In The Hot Zone

He's never given an interview. Few images of him exist. His most detailed biography fits comfortably on a single page. And he moves like a wraith through one of the world's most inaccessible regions. His name is Juma Namangani, and he is the leader of what was, until a few days ago, a little-known Islamist guerrilla group in a remote part of Central Asia. Now, in the wake of the devastating attacks on New York and Washington, Namangani and his men have become prominent targets in the war on terrorism. Last week President George W. Bush announced that he was adding Namangani's group, the Islamic Movement of Uzbekistan (IMU), to a financial hit list of 27 terrorist organizations and individuals allied with Osama bin Laden. Bush declared that all assets controlled by the groups in question would be frozen or confiscated. "Money is the lifeblood of terrorist operations," Bush said. "Today, we're asking the world to stop payment."

Of course, the IMU operates in a part of the world that gets by just fine without bank accounts. Few of its members have ever seen an ATM. In fact, the group gains most of its income from its involvement in the huge regional trade in Afghan heroin. And that's only one of the ways in which the decidedly low-tech IMU illustrates how difficult it will be for the United States and its allies to try to "drain the swamp" of terrorism in Central Asia.

The IMU presents a target as shadowy and fearsome as its leader. The forces under Namangani's command are small--no more than 2,000 fighters--their political program is vague, and the measure of their popular support hotly disputed. Yet over the past two years the IMU has managed to set the entire region on edge. Namangani's professed goal: to carry a Taliban-style Islamic revolution deep into the heart of formerly Soviet Central Asia, to the republics of Uzbekistan, Kyrgyzstan and Tajikistan. The countries are soft targets for insurrection. Their economies are beset by poverty, unemployment and dwindling water resources--all cause for tension in a part of the world where ethnic and religious divides are never far from the surface. And Namangani's main target--the populous Ferghana Valley, an isolated basin shared by all three republics--has traditionally been a center of religious fervor.

The key to the IMU's successes, though, can be found to the south, in the equally forbidding landscape of Afghanistan. Namangani fought as a paratrooper with the Soviets during the 1980s Afghan war. He returned to Afghanistan in 1993 a changed man, radicalized by harsh crackdowns on Muslims in his native Uzbekistan. That was when he made the acquaintance of Saudi millionaire Osama bin Laden, who offered financing and contacts in the world of extremist Islam. After Namangani and his partner Takhir Yuldash formed the IMU in 1998, bin Laden offered the group refuge and support behind Taliban lines. "There is a direct link between them," Kyrgyz national-security adviser Bolot Januzakov told NEWSWEEK last year. "Bin Laden is one of the basic sources of his financing." Earlier this year bin Laden named Namangani one of his deputies and gave him command over a unit fighting on the Taliban's side in Afghanistan's civil war.

Both men are hard-line fundamentalists bitterly opposed to the United States, Russia, Israel--and moderate Muslims. Aleksei Malashenko, a Central Asia expert at the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace in Moscow, agrees that bin Laden provides the IMU with some direct financial support. But more important, his backing lends Namangani "a higher profile," which has enabled him to attract support from others. Sources in the region agree. Once approved by bin Laden, groups like the IMU have an easier time obtaining money and other assistance from well-wishers in places like Saudi Arabia and Pakistan. The Taliban has allowed the IMU to maintain training camps near the northern town of Kunduz. Kyrgyz authorities believe that Pakistani intelligence officials have worked directly with Namangani's troops.

Namangani is said to have raised additional money the old-fashioned way--through drug trafficking. Until the Taliban banned poppy production earlier this year, some 70 percent of the world's heroin originated in Afghanistan, most of it streaming through the Central Asian republics on its way to Russia or Western Europe. In cities like Osh, in the Kyrgyz part of the Ferghana Valley, locals trade stories of fabulous wealth generated by the burgeoning drug trade--much of which, say experts, is now in the hands of warlords like Namangani. "The analytical challenge with the IMU is to figure out which strain--Islamic fundamentalism or the drug trade--will win out in the end," says Frank Cilluffo, an expert on crime and terrorism at Georgetown University's Center for Strategic and International Studies in Washington.

Either way, the flow of funds has bought the IMU high-powered American sniper rifles, lightweight Motorola walkie-talkies, night-vision goggles--and staying power. Namangani, born Jumabai Khojiev (he took his nom de guerre from his hometown of Namangan, in the Uzbek third of the Ferghana Valley), originally conceived of the IMU while fighting in the civil war in neighboring Tajikistan between communists and militant Islamists. His nemesis: Uzbekistan's President Islam Karimov, who once vowed to stop the movement by "shooting its leaders in the head." (Last November an Uzbek court sentenced IMU leaders Namangani and Yuldash to death in absentia.) For years the former communist apparatchik Karimov has brutally suppressed real and presumed dissidents, including countless Islamic activists. "The IMU want to get the man who put thousands of their comrades and family members behind barbed wire," says a foreign diplomat based in the region, referring to the Uzbek leader.

Since early 1999 Namangani has been strong enough to make real trouble for Karimov. That year the IMU was blamed for a series of car bombings that killed 16 people in Tashkent. Last summer the IMU launched a wide-ranging guerrilla campaign inside Uzbekistan. At the same time, operating from mountain hideouts in Tajikistan, IMU forces raided Kyrgyzstan for the second year in a row. On a raid in the summer of 1999, IMU fighters took four Japanese geologists hostage and then pulled in a reported $5 million ransom for their release. A year later, after Namangani's men kidnapped four American mountain climbers in Kyrgyzstan and held them for six days before the hostages managed to escape, the U.S. State Department added the IMU to its list of terrorist organizations. This year an expected summer offensive never materialized only because, experts say, Namangani's forces were enlisted in the Taliban's struggle against their enemies within Afghanistan.

The IMU fighters pose a threat to U.S. forces, too, if they enter the region. The governments of Uzbekistan and Tajikistan have offered military bases for the use of American warplanes and troops--one reason Bush may have chosen to single out the IMU for mention in his address to a joint session of Congress. But it remains to be seen just how secure Americans will be there if IMU guerrillas can operate as freely in the area as they have managed to in the past. Last week, in a move little noticed by a wider world preparing for American military action, the Taliban threatened Uzbekistan with a jihad in retaliation for the country's support of U.S. military plans. If those threats are ever carried out, it's almost certain that Juma Namangani will be the man to lead the attack.