It was not until Thursday, April 1, that an Uzbek government official, Ilya Pyagay from the Interior Ministry in Tashkent, finally linked to al Qaeda the wave of terrorist attacks that killed at least 43 people in the capital and Bukhara and threatened to destabilize the key US ally in Central Asia. He blamed “Wahhabis who belong to one of the branches of the international al Qaeda group.”
Before that, President Islam Karimov pointed the finger at Hizbat ut Tahrir.
Other fingers pointed at Karimov himself, suggesting he fabricated a pretext for purging local dissidents.
April 1 marked the sixth day of the first real festival of terror to rock Uzbekistan since this Central Asian nation joined the war against international terrorism in 2002 and permitted hundreds of US forces to use a military base near the Afghan frontier.
It began on Sunday with attacks on police patrols and a grab for their weapons.
Monday morning, suicide bombers almost simultaneously struck Tashkent's largest bazaar and a spot near a children's store. Similar coordinated blasts were reported in the second-largest city, Bukhara.
Next came four days of bloody shoot-outs between police and the alleged terrorists, every one of them ending in mass suicides by explosion. The official death toll approaches 50 but could be much higher.
According to DEBKA-Net-Weekly‘s Central Asian and counter-terror sources, the primary culprit is the Islamic Movement of Uzbekistan (IMU), recently renamed the Islamic Party of Turkestan. This view is shared by Alexei Malashenko, an expert on Central Asia at the Moscow office of Carnegie Endowment. Some Pakistani sources say IMU's leader, Tahir Yuldashev, the 10th most senior member of al-Qaeda, may be the “high-value” target they pursued unsuccessfully in South Waziristan and that he is now making his way home in stages, possibly wounded.
Our sources expect the IMU, which flourished in Afghanistan under the Taliban, to escalate its attacks in the coming days and weeks as part of a broad offensive launched by Al Qaeda and its affiliates to forcibly fragment the American global anti-terrorist front into well-dispersed segments, so diluting military pressure on the organization in Iraq and along the Afghan-Pakistani border.
DEBKA-Net-Weekly‘s Central Asian sources add that other elements appear to be playing supporting roles in the IMU-al Qaeda offensive.
Gulnara Karimova-Maqsudi may be one. The president’s ambitious daughter maintains her own court, militias and intelligence apparatus. Recently divorced with two children, Islam, 11, and Iman, 6, she is busy maneuvering herself into position to succeed her father. On the assumption that a spot of destabilization might help foreshorten his tenure in the presidential palace, she seems to have permitted some of her agents to fan the outbreaks and provided certain army and police units with incentives not to be in too much of a hurry to extinguish the violence or to nab the fleeing terrorists – although they knew in advance about the coming unrest.
A few adherents of Hizbat ut Tahrir, generally believed to be a non-terrorist fundamentalist group, may also have taken a hand in the violence, as well individual members of dissident groups suffering from the regime’s repressive methods who are incapable of active collective opposition.
Yuldashev is thought to have good reason for ordering his followers to drench his home ground in terrorist violence this week. The 12-day US-Pakistani Hammer and Anvil operation on the Pakistani-Afghan border province of S. Waziristan was aimed at rooting out al Qaeda mountain nests, thwarting its spring offensive and netting high profile terrorists. Wednesday, March 31, after 7,000 of his troops suffered major setbacks in battles with 500 besieged terrorists, (See separate article in this issue on the arts of government disinformation), Pakistan president Pervez Musharraf announced the operation at an end.
According to our sources, dozens of al Qaeda and IMU fighters who escaped the battle zone have been trying for the past several days to cross mountainous eastern Afghanistan and return to Uzbekistan via the key Afghan city of Mazar e-Sharif, near the Uzbek border.
This town serves al Qaeda as an important operational and logistical center by virtue of a substantial Iranian presence and strong infrastructure built there after the Taliban’s overthrow in Kabul.
The IMU’s paramount leader, Yuldashev, is among the retreating Uzbek fighters. He is believed now making his way through the mountains toward Mazar e-Sharif, where he plans to cross into Uzbekistan as quickly as possible to evade capture or death. In a bid to cover his escape, Yuldashev ordered his supporters to launch a series of sabotage and terrorist attacks that would keep security forces in Uzbekistan’s major cities occupied while he searches for a safe route home. As part of the diversionary tactics, he instructed his followers to mount a suicide assault to take over the presidential palace on the outskirts of Tashkent in order to draw government forces away from his own route into the country.
The Islamic Movement of Uzbekistan has been committed to violence since it was founded in 1989 for the declared aim of creating a united Islamic state through Central Asia starting with Uzbekistan. Its exact membership is unknown but is believed to be smaller than Hizb ut Tahrir’s, between 4,000 and 7,000 adherents.
Intelligence officials believe that Yuldashev was long one of Osama bin Laden‘s closest lieutenants and therefore one of al Qaeda’s most dangerous and wanted operatives.
Just two days before terror hit Tashkent and Bukhara, the State Department added the IMU to its list of terrorist organizations.
When the Taliban ruled Afghanistan, dozens and perhaps hundreds of eager Uzbek fundamentalists crossed south for intensive guerrilla training and Islamic religious indoctrination. Since the Taliban were ousted, IMU has declared war on the American troops based in their own country. In two years, they have killed two US soldiers and wounded several others. They even tried to kidnap Americans from a secret base to ransom their jailed comrades. US and Uzbek authorities have kept a lid on these incidents to avoid giving the impression that a Central Asian front has opened against the United States.
The movement also maintains operations bases in the Ferghana region of southeastern Uzbekistan and in neighboring Tajikistan, where the Iranian embassy provides its agents with money and logistical support, as well as in Kyrgyzstan and Kazakhstan.
The IMU thus lends al Qaeda a broad and willing strategic network across Central Asia.
