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Special Analysis: The Current Uzbek violence

| 16 Comments | 2 TrackBacks

I wanted to do an in-depth post on the Uzbek unrest last night, but a variety of events prevented me from doing so. I figure it's usually better to be as accurate as possible rather than first, so I'll try to provide as best a primer as I can, though I want everyone reading this to understand that the situation and the facts surrounding it are rather fluid and subject to change as things in Uzbekistan and our understanding of them develop. I also want to stress that I am not a Central Asia expert, Nathan is, so I of course defer to him on all this stuff. You can see some of his links in today's Winds of War briefing.

Islamic Movement of Uzbekistan Backgrounder and the Al-Qaeda Connection

The Uzbek government is claiming that this recent rash of violence and protests are the work of Hizb-ut-Tahrir (HuT), an Islamist movement.

There is certainly an Islamist (and in fact an al-Qaeda) connection at work in the current situation, and there is almost certainly an attempt underway to push things in that direction; but as of right now there seems to be a fairly diverse mixture of factions and ideologies in play in eastern Uzbekistan. The majority of the protesters seem to be far more motivated by economic and filial motivations than they are a desire to build a Caliphate in Central Asia.

The origins of Islamism in Uzbekistan date back, not surprisingly, to the fall of the USSR.

A number of Islamist movements had cropped up in Central Asia during the late 1980s and early 1990s and after the fall of the Soviet Union members of the Islamic Renaissance [Would that not be "Baath" in Arabic?] Party started organizing in the impoverished Ferghana Valley. Under the leadership of former Soviet paratrooper Juma Namangani, mullah Tahir Yuldashev, and Wahhabi activist Abdul Ahad, who broke away from the IRP altogether and founded the Adolat (Justice) organization as part of the power bid against Uzbekistan's draconian president-for-life, Islam Karimov. The bid failed, Adolat was broken in the ensuing crackdown, and the group's ruling troika had to flee across the border to the Garm Valley in neighboring Tajikistan to continue their fight, which is where they first met up with al-Qaeda.

As detailed by the 9/11 Commission report amongst other places, al-Qaeda actively aided the Tajik Islamists who were harboring the Adolat remnants in their war against the government and bin Laden's protege Amir ibn al-Khattab (later infamous for his exploits against Russian forces in Chechnya) headed up the al-Qaeda efforts in Central Asia during this period.

Khattab seems to have regarded the Adolat remnants as a kind of kindred spirits and there has been speculation in the (dubiously reliable) Russian media over the years as to the links between the Uzbek terrorists and Khattab's Chechen fighters. In any case, the Adolat leadership remained holed up in the Garm Valley for years, eventually being inspired by the Islamic Movement of Tajikistan (IMT) rebels (since reconciled with the Tajik government) who were harboring them to form the Islamic Movement of Uzbekistan (IMU).

Up until about 1998, the IMU was fairly schizophrenic as far as what it wanted to do. Namangani wasn't in the mood for the kind of political deal that the IMT had accepted, while Yuldashev traveled back and forth from their Garm Valley stronghold to Kabul and Peshawar throughout 1996-1997, maintaining ties to various Pakistani jihadi groups as well as the Taliban.

Eventually, the bulk of the IMU abandoned most of its Tajik bases for Afghanistan. Once there, it set up shop in northern Afghanistan and, using $2,000,000 in ransom money paid to the group by Japanese businesses in return for the safety of a group of Japanese geologists kidnapped in September 1999, the IMU was able to purchase better weapons and recruit more members from its ancestral home in the Ferghana Valley. In August 2000, it even mounted a major incursion into Ferghana, seizing control of the strategic city of Kamchik before being forced to retreat back into Afghan territory.

Prior to 9/11, the IMU was in the process of launching a second incursion into Uzbekistan and transforming itself from a national jihadi group into a regional one by actively recruiting Kazakhs, Kyrgyz, Tajiks, and Turkmen into its ranks.

