Upsurge in Militant Presence in Kyrgyzstan

Porous border makes country's south vulnerable to incursions, experts say.

Upsurge in Militant Presence in Kyrgyzstan

Porous border makes country's south vulnerable to incursions, experts say.

Kyrgyzstan’s porous southern border, compounded by the inability of its under-funded security forces to patrol it adequately, is helping make the country a destination for Islamic militants who are believed to be coming in from Afghanistan and Pakistan, observers say.

In the past ten days, nine suspected militants have been killed in two operations in the south of the country.

Three were killed in a firefight on the night of June 28, in the village of Kosh-Korgon, in Osh region’s Uzgen district, after being besieged in an abandoned house. One of them blew himself up with a hand-grenade.

Kyrgyzstan’s State National Security Committee, GKNB, said its men found weapons including Kalashnikov rifles, pistols and grenades when they entered the building later.

The following day, a fourth man, believed to be from the same group, was killed in a nearby forest after attacking and injuring three policemen with a grenade.

Four arrests were made – the wife of one of the alleged militants, a villager said to have allowed the group to use his house, and two others accused of helping them.

The incident followed a similar one in the Suzak district of neighbouring Jalalabad region on June 23, when forces from the GKNB’s elite Alpha unit took on a group of armed men in the village of Tash-Bulak. Five members of the group were killed, an officer from the Alpha force died, and a soldier from the unit was wounded.

According to the GKNB’s Jalalabad division, the special forces found five Kalashnikovs, rocket launchers and ammunition in the house where the militants were hiding out. They also discovered instructions on how to make explosives of various kinds, and eight sets of black clothing outfits and masks of the kind that might be worn by suicide bombers.

National-level officials have not so far officially confirmed that the groups involved in the Osh and Jalalabad were linked. However, the Bayishbek Jumanazarov, who heads the district government body in Uzgen, told the Bishkek Press Club on June 29, that there was a connection.

Nor have officials definitively identified the members of either group.

GKNB officers say some of the five men killed on June 23 had received training in Pakistan, and some were members of the banned Islamic Movement of Uzbekistan, IMU.

Guerrillas from the IMU launched raids on Kyrgyz and Uzbek territory in 1999 and 2000. As allies of the Taleban, they moved out of northern Afghanistan when United States-led Coalition forces arrived there in late 2001, and then settled in South Waziristan, a militant stronghold in north-western Pakistan.

GKNB officials have also indicated that some of those killed in Uzgen might have been part of the “Islamic Jihad Union”, a shadowy group which claimed responsibility for attacks in eastern Uzbekistan in May.

Overnight on May 25-26, a police checkpoint on the outskirts of Khanabad in the Andijan region was attacked. The Uzbek prosecutor’s office said a policeman and one of the attackers were wounded in an exchange of fire, and that all the attackers got away. On May 26, a suicide bomber blew himself up in Andijan city, killing himself and a policeman.

The suspicion among analysts is that the militants now in Kyrgyzstan are of Central Asian origin but have recently moved back from Afghanistan or Pakistan. In the latter country, the Taleban and its allies are under mounting pressure from assaults by Pakistani ground troops and air strikes by US drone aircraft. South Waziristan is currently a major target for these offensives.

In Afghanistan, the US is pouring in extra troops in hopes of inflicting military defeat on the militants and securing the southern provinces.

In June, following reports that an armed group had appeared in the mountains of Tajikistan in (see Chasing Phantoms in the Tajik Mountains, RCA No. 581, 24-Jun-09), Jakypbek Azizov, who heads the Kyrgyz interior ministry’s public security department, told a press conference that elite units from the ministry had been sent into Batken region as a result of developments in Afghanistan and the possibility that militants had infiltrated Kyrgyzstan’s immediate neighbours.

Batken is a strip of land in the far southwest of Kyrgyzstan, sandwiched between Tajik and Uzbek territory, and was the scene of IMU incursions in past years.

“I see a direct link between the rise in militant activity in this country and the military operations in Pakistan,” said Zainiddin Kurmanov, who heads the Kyrgyz parliamentary committee for constitutional law, state institutions and, law and human rights. “The terrorists’ base is being destroyed, and militants are fleeing to the countries where it is calm and peaceful.”

Security experts warn of an imminent threat to Kyrgyzstan.

“If one trusts the law enforcement reports that the militants they eliminated were IMU, it points to a surge in activity by radical forces which pose a security threat to all the Central Asian states,” said Miroslav Niazov, former secretary of the Security Council, which oversees national security matters in Kyrgyzstan. “I do see a link between the recent events in Khanabad and this firefight.”

Kyrgyzstan is seen as particularly vulnerable because its southern border adjoins both Tajikistan, from where Afghanistan is accessible, and Uzbekistan, where many believe indiscriminate arrests of alleged Islamists over the years have bred rather than curbed extremist groups.

According to Orozbek Moldaliev, an expert on national security issues, “The unstable situation in Afghanistan and Pakistan and the harsh regime in Uzbekistan exacerbate the threat for Kyrgyzstan, by increasing the potential number of terrorist attacks on its territory.”

Zainiddin Kurmanov noted that it was fairly easy to cross into Kyrgyzstan undetected because the frontier is not guarded comprehensively, and also bribery is commonplace.

“If you have money, it’s very easy to get into Kyrgyzstan through our porous borders,” he added.

While the GKNB was able to act swiftly once it spotted the suspected militants, the border guards service which might have intercepted the intruders is overstretched and its resources are spread thin.

“Our [border guard] agency has neither the personnel nor the resources to be able to tell who’s crossing the border,” said Rashid Tagayev, who represents the governing Ak Jol party in parliament.

Lack of intelligence makes it difficult for the security forces to identify suspects once they are inside the country.

“The secret service [GKNB] demonstrated efficiency in conducting the operation and seizing arms, said Moldaliev. “But there are questions that need answering – how did they get into Kyrgyzstan, and how and where did they acquire such a lot of arms and explosives?”

A GKNB spokesman told IWPR the operations had been a success. “Our efforts have produced results, which are self-evident, although it doesn’t come without losses,” he said, in reference to the casualties the agency suffered.

Tagaev says that in the absence of a specialised agency, the authorities need to expand their existing counter-terrorism resources and fund and equip them properly.

One of the obstacles to gathering intelligence on the ground is the widespread public mistrust in the police and the security agencies in general. Analysts say this is something the latter will need to work on.

“It’s evident that the law-enforcement agencies are poor at engaging with the local population,” said Moldaliev. “People knew there was someone in that abandoned house [in Uzgen] but no one told the police.”

Niazov added, “If there was mutual trust between the people and the authorities, people would cooperate with law enforcement and report suspicious individuals.”

Another radical group, Hizb ut-Tahrir, which does not proclaim armed jihad as the IMU does, has had some success over recent years in capitalising on Islamic sentiment in southern Kyrgyzstan and general dissatisfaction with central government perceived as unresponsive.

The lack of cooperation with police may also have afforded cover to some IMU members, especially given that southern Kyrgyzstan has a large ethnic Uzbek community.

Another security expert, Leonid Bondarets, believes IMU militants have maintained an underground presence in southern Kyrgyzstan and have linked up with incoming groups.

“Some of them left Kyrgyzstan, but other members remained here under deep cover. So some of these militants came to Kyrgyzstan from Afghanistan, and some of them were already here,” said Bondarets.

Ainagul Abdrakhmanova and Abdraim Ysmanov are IWPR-trained journalists.

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