TCS Daily

Terror in Tashkent: The Islamist Threat

By Ariel Cohen - August 3, 2004 12:00 AM

On Friday July 30 three suicide bombers blew themselves up next two the U.S. and Israeli Embassies and Prosecutor General's Office in Tashkent, Uzbekistan. Three Uzbek security men, including the bodyguard of the Israeli Ambassador, were killed, and eight civilians wounded. The attacks coincided with the beginning of the trials of radical Islamists accused of perpetrating massive terrorist attacks in March 2004, in which thirty five people were killed and scores wounded. Two terrorist groups, Islamic Movement of Uzbekistan (IMU), and Islamic Jihad, claimed responsibility for the attack.

The two organizations are well known entities in the global jihadi movement. In the late 1990s, the IMU was the leading threat to Uzbekistan's stability. It launched bombings against government offices in Tashkent in 1999 and committed kidnappings of foreigners in the neighboring Kyrgyzstan. IMU was part of the Al Qaeda-led terrorist international based in Afghanistan, and was mostly destroyed during the Afghanistan war. While its leader, Juma Namangani, may have been killed in Afghanistan, another IMU commander, Tahir Yuldashev, has reportedly survived and may be trying to reactivate his network.

Islamic Jihad, unknown in Uzbekistan until past spring, has announced that it was responsible for the March 2004 homicide bombings and other attacks in Tashkent and Bukhara, and blamed Uzbekistan's support of the U.S. war in Afghanistan and the secular nature of the regime for its actions. Islamic Jihad is a known militant Sunni terrorist "brand" in use in Egypt and the West Bank/Gaza, which was spawned by the Muslim Brotherhood movement. In the 1990s the Egyptian Jihad movement led by Ayman Al-Zawahiri merged with bin Laden's Al Qaeda. The Uzbek attacks prove that the Islamic Jihad has a "brand" appeal from Marrakech to Manila.

The July explosions are connected to legal proceedings against the perpetrators of the March 2004 terror attack in Tashkent, which killed over 40 people. Both spring and summer attacks demonstrate that radical Islamist organizations are escalating security threats in the region. President Islam Karimov of Uzbekistan also claimed that the attackers may have been past members of Hizb-ut-Tahrir al-Islami, a global radical Islamist party with a presence throughout the Middle East and Europe, reportedly headquartered in London. Hizb foments anti-government unrest, advocates the overthrow of secular regimes throughout the Moslem world, and fights for creation of a Califate, a military theocracy whose purpose is to wage a total war on the "land of the sword" -- the non-Moslem world.

The United States is facing a tough choice in Uzbekistan. On the one hand, after September 11, 2001, it has committed to preserve security of a secular Islamic country which greatly assisted the U.S. military in preparation and execution of the Afghanistan operation, and which hosts a U.S. military base in Khanabad. The Strategic Cooperation Framework signed between the United States and Uzbekistan in March 2002 includes a promise by the U.S. Government to "regard with grave concern any external threat" to the Uzbek security and sovereignty. IMU, Islamic Jihad and Hizb-ut-Tahrir already caused grave concern for the Uzbek and US governments.

On the other hand, the Karimov regime's track record is far from exemplary. Domestic dissidents, political and media critics and Islamists are subject to harsh treatment and questionable legal proceedings. Activities of secular opposition parties are severely restricted. There are numerous reports of torture and abuse of the legal and law enforcement systems. Economic reform is stuttering. Leftist-liberal NGOs with global reach, which uphold civil rights at the price of ignoring Islamist terrorist threats, have turned Uzbekistan into cause celebre.

Their concern and criticism have been at least partially recognized by State Department. On July 13, 2004, spokesman Richard Boucher has announced that Secretary of State cannot make a determination that Uzbekistan is making "substantial and continuing progress" in meeting its commitments under the 2002 Strategic Partnership Framework. The Framework demands that the Karimov regime strive to achieve respect for human rights, establish a genuine multiparty system, ensure free and fair elections, freedom of expression, and the independence of the media. Up to $18 million in FY 04 assistance may be affected.

There is no question that the U.S. Government should encourage the Karimov regime to pursue political and economic reforms. However, those who hasten to criticize Tashkent need to do so while recognizing the real threats to the Uzbek people, its government, and U.S. interests in the region. These dangers are first and foremost Islamist.

Clearly, the primary concern of the terrorists was not human rights. On the contrary, by provoking secular or moderate Muslim governments to take harsh measures, Islamist terrorists undermine those regimes' international reputations and drive a wedge between them and their democratic allies.

Furthermore, addressing anti-terrorist activities in Central Asia by targeting U.S. allies, abusing human rights rhetoric, and utilizing it to weaken or topple pro-American regimes is self-defeating and near-sighted. Extremists view U.S. sanctions against America's allies as a product of America's weakness. Such measures empower global terror networks to provoke pro-Western regimes.

A militant Islamic takeover of Uzbekistan may provide radicals with a state base larger and militarily and technologically more sophisticated than Afghanistan. Moreover, a demise of a secular Uzbekistan may have tumultuous consequences for the whole of Central Asia. If Islamists overrun Uzbekistan, weak Central Asian states, such as Kyrgyzstan, Tajikistan and even the totalitarian Turkmenistan, may follow. An Uzbekistan controlled by a radical Islamist regime, emergence of a Central Asian Califate, and waning U.S. influence in the region, will leave human rights and individual freedoms worse off than they are now.

Ariel Cohen, Ph.D., is a Research Fellow in Russian and Eurasian Studies at the Heritage Foundation.


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