The US invasion of Afghanistan dealt the region a severe blow, leaving Namangani dead and the group's manpower severely depleted. Unable to hold out in Afghanistan, the group retreated into northern Pakistan with the rest of the al-Qaeda remnants and started working to replenish their manpower and expand their regional profile. The latter was mostly due to the work of Tahir Yuldashev, who has good ties to most of the major Pakistani jihadi groups and is in close collaboration with the non-Arab Chechen al-Qaeda leaders also based in Pakistan like Daniar or Quaran Ata. Under Yuldashev, the IMU has reinvented itself several ties over into the Islamic Movement of Turkestan, Islamic Jihad Group of Uzbekistan (IJGU, sometimes just referred to just as Jamoat or "society," which is the same word in Uzbek or Arabic that we translate as "group" in many cases, ah the wonders of etymology and Romanization ...), and a couple of other permutations on that general theme.

On a more sinister level, Yuldashev also took advantage of the local jihadi training facilities (usually Jaish-e-Mohammed or Lashkar-e-Taiba) to rebuild his organization.

Thus we have the following two groups that have sprung up over the last several years:

  • The formation of the Bayyat group in the Soghd region of Tajikistan
  • The establishment of the Mujahideen of Central Asia Group based in the remote regions of Kazakhstan to act as a kind of neo-IMU and an umbrella coalition for all nasty Central Asian Islamists

Yuldashev has also been quite busy dealing with a very real battle against the Pakistani military last April as well as reconstituting the IMU ranks as well as directing a low-level terrorist campaign against the Uzbek government under a variety of auspices.

While he's still loyal to bin Laden and was present at the al-Qaeda coffee hour in April 2003 to lay out the organization's priorities post-OIF, his priorities don't seem very much in synch with the global al-Qaeda leadership as say, Zarqawi's. For one thing, while all the major Pakistani jihadi groups and even the Southeast Asian JI have sent a handful of fighters to assist in the Iraqi jihad, but as far as I know, the IMU hasn't sent anybody. Nor have they been particularly focused on fighting the US in Afghanistan or waging the kind of domestic terrorist campaign inside Pakistan as favored by people like Abu Faraj al-Libi or Khalid Sheikh Mohammed.

This suggests, at least to me, that either Yuldashev is still too weakened to be of much help to al-Qaeda's international agenda, that he has more of a regional than a global strategy, or that he's a lot more patient than other major jihadi leaders we've encountered to date.

As far as the Hizb-ut-Tahrir factor is concerned here, I'll be quite up front and say that I don't trust them, period. They claim to be both non-violent and apolitical, but my own opinion is that they are neither. So while I don't approve of the methods that Central Asian governments have utilized in stamping them out, I more than understand the rationale for doing so. Hizb-ut-Tahrir in power in any country would produce an Islamist version of Pol Pot's Cambodia with probably a similar body count. They could well be behind this recent wave of violence as likely as not, but either way it doesn't make them a benign influence for the region ... nor does it justify the steps that Karimov has undertaken to suppress them.

Some Uzbek Caveats...

Like I noted earlier, there is definitely an Islamist and probably an al-Qaeda allied component to what's now going on in eastern Uzbekistan. Still, the Uzbek line that this is all being orchestrated by Hizb-ut-Tahrir out of London or the idea that this is the work of Tahir Yuldashev down in Waziristan that they're trying to pass off to some Western governments should definitely be taken with a whole shaker of salt.

While a lot of the reporting out of Uzbekistan has been pretty good since the crisis first broke, the news blackout that Karimov has attempted to impose while his troops move in to crush the protesters/rebels is keeping much of the information from getting out. Notice how the death toll has risen from a few dozen to at least 500 in such a short time and that we now have something a refugee movement going on?

Right now, all we're dealing with is a mixture of rumors, Uzbek (and Russian) propaganda, and Islamist propaganda on the other hand and it's likely to be some time (if ever) that we actually figure out the truth of what's going on there.

One of the main questions I have is that while I understand that the Andijon townsfolk were up in arms over economic issues, has anybody figured out yet who exactly raided the military barracks for weapons and then shot up the prison? That isn't something that you just plan overnight in a place like Uzbekistan, which leads me to suspect that either the attackers had been planning their actions for awhile and took advantage of the protests, the protesters (backed by the local business magnates?) were involved in the attack, or the whole thing happened spontaneously riot-style.

Any help on figuring out the chronology here would be of great assistance.

The important thing to understand when looking at all of this is that what is now going on in Uzbekistan is the result of a conflict that's been brewing for quite awhile now, whether the actual cause is Islamist or economic in nature.

