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Recent political developments in Uzbekistan confirm the thesis that, in the process of their violent interaction with authorities, religious political organizations undergo a transformation into extremist ones. Already more than a decade ago, largely as a result of repressive measures on the part of Uzbek law enforcement agencies, various religio-political groups had banded together under the banner of the Islamic Movement of Uzbekistan (IMU). In turn, the IMU became part of the global network of international terrorism spearheaded by al-Qaeda. While today the IMU is in retreat in Uzbekistan, battered by effective Uzbek and Coalition counterterrorism efforts, the organization still has the potential to be a significant threat to the security of the Central Asian states. So do other Islamist groups, such as Akramiyya, which is now active on Uzbek soil, and which advocates the removal of Uzbekistan’s authoritarian government and its replacement with a “just” Islamic one.

Level of Islamist Activity: 
Medium
Islamist Activity: 

Uzbekistan has been an arena of activity for a range of Islamist groups for most of the two decades since its independence from the USSR. These groups range in their ideology, objectives and methods. All, however, share the broad goal of transforming Uzbekistan from a secular authoritarian regime into a state based upon—and governed by—sharia law. They include:

Islamic Movement of Uzbekistan (IMU) 
Commonly understood to be one of the most dangerous international terrorist organizations in existence, the IMU traces its origins back to 1988-1989. At its start, the IMU was comprised of a number of former activists from Islamic organizations of Uzbekistan, the activities of which were proscribed by Uzbek President Islam Karimov in 1992-93. In the early 1990s, most members of the movement belonged to such Islamist organizations as Adolat Uyushmasi (from the Namangan region), the Islamic Revival Party (founded in 1990 in Astrakhan), Odamiylik insonparvarlik wa (based in Kokand), the Islamic Party of Turkestan, Islom Lashkorlari (or "Warriors of Islam," from Namangan), and so forth. 

When the Uzbek government began its anti-Islamist campaign, the activists of what would become the IMU migrated to Afghanistan and Tajikistan. All told, about two thousand Uzbeks are estimated to have left the country during the 1990s. Many of them subsequently took part in Tajikistan’s civil war, on the side of the United Tajik Opposition (UTO).1 At that time, future IMU leaders Tahir Yuldashev and Jumabai Hodgiev (aka Juma Namangani) became members of the extremist organization Tablykh, which was aimed at overthrowing the existing political system of Uzbekistan.2 In January 1991, in the city of Namangan, the two established another radical religious/political group, known as Adolat (Justice), with the aim of building an Islamic state in Uzbekistan.3 This was followed by the creation of multiple, disparate religious groups in Uzbekistan, including the Markazi Islam (Islamic Center) in the city of Namangan, which became a hub for jihadi activity. On December 8, 1991, it organized an unauthorized rally and they captured the office building of the Namangan regional committee of the Communist Party of Uzbekistan, levying an ultimatum to Uzbek authorities and demanding President Islam Karimov swear on the Koran and proclaim the establishment of an Islamic state.4 The resulting state clampdown led to thousands of arrests, prompting an exodus of Islamic radicals from Uzbekistan to Tajikistan.5  

During this early period, Yuldashev and others are known to have traveled to Afghanistan, where they made contact with alumni of the Afghan jihad and established training camps for Uzbek militants.6 These contacts created a conveyor for radicalization, and the following years saw a number of Uzbek militants pass through Afghan training camps before returning to Uzbekistan to destabilize the situation in the Ferghana Valley and elsewhere in the former Soviet republic. 

In 1995, the "Islamic Center" became the base for the Islamic Revival Movement of Uzbekistan (IRMU), which officially became known as the Islamic Movement of Uzbekistan (IMU) the following year. 

After the formation of the Islamic Movement of Uzbekistan, Tahir Yuldashev became its political leader, or amir, Jumabai Hodgiev became the head of the military sector of the party, and Zubair ibn Abdurahman (Abdul Rahim) became the head of the press center and an assistant to Yuldashev. The organization’s headquarters was set up in Peshawar, Pakistan (later relocated to Kabul, Afghanistan).

