Militant Pathways: Local Radicalization and Regional Migration in Central Asia

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Categories: Publications,Security

CTC Sentinel
Vol. 4: 11/12 (November 2011)

On July 2, 2011, a bomb scare in the northern Tajik city of Isfara mobilized security officials across Tajikistan’s Sogd Province.[1] The incident, coming less than a fortnight after the arrest of local BBC correspondent Urunboy Usmanov for alleged ties to Hizb al-Tahrir (HT),[2] encapsulates the growing apprehension toward radical and militant movements across Central Asia.

Such vigilance reflects Isfara’s unique history. Long regarded as Central Asia’s spiritual homeland, the Fergana Valley emerged as an incubator for militant movements in the wake of the Soviet Union’s collapse.[3] Isfara, by comparison, was known for Islamic fundamentalism even during the height of secular Soviet rule. This reputation still persists today. From residents flouting the Tajik government’s recent ban on children attending mosques, to the alleged infiltration by the Islamic Movement of Uzbekistan (IMU), this sleepy city on the Fergana Valley’s southern edge is widely regarded as a regional hub for Islamist extremists.[4]

The role of these hubs of militancy is evolving. Until recently, communities like Isfara were net exporters of Islamic militancy. Driven by failure at home and the promise of glory abroad, the IMU and its allies have transited Tajikistan on their way to Afghanistan and Pakistan’s tribal areas.[5] Recent developments, however, indicate a more complicated migration pattern. From reports of Taliban fighters recuperating in Tajikistan’s southern Khatlon Province to the discovery of Pakistani bombmakers north of Dushanbe, there is growing evidence that prior patters of emigration and exile have developed into more fluid migrations between Central Asia and the Afghanistan-Pakistan theater.[6] With insurgents expanding their operational reach and tempo across northern Afghanistan, these trends may herald the gradual merger of conflict systems throughout South and Central Asia.

This article examines the linkages between local radicalization and regional migration in three stages. First, it briefly describes the IMU’s exile from Uzbekistan and subsequent evolution into a transnational syndicate. Second, it discusses how Tajikistan’s religious revival fostered Salafist infiltration and government repression. Third, it examines how ethnic strife in Kyrgyzstan is alienating and radicalizing that country’s Uzbek minority. The article concludes by evaluating how each of these profoundly local developments resonate with—and ultimately contribute to—broader notions of global jihad.

Uzbekistan: Exile and Evolution

First conceived as the Adolat Party in 1991, the IMU sought to depose Uzbekistan’s secular regime and impose an Islamic state.[7] Yet unlike their contemporaries in the Arab world, the movement’s leaders were “as much a product of Soviet culture as Islam.”[8] Absent strong doctrinal and organizational foundations, Juma Namangani and Tahir Yuldashev were unable to mobilize—much less consolidate—significant popular support. By 1992, the Uzbek government had crushed the nascent Islamist insurrection and imposed strict state control over mosques, seminaries, and other religious institutions.[9]

The IMU soon found new purpose in the Tajik Civil War. Forced into exile and shaped by their experiences in neighboring Uzbekistan, Namangani and Yuldashev saw the conflict between Tajikistan’s former Communist regime and the United Tajik Opposition (UTO) as a front in a global struggle between secular authoritarianism and resurgent Islam. By joining the UTO, Namangani and Yuldashev found a sanctuary for their forces while continuing their campaign against the unholy legacies of Soviet imperial rule.[10]

The IMU’s perception of a regionalized, pan-Islamic struggle against apostate regimes helped transcend the ethnic, linguistic, and historical differences that distinguished these Uzbek exiles from their Tajik counterparts. It also “embedded” the movement within the UTO command structure, with Namangani serving as a deputy to UTO Chief of Staff Mirzo Aiyoev. The IMU’s military contribution to the Tajik Civil War proved marginal, however. Operating in the remote Tavildara Valley, Namangani’s forces never exceeded more than two or three platoons (80-120 men total) during the entire course of the war.[11]

Diverging interests gradually com­pounded these deficiencies, particularly as the perceived commonalities between the IMU and UTO began to collapse. Frustrated with the UTO’s moderate Is­lamism and enraged by its 1997 power-sharing agreement with the Tajik gov­ernment, Namangani’s forces decamped for Afghanistan and aligned themselves with the ascendant Taliban regime.

