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Fundamentalist Islamic Groups in Central Asia Largely Incapacitated - 2002-07-22

Although U.S.-led anti-terrorism efforts have been focussed largely on Afghanistan, nationalist groups in neighboring countries, particularly Uzbekistan, have also worked with the Taleban and al-Qaida. Some of these groups have suffered heavily for their alliance with them. But do they still pose a threat?

When the United States embarked on its anti-terror campaign last year, it found Afghanistan's neighbors more than willing to back the effort. With little prodding, Uzbek President Islam Karimov allowed U.S. troops to conduct Afghan operations from southern Uzbekistan. In neighboring Kyrgyzstan, a base is being constructed that will eventually house some 3,000 U.S. soldiers.

This warm Central Asian welcome to the U.S. military is not wholly altruistic. Central Asian nations, particularly Uzbekistan and Tajikistan, have been struggling against nationalist and pan-Islamic movements that sprang up in the 1990s in the vacuum created by the breakup of the Soviet Union. The U.S.-led anti-terrorism effort has had the side effect - whether intended or not - of damaging Central Asian Islamic groups that had allied themselves with the Taleban and al-Qaida.

The Islamic Movement of Uzbekistan, or IMU is dedicated to the overthrow of the autocratic government of President Karimov and replacing it with an Iranian-style theocracy. The IMU has been active not only in Uzbekistan, but in Kyrgyzstan and Tajikistan as well. Since last year, it has been on the U.S. list of terrorist organizations.

When the Taleban came to power in Afghanistan in 1996, it was anxious to export its own brand of puritanical Islam to its neighbors. The IMU, finding it difficult to operate safely in its homeland, needed sanctuary, cash, and weapons. Shireen Hunter, a U.S. specialist on militant Islam at the Center for Strategic and International Studies, says the two groups found they were of mutual benefit to each other.

"To survive, the IMU particularly needed safe havens and areas to operate from in order to achieve its goals in Central Asia, particularly in Uzbekistan," Ms. Hunter said. "And, of course, this suited the broader objective of the Taleban to expand their influence in Central Asia. So one could say that it was a convergence of interest of a more local, shall we say, group with a group that had a more broader, and an almost international sort of aspirations."

The IMU fought alongside the Taleban and al-QaIda in Afghanistan. Speaking from neighboring Krygyzstan, David Lewis, head of the Central Asia project for the Belgium-based International Crisis Group, says the IMU was pummeled in the U.S. led attacks, losing perhaps both of its top leaders.

"Well, the IMU clearly suffered huge setbacks in the military campaign in Afghanistan," Mr. Lewis said. "And although I think there are certainly some remnants left, the security situation, the direct threat from the IMU has certainly changed quite considerably."

But, Mr. Lewis adds, the IMU still has the potential to create trouble. "Certainly, it'll be too early to write the IMU off as a group that has disappeared completely," he said. "As with al-Qaida, a lot of people in the IMU disappeared temporarily and are now likely to re-emerge, I think. So for the Uzbek government, there is still a threat there, and they still have a threat from Islamist groups within the country as well."

It is difficult to gauge just how much support the IMU commands in the populace. However, the root causes of social discontent in Uzbekistan, such as an authoritarian government and a sluggish economy, remain. Under international pressure, especially from the United States, President Karimov has started to implement some political and economic reforms. But whether these hesitant steps will be enough to keep terrorism in Central Asia at bay remains an open question.