In March 1992 many activists of Uzbek Islamist organizations fled from Uzbekistan to neighboring Tajikistan. There, in 1992, the Namangan Battalion (NB) was formed (named after the group’s majority, which hailed from the city of Namangan in the Fergana Valley). Jumabai Hodgiev became the commander of this militia, which established a network of military bases and training camps for the IMU in northern Tajikistan, mostly in the Jirgatal and Garm regions. As of early 1999, it was estimated that there were approximately 1,500 militants of the Uzbek Islamic opposition in northern Tajikistan.7 The Namangan Battalion was well-armed and resourced, and developed a special system of training, focusing on guerrilla warfare, sabotage and terrorist activities. Uzbek instructors as well as instructors from Islamic organizations of Afghanistan, Pakistan, Kashmir, and from some Middle East countries worked at NB’s Tajik bases. Many of them collaborated with foreign intelligence services, most prominently the Pakistani ISI.8

NB militants trained in the IMU camps in Tajikistan and abroad, mostly in Afghanistan and Pakistan. These camps formally belonged to Islamist organizations such as al-Qaeda, Harkat-ul-Ansar, Hezb-e-Islami, Harkat-ul-Mujahideen, Jama'at al-Tabligh wad-Dawa, the Taliban and others. However, in most cases, instructors were Uzbek Islamists affiliated with the Bin Laden network, as well as specialists from Pakistan’s ISI.9 In total, during the 1990s more than a thousand militants of the Islamic Movement of Uzbekistan received military training in training camps in these two countries.10

Given the difficulty of creating such a militia, and in supporting, clothing, equipping, and arming between 500 to several thousand fighters in another country, significant foreign funding is presumed to have been provided during this period.11 Thereafter, the IMU was able to finance its activities in Central Asia, as well as in other regions, mainly due to the financial support of the international Islamist organizations and the donations from wealthy members of the Uzbek diaspora in Afghanistan, Turkey and Saudi Arabia.

Since the mid-1990s, Uzbek Islamist opposition leaders bolstered this aid with active fundraising activities, with the aim of generating support for a powerful military-political structure. Thus, in 1994-95, representatives of the Islamic opposition in Uzbekistan are known to have collected significant donations in the Uzbek part of Afghanistan, where more than two million ethnic Uzbeks reside. Very generous support reportedly came from some Turkish organizations and charity funds operating in Germany (including the Milli Gurus movement).12 Among other Turkish organizations known to have provided financial assistance to the IMU are: the Middle Eastern Turkic Union, the Great Islamic Front, the Hotbed of Islamic Order, and others—as well as Pakistani, Qatari and Muslim Brotherhood charitable organizations or arms.13

Beginning in 1997, the IMU commenced an organized insurgent campaign against the Uzbek state. Its strategy was not to conduct large-scale violence against Uzbekistan and Kyrgyzstan, but to seize power by way of destabilizing terror, sabotage and banditry. It was only after the Taliban and al-Qaeda suffered defeat as a result of U.S. counterterrorist operations in Afghanistan in October 2001 that the IMU—which also had suffered heavy losses, including the death of its head, Juma Namangani, near Mazar i-Sharif in November 2001—ceased its armed incursions in the region.

The organization survived by rebranding itself the Hizb Islami Turkestan, or the Islamic Party of Turkestan. This organization, still led by Tahir Yuldashev, maintains the same outlook and ambitions as its precursor, the IMU. Estimates of its strength vary; according to Pakistani officials, Yuldashev could command as many as 4,800 Uzbek militants, as well as "groups of Chechens, the Libyan Islamic Fighting Group, [and] Uighur militants of the East Turkestan Islamic Movement."14 The organization is currently believed to be most active in Afghanistan and parts of Pakistan. Yuldashev himself was reportedly killed in August 2009 in South Waziristan as a result of a U.S. Predator drone strike.15 This appears to have resulted in a downturn of the group’s militant activities, with the last large-scale attack by the IMU being the September 2010 ambush on a convoy of government troops in the valley Kamarob of Tajikistan.16 

