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An uprising last year in the Uzbek city of Andijan has had far-reaching consequences for American interests in Central Asia, a region fertile in Islamic extremism. Shortly after the event, Tashkent asked the United States to vacate an airbase made available to American forces in the wake of the 9/11 attacks. Now, more than one year after the Andijan attacks, a video has surfaced that sheds new light on the reported massacre, but also calls into question the tone of Washington’s response in condemning the crackdown by Uzbek authorities (Tashkent called it a ’counterterrorism operation’). Meanwhile, a regional security body, the Shanghai Cooperation Organization, just concluded its conference, with the focus on combating "extremism, separatism, and terrorism" in Central Asia.
What is the history of Islamic terrorism in the region?
During the Cold War era, the Soviet authorities suppressed Islam and closed mosques in the region. Once the Soviet Union split up, unemployment soared as the region’s elite fled abroad. Over 60 percent of Central Asia’s population was under the age of twenty-five. Given these factors, as well as its proximity to Taliban-run Afghanistan, the region emerged as a feeding ground for Islamic fundamentalism. The rise of terrorism coincided with the rise in refugees, weapons, and drug smuggling, particularly heroin imported across the border between Tajikistan and Afghanistan. "The same channels for smuggling drugs can be used for moving terrorists around," says Daniel Kimmage, an expert on Central Asia at Radio Free Europe/Radio Liberty. A number of al-Qaeda and Taliban-linked terrorist organizations sprouted in Uzbekistan’s densely populated Fergana Valley as well as elsewhere in the region.
What are Uzbekistan’s main terrorist groups?
- Islamic Movement of Uzbekistan (IMU). The IMU emerged in the mid-1990s as a loose coalition of radical Islamists bent on deposing Uzbek President Islam Karimov and replacing his regime with an Islamic state. Most of its incursions included car bombings and kidnappings. They were also involved in drug smuggling. "Once the IMU formed an alliance with the Taliban’s leader, Mullah Omar, however, it began promoting the Taliban’s anti-American and anti-Western agenda, also condemning music, cigarettes, sex, and alcohol," wrote Harvard University’s Jessica Stern in a July/August 2003 Foreign Affairs article. Led by Juma Namangani, a native Uzbek, the IMU fought alongside the Taliban against U.S. forces in Afghanistan in 2001. The IMU has been quiet in recent years; in May 2003, Kyrgyz security services broke up an IMU plot to bomb the U.S. embassy in Bishkek. The IMU joined the State Department’s list of terrorist organizations in 2002.
- Hizb-ut-Tehrir. Founded in Jordan but based in London, Hizb-ut-Tehrir boasts more than 10,000 members in Central Asia, most of them from Uzbekistan. Tashkent considers it a terrorist organization, yet the group is not on the U.S. State Department’s terrorist list. The goal of the group, not unlike that of al-Qaeda, is to unite Muslims by creating a region-wide caliphate that would adhere to a strict Islamic way of life.
- Akramiya. A splinter group of Hizb-ut-Tehrir based on the teachings of Akram Yuldashev, Akramiya is behind the prison break-in that sparked the May 2005 uprising at Andijan. Bakhtiyor Bobojonov, an Islamic scholar at the Tashkent-based Institute of Oriental Studies who released the video of the event, spoke with Yuldashev in prison and said the group’s mission statement posed a threat to stability and supported jihad. "It’s not the rotary club of Andijan," says S. Frederick Starr, an expert on Central Asia at Johns Hopkins University. "It’s a serious organization, and now we know certifiably it’s radical in terms of its Islamic ideology." Akramiya members, however, say it is a charitable organization, not a terrorism group.
What happened at Andijan?
The arrest of twenty-three Uzbek businessmen, most of them factory and shop owners who also were members of Akramiya, prompted protests in Andijan and a subsequent siege of the prison. After releasing the businessmen along with hundreds of other prisoners, armed men seized control of a nearby government building. Uzbek security forces and the armed men soon clashed, as the crowd of unarmed protesters swelled into the thousands. "The regime had lost control," says Martha Brill Olcott, a senior associate at the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace. "That doesn’t speak to defend the Uzbek [authorities’] response but [the film] gives me a strong sense there was a security threat." In total, hundreds of Uzbeks were massacred—it is unclear by whom. Human rights and pro-democracy groups accuse the police of shooting indiscriminately on unarmed demonstrators. The Uzbek government accuses the gunmen of holding the unarmed demonstrators as hostages and opening fire on them. Regardless, "it is clear excessive force [by the government] was used," Olcott says. "Whether they were malicious or incompetent, we simply don’t know." Also, the video proves, as Kimmage puts it, "this was not a case of nonviolent protesters with flowers in their hair getting gunned down."
