Central Asia: the next front in the terror war?
After fighting alongside the Taliban last fall, Uzbek insurgents on Bush's terrorist list are now regrouping.
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"This campaign will be much crueler toward us than previous ones," Mr. Ashirkulov said. "Yuldashev intends to commit terrorist attacks, take hostages, assassinate government officials."Skip to next paragraph
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Even if Namangani were dead, Ms. Makarenko says, Mr. Yuldashev would be able to lead an IMU renewal that would be more ideologically driven, and could attract "leftover" Al Qaeda Arabs who were defeated in Afghanistan.
After years of demonizing the group, Uzbek officials today say the IMU is less dangerous. Analysts attribute that confidence partly to a US-Uzbek deal signed in March, in which the US would view with "grave concern any external threat" to Uzbekistan. "Terror is not an abstract word," says Deputy Foreign Minister Sadiq Safaev. "It is a source of funding, of training bases, a supply of equipment. All of those are destroyed by the US."
Lying low now is part of the strategy, though US plans could affect the timing of new strikes, says Mr. Rashid.
"At the moment, it is not in anyone's interest to raise their heads, with the US presence so strong," Rashid says. "But as soon as there is a decline of the American presence, you will see a revival [of militants]. If the US is diverted to Iraq or elsewhere in the months ahead, then we would see [terror attacks.]"
IMU networks were first developed during the Tajik civil war in the mid-1990s, in which Islamists fought for control of the vacuum left by the collapse of the Soviet Union. The IMU filled its ranks by tapping into deep unhappiness with the Uzbek government's repression of Islamic groups. Financing has come from narcotics smuggling and from Saudi and other Islamic supporters.
The IMU has taken advantage of the fragile grip the post-Soviet Central Asian regimes often have on their own territory. But Uzbek sources say that before Sept. 11, popular support for the IMU started to wane. Current levels of support are difficult to gauge.
IMU leaders also worked hand in hand with Al Qaeda, and militants and their families lived for a time along three long streets packed with houses in the northern Afghan city of Mazar-e Sharif. The fact that IMU militants took substantial casualties during the fighting there last fall may determine the new tactics.
"Their capacity to launch organized armed groups across borders is pretty limited now," says another Western diplomat here. "So if you wanted to draw attention to yourself without a military incursion, the sensible thing would be to have some terrorist activity in Uzbekistan."
Any IMU action would come at a critical moment in Uzbekistan. President Karimov's authoritarian regime subject to strong US pressure is beginning to open up, easing rampant human rights abuses and lifting censorship.
"It would be an enormous shock for the Uzbek government," says David Lewis, head of the Central Asia Project for the Brussels-based International Crisis Group, reached in the Kyrgyz capital, Bishkek.
"They have relaxed somewhat, and some people are moving to ease the regime. Hard-line elements would use any [IMU attack] as a pretext to crack down again."