Nevertheless, elements of the IMU have remained active, particularly in Afghanistan, where the group remains an ally of both the Taliban and al-Qaeda. In 2012, the International Security Assistance Force and the Afghan armed forces conducted 26 raids against the IMU in eight Afghan provinces—Badakhshan, Baghlan, Faryab, Logar, Helmand. Kunduz, Takhar and Wardak—with eight of them occurring in Kunduz province alone.17

Akramiyya
The founder of Akramiyya, Akram Yuldashev, was born in 1963 in Andijan, Uzbekistan.18 A teacher by profession, his 1992 treatise “Lymonga Yul” emphasizes that the ultimate goal of his organization is the assumption of power and the creation of an Islamic state.19 Members of Akramiyya called themselves birodarami, or brothers, but the people of Central Asia know them as akramists. There are now said to be tens of thousands of such “brothers.”20 They first appeared in the Ferghana Valley in 1998, where—motivated by the ideology of Hizb ut-Tahrir—they espoused a selective reading of the Kuran, arguing in favor of sharia as the answer to the modern, "unfavorable" period for Muslims in Central Asia. Yuldashev is said to have structured the activities of his group in five phases, beginning with the indoctrination of new members, extending to the accumulation of wealth for charitable Islamic works, and concluding with the gradual, "natural transition" to Islamic rule in Uzbek society.21  

Ideologically, Akramiyya is an outgrowth of the Ahl al-Quran movement, which existed in the 1940s in Uzbekistan. Members of this movement categorically refused to recognize the teachings of other Sunni schools (mazh'hab). They adhered to very austere views, rejected the "Soviet way of life" and did not recognize official clergy. Members of Akramiyya believe only in Allah, and do not worship the Prophet Mohammed. Nor do they recognize any nation in the world. They ignore state laws, renounce their parents, and subject themselves exclusively to the direction of the group’s leaders.22 Most Akramiyya members are of Uzbek nationality. Its members are mostly businessmen with small agricultural enterprises, funds and industrial warehouses. The organization is known to control dozens of commercial firms, which do business under a unified leadership.

Akramiyya has been targeted by authorities in Tashkent for some time. Its leader, Akram Yuldashev, was sentenced in the spring of 1998 to two-and-a-half years in prison for violating Article 276 (drug possession) of the Uzbek Criminal Code.23 In late December of the same year, he was amnestied, only to be rearrested the day after a bombing in Tashkent in February 1999. In May 1999, Yuldashev was sentenced to 17 years in prison under several articles of the Uzbek Criminal Code: 155 (terrorism), 156 (incitement of religious hatred), 159 (encroachment on constitutional system), 161 (sabotage), 216 (unlawful association), 216-1 (luring into an illegal organization), 242 (organization of a criminal association), 244-1 (dissemination of materials against public safety), 276 (drug possession) and 248 (possession of weapons, ammunition and explosives).24 During the same period (1998-1999), 22 other young members of Akramiyya were given various terms in prison.25 As of this writing, Yuldashev remains jailed in Tashkent. 

The organization continued to exist until the Andijan massacre of 2005, when some of its members were shot by state security forces for participating in riots. In its aftermath, many members of fled from Uzbekistan through Kyrgyzstan to the West, leading to the gradual dissolution of the group.

Hizb ut-Tahrir (HuT)
Unlike the IMU, Hizb ut-Tahrir is a truly transnational movement, which enjoys considerable support among young Muslims in Western Europe and has a broad organizational base in London. HuT was founded in 1953 in East Jerusalem by a judge of the local Sharia Court of Appeal, Takiuddinom an-Nabhani, and headed by him until his death in 1977 (and thereafter by his disciples). According to the official ideology of the organization, it was formed "in response to the call of Allah," as outlined in Surah 3, verse 104 of the Quran: "And let there be among you a group that calls for good (Islam), orders to accept approved things and prohibit reprimanded things. These are those who reached success."26 The declared aim of the organization is the restoration of a just Islamic way of life and Islamic system and creating a worldwide Caliphate (Islamic State). The dissemination of HuT’s ideas in Central Asia began in early 1990.27