Karimov runs an exceedingly tight and draconian ship, but until quite recently (perhaps inspired by events in Kyrgyzstan?) the majority of the population was hesitant about standing up to him either because they thought that he may be a tyrant and a strongman, but that in so doing he held the country together and prevented it from descending into chaos. I certainly don't agree with that view (which also seems to be how a lot of Iraqi Sunnis view Saddam Hussein), but it's definitely out there and worth noting.

This is one of the reasons why this protest/rebellion, regardless of the cause, is such a significant development: it means that for a growing number of Uzbeks, the view of Karimov as being a necessary evil has now weakened to the point where large numbers of them are able to protest or even take up arms against his government, with the latter in particular being a pretty big indication that somebody in Uzbekistan thinks they have a chance of bringing down his regime. I notice there still haven't been any definitive figures as to the number of dead Uzbek soldiers killed in Andijon...

The willingness to stand up to Karimov (the fact that these protests are even occurring is a sign of the impotency of his fearsome police state) is probably a good thing in the long run in the sense of eventually producing a stable democracy in the country. On the flip side, it also provides some definite windows of opportunity for Hizb-ut-Tahrir and the IMU to exploit if they can move quickly, since both groups have been at the forefront of visible opposition to the regime.

As in Kyrgyzstan following the ouster of Akayev, the current situation in Uzbekistan is one of both opportunity and peril. If the protests were based largely around economic issues, which seems to have been the case on the surface, then their continuing after the Uzbek military was sent in may well mark the beginning of the gradual democratization of the country. If it is Hizb-ut-Tahrir or the IMU, however, the 500 or so that we know were killed may only be the beginning of what will eventually be a far larger body count.

Addendum: Uzbeks in Pakistan

A number of recent media reports have pointed out that there's an ethnic split in al-Qaeda in Pakistan between the Arabs on one hand and the heavily Uzbek Central Asians on the other.

That's quite true, and one might even argue that the al-Qaeda practice of organizing its cadres into ethno-nationalist cliques called "families" during training contributes to these divisions. While al-Qaeda is far more meritocratic and egalitarian than most Middle Eastern organizations (which is how a petty thug like Zarqawi attained the status he now holds), there are also national divisions even among the various ethnic groups, which the bulk of the organization's senior leadership being made up Saudi and Egyptian nationals. The Javanese Indonesians similarly dominate JI and the Uzbeks run the Central Asians, and so on and so forth.

It now appears that the US has been able to exploit these divisions on the local level, such as in the case of Abu Faraj al-Libi's IMU bodyguard unit, though I would be extremely hesitant to make anything more out of these divisions than a squabble among thieves.

The main reason that many Uzbek IMU/al-Qaeda tend to dislike the Arabs is because

1) they saw most of the fighting against the Pakistani army last April and sustained heavy losses as a result,

2) the Arabs are the ones with the direct connections to the al-Qaeda financiers in the Golden Chain and hence the Uzbeks are largely dependent on them for cash, and

3) the rank and file Arab al-Qaeda, particularly those from the Gulf States (though al-Libi also exhibited this behavior even though his former boss KSM did not) tend to regard themselves as superior to most Central and South Asians, it isn't exactly racism and the closest analogy I can think of off-hand is the way that some Japanese regard non-inhabitants of the main islands.

In any event, this convergence of factors leads to a lot of resentment among bin Laden's Uzbek acolytes and it's a good thing that the US is now trying to exploit it.

So Nathan, how'd I do?

2 TrackBacks

Tracked: May 16, 2005 11:06 PM
Uzbekistan 101 from The Breakdown Lane
Excerpt: "God made war to teach Americans geography", or so the saying goes. Hell is breaking loose in Uzbeckistan and it seems to be getting nastier. It's somewhere in the middle of Asia, north of Afghanistan, southwest of Siberia. A great...
Tracked: May 18, 2005 2:21 AM
Next Up: Uzbekistan from jaceonline
Excerpt: You may not have heard, but there's all kinds of nastiness breaking loose in Uzbekistan right now. Winds of Change has a thorough analysis of this situation that's playing out like some nightmare Political Science final exam question. This is why int...