How did the Uzbek government respond to terrorist threats after Andijan?
By launching a country-wide crackdown against non-governmental organizations (NGOs), experts say. "There was a sense [in Tashkent] the country was attacked and [the authorities] would take the harshest methods to stamp out future attacks," Kimmage says. Olcott adds that because a number of foreign-funded organizations used Andijan as a pretext to push for regime change, Tashkent targeted all NGOs. "I think they were really scared by the loss of control," she says. "If the choice is between civil liberties and another Andijan, they will push the other way and are not going to take any chances." In the wake of Andijan, human rights groups accuse the Uzbek authorities of carrying out unlawful arrests and torture, among other offenses.
What has been the fallout from Andijan?
- Downturn in U.S.-Uzbek relationship. Washington was highly critical of the Uzbek government’s handling of the uprising. Shortly after, the Uzbek government, emboldened by a resolution from the SCO, evicted the U.S. military from its base at Karshi-Khanabad (though some experts say the renegotiations on the lease of the military base preceded Andijan). The United States also cut off joint military exercises with the Uzbek army. The chill between Tashkent and Washington, Kimmage says, was motivated as much by the events at Andijan as the regime changes that unfolded in Georgia, Ukraine, and Kyrgyzstan. He says Uzbek authorities, influenced by the thinking of the Russian elite, believe these were U.S.-sponsored uprisings. The Uzbek government even accused Washington of funding the Akramiya gunmen responsible for the Andijan uprising. As more facts emerge about what happened at Andijan, and as the security climate in neighboring Afghanistan worsens, Washington is reportedly rethinking its relationship with Uzbekistan, prior to last May one of Washington’s most dependable allies in the region. Starr calls it "a classic case of making policy first and thinking second."
- Strengthening in Uzbek-Russian ties. Russia, which faces its own terrorist and separatist threats in its southern regions, was more sympathetic to the Karimov regime’s response to the Andijan uprising. The subsequent strengthening of Uzbek-Russian relations included an increase in intelligence sharing and greater bilateral military cooperation. "Without further NATO training, the Uzbek military will have less compatibility with [Western forces], and thus there’ll be greater dependence on Russia," Olcott says. Much of the motivation for Russia to improve ties with Uzbekistan is economic, Kimmage says. Because Russia’s natural gas monopoly, Gazprom, has not developed its new fields fast enough, Russia relies on imported gas supplies from Turkmenistan via Uzbekistan. But Tashkent remains wary of Moscow’s overweening influence in the region. "Uzbekistan doesn’t want to see its sovereignty compromised by Russia any more than it wants to see it denigrated by the U.S.," Starr says.
What is China’s role in combating terrorists in the region?
China says its main terrorist threat comes from the Uighurs, an ethnically Turkic minority of some 8 million Muslims primarily based in the northwest province of Xinjiang. Efforts by Uighurs to separate from China stretch back over fifty years. China accuses Uighurs of receiving training in Afghanistan and funding from terrorism networks in the Middle East. China created the SCO (then called the Shanghai Five) in the late 1990s, Starr says, "to neutralize its western neighbors as bases of operations for émigré Uighurs and promoting the civil rights of Uighurs in Xinjiang." Yet experts say Beijing’s treatment of its Uighur minorities has been heavy-handed and unlawful. "The Chinese are quick to use the word ’terrorism,’ but refuse to acknowledge there is a question of minority rights they will eventually have to deal with," Starr says. The latest incident involves five Uighurs, detained by U.S. forces over four years ago in Afghanistan and sent to the U.S. base at Guantanamo Bay. They now remain in legal limbo as political refugees in Albania (which offered to house them) because U.S. officials suspect they would be executed or tortured if sent back to China.