The group—also known as the Islamic Party of Liberation—believes it can achieve its utopian Islamic state in three steps. The first involves educating Muslims about its philosophies and goals. In the second step, the Muslims would then spread these views among others in their countries, especially members of government, the military and other power centers. In the third and final step, Hizb ut-Tahrir believes its faithful will cause secular governments to crumble because loyalties will then lie solely with Islam—not nationalities, politics or ethnic identifications. At that point, the group says a supreme Islamic leader, a Caliph like those of past centuries, would rule all Muslims with both political and religious authority.28 

The party acquired adherents first in Uzbekistan, where it had (and still has) the greatest number of followers, and then migrated to neighboring Kyrgyzstan, Tajikistan and Kazakhstan. In these states, the party first recruited its followers among ethnic Uzbeks, but gradually young ethnic Kyrgyz, Tajiks and Kazakhs became involved in HuT, causing a rapid expansion of the group during the late 1990s.

The ideology of Hizb ut-Tahrir was "imported" to Uzbekistan by a Jordanian, Atif Salahuddin, in 1995. The same year, the organization was officially founded in the city of Tashkent, and subsequently in the Andijan, Samarkand, Tashkent and Fergana provinces of Uzbekistan. HuT cells were mostly composed of local youth. Party members condemned the "godless government" in Uzbekistan, "the enemies of Islam"—the United States and Israel—and called for the creation of a worldwide Islamic state. Members of Hizb ut-Tahrir were distinguished not so much by their desire for strict adherence to Islamic norms, but by their religious and political activities. Young people enjoyed the opposition position of the party and open discussion of political issues inside the party.

The activities of HuT did not attract the attention of Uzbek authorities until May 1998, when party members began to distribute leaflets in public places. The response was rapid; between August and November of 1998, at least 15 members of the Tashkent branch of the party were arrested. Mass arrests of members of Hizb ut-Tahrir throughout Uzbekistan began the following year.29 

Following the events of September 11, 2001, many members of Hizb ut-Tahrir in Uzbekistan went underground, fearing large-scale retaliation. The group has largely remained there to this day, as a result of unprecedented violent measures on the part of Uzbek authorities. In recent years, the group has exhibited only nominal activity within Uzbekistan, although experts caution that this lull may be temporary in nature.30 Elsewhere in the region, however, HuT has expanded its activities. As authorities in Uzbekistan ratcheted up their counterterrorism activities, party activists were forced to seek refuge among Uzbek communities in neighboring countries, primarily in Kyrgyzstan, to where the headquarters of the party has moved.

Islamism and Society: 

Although the majority (88 percent) of Uzbekistan’s population of 28.6 million is Muslim, most of them Sunni, this group by and large prefers a secular state system. Muslim leaders in Uzbekistan have demonstrated themselves to be very critical of Hizb ut-Tahrir, and have argued that the movement is essentially a political rather than religious organization, and that Muslims should not be engaged in politics. Uzbek President Islam Karimov's intolerance of the group seemed to catch on with Kazakh, Kyrgyz, and Tajik authorities, who stepped up their repression of the group, arresting, trying, and convincing dozens of members for distributing leaflets and other nonviolent activities. However, some imams do not want to alienate members of Hizb ut-Tahrir from their mosques, because the number of parishioners determines the level of donations (Sadaka-Fitr and zakat) that flow into their coffers.

While most moderate Muslims in Uzbekistan reject the goals and ideology of the movement, they tend to sympathize with its members because of the repression the latter face at the hands of local authorities, and as a result of the movement’s efforts to draw attention to official corruption. HuT leaflets highlighting corruption, inequality and oppression tend to find a receptive ear among the Uzbek population, and especially among its more disadvantaged segments. The organization’s call for social justice, meanwhile, appears to resonate at a grassroots level among a population that routinely experiences hardship and privation. Nevertheless, neither the IMU nor Hizb ut-Tahrir can be said to boast widespread support anywhere in Central Asia. Both organizations appeal only to a small fraction of the regional population—and then this support is localized, strongest in parts of the Fergana Valley, possibly in south Uzbekistan, and in some areas of Tajikistan. While it is impossible to accurately determine the level of this support, Uzbek observers place the current number of active supporters of these groups at less than 10 percent of the regional population.31