This second migration proved transformative. Augmenting Taliban forces gave the IMU a sanctuary and support structure. Collaborating with al-Qa`ida’s infamous 055 Brigade immersed it in transnational financial, ideological, and operational networks. Comprised of foreign fighters and integrated into the Taliban army, this elite formation helped regularize and professionalize Namangani’s forces. It also provided a network of training camps eager to receive new waves of radicalized Uzbeks seeking refuge and revenge against the Islam Karimov regime. By February 1999, a newly emboldened IMU was bombing targets in the Uzbek capital of Tashkent. By June of that year, it launched the first of two armed incursions from northern Tajikistan into Kyrgyzstan’s Batken and Kara Suu provinces.[12]

These operations served separate but related ends. By supporting the consolidation of Taliban rule in Afghanistan, the IMU laid the foundation for future campaigns into neighboring Uzbekistan. By infiltrating southern Kyrgyzstan, it sought to mobilize that country’s indigenous Uzbek population and gain new footholds in the Fergana Valley.[13] With Uzbeks constituting 14% of the population in Kyrgyzstan’s Batken Province and 28% in Osh Province, the object was to develop staging areas that would allow the IMU to continue low-level operations while simultaneously improving the movement’s long-term prospects.

The IMU suffered heavy losses during the U.S. intervention in Afghanistan, including the death of Namangani during fighting in the northern city of Kunduz. Driven into a third exile in Pakistan, the movement splintered into three factions. The first demilitarized, returning to Central Asia and quietly reintegrating into Uzbek society. The second abandoned jihad and emigrated to Iran, Turkey, and other countries in the greater Middle East. The third element deepened its engagement in the al-Qa`ida-Taliban alliance, adopting Pakistan’s tribal areas as a new front in their transnational struggle. Working and sheltering alongside their ethnic Pashtun counterparts, they launched a new campaign against the Western-backed Afghan government.[14]

The IMU’s operations in the Afghanistan-Pakistan theater coincided with an increasingly decentralized and diffuse pattern of regional violence. In March 2004, for example, an IMU splinter group known as the Islamic Jihad Union (IJU) organized a series of targeted bombings in the Uzbek cities of Bukhara and Tashkent. In 2005, the IMU bombed the Tajik Ministry of Emergency Situations in Dushanbe in two separate operations. A prison break in Kairakum, Tajikistan in January 2006 was also attributed to the IMU, as were the May 2006 skirmishes with customs officials along the Tajikistan-Kyrgyzstan border.[15] The organization’s activities spread south as well. In November 2006, Pakistani officials broke up an alleged IMU cell in Islamabad following a failed rocket attack on parliament, the presidential administration, and the headquarters of the Inter-Services Intelligence (ISI).[16]

The IMU also widened its list of prospective targets, with Yuldashev issuing personal threats against the presidents of Kazakhstan, Tajikistan, and Kyrgyzstan.17 He issued a similar threat to Pakistani authorities in January 2008, citing the July 2007 raid on Islamabad’s Lal Masjid (Red Mosque) and renewed operations by Pakistan Army units in the tribal areas as grounds for jihad. By 2010, Yuldashev had further expanded his organization’s target set by harmonizing his objectives with al-Qa`ida’s. “Our goal is not only conquering Afghanistan and Uzbekistan,” he declared in an online video message. “Our goal is to conquer the entire world.”[18]

Tajikistan: Radicalization and Syndicalization

Similar patterns still drive radicalization and militant migration. Like their early counterparts from Uzbekistan, radicalized Uzbeks are abandoning ethnic enclaves in northern Tajikistan and southern Kyrgyzstan for the Afghanistan-Pakistan theater.19 Tajikistan’s porous borders and weak security apparatus facilitate these flows, rendering the Tajik Interior Ministry (MVD) and State Committee for National Security (SCNS) increasingly reliant on former UTO field commanders to locate and eliminate insurgents.[20] Official corruption and narcotics trafficking also play a role, often enabling the movement of money, militants, and munitions from Fergana to Afghanistan, and vice versa.[21]

