Institute for War and Peace Reporting | Giving Voice, Driving Change

Incursions Part of Bigger Picture

An upsurge in activity by Islamic fundamentalist guerrillas across three Central Asian republics points to the influence of external forces
By Iskandar Mehman

Islamic fundamentalist guerrillas have clashed with government forces in two Central Asian republics in the last three weeks. Uzbekistan and Kyrgyzstan are currently combating incursions by rebels, thought to be operating out of mountain bases in Tajikistan and Afghanistan.

Bolot Djanuzakov, the Kyrgyz Security Council secretary, said on August 15, the governments of the three republics were working together to crush the guerrilla forces. A joint military command centre had been established in Khodjend, Tadjikistan, Djanuzakov said.

One group of guerrillas, thought to be members of the Islamic Movement of Uzbekistan, IMU, are currently holed up in mountains in the Surkhandarya region in south Uzbekistan. The guerrillas allegedly entered the area from Tajikistan. But IMU leader Takhir Yuldash recently claimed on BBC radio the guerrillas had been in the area for several months - claims corroborated by eyewitness accounts from evacuated local villagers. [See RCA No. 16, Fighting Uproots Local Communities]

Meanwhile other groups, also believed to belong to IMU, have twice broken into southern Kyrgyzstan from mountain bases on the Tajik side of the border. Djanuzakov believes the incursions are aimed at expanding the group's drug trafficking routes through the Batken region - the most direct route and, until last year's incursion, the least guarded. Djanuzakov claims the IMU have accumulated one and half tonnes of heroin in the Tavildara region in southeast Tajikistan.

But this upsurge in activity in the southern border of the Commonwealth of Independent States, CIS, also coincides with a major Taleban offensive against the forces of Ahmad Shah Masood in northern Afghanistan. Evidence pointing to significant external support afforded to Central Asia's radical Islamic groups in recent years by the Taleban, among other international Islamic organisations, suggests the recent activity may be more than mere coincidence.

Various radical Islamic groups began emerging in Uzbekistan back in 1991, just as the Soviet Union was disintegrating. In the Fergana valley, one of the most populous and religiously fervent regions of Uzbekistan, Islamic groups such as Tavba (Repentance), Adolat (Justice), Islom Lashkarlary (Fighters of Islam) and the Islamic Revival Party of Uzbekistan began to gather support.

But these groups did not develop spontaneously. Foreign religious movements promoted and encouraged their growth, offering financial support and religious and political guidance.

Many local analysts believe that without such foreign backing these groups would have withered on the vine. In early 1992 missionary groups from Saudi Arabia, Afghanistan and Pakistan illegally entered the Fergana region, visiting Namangan city, something of a centre for the embryonic fundamentalist movements.

Secret negotiations with local religious leaders led to the foundation of the Islamic Revival Party with the aim of establishing an Islamic republic in the Fergana region. The new republic was to be called FANO after the four provinces it would incorporate - Fergana, Andijan and Namangan in eastern Uzbekistan and Osh in Kyrgyzstan.

But in 1992 the Uzbek authorities banned radical Islamic parties, forcing the groups underground. The leaders left for neighbouring Tajikistan and Afghanistan. In 1995, the Uzbek religious groups from the Fergana region founded the Islamic Revival Movement of Uzbekistan, which shared all the hallmarks of the Islamic Revival Party of Tajikistan, then engaged in a civil war against the Dushanbe government.

The group's headquarters were initially in Peshawar, Pakistan, but later moved to Kabul, Afghanistan. In 1998 the group took on its present name, the Islamic Movement of Uzbekistan.

The Uzbek authorities blamed radical Islamic groups, and especially the IMU, for the car bombings in Tashkent last February and for the Batken incursion into southern Kyrgyzstan last August.

These events marked the start of armed confrontation between the government's of the Central Asian republics and Islamic gunmen. In Uzbekistan the incidents prompted a crackdown on religious groups and anyone suspected of involvement in their activities. Human rights organisations have criticised the Uzbek authorities for the subsequent mass arrests and long prison terms handed out to those accused.

