Special Report

Exiled Islamist Still Attracts Following in Kyrgyzstan

In a region racked by poverty and discontent, modern technology offers extremists a way of making themselves heard.

Muhammad Amin is an angry man. A devout Muslim from the south of Kyrgyzstan, he is a passionate supporter of the exiled Islamic radical Tahir Yoldash who – from his refuge on Pakistan’s lawless frontier – beams back a message of revolution through CDs and DVDs.

In the Kyrgyz capital, Bishkek, such messages fall on stony ground. Secular in outlook and influenced by Russia, the city and the rest of the north seem more orientated towards Moscow and the West than to the Islamic world.

But it is another story in the poorer south, where a large percentage of the population are ethnic Uzbeks. There, a deadly cocktail of poverty and a long-felt sense of injustice have created a sizeable constituency of people sympathetic to the views of men like Yoldash and his Islamic Movement of Uzbekistan, IMU.

In an interview with IWPR, Amin – freshly returned from six months in Saudi Arabia and other Arab states – said Yoldash’s rhetoric struck a powerful chord with a growing number of people in Central Asia who are disillusioned with poverty, political repression and governments that kow-tow to Washington.

“There are videos of his recorded messages everywhere,” Amin said of Yoldash. “People watch them with approval and are loyal to him.”

Amin said attempts by the authoritarian regime in neighbouring Uzbekistan to discredit Yoldash were getting nowhere.

“Recently, the [local state Uzbek] television station in Namangan showed a young former fighter of Tohir Yoldash’s who accused him of all sorts of things,” he said. “But most people have more faith in the prohibited videos than they do in official information.”

Amin agrees with the IMU’s condemnation of western influence in Central Asia. Yoldash has said, “Wherever the feet of these infidels tread, there is prostitution, drug addiction, killing and robbery.”

THE RISE OF A MILITANT

Yoldash is himself no stranger to killing. He was one of the founding members of the IMU, set up in the mid-Nineties with the aim of overthrowing the government in Tashkent. Later it widened its aims to the creation of an Islamic state embracing all of Central Asia. Some observers therefore believe in the existence of a broader entity called the “Islamic Movement of Turkestan”, although there is little real evidence that this exists.

The IMU has its roots in the Fergana Valley of the early Nineties, when Yoldosh played a leading role in Adolat, a localised Islamic group in his home city of Namangan. Followers of this group were eventually driven out and moved to Tajikistan, where they formed an effective guerrilla unit fighting on the side of the United Tajik Opposition against the government there.

When the Tajik civil war ended in a deal providing reconciliation and disarmament for local combatants, the now seasoned Uzbek guerrillas shifted to Afghanistan where they renamed themselves the IMU and found ready allies in the Taleban. Yoldosh appears to have played little role in the group’s armed operations at this point, the leading light being one Juma Khojiev, aka Namangani.

The IMU shot to world prominence during 1999 and 2000, when it staged audacious armed incursions from bases it still maintained in the Tajik mountains into the Batken region of Kyrgyzstan, and into Uzbekistan itself. The guerrillas’ ultimate aim was to attack and depose the Uzbek government of Islam Karimov, but apart from creating headlines and unsettling some Central Asian leaders, they made few real military inroads.

When the United States-led Coalition arrived in Afghanistan in late 2001, the IMU presence in the north of the country was dispersed and driven out along with the Taleban. Juma Namangani was killed in fighting and Yoldosh took on the leading role.

The remnants of the IMU have since regrouped in Waziristan in Pakistan’s North-West Frontier Province, from where they reportedly assist the resurgent Taleban.

The IMU is on the US government’s list of foreign terrorist organisations, and Washington last year named Yoldash as one of the 12 most-wanted Taleban and al-Qaeda leaders.

In October, there were media reports that Yoldash had been killed during an insurgent foray into Afghanistan, but these were not substantiated.

The Uzbek and Kyrgyz authorities often equate the IMU with another banned group, Hizb-ut Tahrir, but the two are historically different, and supporters of the latter say they reject Yoldosh’s use of force.

VIRTUAL-REALITY PRESENCE IN CENTRAL ASIA

Whatever its present strength, the IMU has - purely for geographical reasons - little capacity to mount guerrilla raids into Central Asia, on the other side of Afghanistan.

However, Yoldash continues to maintain visibility in the region, if only in a virtual way, by cleverly exploiting the availability of cheap CD and DVD players imported from China.

Voice recordings on CD and DVD films featuring Yoldash are on sale in the region, although vendors are careful to be discreet.

If a customer goes to the right person and asks for a “Tom and Jerry video”, he or she will be handed a production by Yoldosh rather than Hollywood.

