Prior to the recent terror attacks in Uzbekistan which claimed at least 19 lives, a spate of reports from the region shows ongoing Islamist activity and law-enforcement efforts to contain it. One report details the state of affairs in the Islamic Movement of Uzbekistan (IMU) in Pakistan and Afghanistan. Other reports suggest that Hizb ut-Tahrir al-Islami (Party of Islamic Liberation - HT), an organization that now stands at the center of concerns over rising Islamist activity in Central Asia, is increasingly tailoring its recruiting efforts to match local dynamics in Tajikistan and Kazakhstan, targeting individuals from the dominant ethnic group with a higher education and ties to state institutions.
In Tajikistan, the authorities arrested a group of HT activists in Khujand in February. Various reports placed the number of individuals detained between 14 and 22. Tribune.uz, an independent Internet publication funded by George Soros' Open Society foundation, reported on February 25 that the men were all aged 20-22 and from middle-class families. Moreover, they were all ethnic Tajiks "whose parents came from the most 'Tajik of regions' of southern Tajikistan". Previously, ethnic Uzbeks and Uzbek citizens from the Ferghana Valley had figured prominently in reports of HT activity in Tajikistan. Asia Plus-Blitz also reported that three of the activists were relatives of officials in the Kulob city government and prosecutor's office.
In Kazakhstan, a court in Shymkent sentenced 23-year-old Nurzhan Zhakipov to three years in prison for HT activities on March 2. In a March 3 report, Kazinform contrasted the Zhakipov case with another HT-related incident in November 2003: "Not long ago in Shymkent, Arysi, and a number of other regions in the southern Kazakhstan Okrug, some 20 HT members were tried. In November, they took to the streets for an unsanctioned demonstration in which their organization called for the overthrow of [Uzbek President Islam] Karimov's regime. They were fined 18,900 tenges [US$135] each; two participants who resisted arrest were sentenced to 10 days in jail. The majority of the people who have been 'nabbed' in connection with HT are poorly educated and ignorant. This is why Zhakipov so surprised the journalists at his trial - he is a man from an urban family who attended Soviet school and received a higher education ..." A March 5 report in Kazakhstanskaya Pravda noted that "while the recruitment activities of HT emissaries in Kazakhstan initially focused on low-income individuals, recent efforts have targeted potential members among government officials, law-enforcement authorities, well-off businessmen, intellectuals, and students".
In Kyrgyzstan, on February 17, a court in Bishkek sentenced two IMU members - both Uzbek citizens - to death for their role in a December 2002 explosion at a Bishkek market that killed seven people. A March 2 report in Vechernii Bishkek described how "unofficial" mullahs - possibly with HT ties - in the southern Aravan region were inculcating the tenets of radical Islam in young people. According to the report, if 100-120 young people in the area are receiving a religious education from "official clerics", an equal number is learning different lessons from what the article terms "nontraditionalists".
A March 1 report by Deutsche Welle focused on IMU members, many of whom fled to Pakistan after the US-led antiterrorist operation smashed the Taliban movement, and with it the IMU's stronghold in Afghanistan. According to the report, a group of approximately 120 militants has relocated to Pakistan's northern Balochistan province. The group consists of fighters from Central Asia, Tatarstan, ethnic Russian converts to Islam, and people from the Caucasus; many of them are IMU members. Operating in groups of 25-30, they have recently moved to mountainous regions of Pakistan, including the city of Quetta, capital of Balochistan province.
The same report featured an interview with a former IMU member, who said that the IMU's leaders now reside in Wana, Pakistan - scene of the recent Pakistani military operations to track down al-Qaeda and other foreign fighters seeking refuge in the tribal regions. The movement's key leader remains Tahir Yuldashev. His first deputy for financial affairs is Dilshod Hojiyev. The military commander is Ulug'bek Holik, who also goes under the name Mohammed Ayub. All of the men are originally from Uzbekistan's Namangan Oblast.
The IMU maintains a number of unofficial daftars, or offices, in Tajikistan, Afghanistan, Iran, Pakistan and Turkey. An office in the Pakistani port city of Karachi handles financial contributions, primarily from Arab countries. According to the main source for the report, a 34-year-old Uzbek native of Navoiy Oblast who recently took advantage of an amnesty offer and returned home from Pakistan, the fighters also earn money on their own "through military operations financed by Pakistani special services against American forces in Afghanistan and through raids in Kashmir".
The source also told Deutsche Welle that a split had taken place in the IMU, with a group of combat-weary fighters rebelling against Yuldashev. In order to combat the dissenters, Yuldashev apparently summoned Ilhom Hojiyev, also known as Commander Abdurahmon, from Tajikistan. Ilhom Hojiyev is the cousin of Juma (aka Jumaboi) Namangani, the IMU military commander believed (not confirmed) to have been killed when the Taliban fell in late 2001.
In Uzbekistan itself, harsh measures against any hint of Islamist activity remain the order of the day, with courts routinely meting out long prison terms for any real or suspected HT involvement. But with severe restrictions on the media, the situation is difficult to gauge. Human rights organizations charge that some 5,000 political prisoners are better characterized as victims of a repressive regime than as wild-eyed Islamists intent on installing a fundamentalist regime of their own. Meanwhile, Uzbekistan's role as a strategic partner of the United States in the "war on terror" has politicized the debate over the threat of radical Islam, often to the detriment of dispassionate analysis.