Central Asia Profile – Security And Extremism Issues (Part 1)


The Central Asian region—bordering regional powers Russia, China, and Iran—is an age-old east-west and north-south trade and transport crossroads.1 After many of the former Soviet Union’s republics had declared their independence by late 1991, the five republics of Central Asia followed suit. Since this beginning of independence, surprising to most of the region’s population, the Central Asian countries have taken some uneven steps in building defense and other security structures and ties. In some respects, the states have viewed their exposure to outside influences as a mixed blessing. While welcoming new trade, aid, and other ties, the leaders of Central Asia have been less receptive to calls to democratize and respect human rights. This report discusses the internal and external security concerns of the Central Asian states.

Security concerns faced by the states include mixes of social disorder, crime, corruption, terrorism, ethnic and civil conflict, border tensions, water and transport disputes, the proliferation of weapons of mass destruction (WMD), and trafficking in illegal narcotics and persons. The Central Asian states have tried with varying success to bolster their security forces and regional cooperation to deal with these threats. The United States has provided assistance for these efforts and boosted such aid and involvement after the terrorist attacks on the United States on September 11, 2001, but questions remain about what should be the appropriate level and scope of U.S. interest and presence in the region.

Central Asia’s External Security Context

Central Asia’s states have slowly consolidated and extended their relations with neighboring and other countries and international organizations that seek to play influential roles in Central Asia or otherwise affect regional security. These include the bordering or close-by countries of Russia, Afghanistan, China, Iran, Turkey, and the South Caucasus states, and others such as the United States, Germany, France, India, Israel, Pakistan, Saudi Arabia, South Korea, and Ukraine. In terms of ties with close-by states, Turkmenistan may be concerned more about bordering Iran and Afghanistan than with non-bordering China, while Kazakhstan may be concerned more about bordering Russia than with non-bordering Afghanistan. While soliciting and managing ties with these states, the Central Asian countries also seek assistance through regional and international organizations, including the World Bank, International Monetary Fund (IMF), Economic Community Organization (ECO), Organization of the Islamic Conference (OIC), the European Union (EU), the Commonwealth of Independent States (CIS), the Shanghai Cooperation Organization (SCO), and NATO.

Outside powers, while sometimes competing among themselves for influence in Central Asia, also have some common interests. After September 11, 2001, Russia, China, and the United States cooperated somewhat in combating terrorism in the region. This cooperation has appeared to ebb since then, but as the security situation in Afghanistan becomes more complicated, cooperation may improve. Cooperation is also needed to combat drug, arms, and human trafficking, manage water resources, develop and deliver energy, and tackle infectious diseases.

Iran and Russia have collaborated since the latter 1990s to hinder the United States and Turkey from further involvement in developing Caspian Sea oil and natural gas resources. Some observers warn that increasing collaboration or similarity of interests among Russia, Iran, and China in countering the West and in attempting to increase their influence could heighten threats to the sovereignty and independence of the Central Asian states. Others discount such threats, stressing the ultimately diverging goals of the three states.

Security Problems and Progress

The problems of authoritarian regimes, crime, corruption, terrorism, and ethnic and civil tensions jeopardize the security and independence of all the new states of Central Asia, though to varying degrees. Kazakhstan has faced the potential of separatism in northern Kazakhstan where ethnic Russians are dominant, although this threat has appeared to ebb in recent years with the emigration of hundreds of thousands of ethnic Russians. Tajikistan faces threats from economic mismanagement and the possibility of separatism, particularly by its northern Soghd (formerly Leninabad) region. In Kyrgyzstan, northern and southern regional interests vie for influence over central political and economic decision-making. Turkmenistan faces clan and provincial tensions and widespread poverty that could contribute to instability. Uzbekistan faces escalating civil discontent and violence from those whom President Islam Karimov labels as Islamic extremists, from a large ethnic Tajik population, and from an impoverished citizenry. Ethnic Uzbeks and Kyrgyz clashed in 1990 in the Fergana Valley. This fertile valley is divided between Kyrgyzstan, Tajikistan, and Uzbekistan, and contains about one-fifth of Central Asia’s population. All the states are harmed by drug and human trafficking and associated corruption and health problems.

Despite these problems, Turkmenistan’s oil and gas wealth could contribute to its long-term stability. Also, its location at a locus of Silk Road trade routes potentially could increase its economic security. Uzbekistan’s large population and many resources, including oil, natural gas, and gold, could provide a basis for its stable development and security. Kyrgyzstan’s beleaguered civil society might eventually succeed in reducing authoritarianism and boosting entrepreneurial activity and good governance, which eventually might permit the country to increase its budgetary expenditures for defense and security.

It would seem that affinities among the current regional elites would facilitate cooperative ties. Many of the officials in the states learned a common language (Russian) and were Communist Party members. Religion (Islam) and ethnicity (Turkic or Persian) are other seeming grounds for links among most in the region. In actuality, however, regional cooperation has been halting.