These migratory flows are not limited to Uzbeks. Influenced by foreign Salafist ideologies, a small yet significant number of ethnic Tajiks are entering the fray.[22] Most of these militants are young, unmarried, and with few economic prospects.[23] Most have been harassed or persecuted for their outwardly Islamic dress or habits.[24] Notably, most possess little to no formal religious education.[25] In this sense, the population most vulnerable to radicalization in contemporary Tajikistan appears to share several key characteristics with their militant counterparts in the West.[26] Alienated from society and indoctrinated outside the public sphere, individuals recruited into radical syndicates such as HT or militant movements such as the IMU embrace Islam as an alternative to (rather than an element of) their ethnic or national identity.

Conflating the militant with the devout exacerbates this social and ideological dislocation. Wary of renewed civil war, the government of Tajik President Emomali Rahmon routinely associates traditional Islamic leaders with the Islamic Renaissance Party (IRPT), the UTO’s successor and Tajikistan’s main opposition group. Wary of Salafist infiltration, Rahmon’s regime has imposed restrictions on religious training, limited the number of religious institutions, and even barred children from worshipping in mosques.[27] As in other Central Asian countries, these approaches marginalize quietist Muslims while cloaking HT and the IMU with a measure of legitimacy that they might not otherwise possess.[28]

The September 3, 2010 car bombing of an MVD garrison in Khujand, Tajikistan is a case in point. Marking the first confirmed suicide attack in Tajikistan, the incident killed one police officer and injured another 25.[29] Local officials characterized the perpetrator, Akmal Karimov, as a violent criminal who initially embraced terrorism for financial reasons. From their perspective, Karimov’s attack reflected the deepening nexus between criminal and terrorist syndicates across the broader region.[30]

International observers tell a different story, however. According to one account, Karimov was an overtly devout Muslim suspected of membership in HT.[31] Detained and allegedly tortured by an elite MVD counterterrorism unit in Khujand, Karimov and his brother reportedly fled to Afghanistan and sought refuge with the IMU.[32] Radicalized by their experiences, Karimov allegedly sought bomb-making training from the IMU to exact revenge on the same unit that once detained and humiliated him.[33] Against this backdrop, Karimov’s victimizers may have inadvertently instigated a process of radicalization, migration, and militarization that ultimately turned them into victims.

Kyrgyzstan: Ethnic Conflagration

Pathways to radicalization in Kyrgyzstan follow a different pattern. Like their neighbors across Central Asia, Kyrgyz citizens have experienced progressive Islamization during the last two decades. In 1996, for example, 55.3% of ethnic Kyrgyz and 87.1% of ethnic Uzbeks in Kyrgyzstan openly identified themselves as Muslims.[34] By 2007, however, one poll showed that those figures rose to 97.5% and 99.1%, respectively.[35] Political uncertainty appears to have shaped this revival. Faced with the persistent weakness of schools, courts, and other public institutions, religious institutions assumed greater influence in Kyrgyz society.

This nominal Islamization has not produced the same patterns of state repression and religious radicalization witnessed elsewhere in the Fergana Valley. Grounded in a more open and pluralistic society, Islam was generally viewed as an integral element of national identify, rather than an alternative or threat to it. Instead, the problem lies in the alienation and isolation of the country’s indigenous Uzbek population—a population that constituted 14.3% of all Kyrgyz nationals in the 2009 census.[36] Framed by the July 2010 riots in Osh and mounting allegations of Uzbek separatism, ethnic rather than religious factors are driving militant migration.[37]

These tensions should not be understated. More than a year after the riots, Uzbeks in Osh reported harassment, theft, and even extrajudicial execution by the Kyrgyz security services.[38] Officials from Kyrgyzstan’s National Committee for State Security (UKMK), in turn, allege a radical Islamist conspiracy aimed at separating Batken, Kara Suu, and Jalal-Abad provinces from the Kyrgyz state.[39] These fears resonate among Kyrgyz nationalists, who frame Uzbek violence as evidence of the IMU’s attempts to create a Central Asian caliphate.[40]