It is hard to assess the availability or popularity of this underground material in the Uzbekistan – the IMU’s primary target - because of the heavy control exerted by the authorities there. But southern Kyrgyzstan, geographically part of the Fergana Valley and home to a large Uzbek minority, is now the place where videos featuring Yoldash are more widely available than anywhere else in Central Asia.

Yoldash’s videos come in many forms. One watched by IWPR took the form of an interview recorded in “Khorasan”, in other words Afghanistan, in which the bearded and turbaned IMU leader predicts the collapse of the United States and discusses his group’s future strategies.

Significantly, he calls on Muslims to be patient and show faith in the IMU despite its apparent absence from the scene, and he insists the organisation remains active.

As Yoldash explains the essence of jihad or holy war, the documentary-style programme shows film clips of purported IMU manoevres, shots of dead mujahedin and footage of some US soldiers allegedly shooting at a copy of the Koran, cutting it to shreds.

“We must establish the rule of Allah over his property,” Yoldash can be heard saying, “We will fight until all religions are subdued by Islam.”

In the video, Yoldash divides the story of the Muslim holy war in Central Asia into three historical phases – Soviet repression, events in Uzbekistan and Tajikistan in the Nineties, and now – a time when “the fight against all infidels” must commence.

“Now the world is divided into two camps – the Muslims and the enemies of Islam that include Jews, Christians and other forces,” he continues. “They have launched a new crusade against us and our mission now is to settle accounts with the enemies of Islam across the world.”

Yoldash never specifically mentions the creation of an Islamic state in Central Asia in this video. Instead, he urges Muslims around the world to fight the infidels “who have deprived Muslims of everything they once had – shrines and lands - and have infringed the honour of Muslim women and men”.

Though Yoldash speaks in Uzbek, his publicity material has the look of something intended for a wider audience. There is, for example, narrative and footage reflecting events in Afghanistan and Iraq, as well more immediate concerns like the 2005 Andijan massacre in Uzbekistan.

FERTILE GROUND FOR RADICAL IDEAS

At first sight, this kind of message would seem to have little general appeal in Kyrgyzstan, where the government and general environment are more liberal than in the other Central Asian states.

Poverty and a sense of injustice fed by corruption and arbitrary law enforcement are prevalent in southern Kyrgyzstan, and may play into the hands of zealots like Yoldash.

Recent statistics suggest that more than four out of ten people in a population of just over five million live below the poverty line.

While poverty exists in all parts of the country, it is severest in the south, especially rural areas. A proportion of these people are susceptible to calls to replace the current political system which they blame for their problems with an alternative model based on Islamic laws.

The active radical presence in the region is not the Yoldash’s group, however, but Hizb-ut-Tahrir, a different group that insists it does not advocate violence, and does not share the IMU’s past record as a high-profile guerrilla group. Hizb-ut-Tahrir continues to attract adherents despite its activities being banned in Kyrgyzstan and thousands of its members being jailed in Uzbekistan.

Nevertheless, Shamshibek Zakirov of the Kyrgyz government’s Agency for Religious Affairs, admits Yoldash has also gained followers in the country, especially among the clergy.

“I do not rule out that there are supporters of Tohir Yoldash in our country,” he told IWPR. “Frankly, if they were allowed to do so, many imams would follow him.”

NOT JUST A QUESTION OF POVERTY

Human rights groups in Kyrgyzstan believe the level of religiosity in the south, and to some degree extremism, may be increasing for other reasons apart from sheer poverty and economic despair.

Azimjan Askarov, leader of the Vozdukh group which focuses on torture in the penal system, says the Kyrgyz police and judiciary are wholly discredited in many people’s eyes.

“The state bodies, especially the law-enforcement organisations, have become [seen as] the enemies of the people,” he said.

“Recently, in our district, three people who stole three chickens were sentenced to several years in prison, whereas officials and investigators take large bribes openly without being punished.”

Askarov continued, “The authorities don’t deal with the problems facing the population, so people are left with nothing but to believe in those who promise a decent life under a caliphate.”

Meanwhile, the behaviour of the police towards alleged IMU activists often arouses indignation.

Last autumn, for example, the Kyrgyz National Security Service in Jalalabad reported the capture of an IMU activist named Jalaliddin.

After failing to capture him in an earlier special operation, police detained his wife instead and, according to media and local rights activists, severely beat her inside Jalalabad police station.

“No one knows what the guilt of this family is,” one local rights activist told IWPR, speaking anonymously. “All information on the case is closed. Meanwhile, according to our resources, as a result of the constant abuse, this woman lost the ability to bear children.”