The vast majority of the people in the Central Asian states suffered steep declines in their quality of life in the first few years after the dissolution of the Soviet Union. The gap widened between the rich and poor, accentuating social tensions and potential instability. Social services such as health and education, inadequate during the Soviet period, declined further. In the new century, however, negative trends in poverty and health have been reversed in much of Central Asia, according to one World Bank report, although the quality of life remains far below that of Western countries.2

Economic difficulties associated with the world financial crisis that began in 2008 could exacerbate social tensions, separatism, and extremism, although large percentages of the states’ populations remain employed in the agricultural sector where economic gyrations have been somewhat buffered. This sector has a surfeit of manpower, however, and cannot readily absorb new workers as the populations continue to increase. In the past, substantial out-migration by many workers to Russia and the return of remittances to relatives in Central Asia somewhat eased poverty and tension and buttressed national GDPs. However, Russia’s economic problems have caused these remittances to fall off and have forced many of these guest workers to return to their countries of origin.3

Islamic Extremism and Terrorism

Calls for government to be based on Sharia (Islamic law) and the Koran are supported by small but increasing minorities in most of Central Asia. Most of Central Asia’s Muslims appear to support the concept of secular government, but the influence of fundamentalist Salafist and extremist Islamic groups is growing.4 Tajikistan’s civil conflict, where the issue of Islam in political life contributed to strife, has been pointed to by Central Asian leaders to justify crackdowns. They also point to Russia’s conflict with its breakaway Chechnya region and other areas in Russia’s North Caucasus as evidence of the threat. In many cases, government crackdowns ostensibly aimed against Islamic extremism have masked clan, political, and religious repression. In some regions of Central Asia, such as Uzbekistan’s portion of the Fergana Valley, some Uzbeks kept Islamic practices alive throughout the repressive Soviet period, and some now oppose the secular-oriented Uzbek government. Islamic extremist threats to the regimes may well increase as economic distress fails to dissipate or widens as a result of the global economic crisis. Heavy unemployment and poverty rates among youth in the Fergana Valley are widely cited by observers as making youth more vulnerable to recruitment into religious extremist organizations.5

Although much of the attraction of Islamic extremism in Central Asia is generated by factors such as poverty and discontent, it is facilitated by groups in Afghanistan, Pakistan, Saudi Arabia, and elsewhere that provide funding, education, training, and manpower to the region. Some of these ties were at least partially disrupted by the U.S.-led coalition actions in Afghanistan and the U.S. call for worldwide cooperation in combating terrorism.6

The Central Asian states impose several controls over religious freedom. All except Tajikistan forbid religious parties such as the Islamic Renewal Party (Tajikistan’s civil war settlement included the IRP’s legalization), and maintain Soviet-era religious oversight bodies, official Muftiates, and approved clergy. The governments censor religious literature and sermons. According to some analysts, the close government religious control may leave a spiritual gulf that underground radical Islamic groups seek to fill.

Officials in Uzbekistan believe that the country is increasingly vulnerable to Islamic extremism, and they have been at the forefront in Central Asia in combating this threat. Reportedly, thousands of alleged Islamic extremists have been imprisoned and many mosques have been closed. Restrictions were tightened when the legislature in 1998 passed a law on “freedom of worship” banning all unregistered faiths, censoring religious writings, and making it a crime to teach religion without a license. The Uzbek legislature also approved amendments to the criminal code increasing punishments for setting up, leading, or participating in religious extremist, separatist, fundamentalist, or other illegal groups. Public expressions of religiosity are discouraged. Women who wear the hijab and young men who wear beards are faced with government harassment and intimidation. As recommended by the U.S. Commission on International Religious Freedom (USCIRF), then-Secretary Rice in November 2006 designated Uzbekistan a “country of particular concern” (CPC), where severe religious and human rights violations could lead to U.S. sanctions. Since 2000, USCIRF also has recommended that Turkmenistan be designated as a CPC.7

Uzbekistan and other Central Asian states have arrested many members of Hizb ut-Tahrir (HT; Liberation Party, a politically oriented Islamic movement calling for the establishment of Sharia rule), sentencing them to lengthy prison terms or even death for pamphleteering, but HT reportedly continues to gain adherents. Uzbekistan argues that HT not only advocates terrorism and the killing of apostates but is carrying out such acts.8 Kyrgyz authorities emphasize the anti-American and anti-Semitic nature of several HT statements and agree with the Uzbek government on designating the group as an illegal terrorist organization, but some prominent observers in Kyrgyzstan argue that the group is largely pacific and should not be harassed.9

Terrorist Activities

Terrorist actions aimed at overthrowing regimes have been of growing concern in all the Central Asian states. Some analysts caution that many activities the regimes label as terrorist—such as hijacking, kidnapping, robbery, assault, and murder—are often carried out by individuals or groups for economic benefit or for revenge, rather than for political purposes. Also, so-called counter-terrorism may mask repressive actions against religious or political opponents of the regime.

