August 1, 2004 | National Review Online

Tashkent Terrorists

Authored by Andrew Apostolou

The terrorist attacks in Tashkent, the capital of Uzbekistan, on Friday are a testament to the continued vitality of the al Qaeda movement. Three suicide-bomb blasts outside the embassies of Israel and the U.S. and the office of the Uzbek state prosecutor killed three terrorists and three innocent Uzbeks. Responsibility for the attacks has been claimed by the Jihad Islamic Group (JIG), a successor to the Islamic Movement of Uzbekistan (IMU), an organization allied with al Qaeda. The JIG is also known as “Jamoat” (meaning “societies” or “groups” in Uzbek).

The IMU was probably behind car bombs in Tashkent in February 1999 that aimed to assassinate Uzbek President Islam Karimov and that killed 16 persons. In its new guise as Jamoat, the organization issued a statement in April 2004 claiming responsibility for a series of explosions from March 28 to April 1, 2004 that took the lives of 33 terrorists and 14 bystanders and policemen. The trial of 15 suspects from the March and April bombings began on July 26.

The IMU and its successor are a classic example of how the al Qaeda movement formed and then spread its tentacles from its Afghan base. Islamists gravitated towards al Qaeda, which provided funding and training, fought with the Taliban and now have returned to fight their jihad at home.

The history of the IMU began, like that of al Qaeda, with the defeat of Communism. The Soviet republics of Central Asia, in particular Uzbekistan, missed the wave of democratization that swept Eastern Europe and the western republics of the Soviet Union in 1989 and 1991. Instead, the old corrupt Communist-party bosses and their acolytes, men like President Islam Karimov who has run the country since 1989, clung to power.

Attempts to oppose the Communist party by secular groups were crushed. At the same time, small Islamist groups appeared in eastern Uzbekistan. Islam had largely been destroyed by the Communist dictatorship. Most mosques were closed and Uzbeks were largely ignorant of the basic practices of Islam. The radicals had little knowledge of Islam, but claimed to have easy answers to the economic and social crises that accompanied the collapse of Communism and the brutal ethnic unrest then sweeping eastern Uzbekistan.

While the Uzbek authorities successfully closed down the Islamist groups, many of their members fled to the neighboring former Soviet republic of Tajikistan. Some of these Uzbek Islamists participated in the Tajik civil war (1992-1997) on the side of an unusual alliance of Tajik Islamists and secular anti-Communists that fought against the former Communist government of Tajikistan. For most of these years, the Uzbek Islamists were based either in remote mountainous regions of Tajikistan or in northern Afghanistan.

When the Tajik civil war ended in 1997, the Uzbek Islamists found themselves at a loose end. Their Tajik allies signed a peace deal with their former opponents and went into government in Tajikistan. The Uzbek Islamists refused to lay down their arms. Instead, they threw in their lot with the new, dominant force in Afghanistan, the Taliban and their Saudi exile friend, Osama bin Laden.

Al Qaeda and the Taliban, who dreamt of establishing their rule in the historic centers of Islam in Uzbekistan, the cities of Samarkand and Bukhara, gave the IMU bases and training. The connection soon bore fruit. The first attacks linked to the IMU were five synchronized car bombs in Tashkent on February 16, 1999. The bombings, which were similar to the attacks on the U.S. embassies in East Africa in August 1998, had all the hallmarks of al Qaeda training.

It was only in May 1999 that the IMU formally announced its existence, broadcasting its manifesto on Iranian radio. The IMU charter advocates an Islamic state along the lines of the Islamic republic of Iran, with nominal participation by the population closely supervised by clerics. The declaration was replete with attacks on the U.S. and anti-Semitism, claiming, for example, that President Karimov of Uzbekistan is a Jew.

The IMU's jihad was a flop. The militarily incompetent IMU launched a series of crossborder attacks into Uzbekistan in August 1999 and August 2000 that were repulsed. Never more than several hundred strong, the IMU was unable to garner any real support in Uzbekistan where the population is largely secular and uninterested in Islamist politics.

After September 11, most of the IMU went down fighting with the Taliban. The U.S., in need of bases in Central Asia, asked Uzbekistan for access to the Khanabad airbase in southern Uzbekistan near the Afghan border. Although never officially acknowledged by the Uzbek government, U.S. forces flew combat operations from Khanabad and the base was the jumping off point for special forces and CIA teams working with pro-US Afghan forces in the campaign against the Taliban and al Qaeda. A similarly well-guarded secret, until recently, were the Predator surveillance flights from Uzbekistan over Afghanistan in 2000.

The Taliban sent the head of the IMU, Jumaboi Khojiev (who used the nom de guerre Juma Namangani after his hometown of Namagan in eastern Uzbekistan) and his men to defend their northern front in October 2001. Most of the estimated 700 members of the IMU's para-military unit were captured or killed in fighting around Mazar-e Sharif and Konduz in November 2001. Namangani himself, who had fought as a Soviet paratrooper in Afghanistan in 1987-1989, reportedly died of wounds sustained during the fighting.

The remnants of the IMU then fled with their al Qaeda allies to the Afghan-Pakistan border area, emerging in March 2002 to fight U.S. and Afghan forces in the Shah-e Kot valley. Others were killed by Pakistani forces in a series of sweeps of the border areas and a few gave themselves up.

A stubborn rearguard, however, following the pattern of the rest of the al Qaeda movement, has returned home and started to recruit. Despite having been allied to the Taliban, the IMU, in its new guise as the Jamaot, has become ideologically flexible, seeking out unlikely recruits. The two suicide bombers who killed themselves, three policemen and a child in Tashkent on March 29, 2004, were women. One of them, Dilnoza Khalmuradova, was just 19 years old. Yet again, al Qaeda and its trainees have shown themselves to be as adaptable as they are fanatical.

Andrew Apostolou is director of research at the Foundation for the Defense of Democracies a policy institute focusing on terrorism. He has covered Uzbekistan and Central Asia since 1992.  

 

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Al Qaeda