The veracity of these allegations is difficult to determine, particularly when viewed through the lens of mutual suspicion and political recrimination. Far more clear, however, are the reported effects of ethnic strife within Uzbek enclaves. According to UKMK Chief Keneshbek Dushebyaev, as many as 400 young Uzbek men fled Kyrgyzstan for IMU training camps in Pakistan following the July 2010 riots.[41] Affiliation with banned Islamist groups is also on the rise, with HT leaders in Kara Suu advocating a revolution to depose the pro-Western apostate regime in Bishkek and replace Kyrgyz chauvinism with Shari`a law.[42]

Resonant Effects

Conditions in Tajikistan and Kyrgyzstan produce two distinct pathways to militancy. The former generates many of the same tensions between secular authoritarianism and radical Islamism that animated the IMU more than two decades ago. The latter isolates and marginalizes an ethnic minority, thus encouraging it to find new allies and avenues abroad. The net effect is similar, however. Although each pathway reflects its own unique indigenous drivers, militants from both countries continue to converge with the small yet steady flow of radicalized Muslims from Uzbekistan itself.[43] In this manner, fundamentally local resentments resonate with—and ultimately contribute to—regional patterns of terrorism and resistance.

These same pathways may also facilitate foreign infiltration. As the September 2010 suicide bombing in Khujand demonstrated, IMU-trained militants are now operating hundreds of kilometers away from the movement’s sanctuary in Pakistan’s tribal areas. The same was true in the short-lived Rasht Valley insurgency, which witnessed the return of former Tajik field commander Mollo Abdullo from exile in Afghanistan earlier that same year.[44] In both instances, militants transformed by wars abroad took direct action against their political and ideological adversaries at home. The result is something akin to the “wandering mujahidin” that shaped the evolution of Middle Eastern jihadist syndicates in the wake of the Soviet Afghan war.

Cognizant of these threats, Kyrgyz officials are rushing to secure their southwestern frontier, particularly in the Uzbek enclaves straddling Tajikistan’s Isfara district and Kyrgyzstan’s Batken Province.[45] Tajikistan’s National Guard, in turn, is building a new training center at Qaratogh with a $3.1 million grant from U.S. Central Command.[46] These measures underscore the seriousness of the situation, as well as growing apprehension regarding the prospect of a U.S. withdrawal from neighboring Afghanistan.[47]

Checkpoints and border Checkpoints and border guards are only part of the solution, however. While both measures may be necessary from a practical perspective, neither confronts the repression that radicalizes believers in Tajikistan. Nor can they resolve the alienation and recrimination that perpetuate ethnic discord in Kyrgyzstan. Absent concerted efforts to address the domestic drivers of radicalization in each country, efforts to curb militant migration on a regional basis seem unlikely to succeed.

Christopher Swift is a fellow at the University of Virginia’s Center for National Security Law and author of the forthcoming book, The Fighting Vanguard: Local Insurgencies in the Global Jihad.