Pretty good, just a few very minor things worth pointing out/discussing. Though I'm not entirely sure, I don't think the Uzbek government is exactly claiming Hizb ut-Tahrir plans anything out of London. Maybe they are, but they never say it. Interestingly, the line out of the Uzbek government (that everyone but the AP mistranslated) was that HT is not directly responsible for terrorist acts but that it radicalizes people and some cells become violent. The London office likes to issue statements to seem that make it sound like it has some level of control over Uzbek cells, but I have strong doubts. Though I should say, you seem to know more than me about how these organizations are structured and operate.

I don't think we'll ever know exactly what happened early the morning of the 13th, and the government definitely has an interest in keeping it that way. Russian media has reported that there were all kinds of militants on the border in the days leading up to the attack, but I don't really trust the accuracy of the Russian press. The protest had been peaceful for a few days, and they had gotten results on Thursday. The charges against the men were reduced, and I bet they would have been dropped further or precipitated a more clearly peaceful protesters vs. repressive government showdown had pressure stayed on. I personally think that there were people in Andijon, perhaps amongst the protesters, who took advantage of the situation in order to both cause havoc and try to gain legitimacy for their actions by making them appear to be part of the protests. I'm also not sure that the attack was meticulously planned. I could see Uzbek police and security easily taken with just surprise. As for the day of the 13th when the crowd came under fire, I read one report that said gunmen were standing at the edges of the crowd. I almost have to wonder if they were trying to make the crowd look more threatening than it really was and if the men with guns intentionally gave impossible conditions to the government to precipitate a gunfight.

I'm glad to see that people are picking up on the economic roots of the original protest. In my experience, Islam is something Uzbeks want in their lives but not something they see as a cure for their ills. What they want is a government that allows them to make a living and allows them to profit from their property. And they could care less who it is in charge so long as they get that.

Asia Times reported that the IMU Yuldashev (and there are two Yuldashevs here, right?) was caught and is giving up intel. Have you heard anything on this, Dan? Asia Times is not always reliable, and the fact that they spelled his name wrong doesn't exactly inspire confidence.

Yep, there are two Yuldashevs and there are multiple ways to transliterate the name. Yuldashev and Yuldoshev are both acceptable, though the Uzbek name without a cyrillic ending is Yo'ldosh.

And I may be wrong about what happened the night of the 12-13.

OK, but Yaldevish?


HuT is a secret society that honestly strikes me as what the Masons or the Illuminatii would be like if all the conspiracy theories about them were true. There is a great deal about the organization that we simply don't know at this point about how they operate, though the general understanding seems to be that the London leadership exercises some degree of influence over the regional and local groups or at least thinks that they do.


There were a number of Uzbeks captured with al-Libi and it may well be possible that one of them was Tahir Yuldashev. I haven't heard anything on that score, though I'll be sure to let you know if I do. As I said, Yuldashev was one of the targets of a major Pakistani military campaign last April and he pretty well bloodied the Pakistani army and the Frontier Corps before making his escape. As for how you Romanize his name, there's a fair amount of wiggle room here as I think we've learned over the last several years. Look at the last chapter of Rohan's 2002 book, for instance, and you can see how he butchers "Zarqawi." Heck, we can't even agree whether it's Osama or Usama bin Laden so as somebody who gets regular FBIS transcripts I give media organizations a fairly wide berth in translating this stuff.

Isn't Yuldashev just the Russian form of Yoldash anyway?

Yeah, but again, Yaldevish is not exactly a transliteration; it's just a screwup. Osama v. Usama is no big deal because, at least in my limited experience, vowel can be fuzzy in Arabic depending on where you are.

Now, as for the Uzbek-Arab split, isn't it possible that this is also deliberate (and very clever) disinformation designed to cause mistrust within the ranks? Hint that it was IMU-types who gave up Al-Libbi and then watch to see what happens?

Quite right, though if that's the case then we're a lot smarter than I had previously given our guys credit for.

Thanks, Dan. I get the impression that London's control is very weak given reports that HT cells are going every which way in Kyrgyzstan. And I don't know how reliable the info was, but it was said over and over last year that whatever group was behind the Uzbek bombings had roots in HT and training from the IMU.

The London HQ has or it least thinks it has some degree of control over the local branches. How much of that translates into actual control is another matter altogether.

My understanding is that the US is pretty sure that the perpetrators of the bombing last year were trained by Yuldashev's IMU remnants down in northern Pakistan and then sent home to stir up trouble.

