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

Uzbekistan Faces New Breed of Islamic Opposition

Attacks on American and Israeli embassies suggest Uzbek authorities have a new Islamic opposition force to contend with.
By IWPR staff

If anyone was in any doubt that an aggressive new Islamic group was in action in Uzbekistan, the July 30 suicide attacks on the United States and Israeli embassies and the Uzbek prosecutor’s office will have served warning that the shadowy force means business.


So far, no one really knows who was behind the attacks, which according to Uzbek officials left six people dead, including three suspected suicide bombers. In this closed society, there is so little information about the groups who may be behind the bombings - as well as a series of clashes in late March and early April which left 47 dead - that theories range from al-Qaeda to the authorities themselves.


The attacks were coordinated, with a single suicide bomber approaching each of the three buildings and exploding a bomb at approximately 4:45 pm local time. All three appear to have been men - the reported suicide bombers in the violence earlier this year were said to be young women - and got as close as possible to the heavily protected embassy buildings, and right inside the prosecution service building, before setting off their explosives.


Government officials said that as well as the attackers, one Uzbek policeman standing guard outside the American embassy and two at the Israeli mission died. No embassy or prosecution service staff were hurt.


A policeman who was on the scene soon after the blast outside the Israeli embassy said, “An Uzbek man aged 35 to 40 approached the booth where the two embassy guards were sitting, and hurled himself at them. There was an explosion, and everyone died instantly.”


According to people living in a residential block across the road from the US embassy, the explosion was so powerful that almost all the windows on the four-storey apartment building were smashed by the blast.


“It was as though I was thrown into the air and hit on the head with something heavy, and I still haven’t come to myself,” said a woman who was at home in her apartment at the time.


The authorities are investigating the blasts, and some arrests have already been made. A spokeswoman for the prosecution service, Svetlana Artykova, said no information on the number of arrests was being divulged as the investigation was continuing.


Although the authorities are giving little away, what evidence there is points to some Islamic radical group – perhaps one of those already known to operate clandestinely in Central Asia, or maybe a new one; and in either case with the added possibility that al-Qaeda’s international network lent the support and know-how needed to carry out the suicide bombings.


In a televised address to the nation the day after the attacks, Uzbek president Islam Karimov did not make a definitive statement on who he thought was responsibility, but indicated that two outlawed groups, the Islamic Movement of Uzbekistan, IMU, and Hizb-ut-Tahrir, could not be ruled out.


Whichever organisation it was, Karimov said its aim was intimidation and the eventual establishment of an Islamic regime.


Meanwhile, an organisation calling itself the Islamic Jihad Group claimed responsibility in a statement published in Arabic on a radical website abroad. It is not known whether this claim will stand up to scrutiny, or whether such a group indeed exists as a force in Central Asia.


What is certain is that the bombings were timed to coincide with the trial of 15 people accused of participating in the violence in Tashkent earlier this year. It is still not clear who was behind that attack; the authorities pointed to different groupings at the time, including the previously unknown Jamoat (Society), and those now on trial are said to be accused variously of al-Qaeda and Hizb-ut-Tahrir connections.


One possibility now being floated is that those behind the latest attack - although they may well prove to have been Uzbek nationals - were sponsored by al-Qaeda.


Bahodir Musaev, an independent political scientist in Tashkent, believes an al-Qaeda role is possible because the attackers targeted both its arch-enemies, the US and Israel.


America could be viewed as an obvious target for Central Asian radicals, since it forged a strong security relationship with Uzbekistan’s leaders after the September 11, 2001 attacks on the US, and maintains a military airbase in the south of the country.


Nevertheless, American interests in the region have not so far been the focus of attacks by groups like the IMU. Nor have those of Israel, which has built links with the secular governments of post-Soviet Central Asia in a bid to win friends in Muslim-dominated parts of the world.


A source close to Islamic radical forces in Uzbekistan has told IWPR that attacks of this kind could not have been organised without the involvement of an international network.


“It is impossible to become a suicide bomber on your own, even if you are very angry with the state,” he said. “You need the kind of serious system that al-Qaeda has for training martyrs.”


The source indicated that a number of IMU members had shifted allegiance to al-Qaeda, and this may have provided the latter group with opportunities to move into Central Asia.


Such is the lack of public confidence in the Uzbek authorities that conspiracy theories soon appeared, to the effect that the attacks could have been sponsored by the government, or some rogue element within it.


Musaev raised questions about the nature of the attacks which although they fit the pattern of previous al-Qaeda outrages elsewhere, differed in marked ways.


First, they were on a smaller scale, and second, they were less destructive and were apparently planned to take place at a time when there would be relatively few casualties. Israel’s embassy works only until lunchtime on Fridays, while the US mission had already stopped admitting visa applicants and other local visitors for the day, so there was no queue at the gate. The suicide bomber at the prosecutor’s office blew himself up in an empty entrance hall without injuring anyone, Musaev said.


“The goal of suicide bombers who commit such desperate acts is to take the maximum number of enemies with them, yet in this case the opposite was done deliberately,” said the analyst.


The head of the Uzbekistan Human Rights Society, Tolib Yakubov, believes the government may have faked an Islamic terror attack on itself. “Islam Karimov’s power depends on fear, on constantly exploiting the threat of terrorism. He needs to maintain the myth of terrorism to hold on to power, and to avoid conducting democratic or economic reforms in the country,” he said.


Such views are shared by others who profoundly distrust their government.


However, it seems improbable that the government could motivate people to become suicide bombers, or that it would stage attacks on US and Israeli interests. If there is any truth in this theory, it is likely to involve some disgruntled faction in the administration quietly opening doors to allow a committed radical group to move around the capital.


For the moment, the most plausible working theory is that there is a new Islamic group in action.


It seems to show the organisational capacity needed to stage a daring attack on high-profile targets in this heavily policed state. A strong local network was previously a feature of Hizb-ut-Tahrir, but that group is adamant that it does not use violence, and its London representative has denied that it was involved in the suicide bombings.


The IMU had, at least until it was badly hit by US attacks in Afghanistan in 2001, the military capacity to plan and conduct raids into Uzbekistan, but less of a foothold within the country, and no record of suicide attacks.


This new manifestation of Islamic radicalism – if it is indeed a new group – appears to have combined some level of local organisation that has allowed it to operate despite surveillance and sweeping arrests, and the will to carry out suicide attacks.


IWPR’s Islamic radical source said the attacks were not particularly well organised because it was locals who carried them out. But he warned, “These will not be the last actions - explosions will soon become commonplace in Uzbekistan.”


The Tashkent government has waged a decade-long war on Islamic groups, jailing thousands. Musaev is among many analysts who believes that the roots of radicalism lie not so much in imported extremist ideologies as in a broader sense of discontent caused by poverty, unemployment, lack of civil rights and the abuse of power by officials.


The authorities’ response to each new manifestation of Islamic opposition has been to arrest more and more people, but despite having Central Asia’s biggest security forces, they were unable to prevent the latest daylight attacks in the capital.


President Karimov has warned the nation to remain vigilant, saying, “No one can guarantee that this will not happen again.”