Baku, April 5 – In a shift reflecting both Moscow’s disappointment with the CIS and its desire to play a larger geopolitical role in Eurasia, the Russian government’s chief intelligence service, the FSB, is now working closely with and even in many respects for the member governments of the Shanghai Cooperation Organization (SCO).
According to Irina Borogan, a Moscow analyst who tracks intelligence operations for Agentura.ru, that development lies behind FSB chief Nikolai Patrushev’s statement this week that two “international terrorist organizations” are “trying to introduce their criminal activity into the Urals region” (http://www.ej.ru/?a=note&id=7954).
In an article published by Yezhednevniy zhurnal on Thursday, Borogan points out that neither of these groups – Hizb ut-Tahrir or the Islamic Movement of Uzbekistan – has committed terrorist acts in Russia” and that both have directed their activities against Uzbek President Islam Karimov “for whom they represent the greatest danger.”
Given the willingness of many to believe that all terrorist groups are now going international, it is perhaps not surprising that many Russian and foreign commentators accepted Patrushev’s suggest that these two Central Asian groups were now operating in Muslim regions in the center of the Russian Federation.
But as Borogan notes, that is a mistake, one that simultaneously reflects a lack of knowledge about these two groups and ensures that people in the Russian Federation but not in Central Asia or China will fail to recognize just what the FSB chief’s declaration really is about.
Patrushev’s own statement, she continues, provides some important clues about what is really going on. He lumped together Hizb ut-Tahrir, a group that is “legal in the West but banned in Russia and Central Asia,” and the Islamic Movement of Uzbekistan (IMU), which is considered a terrorist group “in both Russia and the United States.”
These groups have about as much in common, Borogan argues, as do “Islamic preachers in London’s Hyde Park, who disseminate their radical ideas before a crow, and Shamil Basayaev,” the Chechen militant who took up arms against the Russians and engaged in terrorist activities.
And the FSB’s Patrushev must know that, the intelligence analyst suggests. After all, “until very recently,” Moscow identified as a terrorist group what he is now referring to as IMU the Islamic Party of Turkestan, a Uighur group “which is fighting for the separation of the Uighur Autonomous District from China.”
What then is going on? Borogan asks rhetorically. It seems unlikely from their history that either group actually is now operating in the Russian Federation against Russian interests. The IMU, she notes, “has never declared its intention to operate in Russia.”
Instead, this group, which arose in 1996 in Tajikistan among Uzbek émigrés who had fled Karimov’s regime who first fled to Afghanistan of the Taliban and then back into Central Asia, has repeatedly indicated that overthrowing the Uzbek president is and remains its chief goal.
Throughout its checkered career, she argues, the IMU has “operated exclusively in Asian countries. ,What possible interest the [Russian Federation’s] Khanty-Mansiisk Autonomous District could have for militants weakened by many years of war and hiding out somewhere in the mountains of Pakistan, is not very clear.”
This situation of Hizb ut-Tahrir is “completely different, but also at odds with the one Patrushev suggested. More a political party than an underground terrorist group, it has operated in Russia for almost a decade and in many countries of the Middle East since its founding in 1953.
Not only has it never included Russia and the CIS countries as candidates for inclusion in the universal caliphate it seeks to establish, but Hizb ut-Tahrir has repeatedly rejected the use of force, even though its positive reaction to terrorist acts by others have given it a reputation for radicalism.
The first Hizb ut-Tahrir supporters appeared in Russia only at the beginning of this decade, Borogan says, pointing out that they had “fled from the persecutions of the Karimov regime which had begun mass repressions against the party” at that time. And since then, it is true they have attracted some local support.
“No one knows” exactly how many Hizb ut-Tahrir members there are in Russia today, but most experts believe that there are “hundreds and perhaps thousands” of them, “mostly in the Middle Volga.” But such complaints about them as have appeared almost exclusively involve Uzbekistan, not Russia.
There is no evidence that Hizb ut-Tahrir is linked to the militants of the IMU, Borogan says. And many Western governments, including Britain’s in 2005, have concluded that Hizb ut-Tahrir, however extreme the views of its members, should be classified as a political party rather than a terrorist organization.
One possible explanation for Patrushev’s statement, Borogan acknowledges, is that the FSB wants to guarantee that it will continue to receive more resources. Many in Moscow believe it has succeeded in the struggle against terrorism in the North Caucasus, and consequently, the FSB may fear its budget could be cut.
But another and better explanation, she argues, concerns Moscow’s interest in gaining economic and political advantage in Central Asia by declaring “the enemies of Islam Karimov our enemies” and focusing on the SCO rather than the CIS as the primary instrument of Russian policy in the region.
A decade ago, she writes, the FSB had “the illusion” that it could maintain control over “their colleagues from the former USSR,” an idea that lay behind the creation of the Anti-Terrorist Center of the CIS. This notion “supported the imperial ambitions of the chekists.”
By 2005, however, when Georgia withdrew from that body, “even in the Lubyanka,” they understood that their bet on the CIS had failed. And they consequently turned to the SCO as their chief regional ally. But they quickly found that in that organization, the participants “play by different rules.”
And those rules, which require each member state to suppress the opponents of the others which happen to be on its territory work to the benefit of China and Uzbekistan “but in no way for Russia,” at least if it pursues its declared goals of democratization and integration with the broader international community.
“Under these conditions,” Borogan continues, Russia almost certainly will find it more difficult not less to combat any terrorist threat against itself because it will be fighting groups that are directed against others. And of course, it is possible, that by fighting the enemies of Uzbekistan and China, Moscow will make their enemies its own.
Indeed, there is only certainty in all of this, she says. The Dalai Lama won’t be visiting Russia anytime soon, at least if Beijing decides, in the wake of the recent wave of violence in Tibet, to include him “on the unified list of terrorists and separatists created within the framework of the SCO.”
But there is a third possibility, one that Borogan does not address and for which there is as yet no compelling evidence, and it is this. It could be that some in Hizb ut-Tahrir have concluded, in much the same way as Al Qaeda did earlier, that the best way to weaken its main adversary is to challenge that adversary’s chief supporter.
If that should prove to be the case, then the Russian government could soon face an even more serious security problem at home and abroad, one brought on by its own actions in support of the brittle authoritarianism of Karimov and of the other members of the SCO.