Most ordinary Muslims in Uzbekistan do not support political activities in mosques, and do not share radical Islamist ideas. Nevertheless, the scale of support received by radical groups may expand if dissatisfaction with the current political and economic system increases. It is understood that support for Hizb ut-Tahrir and other extremists in Uzbekistan is fed more by disappointment with the state of contemporary politics than by a conscious commitment to extremist ideology. After years of government-enforced repression, many have been discouraged from trying to use the available ways to protest against the government and in general against the injustices of modern society, and therefore they were attracted by a more idealized vision. The fact that people are often recruited by their friends and acquaintances contributes to a less critical view of Hizb ut-Tahrir among Uzbek Muslims. 

Islamism and the State: 

In the early 1990s, the newly independent Uzbek government launched a series of measures to eliminate all secular opposition groups, and thereafter directed its attention toward Islamic associations, fearful that any form of religious expression not controlled by the state could serve as a vehicle for popular discontent. This pattern has continued uninterrupted for the past two decades; state intelligence agencies work to eliminate and marginalize those Islamic leaders who do not share the official vision of religion as an instrument of a state policy. Uzbek security forces, meanwhile, routinely utilize the most repressive methods against Islamic organizations, often failing to differentiate between radical groups like the IMU and more grassroots-oriented ones like Akramiyya. Adherents to all of these organizations are subject to arbitrary arrest and torture, based upon suspicions of extremism.32 

Today, the Uzbek government continues to prosecute any activity which is regarded as the uncontrolled expression of the Muslim faith. This state repression, however, has been coupled with a subtle and surprisingly sophisticated “soft power” approach to combating Islamist ideology. This approach finds its roots in the nature of Central Asian Islam itself, where the dominant branch of Sunni Islam is the Khanafi school—one of the most tolerant and liberal in that religion. Its pluralistic and largely apolitical disposition is one of the main reasons that Khanafi believers survived and avoided mass repression during the Communist era, when Soviet ideologues sought to eliminate doctrinal competition with Marxism-Leninism. 

This approach leverages an asset shared by the Central Asian states: a strong knowledge base with which to fight radical Islamists. Since gaining independence, the countries of the region have managed to educate considerable numbers of knowledgeable experts in Islam. Moreover, in these countries, the Koran and Hadith have been translated into local languages, and many academics and imams are applying their knowledge on a practical level. By necessity, Central Asian governments, especially those in Uzbekistan and Kyrgyzstan, have created and developed an extensive educational system—spanning from kindergarten to university level—that inculcates the moral norms and social principles of tolerant Islam, and which respects the value of human life (be it Muslim, Christian, Jewish, or other). The system provides textbooks for schools, cartoons for children, education for imams of local mosques, a network of counselors in Islamic affairs for central and local administrations, and television and radio talk shows that challenge the intolerant Wahhabi interpretation of the Koran and Hadith and provide listeners with a religious alternative.33

These realities have bred a cadre of Central Asian scholars and religious authorities that are ready and able to confront radical Islam. Dr. Abdujabar Abduvakhitov, the rector of the Westminster International University in Tashkent, Uzbekistan, is one such official. According to him, the mission of state educational establishments should be to erode the base of “supporters” of radical Islam, and to educate young Muslims in the spirit of tolerant, traditional Central Asian Islam. Other experts have echoed these prescriptions. Dr. Zukhriddin Khusnidinov, rector of the Islamic University of Uzbekistan, believes that university activities—as well as radio and TV broadcasting—are necessary in order to provide young people with a proper understanding of Islamic principles.34 

Citations: 

