Staunton, September 30 – Many in the West have watched with alarm on the growth of Islamist violence in post-Soviet Central Asia, but most of them have concluded that its horrors are far away. Now, however, three experts are warning that this violence now poses a growing threat not only to the region but to Europe as well.
The three -- Tomasz Otłowski of Poland, Aleksandr Knyazev of the Russian Federation, and Marlene Laruelle of France – approach this issue from different perspectives but reach the same disturbing conclusion: Europe and the West more generally need to view Islamist radicalism in Central Asia as a problem that can reach Europe in the near future.
In an essay posted on "Wirtualna Polska,” Otłowski, who works as an analyst at the Bureau of National Security of Poland, argues that “Islamic radicalism in Central Asia is a growing problem” and that it is directly connected with the situation in Afghanistan and a threat to European countries (www.centrasia.ru/news.php?st=1285821060).
The activity of the Islamists is especially great in Tajikistan, “the poorest and weakest state” of Central Asia, Otłowski says. The other Central Asian states have been more effective in combating this ideological group, but that is beginning to change not only because the ethnic groups are so intermixed in the Fergana valley but also because of high unemployment.
Many unemployed young men are completely “frustrated” with their chances for the future, the Polish analyst argues, and consequently, they find an explanation for their problems and a guide to future action in “the radical variant of Islam which” Al-Qaeda and its representatives offer them.
As a result, he continues, “nowhere in Central Asia does the idea of jihad have as many supporters as in the Ferghana valley,” a place that has been a focus of attention by Al-Qaeda operatives since the end of the 1990s. And it was out of them that the Islamic Movement of Uzbekistan (IMU) arose.
The IMU recruited its members in the Ferghana and “dispatched them for preparation in the Al-Qaeda camps in Afghanistan or in the Pakistani tribal territories.” The Uzbek government’s harsh campaign drove the IMU out of much of that country, but many IMU activists resettled in Pakistan’s Northern Waziristan, “a bastion today of Uzbek Islamists.”
There, along with other Islamist groups, the IMU has “not only more or less formally declared its subordination to Al-Qaeda (in both the ideological and organizational-cadres sense) but also begun to declare its interests in the globalization of its goals and activities,” a hallmark of Al-Qaeda throughout its history.
The IMU and other groups have used their “close ties with Al-Qaeda” to increase their operational possibilities and to broaden “the geography of their activity,” a development that is “useful to Al-Qaeda itself since the grouping provides additional forces and means for planning and conducting broad-scale operations” around the world.
“One of the first organizations” from Central Asia which adopted Al-Qaeda’s worldwide jihadist line was the Union of Islamic Jihad (UIJ), which consists of many activists who were part of the IMU. And the UIJ is now playing a major role for Al-Qaeda not only in Central Asia but in Europe and even the United States.
For Al-Qaeda, Otłowski writes, this focus on Central Asia is entirely understandable. Central Asia for that group, he says, is “a litmus test” of what may be possible. “Countries lying in the heart of the Asian continent with a predominant Muslim population and domestic problems are the ideal starting bases for further operations especially against Russia and China.”
But the UIJ is interested in attacking Europe as well, the Polish analyst says. It has already developed a network in Turkey and in Germany, both among local Muslims, recent Muslim converts, and especially those who have had experience in the fighting in Afghanistan or elsewhere.
“Without a doubt,” Otłowski argues, “it is only a question of time when the UIJ structures will focus on Europe” and launch attacks there. Germany and Turkey are particularly at risk, and UIJ is actively recruiting people who have little interest in what is taking place in Central Asia but a great desire to attack the West in the name of jihad.
Meanwhile, in Almaaty earlier this week, Aleksandr Knyazev of Moscow and Marlene Laruelle of Paris and Washington discussed what they call “the new arc of instability” from Afghanistan through Tajikistan and Kyrgyzstan and the ways in which Islamist radicals in each of those countries are linked with one another (www.ferghana.ru/article.php?id=6745).
Among other comments, they provided support for Otłowski’s argument with their discussions of the “reincarnation” of the IMU and its growing activity in the northeastern provinces of Afghanistan and renewal of activity in the countries of Central Asia from which its members had earlier been pushed out.
This activity, the two stressed, is linked to the flow of drugs and the links of these radical Islamist groups to organized crime in many countries, factors that, along with their experiences in Afghanistan and Pakistan, also prompt the members of the IMU and the UIJ to look beyond their national communities and think in radical jihadist terms of the Al-Qaeda type.