August 5, 2004

August 5, 2004 | Commentary on

Terror in Tashkent

Last Friday, three suicide bombers blew themselves up next two the U.S. and Israeli Embassies and Prosecutor General's Office in Tashkent, Uzbekistan.

Three Uzbek security men, including the Israeli ambassador's bodyguard, were killed and eight were civilians wounded. The attacks coincided with the start of the trials of radical Islamists accused of perpetrating massive March terrorist attacks killing 35 people and wounding scores. Two terrorist groups, Islamic Movement of Uzbekistan (IMU), and Islamic Jihad, claimed responsibility for the attack.

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The two organizations are well known in the global jihadi movement. In the late 1990s, the IMU was the leading threat to Uzbekistan's stability. It launched bombings against government offices in Tashkent in 1999 and committed kidnappings of foreigners in the neighboring Kyrgyzstan. IMU was part of the al Qaeda-led terrorist international based in Afghanistan and was mostly destroyed in the Afghanistan war. Though its leader, Juma Namangani, may have been killed in Afghanistan, another IMU commander, Tahir Yuldashev, is said to have survived and may be trying to reactivate his network.

Islamic Jihad, unknown in Uzbekstan until past spring, has announced it was responsible for the March 2004 homicide bombings and other attacks in Tashkent and Bukhara, and blamed Uzbekistan's support of the U.S. war in Afghanistan and the secular nature of the regime for its actions.

Islamic Jihad is a known militant Sunni terrorist "brand" in use in Egypt and the West Bank/Gaza, which was spawned by the Muslim Brotherhood movement. In the 1990s, the Egyptian Jihad movement led by Ayman Al-Zawahiri merged with bin Laden's al Qaeda. The Uzbek attacks prove the Islamic Jihad has a "brand" appeal from Marrakesh to Manila.

The July explosions are connected to legal proceedings against the perpetrators of the March 2004 terror attack in Tashkent, which killed more than 40 people. Both spring and summer attacks demonstrate radical Islamist organizations are escalating security threats in the region.

President Islam Karimov of Uzbekistan also claimed the attackers may have been past members of Hizb-ut-Tahrir al-Islami, a global radical Islamist party with a presence throughout the Middle East and Europe, reportedly headquartered in London. Hizb foments antigovernment unrest, advocates overthrowing secular regimes throughout the Muslim world, and fights for creating a Califate, a military theocracy aimed at waging total war on the "land of the sword" - the non-Muslim world.

The United States faces a tough choice in Uzbekistan. After September 11, 2001, the U.S. has made a commitment to preserve the security of a secular Islamic country greatly assisted the U.S. military in preparing and carrying out the Afghanistan operation, and which hosts a U.S. military base in Khanabad. The March 2002 U.S.-Uzbek Strategic Cooperation Framework includes a U.S. promise to "regard with grave concern any external threat" to Uzbek security and sovereignty. IMU, Islamic Jihad and Hizb-ut-Tahrir are already a grave concern of the Uzbek and U.S. governments.

On the other hand, the Karimov regime's track record is far from exemplary. Domestic dissidents, political and media critics and Islamists are subject to harsh treatment and questionable legal proceedings. Secular opposition parties are severely restricted. There are numerous reports of torture and abuse of the legal and law enforcement systems. Economic reform is stuttering. Leftist-liberal nongovernmental organizations (NGOs) with global reach, which uphold civil rights and ignore Islamist terrorist threats, make Uzbekistan a cause celebre.

Their concern and criticism have been at least partly recognized by State Department. On July 13, spokesman Richard Boucher announced Secretary of State Colin Powell cannot make a determination of Uzbekistan's "substantial and continuing progress" toward its 2002 Framework commitments. The Framework demands the Karimov regime strive to respect human rights, establish a genuine multiparty system, ensure free and fair elections and freedom of expression, and media independence. As much as $18 million in fiscal 2004 assistance may be affected.

There is no question the U.S. government should encourage the Karimov regime to pursue political and economic reforms.

However, those who hasten to criticize Tashkent, need at the to also recognize the real threats to the Uzbek people, its government, and U.S. interests in the region. These dangers are first and foremost Islamist.

Clearly, the terrorists' primary concern was not human rights. On the contrary, by provoking secular or moderate Muslim governments to take harsh measures, Islamist terrorists undermine those regimes' international reputations and drive a wedge between them and their democratic allies.

Furthermore, addressing anti-terrorist activities in Central Asia by targeting U.S. allies, abusing human-rights rhetoric and utilizing it to weaken or topple pro-American regimes is self-defeating and nearsighted. Extremists view U.S. sanctions against its allies as weakness. Such measures empower global terror networks to provoke pro-Western regimes.

A militant Islamic takeover of Uzbekistan may provide radicals a state base larger and militarily and technologically more sophisticated than Afghanistan. Moreover, demise of a secular Uzbekistan may have tumultuous consequences for all Central Asia. If Islamists overrun Uzbekistan, weak Central Asian states, such as Kyrgyzstan, Tajikistan and even the totalitarian Turkmenistan, may follow. An Uzbekistan controlled by a radical Islamist regime, emergence of a Central Asian Califate, and waning U.S. influence in the region, will leave human rights and individual freedoms worse off than they are now.

Ariel Cohen is a research fellow in Russian and Eurasian Studies at the Heritage Foundation.

About the Author

Ariel Cohen, Ph.D. Visiting Fellow in Russian and Eurasian Studies and International Energy Policy in the Douglas and Sarah Allison Center for Foreign and National Security Policy, a division of the Kathryn and Shelby Cullom Davis Institute for International Studies, at The Heritage Foundation
Douglas and Sarah Allison Center for Foreign and National Security Policy

First appeared in The Washington Times