Terrorist activities of the Islamic Movement of Uzbekistan (IMU) and similar groups in the region were at least temporarily disrupted by U.S.-led coalition actions in Afghanistan, where several of the groups were based or harbored.10 Many observers, however, warn that terrorist cells have re-formed and are expanding in Central Asia and that surviving elements of the IMU and other terrorist groups are infiltrating from Afghanistan, Pakistan, and elsewhere.11 Ominously, the IMU and its splinter group, the Islamic Jihad Union (IJU; see below), have become even more closely allied with international terrorist groups, particularly Al Qaeda. Moreover, the IMU and IJU have expanded their activities beyond Central and South Asia to other areas of the globe.

Attacks in Uzbekistan

Several explosions outside government buildings in Tashkent on February 16, 1999, were variously reported to have killed 13-28 and wounded 100-351 individuals. Uzbek officials detained hundreds or thousands of suspects, including political oppositionists and HT members.

The first trial of 22 suspects in June 1999 resulted in six receiving the death sentence. Karimov in April 1999 alleged that Mohammad Solikh (former Uzbek presidential candidate and head of the banned Erk Party) was the mastermind of the plot, and had received support from the Taliban and Uzbek Islamic extremist Tohir Yuldash. The 22 suspects were described in court proceedings as receiving training in Afghanistan (by the Taliban), Tajikistan, Pakistan, and Russia (by Al Qaeda terrorist Khattab in Chechnya), and as led by Solikh and Yuldash and his ally Jama Namanganiy, the latter two the heads of the IMU. Testimony alleged that Solikh had made common cause with Yuldash and Namanganiy in mid-1997, and that Solikh, Yuldash, Namanganiy, and others had agreed that Solikh would be president and Yuldash defense minister after Karimov was overthrown and a caliphate established. According to an Uzbek media report in early July 1999, the coup plot included a planned attack on Uzbekistan by Namanganiy and other Tajik rebels transiting through Tajikistan and Kyrgyzstan (see below).

Another secret trial in August 1999 of six suspects in the bombings (brothers of Solikh or members of his Erk Party) resulted in sentences ranging from 8 to 15 years. In November 2000, the Uzbek Supreme Court convicted twelve persons of terrorism, nine of whom were tried in absentia. The absent Yuldash and Namangoniy were given death sentences, and the absent Solikh 15.5 years in prison. U.S. officials criticized the apparent lack of due process during the trial. Solikh has rejected accusations of involvement in the bombings or membership in the IMU. Yuldsash too has eschewed responsibility for the bombings, but warned that more might occur if Karimov does not step down.

On March 28 through April 1, 2004, a series of bombings and armed attacks were launched in Uzbekistan, reportedly killing 47. President Karimov asserted on March 29 that the violence was aimed against his government, in order to “cause panic among our people, to make them lose their trust in the policies being carried out.” An obscure Islamic Jihad Group of Uzbekistan (IJG; Jama’at al-Jihad al-Islami, reportedly an alias of the IMU or a breakaway part of the IMU) claimed responsibility for the violence.12 After the attacks, media censorship intensified. The first national trial of fifteen suspects accused of attempting to overthrow the government ended in late August 2004. They all confessed their guilt and received sentences of 11-16 years in prison. Some of the defendants testified that they belonged to the IJG and were trained by Arabs and others at camps in Kazakhstan and Pakistan. They testified that IMU member Najmiddin Jalolov (one of those convicted in absentia in 2000) was the leader of the IJG and linked him to Taliban head Mohammad Omar, Uighur extremist Abu Mohammad, and Osama bin Laden. Over 100 individuals reportedly were convicted in various trials.

Suicide bombings occurred in Tashkent, Uzbekistan, on July 30, 2004, at the U.S. and Israeli embassies and the Uzbek Prosecutor-General’s Office. Three Uzbek guards reportedly were killed and about a dozen people were injured. All U.S. and Israeli diplomatic personnel were safe. The next day, then-Secretary of State Colin Powell condemned the “terrorist attacks.” The IMU and the IJG claimed responsibility and stated that the bombings were aimed against the Uzbek and other “apostate” government.

Dozens or perhaps hundreds of civilians were killed or wounded on May 13, 2005, after Uzbek troops fired on demonstrators in the eastern town of Andijon. The protestors had gathered to demand the end of a trial of 23 prominent local businessmen charged with belonging to an Islamic terrorist group. The night before, a group stormed a prison where those on trial were held and released hundreds of inmates. There is a great deal of controversy about whether this group contained foreign-trained terrorists or was composed mainly of the friends and families of the accused. Many freed inmates then joined others in storming government buildings. President Islam Karimov flew to the city to direct operations and reportedly had restored order by late on May 13. The United States and others in the international community have called for an international inquiry, which the Uzbek government has rejected.

