Uzbekistan's Obscure Militants

The Uzbek government appears genuinely perplexed by the exact composition of the Islamic militant forces behind a recent wave of violence.

Uzbekistan's Obscure Militants

The Uzbek government appears genuinely perplexed by the exact composition of the Islamic militant forces behind a recent wave of violence.

Monday, 21 February, 2005

As investigations continue into the suicide bombings that hit the Uzbek capital Tashkent late last month, the authorities still appear uncertain about who exactly was to blame.

Recent statements show that officials are firming up a view that the banned Hizb-ut-Tahrir group, which operates covertly across Central Asia but especially in Uzbekistan, was heavily involved. At the same time they talk about other – unnamed - radical Islamic groups.

Given Uzbekistan’s recent history of repression of Islamic activists, many analysts have taken the view that such statements are opportunistic – providing the government with justification to crush without mercy the most numerous Islamic opposition movement, and at the same time score points with the West as a partner in the “war against terror”.

But the tentative, occasionally contradictory messages the Uzbek authorities are now sending out may instead reflect a genuine concern to move towards an understanding of the force they are up against.

The most comprehensive recent overview of the official position came from Uzbekistan’s chief prosecutor Rashid Kadirov, in a statement he made on August 9 on the early results of investigations into the July 30 blasts, in which three suicide bombers killed themselves and four police and security staff in attacks on the United States and Israeli embassies and the Uzbek prosecution service.

The coordinated attacks took place as 15 alleged Islamic militants began facing trial for several days of violence in late March and early April in which 47 people died. The chief prosecutor said it was safe to assume the same people were involved, and that “the July blasts have a direct connection to the events of March and April”. One of the suicide bombers had been on the wanted list for the earlier violence, he said.

Kadirov went on to lay out a picture of who was thought to be behind the July attacks. “The investigation provides incontrovertible evidence that international radical extremist groups including Hizb-ut-Tahrir are behind [the July blasts],” he said. “All the terrorists involved in explosions in spring this year and on July 30 are members of precisely this organisation – a fact shown by case materials and by evidence the criminals themselves have given in court.”

In what is likely to have been a carefully-worded statement, it was clear that by “this organisation” Kadirov meant Hizb-ut-Tahrir specifically.

The charge that all those involved in this year’s violence were identified as members of the same group was a revelation. Hizb-ut-Tahrir’s members have been arrested in large numbers since the authorities identified it as an underground group, but it has never before been identified so comprehensively and exclusively with an act of violence.

The Islamic organisation – which has an international network – has always said in public that it is against any use of violence, and wants to bring about its goal of creating a caliphate or Muslim state through peaceful means. Its London office has denied involvement in the July bombings.

At the same time, the official view taking shape in Uzbekistan is that if Hizb-ut-Tahrir provided the footsoldiers, there was also coordination from some foreign group. “Enough facts have been gathered to say that all these acts of terror acts are links in the same chain of violent attacks organised and coordinated by a single centre based abroad.”

To back this up, the prosecutor added that two of the three suicide bombers had been found to be foreign citizens. No further information has been made public on this claim, apart from the recent announcement that the attacker at the prosecution service offices was a citizen of Kazakstan.

The picture that is emerging from official sources is of a local Central Asian group of Islamic militants with the capacity to mount daring attacks on the ground, with the added element of some kind of support or coordination by a group based abroad. One obvious culprit would be al-Qaeda, which in the past has had indirect linkages with Central Asia via the Islamic Movement of Uzbekistan, a guerrilla group once active in the region in 1999-2000 but thought to have been largely dispersed as a force when its Taleban allies were defeated in 2001.

Given the paucity of alternative sources of information, it is hard to assess how accurate a picture this is. Even the fairly guarded theories the authorities have put forward may be more definite than the evidence they actually possess.

IWPR has spoken to a senior investigating officer in Uzbek law enforcement who has been working on the July blasts case. In an interview conducted on condition of anonymity, the officer said it was too early even to say for sure that any of the bombers were foreign citizens, since carrying false documents such as were found on two of them would be a common tactic for such people.

Nor is it certain what organisation the militants belong to, the source said. He agrees that the same group must have been behind both the spring violence and the later bombings, but he notes that after the former, the authorities were unable to say unequivocably that Hizb-ut-Tahrir was the culprit.

IWPR’s source said that the investigation has not to date turned up any direct evidence that those arrested for the July attacks belong to Hizb-ut-Tahrir – they simply call themselves mujaheds, or holy warriors, he said.

While IWPR’s source doubts very much that Hizb-ut-Tahrir as an organisation was behind the blasts, it is possible that some of the attackers may have had links to it.

He also floated another theory worth considering – that Hizb-ut-Tahrir has developed a paramilitary wing separate from the “ideological” body.

The investigator has definitely ruled out one possibility – a group calling itself “Islamic Jihad” which claimed responsibility on a foreign website. He said he had not found a shred of evidence that it exists; nor had any suspect mentioned its name.

Whatever group is involved, IWPR’s source thinks the July blasts were a show of force by remaining members after the majority were arrested or killed in the shootings and explosions in Tashkent and Bukhara earlier in the year.

“Seeing their brothers repenting in court, they decided to show that they still had power. The choice of embassies as targets was no coincidence; they wanted to draw the attention of the international community. They wanted to scare people, but these explosions were more a sign of weakness than strength,” he said.

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