Tashkent is Not Madrid

Tashkent is Not Madrid

The recent bombings and street fighting in Uzbekistan do not constitute another Al-Qaeda led operation to attack a foreign government that provides military support for the U.

The recent bombings and street fighting in Uzbekistan do not constitute another Al-Qaeda led operation to attack a foreign government that provides military support for the U.S.-led anti-terrorist campaigns in Iraq and Afghanistan.  Unlike in the case of the Madrid explosions, the incidents in Tashkent and other Uzbek cities reflect primarily local considerations.  For several years now, terrorists associated with the Islamic Movement of Uzbekistan (IMU) have set off bombs, launched guerrilla attacks and made other efforts to overthrow Central Asian governments whose commitment to Islam they deem insufficiently zealous.

Central Asian terrorists are seeking to undermine President Islam Karimov not because he is a U.S. ally, but because he opposes their efforts to establish a Taliban-like regime in the region's most important country.  In an August 1999 communiqué, IMU leaders clearly promulgated their objective of overthrowing Karimov's authoritarian regime and establishing an Islamic republic.  They believe that Uzbekistan's transformation along fundamentalist lines would resonate among neighboring states in the traditional pattern of falling dominoes.

The IMU has had extensive connections with Al-Qaeda and the Taliban.  Its founding occurred in 1998 in Kabul, then under Taliban control.  At the time, IMU-head Tahir Yoldash resided in Kandahar, where Osama bin Laden and Taliban leader Mullah Muhammad Omar also lived.  Subsequently, bin Laden, Omar, Yuldeshev and the IMU's charismatic military leader, Juma Namangani, met frequently to plan operations in Afghanistan and Central Asia.  The IMU fought alongside Taliban forces and their Al-Qaeda allies during the Afghan civil war and the subsequent American-led occupation.  Namangani died in Afghanistan in November 2001, but many IMU members, including Yuldeshev, fled to neighboring countries to regroup. 

On February 16, 1999, IMU operatives detonated six car bombs in Tashkent in a failed effort to assassinate Karimov.  The explosions killed 13 and wounded 128 people.  The following year, IMU guerrillas based in neighboring countries invaded southern Uzbekistan and penetrated as close as 60 miles to Tashkent before they were driven back.  In April 2003, construction workers found a probable improvised explosive device in a Tashkent hotel.  The explosives were reportedly similar to those used in the 1999 car bombings.

In general, Uzbek authorities have been sufficiently strong to suppress most IMU activities (as well as other forms of dissent) within their frontiers, so IMU leaders have tended to reside and operate elsewhere.  (Many IMU sleeper agents and sympathizers remain in the country, however, especially in the impoverished Ferghana Valley, a radical hotbed that straddles across several Central Asian countries.)  Estimates of the number of active IMU operatives range from several hundred to several thousand.  Despite its name, the IMU's membership roster includes a large number on non-Uzbeks, and the organization has been militarily active throughout Central Asia.

American officials have become increasingly concerned about the IMU's activities.  In September 2000, the State Department designated the IMU a Foreign Terrorist Organization, citing its armed incursions and its practice of seizing foreign citizens, including Americans, as hostages.  In his address before Congress on September 20, 2001, President Bush explicitly linked the IMU to Al-Qaeda, identifying both groups as terrorist threats to the US.

The State Department issued a warning in April 2003 (renewed in October) that the IMU might be planning attacks against U.S. citizens in Uzbekistan.  Although the United States has not offered explicit security guarantees to Tashkent, the U.S.-Uzbek joint strategic declaration of March 2002 says that Washington "would regard with grave concern any external threat to the security and territorial integrity of the Republic of Uzbekistan."  Secretary of Defense Donald Rumsfeld has visited the country three times in the past two years.  During his last visit in February 2004, he said that relations between the two countries were "growing stronger every month."  Approximately 1,000 U.S. Air Force and Special Forces personnel have been deployed since late 2001 at the former Soviet Khanabad airbase in southwest Uzbekistan.  Soon after the troops' arrival, rumors of an impending terrorist attack against them began to spread.

The explosions and fighting in Uzbekistan that began on March 29 represent the largest IMU-led operations since the 1999 Tashkent bombings.  At least 44 people died and a larger number were injured in a five-day spree of unprecedented urban violence.  (Approximately half of those killed were IMU militants.  Unlike in 1999, they apparently took care on this occasion to avoid hurting civilians, focusing their attacks on the police.)  Although the explosive devices involved resemble those employed in 1999, IMU militants, some of whom were women, for the first time operated as suicide bombers.  The use of suicide bombers of either sex is a new practice for the IMU, which previously had favored planted bombs and small-scale insurgency operations and had not been employed by any other armed group in Central Asia.  But this technique has been increasingly adopted by terrorist groups in the Middle East and Chechnya, whose actions may have inspired their Uzbek confederates.  In addition, the IMU appears to have gained new recruits among dissatisfied young people to replace those lost in Afghanistan or imprisoned in Uzbekistan.

Media reports indicate that Pakistani forces wounded IMU leader Tahir Yoldash during last month's military operations in Waziristan in Pakistan's Federally Administered Tribal Areas.  Press accounts also indicate that Pakistani forces encountered many fighters of Uzbek nationality during their recent campaign.  Although some have speculated that the IMU operations in Uzbekistan were somehow related to this incident, the operations appear to have been planned months in advance of the Pakistani crackdown.  Indeed, the fighting only started after what looks like an accidental explosion at a bomb-making factory in the central Uzbek city of Bukhara, which apparently exposed the entire operation prematurely.  The IMU attacks in Uzbekistan suggest that, like Al-Qaeda, the IMU may have decentralized much of its command and control to local autonomous cells.  Its militants now seem to have both the capacity and the will to launch operations largely on their own initiative.

The Uzbek government's anti-terrorism efforts remain sufficiently robust to counter the new IMU offensive.  Although seemingly caught off guard during the initial onslaught, the Uzbekistan National Security Service rebounded rapidly and quickly suppressed the latest attacks.  In effect, the recent fighting is repeating the pattern set after the 1999 Tashkent bombings.  On that occasion, IMU operatives were able to plan, coordinate and launch a series of deadly strikes against urban targets, but the offensive soon petered out after the security forces responded vigorously.  The main risk now is that the Uzbek government will react too forcefully and repress even further all its perceived opponents, thereby alienating members of the nonviolent opposition and supportive foreign governments such as the United States.  U.S. policy makers already are finding it difficult to sustain Congressional support for State Department aid programs to the Karimov government because of its human rights abuses - particularly its failure to establish multiparty elections, a free press, a torture-free prison system or an independent judiciary.  The efforts of Uzbek officials to blame the recent terrorist incidents on members of the Hizb-ut-Tahrir al-Islami ("The Party of Islamic Liberation"), an influential but nonviolent opposition group that the American government and other outside observers have explicitly declined to identify as a terrorist organization, does not bode well in this regard.

Many who favor trying to integrate the IMU into Uzbek politics seem to envision a repetition of the post-1997 peace process in neighboring Tajikistan, where the government agreed to share power with the Islamic opposition.  But such a formula likely would fail in the case of the IMU, because it is so weak.  Its leaders could not hope to enjoy success in democratic elections, and Uzbek government officials have little incentive to share power otherwise.  In addition, laying down their arms and reintegrating into civil society on a peaceful basis would deprive IMU members of their extensive profits from drug trafficking.  For these reasons, the IMU likely will remain a disruptive but manageable force in Central Asia for some time to come.


Richard Weitz, Ph.D, is a Senior Staff Member at The Institute for Foreign Policy Analysis.