On May 25-26, 2009, a police checkpoint was attacked on the Kyrgyz-Uzbek border, attacks took
place in the border town of Khanabad, and four bombings occurred in Andijon in the commercial district, including at least one by suicide bombers. Several deaths and injuries were alleged, although reporting was suppressed. Uzbek officials blamed the IMU, although the IJU allegedly claimed responsibility. President Karimov flew to Andijon on May 31. In late August 2009, shooting took place in Tashkent that resulted in the deaths of three alleged IMU members and the apprehension of other group members. The Uzbek government alleged that the group had been involved in the 1999 explosions and in recent assassinations in Tashkent. In early December 2009, the Andijon regional court reportedly convicted 22 individuals on charges of involvement in the May 2009 events, and sentenced them to prison terms ranging from five to 18 years.

Attacks in Kyrgyzstan

In recent years there have been sporadic suicide bombings and other attacks seemingly aimed against the government. One took place at the Oberon market in Bishkek in December 2002, one at a currency exchange outlet in Osh in southern Kyrgyzstan in May 2003, and one in Bishkek that targeted policemen in November 2004. The explosion at the Oberon market killed seven Kyrgyz citizens and injured over 20 people. One person was killed in Osh. Five people, including three Uzbeks, a Uighur citizen of China, and a Kyrgyz, were charged in July 2003 with involvement in the first two bombings. Kyrgyz security officials claimed that they were IMU members trained in Chechnya (by Al Qaeda’s Khattab) and Afghanistan and that they had also planned to bomb the U.S. Embassy in Bishkek but were foiled by tight security around the embassy.13 In contrast to these terrorist incidents, the former Bush Administration regarded the March 2005 ouster of Akayev as a popular uprising.

Incursions into Kyrgyzstan and Uzbekistan

Several hundred Islamic extremists and others who fled repression in Uzbekistan and settled in Tajikistan (some of whom were being forced out at Uzbekistan’s behest), and rogue groups from Tajikistan that refused to disarm as part of the Tajik peace settlement, entered Kyrgyzstan in July-August 1999. Namanganiy headed the largest guerrilla group. The guerrillas seized hostages, including four Japanese geologists, and occupied several Kyrgyz villages, stating that they would cease hostilities if Kyrgyzstan provided harborage and would release hostages if Uzbekistan released jailed extremists. The guerrillas were rumored to be seeking to create an Islamic state in south Kyrgyzstan as a springboard for a jihad in Uzbekistan. In mid-October 1999, Kyrgyzstan’s defense minister announced success in forcing virtually all the guerrillas into Tajikistan (some critics argued that the onset of winter weather played an important part in the guerrilla retreat).

Uzbek aircraft targeted several alleged guerrilla hideouts in Tajikistan and Kyrgyzstan, eliciting protests from these states of violating airspace. Uzbek President Islam Karimov heavily criticized Kyrgyzstan’s then-President Askar Akayev for supposed laxity in suppressing the guerrillas. The Tajik government, which had mercurial relations with Uzbekistan, incensed it by allowing the guerrillas to enter Afghanistan rather than wiping them out.

According to many observers, the incursion indicated both links among terrorists in Afghanistan, Kyrgyzstan, Uzbekistan, and Russia (Chechnya and Dagestan) and the weakness of Kyrgyzstan’s security forces in combating threats to its independence. Observers were split on whether this terrorism was related more to Islamic extremism, or to efforts to control narcotics resources and routes.

Dozens of IMU and other insurgents again invaded Kyrgyzstan and Uzbekistan in August 2000, in Kyrgyzstan taking foreigners hostage and leading to thousands of Kyrgyz fleeing the area. Uzbekistan provided air and some other support, but Kyrgyz forces were largely responsible for defeating the insurgents by late October 2000. In Uzbekistan, the insurgents launched attacks near Tashkent and in the southeast that were defeated by Uzbek troops.

Limited engagements by Kyrgyz border troops with alleged insurgents or drug traffickers were reported in late July 2001. According to some reports, the IMU did not engage in major attacks in 2001 because of its increasing attention to bin Laden’s agenda, particularly after September 11, 2001, when IMU forces fought alongside bin Laden and the Taliban against the U.S.-led coalition. The activities of the IMU appeared to have been dealt a blow by the U.S.-led coalition.

See Part 2

Source: This article is an edited portion of the March 11, 2010 Congressional Research Service report, “Central Asia’s Security: Issues and Implications for U.S. Interests”, prepared by Jim Nichol, Specialist in Russian and Eurasian Affairs. A full copy of the report may be found at here at the Open CRS website.

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