As far as the Hizb-ut-Tahrir factor is concerned here, I'll be quite up front and say that I don't trust them, period. They claim to be both non-violent and apolitical, but my own opinion is that they are neither.

According to Ahmed Rashid's interview with a senior member of HuT :

We want to make a caliphate {Islamic state} which will reunite all the Central Asian states. Hizb-ut-Tahrir wants a peaceful jihad, but ultimately there will be war because repression by the Central Asian states is so strong.

According to an Indian security analyst, the Newsweek-inspired Islamist rioting in Afghanistan is being deliberately incited by Hizb ut-Tahrir. They realized that Newsweek "Quran desecration" story was a propaganda windfall.

Judging from the signs held by the protesters, this spontaneous outburst of righteous indignation about Korans & toilets was well-planned and color coordinated.

Now there are more "spontaneous" demonstrations related to Hizb ut-Tahrir in Uzbekistan. It's an odd coincidence.

More from "Asking for Holy War"
At that time we had a united plan with the Wahabbi movement, but we soon split because Hizb-ut-Tahrir wanted to bring about sharia {Islamic religious law} in a peaceful manner while the Wahabbis were extremists who wanted guerrilla war. Hizb-ut-Tahrir went underground during Soviet times and many members were in Soviet prisons. But today we have tens of thousands of members across Central Asia.
Hizb-ut-Tahrir was formed in Saudi Arabia as a pan-Islamic movement in the 1950s.

Not coincidentally, the Saudi government's English language publication, Arab News, is defending the Hizb ut-Tahrir and the fight for "genuine reforms and freedoms" in Uzbekistan.

Hizb-ut-Tahrir was formed in Saudi Arabia? I'm almost certain that's not right ...

The info about Saudi Arabia was from Ahmed Rashid's Asking for a Holy War

From Sala@m, Hizb-ut-tahrir al-Islami is a "Fundamentalist Islamic movement that seeks through non-violent means to restore the caliphate and institute sharia throughout the Muslim world. Founded in 1953 in Saudi Arabia and Jordan by Diaspora Palestinians. Most widespread underground movement in Uzbekistan, Kyrgyzistan and Tajikistan."

According to this from the Heritage Foundation, "it is likely that Hizb was supported initially by the Saudi-based radical Islamist Wahhabi movement, although the extent to which that support continues today is unclear.

Other sources say that it started in Jerusalem.

According to Internet Hagganah, it was banned in Germany for being anti-Semitic and promoting hate and terror. I think they're based in London.

Ah, there you go. I had always read that it was founded in Jordan ...

Saudis hate HT - its only really strong in certain strange conditions. In most of the Muslim world its really very marginal. They don't claim to be apolitical, they just claim that this is not the right stage for violence in their struggle for the caliphate. Its like dull 19th century debates among socialists. It doesn't mean they're not a bad influence, but in my view they are taken far too seriously. Look back over their history, and you can see just how useless they have generally been. Anyway if you're interested in all the background, its in ICG's report of 2003 (

The Kyrgyz have a pretty good approach to HT.
1) if they get too troublesome, lock them up for a bit or send the tax police round to their brother's business
2) laugh at them a lot
3) make sure that most people are too busy making money at Karasu bazaar to read dull tracts
4) have countless other political parties/newspapers/political leaders that allow you to shout your head off about how rubbish your life is to your heart's content

Result: in recent political upheavals HT had no influence at all. OK, there's still some problems with possible splinter groups etc, and with the general free-for-all in Kyrgyzstan, but if it wasn't for the growth of HT in Uzbekistan, the Kyrgyz would probably be fine.

The Uzbek variant is so obviously counterproductive that it hardly needs spelling out anymore.

Hi all,

Let's listen to both sides before making decisions. I've made the effort to find and discuss with some HT guys and gals and I must say some of what's been posted here is rather one-sided.

Their UK representative will be on BBC World Service today so why not call/write in?

Also, I think they've responded to accusations quite openly:


And they seem very willing to debate with anyone who's up for intellectual discussion and exchange of views. Check out a couple of their guys on US-based 'The Well': or read their articles at

Would we like to be judged based on the statements of politicians, think-tanks and journalists all of whom have their own agendas?

Islamists argue that many Westerners are too intellectually lazy to come to informed decisions. Let's listen to their side of things/debate with them and then judge for ourselves...

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