving training in Iran. In July 2004, the Kyrgyz NSS uncovered a plot by the Hizb-ut Tahrir (HuT) Islamic party to infiltrate government agencies to collect intelligence by subverting government officials, including police and border guard officers. HuT, which claims that the Uzbek President Islam Karimov is a secret Jew, seek to establish a Caliphate in Central Asia, Turkey and the Middle East. A spate of IMU bombings and shootouts killed nearly 50 people in Tashkent and Bukhara, in March 2004, and suicide bombings against the American and Israeli embassies and Uzbek government buildings in Tashkent in July 2004 killed six people, indicating that the two-year US occupation in Afghanistan and military presence in neighboring Uzbekistan had not completely wiped IMU out.
At the same time, the US may be reverting to its old habit of shooting itself in the foot. For example, although Uzbekistan has proven a key US ally in the global war on terror, in December 2003, the US State Department did not certify Uzbekistan as making progress in human rights, as a result of which in July 2004, the US administration decided to withhold military and economic aid of up to 18 million dollars, vital for Uzbekistan to build up its security forces to counter the IMU insurgency.
The West has invested no less than fifty billion dollars in the Eurasian countries since the end of the Soviet Union. The success of the US in removing the Taliban from power in Afghanistan addressed the major threat, which had faced Central Asia. Currently, there are concerns within some Central Asian capitals that the US may not see the job through, and may leave the region without fully stabilizing Afghanistan.
Ali M. Koknar is a private security consultant in Washington, DC, specializing in counterterrorism and international organized crime. His e-mail is firstname.lastname@example.org