On August 14 the BBC monitoring service picked up a report on Iranian radio, which claimed the IMU were demanding the Tashkent government release the movement's supporters from prison, rehabilitate religious sites and allow Islamic dress, which is currently banned. The IMU also warned, the report said, that fighting would continue until Uzbekistan accepted Islamic sharia law.

Official Uzbek sources claim IMU leaders held a series of meetings with allies in Pakistan, Afghanistan, Istanbul and Tehran between 1996-99 to organise the attacks against targets in Uzbekistan.

The two most prominent IMU leaders, Takhrir Yuldash, 33, and Juma Namangani, 31, are both from the Uzbek city of Namangan. Yuldash is thought to be in Afghanistan, while Namangani is believed to be in the remote Tavildara region of Tajikistan. Yuldash, according to documents from the Uzbek prosecutor's office, is principally a political force in the movement, Namangani a military commander.

Yuldash, the documents claim, has links with the Chechen military leaders Shamil Basaev and Khattab. Namangani developed strong links with Yuldash after beginning his religious activities in 1991. In 1992 he travelled to Afghanistan for military training. And in 1994 he led a group of 30 fighters on behalf of the anti-government Islamic Movement of Tajikistan during that country's civil war.

Intelligence sources claim IMU generates funds through two channels - foreign sponsorship and its own, largely illegal, activities such as drugs trafficking. According to one officer from the Kyrgyz national security service, "Extremist religious groups control 70 per cent of the narcotic trade passing illegally through this country."

But foreign donors also play a significant part. The World Fund for Jihad, founded by Saudi millionaire Osama bin Laden, has provided money and men to the IMU in the past, security sources claim. Bin Laden, United States officials claim, is currently based in Afghanistan.

During last year's failed attempt to enter Uzbekistan from Batken in Kyrgyzstan, bin Laden's organisation sent troops to aid the insurgents, an independent Uzbek source claims. He said Namangani received large sums of money from international Islamic organisations in 1996.

One of the suspects in the Tashkent bombings in 1999, Z. Askarov, said during his trial that Muhammadamin Turkistoniy, an ethnic Uigur, gave money to the IMU. "He assigned $260,000 to Takhrir Yuldash for purchasing arms," he said.

Charitable appeals in the name of Islam also raise money for the IMU. A local group in Islamabad, Pakistan, Jamiat-al-Ulamo, helped the IMU raise funds in this way. In 1999 one religious group in Pakistan donated $150,000, an independent source in Tashkent said.

The Taleban in Afghanistan also provides support, Uzbek government claims.

The Taleban, however, strongly refute accusations it is sponsoring radical Islamic groups in the region. A Taleban spokesman specifically denied on Afghan radio Uzbek government allegations that his organisation was backing Islamic militants in Uzbekistan.

But according to the independent source in Tashkent recruits from Uzbekistan, Tajikistan, Kyrgyzstan and the Xinjiang province in China are training in Afghanistan.

"In one of the IMU's military camps in the Taleban controlled zone of northern Afghanistan, about 300 men are reported to have undergone military training," the source said.

The IMU guerrillas appear to be trying to specifically destabilise the CIS's southern frontiers in order to reinforce the success of the Taleban's wider offensive against Akhmad Shah Massoud's anti-Taleban Northern Alliance. The Taleban has already captured strategically important supply routes into Massoud's forces, particularly via Tajikistan. Should the IMU guerrillas succeed in disrupting or destroying supply routes through Uzbekistan and Kyrgyzstan as well, this would help the Taleban in their current offensive against Massoud.

The IMU, and Namangani and Yuldash in particular, owe the Taleban a great deal. It seems they have finally found a means of expressing their gratitude. If so, then the current skirmishes along the Uzbek and Kyrgyz frontiers could continue throughout the winter or until the Taleban defeat Massoud's forces in northern Afghanistan.

By Iskandar Mehman is pseudonym for a journalist in Tashkent, Turat Akimov is a regular IWPR contributor in Bishkek.

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