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Tashkent Moves Against Terrorism

Afghan officials say thousands of Central Asian militants are active in northern Afghanistan. Uzbek militants in the northeastern Afghan city of Kunduz after the Taliban briefly captured it in late September.
Afghan officials say thousands of Central Asian militants are active in northern Afghanistan. Uzbek militants in the northeastern Afghan city of Kunduz after the Taliban briefly captured it in late September.

With fear of extremist attacks running high in many places of the world, the authorities in Uzbekistan appear to moving to preempt any acts of terrorism there. According to information coming out of Uzbekistan, more than 160 people have been detained in areas around the capital, Tashkent, since the end of October, all apparently on suspicion of being involved with the Islamic State (IS) militant group.

However, Uzbek authorities have a history of casting a very wide net when security operations are initiated and there is already reason to believe many of the people being incarcerated are not from IS, though they are from an outside Islamic sect that has grown popular in Central Asia.

RFE/RL's Uzbek Service, known locally as Ozodlik, has been reporting about the detentions.

Ozodlik reported the first group of 16 people was detained in Tashkent's Zangiatin district on October 29. At least 25 more people were taken into custody during the first days of November and detentions have continued regularly since then, all in the Zangiatin district. Most are from the village of Nazarbek, the others were from the mahallas (neighborhoods) of Oltin Tepa and Eshonguzar.

Uzbek law enforcement said on November 6 that those detained were "Salafis" who were connected to militants in Syria.

Members of the banned Islamic group Hizb ut-Tahrir, speaking under condition of anonymity from Uzbekistan, told Ozodlik most of those detained were fellow members. "Up to 90 percent," one Hizb ut-Tahrir member claimed.

Uzbek authorities banned Hizb ut-Tahrir more than 15 years ago, claiming it was an extremist group. It is an Islamic sect, tracing its origins back to Palestinian refugees in the 1950s. Hizb ut-Tahrir seeks to create an Islamic caliphate but disavows the use of violence to achieve this goal. It has gained thousands of followers in Central Asia despite being banned in every one of the five Central Asian states.

Governments in the region, particularly the Uzbek government, have tried for years to blame Hizb ut-Tahrir for violent acts committed in Central Asia but to date none of these governments has been able to supply compelling evidence to back up their claims.

Uzbekistan's government for many years attempted to link Hizb ut-Tahrir to a legitimately violent group -- the Islamic Movement of Uzbekistan. Now it seems Tashkent is linking Hizb ut-Tahrir to the IS group.

Russia's Regnum news agency was the first to report that more than 150 people had been taken into custody in the Tashkent area on suspicion of ties to IS. Regnum cited "sources" in Uzbekistan's law enforcement organs.

Ozodlik called veteran Uzbek rights defender Surat Ikramov, who for some 20 years has been invaluable in bringing to light facts surrounding the detentions of hundreds of people (at least) in Uzbekistan.

Ikramov confirmed detentions in Zangiatin district, some 60 to 70, he said. Ikramov added that about 10 more people had been detained in Tashkent's Shaykhantakhur district and at least one more person in the capital's Almazar district. Ikramov said that in the Almazar district the figure could be higher.

Ikramov has visited the districts and spoken with relatives and associates of many of those detained. Ikramov said most of those currently in custody are "believers" and that they were being accused of involvement with IS and other extremist organizations.

Ikramov also said almost all of the detained had been worked as migrant laborers outside Uzbekistan.

"In law enforcement organs they work the same old way," Ikramov said. "Maybe in those countries where they worked they were able to visit various websites, in particular the website of the 'Islamic State,' and this became known to our security forces."

A resident of the Shaykhantakhtur neighborhood told Ozodlik he heard more than 160 "of the brothers in faith" had been detained recently. This person said homes being searched were usually of "those who just returned from working abroad."

So who are these people who are being detained?

At first, the Uzbek authorities said publicly they were Salafis but it appears from what Ikramov said that now Uzbek authorities are investigating the detainees for links to IS. The Hizb ut-Tahrir supporter said many of those in custody were supporters of his group.

In any case, suddenly detaining such a large number of people in the same district of the capital raises some questions about whether these are preemptive proxies.

In the spring, Uzbek law enforcement and security agencies conducted a series of exercises in Uzbekistan's section of the Ferghana Valley. Often during these "exercises," people were officially taken, briefly, into custody.

There was the tale of the two female suicide bombers in Uzbekistan's eastern Ferghana Province in mid-August. Uzbekistan's media reported about it at that time; Uzbek authorities launched a security sweep of the area in which they were allegedly seen. The two women vanished, "possibly into Kyrgyzstan," officials said. Nothing more was ever heard of them.

Then there was the explosion at a bus stop in downtown Tashkent on a Friday afternoon in early September. The authorities later called that a "drill" to test the response of various law enforcement agencies and emergency services, none of which had been informed that the explosion was a simulated event.

A drill, possibly, but in all these events since spring there seems to be some intent to sow a bit of respect and fear among the people of Uzbekistan, to show the people the authorities are watching and ready to act.

So once again, who are these people who are being detained?

Are some of them genuinely a threat to Uzbekistan's stability or are they wrongly accused and simply meant to serve as an example?

Based on material from Ozodlik

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    Bruce Pannier

    Bruce Pannier writes the Qishloq Ovozi blog and appears regularly on the Majlis podcast for RFE/RL.