Zakirov said the authorities had made a serious error in not following up on a promise to publicly investigate another case, the shooting last year of Muhammadrafik Kamalov, a popular imam in the southern town of Karasuu.

The killing outraged devout Muslims in southern Kyrgyzstan, not least because the police changed their story concerning the circumstances of his death. Having initially claimed Kamalov was a terrorist, they subsequently claimed he died because IMU militants use him as a “human shield”.

“Was he implicated in anything and what was the extent of his participation in terrorist activity?” Zakirov asked. “The public did not receive answers to these questions.”

The National Security Service last year distributed leaflets calling on members of the IMU and Hizb-ut-Tahrir to surrender, and the authorities soon declared numerous people had come in voluntarily.

In Uzbekistan, detained Islamist are paraded in public, declaring their guilt and asking for forgiveness. There are strong reasons to suspect they are coerced into doing so. However, none of the Islamists said to have surrendered in Kyrgyzstan has been shown off in this way, and the authorities’ claim of success has been met with scepticism.

One senior National Security Service official admitted to IWPR that few surrenders had taken place. He said this might be because while the Uzbek police initially offered pardons to militants who surrender, “later on, they make these people cooperate and issue public statements in the media, blaming their former companions”.

He added, “For them, this is equal to a death sentence, because traitors don’t get forgiven [by Islamists]. No one has surrendered in Kyrgyzstan. I think the Islamists here were aware of the bitter experience of those in Uzbekistan.”

SUPPORT FOR RADICALISM NOT THE SAME AS EMBRACING VIOLENCE

As long as poverty, corruption and ethnic tension remain rampant throughout Central Asia, foreign and domestic experts and analysts agree.there will always be some kind of constituency for men like Yoldash,

In 2006, the Kyrgyz security service reported the existence of numerous small, armed, IMU cells comprising three to five members each, which it said had “serious plans to destabilise the situation in southern regions”.

The IMU has also vowed to continue its struggle. To mark the fifth anniversary of the September 11, 2001 attacks in the US – Yoldash publicly threatened the three presidents of Uzbekistan, Kyrgyzstan and Tajikistan with death for perpetuating policies “aimed at the oppression of Islam”.

Foreign experts remain concerned at the continuing threat that Islamic militants pose in the region.

In a report last year on global security risks, US National Intelligence Director John Negroponte warned that repression, political stagnation and corruption are characteristic of regimes in the region, and create fertile conditions for radical Islamic sentiment and movements to emerge.

At the same time, Central Asian governments have a tendency to talk up the danger of Islamic terrorism as an excuse for political repression. This is especially true of Uzbekistan.

While the Uzbek authorities blamed the IMU for explosions that rocked Tashkent in 1999, sentencing Yoldash to death, the militant leader has denied any connection with the bombings.

“If they been of our doing, we’d have owned up because the jihad against Karimov’s regime is our cause,” he said in a video message believed to date from January 2006.

Accused of fomenting the 2005 anti-government riots in Andijan, he said, “We never hide behind women and children.”

It is questionable whether the growing popularity of extremist strands of Islam necessarily implies a commitment to armed struggle, as the organisation with an extensive network on the ground in southern Kyrgyzstan and Uzbekistan is Hizb-ut-Tahrir, not the IMU.

Hizb-ut Tahrir’s position was set out by an activist named Mansur, who has served two years in jail for distributing extremist material. He told IWPR there was a big difference between the ideologies of the IMU and Hizb-ut Tahrir, and support for the latter should not be confused with endorsement of violent regime change.

“Our guys [Hizb-ut-Tahrir followers] and Muslims in the region generally do not not support him,” Mansur said of Yoldash. “The only people who would are those from Uzbekistan who are angry with the government there.”

“Our ideas may be similar but they act in the wrong way… We respect the supporters of Yoldash but we do not support their methods of struggle. The use of arms is the prerogative of the state, but not of ordinary Muslims.”

Mansur described as slander the claims made by some officials that Hizb-ut Tahrir secretly supports the use of violence. “We have never wanted to, and never will, use weapons,” he said. “Even if force is used against us, we will endure it patiently and leave it to the judgement of Allah. That is how our Prophet acted.”

Abdumomun Mamaraimov is an IWPR contributor in Jalalabad, southern Kyrgyzstan.


Also see Story Behind the Story, published in RCA Issue 528, 28-Jan-08.

The Story Behind the Story gives an insight into the work that goes into IWPR articles and the challenges faced by our trainees at every stage of the editorial process.

This feature allows our journalists to explain where they get the inspiration for their articles, why the subjects matter to them, and how they personally have felt affected by the often controversial issues they explore.

It also shows the difficulties writers can face as they try to get to the heart of a story.


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