Radicals In Retreat

Sheraly Akbotoev received the summons in Kabul last November. An Uzbek religious instructor and avowed jihadist, Akbotoev was a member of the Islamic Movement of Uzbekistan (IMU), a hard-line group with ties to Al Qaeda and Osama bin Laden. "Come to Logar province" in northern Afghanistan, his superiors told him by phone. "Something has happened." U.S. fighter planes had attacked a convoy of IMU fighters fleeing Konduz, where some 300 of them had been helping the Taliban resist the U.S.-backed forces of the Northern Alliance. A top IMU aide, Akbotoev was being ordered to the soldiers' funeral. The bodies, wrapped in blankets, were virtually unrecognizable. One in particular, he says, "was just meat. There wasn't much left." But he knew who it was because the dead man's name had just been mentioned in the farewell prayer: Juma Namangani, a former Soviet paratrooper and leader of the IMU. A mysterious and supposedly pious man, Namangani's name had symbolized the lingering Islamist dream of establishing a Taliban-style state in the former Soviet republics of Central Asia.

Until Namangani's death, the IMU had made its own name through military-style insurgency. At its peak, the group claimed about 1,200 hard-core fighters, along with thousands more family members and followers. In the late 1990s the guerrillas were concentrated in terrorist training camps in Tajikistan and Afghanistan, from where they launched military-style attacks against the secular, dictatorial regime in Uzbekistan. Those incursions failed, and the IMU later joined with the Taliban to fight the Northern Alliance. But U.S. bombs battered the group last winter. At best only a couple of hundred of IMU zealots remain, and they are now haphazardly dispersed in Iran, Tajikistan and the tribal areas of Pakistan. Their very weakness, though, is beginning to worry some longtime observers. They say a disorganized, weakened IMU could become more Qaeda-like in its structure--and thereby harder to defend against in an inherently unstable region.

If the IMU remains dangerous, it's because the group's new leader might, if anything, be more committed to jihad than his predecessor. (Some people in Central Asia maintain that Namangani is still alive, though there is no evidence to support them.) Tahir Yuldash, Namangani's chief ideologue and rival, has been trying to revitalize the movement from Pakistan. IMU defector Khoseyin Alimov, 21, now back in Uzbekistan, told NEWSWEEK he attended a speech Yuldash gave in Wana, a village in the Pakistani tribal areas along the border with Afghanistan, this past May. Just weeks earlier, IMU fighters allegedly killed a dozen or more Pakistani soldiers in at least two shoot-outs in the same area. According to Alimov, Yuldash, speaking in a large hall and flanked by 30 guards, told his audience that "despite the fact that there are only a few of us, we are proud to fight the American bloc. Even if only one Muslim is left alive, it will be a victory. We need to erase America from the face of the earth." Alimov says Yuldash then handed out envelopes filled with money--compensation for those who'd lost relatives in Afghanistan.

Yuldash's ascendancy has ominous implications. Known in Pakistan as Qari Tahir Jan, he is revered as a brilliant communicator who speaks Arabic, Persian, Uzbek and Pashto. As the IMU's military leader, Namangani gained fame, but little in the way of lasting strategic success. Yuldash is said to represent a strain of thinking closer to bin Laden's. Analysts believe he has broadened the IMU's scope of enemies to include the West, whereas Namangani was more focused on Central Asia. With fewer resources at his disposal, Yuldash will have every incentive to rely more upon terrorist tactics. "What's happened in Afghanistan may actually be playing into his hands," says Tamara Makarenko, an IMU specialist at the University of Glamorgan in Wales. "He still has sleepers in all the Central Asian countries," she says, and will cultivate his assets. "These people are patient. They believe in the Book [the Qur'an]." They also have a new target: U.S. forces are now stationed in three Central Asian republics.

Two years ago the IMU stronghold of Tavildara, high up in Tajikistan's Karategin Valley, was teeming with activity. There were hundreds of armed mujahedin and caches of weapons. Now there are no armed men to be seen, and the town is firmly under the control of government forces working with CIA operatives to hunt down IMU stragglers. (Tavildara's security chief, Suleiman Sobirov, proudly shows off three shot glasses bearing the CIA emblem, a gift from his new friends.) "The IMU's income and its ability to field large armed groups has really diminished," says a Western official.

Still, the Americans obviously think that the jihadists continue to pose a threat. The U.S. Embassy in the Uzbek capital of Tashkent has just finished surrounding its building with a 12-foot wall. U.S. troops and their coalition allies at Ganci Air Base in Kyrgyzstan, one of the region's friendliest countries, are allowed to go into the nearby capital of Bishkek in groups only once a week.

Thus far the region's authoritarian governments have not changed their defense strategies, which mostly consist of outright repression. In Uzbekistan, thousands of people are languishing in jails for real or presumed opposition to the dictatorship of President Islam Karimov. In some cases, say human-rights activists, just having a long beard (often regarded as the sign of a particularly fervent Muslim) can invite arrest or harassment by police. IMU defector Alimov still faces the shame of wanted posters displaying himself, his mother and his deceased father in all the mosques and police stations of his hometown, Khiva. He has shaved off his beard and says he's going into business. "I don't even go to the mosque anymore," he says as he pours vodka for a visiting reporter.

The worry is that other young men will respond to the heavy-handed tactics differently. Across Central Asia the conditions that gave rise to religious and political extremism in the first place are unchanged. The region remains mired in poverty and plagued by corruption and social inequality. Balkan-like ethnic tensions are rife. And importantly, populations of impoverished young men, facing starkly limited economic opportunities, fill every country--a ready audience for the utopian arguments of the Islamists.

They have more than the IMU to choose from. It's estimated that 6,000 of Uzbekistan's political prisoners are members of Hizbut Tahrir, a secretive group that uses covert propaganda to promote the idea of a "caliphate," an Islamic state encompassing all the countries of the region. An equal number are said to remain at large. The group does not advocate violence, but within recent months, say security officials across the region, Hizbut Tahrir activists have extended their activities to parts of Tajikistan and Kyrgyzstan that have many non-Muslim residents and were previously regarded as immune to the temptations of political Islam.

Yuldash and the IMU, too, will undoubtedly seek out new recruits soon. Back at home in Namangan, Uzbekistan, Sabir Khojiev, one of Namangani's older brothers, passionately and convincingly denounces the actions of his deceased brother. But he also condemns the brutal treatment meted out to his family by the Uzbek state simply because they're related to Namangani. That kind of repression, he points out, can only fuel resentments. "I haven't been in a mosque for three years," he says. "[But] the idea of an Islamic state is impossible to exterminate. Supporters of the idea exist." As long as that's the case, Central Asia will remain a tense--and dangerous--battleground.