[1] Michael Falkov, “Islamic Movement of Uzbekistan (IMU): History, financial base and a military structure,” Nezavisimaya Gazeta (Moscow), August 24, 2000.
[2] Pravda Vostoka (Tashkent), October 21, 2000.
[3] Igor Rotar, “The Islamic Movement of Uzbekistan: A Resurgent IMU?” Jamestown Foundation Terrorism Monitor 1, iss. 8, December 17, 2003, http://www.jamestown.org/single/?no_cache=1&tx_ttnews[tt_news]=26187.
[4] Orozbek Moldaliyev, Islam i Politika: Politizatsiya Islama ili Islamizatsiya Politiki? (Islam and Politics: The Politicization of Islam of the Islamization of Politics?) (Bishkek: n.p., 2008), 269; See also A. Starkovsky, “Armia Izgnanikov, Chast I” (Army of Outcasts, Part I) freas.org, January 18, 2004, http://freeas.org/?nid=2367; Vitaly Ponomarev, Ugroza “Islamskovo Ekstremisma” v Uzbekistane: Mifui i Realnosti (The “Islamic Extremist” Threat in Uzbekistan: Myth and Reality) (Moscow: Memorial, 1999).
[5] Ibid; See also Res Publica, September 15-21, 1998.
[6] Moldaliyev, Islam i Politika, 271.
[7] Falkov, “Islamic Movement of Uzbekistan (IMU).”
[8] Ibid.
[9] Ibidem.
[10] Ibidem.
[11] Author’s interview with former IMU member, Osh, Kyrgyzstan, August 11, 2004; See also Alex Alexiev, “Oil Dollars to Jihad: Saudi Arabia Finances Global Islamism,” Internationale Politik 1 (2004), 31.
[12] Falkov, “Islamic Movement of Uzbekistan (IMU).”
[13] Ibid.
[14] Author’s interview with Pakistani researcher, Almaty, Kazakhstan, July 24, 2009.
[15] Bill Roggio, “Tahir Yuldashev Confirmed Killed In U.S. Strike In South Waziristan,” Long War Journal, October 4, 2009, http://www.longwarjournal.org/archives/2009/10/tahir_yuldashev_conf.php. 
[16] “An Ambush on a Convoy of Government Troops in Tajikistan in the Kamarob Valley,” Wikipedia.ru, n.d., http://ru.wikipedia.org/wiki/Засада_на_колонну_правительственных_войск_Таджикистана_в_ущелье_Камароб. 
[17] “Afghanistan: IMU leader detained in Kunduz,” Fergana News Agency, August 14, 2012, http://www.fergananews.com/news.php?id=19262&print=1, 08.14.2012.
[18] Bakhtiyar Babadjanov, “Akramia: A Brief Summary,” Carnegie Endowment for International Peace, May 2006, http://www.carnegieendowment.org/files/Akramiya.pdf.
[19] Ibid.
[20] Author’s interview with Uzbek expert on Islam B. Babadzhanov, Tashkent, Uzbekistan, September 14, 2009.
[21] Ibid.
[22] Author’s interview with Uzbek expert on Islam I. Mirsaidov, Tashkent, Uzbekistan, September 16, 2009.
[23] Moldaliyev, Islam i Politika, 286.
[24] Ibid., 286-287.
[25] Ibidem.
[26] “Hizb ut-Tahrir al-Islami,” Wikipedia.ru, n.d., http://ru.wikipedia.org/wiki/Хизб_ут-Тахрир_аль-Ислами. 
[27] Ibidem, 283.
[28] Hizb ut-Tahrir al-Islami (Islamic Party of Liberation) http://www.globalsecurity.org/military/world/para/hizb-ut-tahrir.htm 
[29] Ibidem.
[30] Author’s interview with Uzbek expert on Islam М.P., Tashkent, Uzbekistan, September 11, 2009.
[31] Timur Kozukulov, Problemy Borby s Religioznim Ekstremismom v Usloviakh Globalizatsiyii v Ferganskoy Doline (Problems of Combating Religious Extremism in the Ferghana Valley under Globalized Conditions) (Osh, Kyrgyzstan: Oshskii Gosudarstviniy Universitet, 2008), 72.
[32] See, for example, United Nations Human Rights Committee, “Human Rights Committee Concludes Consideration of Uzbekistan’s Third Report,” March 12, 2010, http://www.un.org/News/Press/docs/2010/hrct719.doc.htm.
[33] For a detailed analysis of the “soft power” counterterrorism approaches of Central Asian states, see Evgueni K. Novikov, Central Asian Responses to Radical Islam (Washington, DC: American Foreign Policy Council, 2006).
[34] Author’s interview, Tashkent, Uzbekistan, July 2004.