The threat posed by Islamic militant groups in Central Asia, especially in the Kyrgyz and Tajik portions of the Ferghana Valley, appears to be growing, according to the US State Department's recently released annual report on terrorism.
The State Department's 2008 Country Reports on Terrorism, released April 30, suggest that the membership in Kyrgyzstan of Hizb-ut-Tahrir, a group that the State Department says advocates "the establishment of a borderless, theocratic Islamic state throughout the entire Muslim world," grew from 5,000 in 2006 to 15,000 in 2008.
The members live mainly in the ethnic-Uzbek southern region of Kyrgyzstan, but "are reportedly achieving an increased following in the north as well," the report said. "Kyrgyz officials reported growing support for and bolder public outreach by HT."
While Hizb-ut-Tahrir is growing in Kyrgyzstan, that does not mean that people there subscribe to all of its radical beliefs, asserted Eric McGlinchey, a Central Asia expert at George Mason University.
"The report highlighted the fact that Hizb ut-Tahrir was radical and anti-Semitic and all that, which it is. But when you take a look at the rank-and-file members in Kyrgyzstan, they may be knowledgeable about that rhetoric, but that's not the reality of Hizb ut-Tahrir for the vast majority who are part of it," he said. Most members are more attracted to the group's social welfare activities and small-scale development projects, which fill a space that the ineffective government is unable to, McGlinchey said.
On Uzbekistan, whose government has had a combative relationship with Washington since the 2005 Andijan events, the report said relatively little. Over the past year US officials have sought to reestablish cordial ties with Uzbekistan, which is serving as a key conduit for the transport of non-lethal equipment to support the war effort in Afghanistan. [For background see the Eurasia Insight archive].
"The Government of Uzbekistan pursued modest steps in resuming counterterrorism cooperation with the United States," the report said, without providing details. The Uzbekistan section of the report was notable for the omission of any discussion of terrorist groups in Uzbekistan. The previous year's report listed several groups that the United States believed were operating in Uzbekistan in 2007: "Supporters of terrorist groups such as the Islamic Jihad Group (IJG), the Islamic Movement of Uzbekistan (IMU), the IMU-affiliated East Turkistan Islamic Movement (ETIM), and other al Qaeda-affiliated groups were active in the region, and terrorist groups in the region continued to target both the Government of Uzbekistan and western interests." The report for 2008 contains no such discussion.
Tajikistan also is home to an unknown number of Hizb-ut-Tahrir members, primarily in the northern part of the country, as well as other Islamist groups including al Qaeda, the report stated.
The report highlighted various US-led counterterrorism initiatives that the government of Tajikistan participated in, but noted that impoverished circumstances in Tajikistan made it difficult to effectively combat terrorist groups. "Individual border guards and other law enforcement personnel were not motivated to interdict smugglers or traffickers due to systematic corruption, low income, conscripted service, and lack of support from senior Tajik government officials," the report said. "As a result, extremists and terrorists may exploit Tajikistan's border to travel to and from Afghanistan."
The Kazakhstan section of the report highlighted various international counter-terrorism efforts that Astana undertook in 2008, and specifically mentioned cooperation with Slovakia and the United Arab Emirates. "When you look at the Kazakhstan section, of all the cooperation they're doing, there is one major player that is missing: the United States," McGlinchey said.
Nevertheless, Kazakhstan did cooperate with the United States, the report said: "Kazakhstan detained and prosecuted suspected terrorists and took tangible steps to cooperate and share information with the United States and international organizations." The report said Kazakhstan now has 16 groups that are banned as "terrorist and extremist" organizations, but the report did not estimate the extent of their membership.
Turkmenistan cooperated with international counterterrorism efforts, but the country's borders remained vulnerable because of difficult terrain and the "small size and uneven quality of Turkmenistan's border guard and customs services," the report said.
The report mentioned the September 2008 violence in the Khitrova district of Ashgabat, where a protracted gun battle took place under circumstances that remain murky. The incident "forced the [g]overnment of Turkmenistan to reevaluate its counterterrorism program, training partners, and readiness," the report said, without providing details.
Terrorism is an unlikely prospect in a place as tightly controlled as Turkmenistan, the State Department stressed: "Turkmenistan's law enforcement and security agencies exert stringent security control over all aspects of society, making it unlikely that Turkmenistan could easily be used as a terrorist safe haven." Indeed, Turkmenistan remains one the most repressive on earth. The State Department's latest evaluation of human rights conditions in the country stated that Ashgabat "continued to restrict severely political and civil liberties."
On Armenia, the report said that the country's ties with Iran hampered its anti-terrorism efforts. "As a result of the increased diplomatic activity, Armenia continued to be reluctant to participate in international efforts that criticized or placed pressure on Iran for its non-compliance on issues related to nuclear proliferation and terrorist financing," the report said.
Iran also featured in the Azerbaijan section of the report: "Azerbaijan is a logical route for extremists with ties to terrorist organizations, including several organizations which have been 'inspired' or directed by Iran. These groups have sought to move people, money, and material through the Caucasus, but the government has actively opposed them and has had some success in reducing their presence and hampering their activities." The State Department also noted that while efforts to combat money-laundering in Azerbaijan have been lacking, the country is trying to implement reforms.
Georgia has improved its ability to stop smuggling of contraband like drugs, money and weapons, the report said. It also suggested, without providing detail, that the de facto Russian occupation of Abkhazia and South Ossetia could promote terrorism. "Border crossings into Russia from the separatist regions of Abkhazia and South Ossetia continued, but were not under the control of the [g]overnment of Georgia. This situation allowed for the unrestricted and unidentified flow of people, goods, and other items from Russia into these regions," the report said.
Joshua Kucera is a Washington, DC-based freelance writer who specializes in security issues in Central Asia, the Caucasus and the Middle East.