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.

Central Asian Islamic militants with ties to Al Qaeda, who survived the war in neighboring Afghanistan, are beginning to regroup, and analysts are warning of a shift from insurgency to terror.

"They are going to move towards assassinations and terrorism, possibly against US forces," says Ahmed Rashid, author of "Jihad: The Rise of Militant Islam in Central Asia," reached by telephone in Lahore, Pakistan. "Their underground network in Central Asia hasn't been touched."

As part of the US war on terror, American troops are now stationed at bases in two nations in Central Asia – the first Western troops to deploy there since Alexander the Great's armies in the fourth century BC.

Analysts say those troops and other US installations are likely to be high on the target list of the Islamic Movement of Uzbekistan (IMU) – a group of battle-hardened veterans who fought and were pummeled alongside the Taliban and Al Qaeda last fall.

The IMU has been on the Bush administration's list of terrorist organizations since shortly after Sept. 11.

Western intelligence sources detected a surge of radio traffic last month from Afghanistan to Central Asia, in which frequent references to Juma Namangani – the IMU's charismatic leader, declared dead by US commanders – appear to indicate that the leader is alive.

"The subject is: 'We're here,' in terms of regrouping," says Tamara Makarenko, an expert on Central Asian militant groups at Glamorgan University in Wales.

Despite the IMU's loss of rear bases, arms supplies, and funding with the collapse of the Taliban regime in Afghanistan and the dispersion of Al Qaeda, experts and some Central Asian officials are warning that the question is no longer if the IMU will strike, but when.

Symbolic of the concern is a 12-foot concrete wall now being erected around the US embassy in Tashkent, the Uzbek capital, where six bombs aimed at the fiercely secular regime of President Islam Karimov in February 1999 sparked a massive and continuing government crackdown on anyone suspected of sympathizing with Islamic extremists.

The embassy-wall project was approved before Sept. 11, but work on it – as with all US security measures regionwide – has been stepped up since then.

Some 1,800 American troops now conduct Afghanistan operations from a former Soviet air base in southern Uzbekistan. US troops are also creating a substantial base next door in Kyrgyzstan.

The IMU calls for the violent overthrow of the Uzbek regime, and establishment of a noncorrupt Islamic government based on sharia (Islamic law). It has maintained bases in lawless regions of Tajikistan and traveled through and sometimes attacked neighboring Kyrgyz territory.

Splits within the group, however – between military chief Namangani and Tohir Yuldashev, the ideological leader with strong ties to Islamic militant groups around the world – were evident long before Sept. 11.

IMU numbers and strength unclear

While most sources suggest that IMU remnants are gathering only by the handful, the chief of Kyrgyzstan's Security Council, Misir Ashirkulov, declared last week that 300 IMU fighters, led by Mr. Yuldashev, are planning to launch new raids.

"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."

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."

Uzbekistan opening up

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."

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