At home, the group which frequently participates in border skirmishes as well as kidnappings and acts of terror, was accused of the failed 1999 assassination attempt against President Karimov that took 16 lives. Two Chechen-trained IMU members were condemned to death for that blast and the government claimed it had defeated IMU. In fact, the group was busy fighting alongside the Taliban against the Tadjik-dominated Northern Alliance in Afghanistan. According to reports, Yuldashev, who fought with al Qaeda leaders at Tora Bora, also led the resistance to the America’s Operation Anaconda in the spring of 2002.
IMU's military leader, Juma Namangani, is believed to have been killed when the Northern Alliance rooted the Uzbeks from their Konduz base in northern Afghanistan in late 2001.
Hizb ut Tahrir, the Party of Liberation, a radical group that is banned across Central Asia, was quick to deny president Kamirov’s charge of responsibility for this week’s wave of terror.
Its leader, Vahid Omran, stressed that Hizb ut Tahrir had never regarded terrorist attacks or violence as a means to achieve its goals which are to spread the word of Islam not death.
Founded in the Middle East in 1953 and numbering an estimated 5,000 to 20,000 members, Hizb ut Tahrir is older, larger and less virulent than Yuldashev’s Islamic Movement of Uzbekistan. Its declared goal is the establishment of a pan-Islamic caliphate across Central Asia, centered in the conservative Ferghana Valley. The group dispenses the usual Islamist fare of nostalgia for past Islamic glories, homophobia, anti-Semitism and more recently, anti-Americanism, but is not linked to al Qaeda.
DEBKA-Net-Weekly‘s Islamic experts allow that while the movement does not explicitly espouse terrorism in the same way as al Qaeda and is not linked to any terrorist organization, there is a point at which Hizb ut-Tahrir is enjoined to act violently: if one sharp blow is all that is required to push over the secular regime of a country and install Islamic rule.
Therefore, our Central Asian experts do not rule out the possibility of Omran switching tactics should he lose hope of Karimov and his cronies stepping down one day, or if it feels it is strong enough to launch a guerrilla war.
Hizb ut Tahrir supporters live mainly in Samarkand and Bukhara, two important religious centers in the golden age of Islam that were situated along the traditional Silk Road.
Like many other parties and organizations in Central Asia, Hizb ut Tahrir maintains bases of operation in the southeastern Farghana region near the border with Tajikistan. There, young Uzbeks are indoctrinated in Islamic fundamentalism and recruited into a “Muslim Education Corps”. Their proximity to al Qaeda and other fundamentalist Islamic facilities gives rise to the charge in Tashkent that the party is not just dispensing education but building terrorist cells.
Central Asian sources assert that by labeling Hizb ut Tahrir a terrorist organization, Karimov hopes to camouflage his own corruption.
His autocratic regime views the movement as a smoldering coal, as dangerous in its way as the IMU though for the moment more as a political rival. Karimov also treats the Hizb as a political scapegoat. At least 500 of its members are in jail where human rights groups say they are being tortured and held in sub-human conditions. Some its leaders live in exile in London, whence this week they accused the government of orchestrating the terrorist attacks and clashes as a pretext for more crackdowns.
In Karimov’s Uzbekistan, 25 million people know that torture and arbitrary killings are common. The government has jailed 6,500 Muslim opponents, including, for a time, a 62-year-old mother protesting the death of her imprisoned son, who was immersed in a boiling cauldron.
Western rights groups, from the OSCE to the International Crisis Group, have roundly criticized the regime. In January the US administration gave the country's human rights record a failing grade, the first ever for any former Soviet republic. President George W. Bush, however, immediately waived the human rights stipulation for aid on the grounds that continuing engagement is in America’s national interests. The US air base in Khanabad, Uzbekistan, is home to 1,000 servicemen and rear base for US forays into Afghanistan. In April, the Bush administration is due to allocate a further $50 million in economic aid and military assistance.
Secretary of state Colin Powell voiced support on Wednesday for Karimov and a willingness to help him battle fundamentalist groups.
Being seen as a frontline in the war on terror does no harm, but DEBKA-Net-Weekly’s terror experts find little credence in the charge that Karimov faked the latest terrorist outbreaks. The gunmen facing long hours of siege appear to have been the genuine article. The targets were not primarily civilians as would have been the case if the object had been to arouse popular ire but the much despised Uzbek police which was widely acclaimed by a people who hate the regime.
“I think this was aimed against the police, not ordinary people,” Guzal, a 20-year old student said. “Every time I get on a bus, I hear people saying they support this (violence).”
Ham-fisted handling by the authorities of the terrorist threat will only add to this support. Already, border closures have shut off the little trade that small-time Uzbek merchants manage to scrape together. When they besieged an apartment building in Tashkent that was commandeered by a group of terrorists, government forces turned off the water, gas and electricity supplies for an entire district of the capital. What more do the fundamentalists need to ride in on a white horse?
Most Uzbeks – who lived for decades under the communist-atheist Soviet regime – are not particularly religious. But historically, their country was one of Islam’s most important religious centers and Islamic fundamentalism has been making slow but steady progress in the country for years. Karimov himself, his cronies and relatives are making Uzbekistan into fertile ground for the fundamentalists, continuing in their corrupt ways and padding their foreign bank accounts.
Weakened by American anti-terror operations in Afghanistan, the Islamic Movement of Uzbekistan may now be eying greener pastures at home. In a primarily agricultural economy with severe restrictions on foreign trade, they will find a fertile ground for recruitment.
“There are all the usual ingredients of an Islamic revolution here – demographic explosion, ethnic conflicts and unemployed and disenfranchised youth,” said Andrei Piontkovsky, a leading Russian political scientist, in an interview with DEBKA-Net-Weekly in Moscow.