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1 By the time the author arrived in Isfara on July 3, 2011, the city’s bazaar was teeming with police, border guards, and other Tajik security officials.
2 “Vokunishi Bi Bi Ci ba bozdoshti khabarnigorash,” Ra­dio Ozodi, June 15, 2011.
3 Vitaly V. Naumkin, Radical Islam in Central Asia: Be­tween Pen and Rifle (Lanham, MD: Rowman & Littlefield, 2005).
4 Personal interview, Tajik professor of Islamic history, Khujand, Tajikistan, July 2011.
5 Ikbol Mirasaiov and Alisher Saipov, “Ex-Gunmen of the Islamic Movement of Uzbekistan Claim that their Movement is No More,” Fergana.ru, April 3, 2006.
6 Personal interview, senior international counterterror­ism official, Dushanbe, Tajikistan, June 2011.
7 Einar Wigen, Islamic Jihad Union: Al-Qaeda’s Key to the Turkic World? (Kjeller: Norwegian Defence Research Es­tablishment, 2009).
8 Adeeb Khalid, Islam after Communism: Religion and Poli­tics in Central Asia (Berkeley, CA: University of California Press, 2007).
9 Naumkin.
10 Personal interview, Akhbar Turanjonzoda, former deputy prime minister of Tajikistan and deputy UTO commander, Kofamikhon, Tajikistan, July 2011.
11 Ibid.
12 Jim Nichol, Central Asia: Regional Developments and Implications for U.S. Interests (Washington, D.C.: Con­gressional Research Service, 2009).
13 Stéphan Lefebvre and Roger McDermott, “Russia and the Intelligence Services of Central Asia,” International Journal of Intelligence & Counterintelligence 21:1 (2008).
14 Mirasaiov and Saipov.
15 “Review of the Listing of Seven Terrorist Organisa­tions,” Joint Committee on Intelligence and Security, Parliament of Australia, August 2005.
16 Nichol; “Al Qaida Ally ‘Behind Islamabad Rocket Plot,’” Reuters, November 5, 2006.
17 Roger McDermott, “IMU Issues New Threat to Cen­tral Asian Leaders,” Centralasia-SouthCaucasus.com, September 18, 2006.
18 Florian Flade, “Deutsche Islamisten feiern ihre ‘Mär­tyrer,’” Die Welt, January 12, 2010.
19 Personal interview, senior Sogd Province counterter­rorism official, Khujand, Tajikistan, July 2011.
20 Personal interview, senior international counterter­rorism adviser, Dushanbe, Tajikistan, June 2011.
21 Personal interview, independent Tajik journalist, Washington, D.C., May 2011.
22 Personal interview, independent Tajik journalist, Du­shanbe, Tajikistan, June 2011.
23 Personal interview, senior Tajik imam, Khujand, Ta­jikistan, July 2011.
24 Ibid.
25 Ibid.
26 Personal interview, senior Tajik conflict specialist, Dushanbe, Tajikistan, June 2011.
27 Personal interview, Said Umar Husaini, IRPT deputy director, Dushanbe, Tajikistan, June 2011; “Tajikistan Bans Youth from Mosques and Churches,” al-Arabiya, August 3, 2011.
28 Founded by Palestinian jurist Taqi al-Din al-Nabhani in 1953, Hizb al-Tahrir, also transliterated as Hizb-ut-Tahrir, is a pan-Islamic political party that advocates the political unification of Muslim countries and the restora­tion of the caliphate. Generally regarded as a non-violent Islamist movement in the West, the party is designated as a terrorist organization in the Russian Federation and throughout Central Asia.
29 Farangis Najibullah, “Suicide Car Bomber Hits Tajik Police Station,” Radio Free Europe/Radio Liberty, Sep­tember 3, 2010.
30 Personal interview, senior Sogd Province counterter­rorism official, Khujand, Tajikistan, July 2011.
31 Personal interview, United Nations official, Khujand, Tajikistan, July 2011.
32 Ibid.
33 Personal interview, United Nations official, Khujand, Tajikistan, July 2011.
34 Eric McGlinchey, Islamic Revivalism and State Failure in Kyrgyzstan (Seattle, WA: National Council for Eurasian and East European Research, February 2009).
35 Ibid.
36 “Natsionalnyi Sostav Naseleniya,” National Statistical Committee of the Republic of Kyrgyzstan, 2009.
37 Personal interview, former grand mufti of southern Kyrgyzstan, Osh, Kyrgyzstan, July 2011.
38 Personal interview, Uzbek human rights lawyer, Osh, Kyrgyzstan, July 2011.
39 Personal interview, senior UKMK intelligence officer, Bishkek, Kyrgyzstan, July 2011.
40 Personal interview, senior Ata-Zhurt Party parlia­mentarian, Bishkek, Kyrgyzstan, July 2011.
41 “The Head of Kyrgyzstan’s Security Service Talks about the Creations of the Islamic Movement of Kyrgyz­stan,” Fergananews.ru, May 3, 2011.
42 Personal interview, senior HT spokesperson, Kara Suu, Kyrgyzstan, July 2011.
43 Personal interview, Uzbek security specialist, Wash­ington, D.C., May 2011.
44 Personal interview, senior Tajik security analyst, Du­shanbe, Tajikistan, June 2011.
45 Personal interview, former UKMK district command­er, Osh, Kyrgyzstan, July 2011.
46 Haidar Shodiyev, “U.S. Embassy Renovates Tajiki­stan’s National Training Center,” Asia Plus, July 7, 2011.
47 Personal interview, senior UKMK intelligence officer, Bishkek, Kyrgyzstan, July 2011.