The United States diplomatic mission in Uzbekistan has been targeted in a firebomb attack in an unusual incident that will kindle chatter of a possible new terrorist menace in the repressive Central Asian nation.
Attacks on diplomatic missions in the heavily policed country are rare, but not unprecedented.
The US Embassy was targeted by bomb attacks on diplomatic and security targets in Tashkent in 2004 that killed two security guards at the Israeli Embassy.
This most recent attack occurred early September 28. The US mission said in a statement that “an unidentified assailant tossed two improvised incendiary devices onto embassy grounds,” one of which exploded.
Nobody was injured in the blast, but the embassy was closed as a precaution. The mission has now returned to business as usual, the statement said.
The embassy offered no possible motivation for the attack, which would have required the assailant to approach a robustly patrolled building surrounded by high razor-wire walls and guarded by U.S. Marines and local police.
The embassy said it was cooperating with authorities to investigate the attack and that it had identified “no specific threat information against Americans and/or American interests.”
Terrorist attacks are extremely rare in Uzbekistan, where the presence of police and security service officers is ubiquitous and stifling. This blast came three weeks after an explosive device detonated at Tashkent’s Chorsu Bazaar in an incident that the authorities belatedly explained was a security exercise.
Uzbekistan and Tajikistan have in close succession come up with a new punishment for people suspected of involvement with terrorist organizations. If official accounts are anything to go by, however, the authoritarian governments are also trying their hand at less harsh measures to attack the intensely hyped specter of Islamic terror.
Uzbek news website Anons.uz has reported that President Islam Karimov on August 10 signed off on amendments to the law detailing when somebody can be stripped of their citizenship.
Under the revised law, the penalty will now apply if a given person “has caused substantial harm to the interests of society and the state by engaging in activities in the interests of a foreign state or by committing offenses against peace and security.” Crimes against peace and stability are interpreted in Uzbekistan as acts that include incitement to conflict and terrorism, or any other activity related to terrorism and mass murder.
The U.S. Department of Defense-funded regional military propaganda unit Central Asia Online, meanwhile, reports on the purported good cop part of Uzbekistan’s anti-terrorism campaign.
The National Security Council, a body affiliated to the presidential administration, is spearheading a program aimed at “debunking extremist ideology, supporting traditional Islam” and “promoting harmony among members of different faiths.”
That such a unabashedly approving report should appear in a service funded by the U.S. taxpayer is a stark illustration of the profoundly confused nature of Washington’s stance on Uzbekistan.
Only days after the death of Taliban leader Mullah Omar was announced, the Islamic Movement of Uzbekistan terrorist group has reportedly sworn allegiance to the Islamic State. In a video posted by the IMU-controlled Furqon TV on July 31, a figure identified as the group’s spiritual leader, Sheikh Muhammad Ali, stands in front of the black flag of IS and pledges loyalty to the organization.
The rest of the 16-minute video shows IMU militants carrying out attacks on Afghan army posts in Zabul province, which borders Pakistan. Usman Ghazi, the IMU’s leader since 2012, features in the clip.
This is the first time the IMU’s central leadership has formally sworn allegiance to ISIS. But it is not the first report of IMU-linked militants allying themselves with ISIS.
In September 2014, Ghazi pledged support to Islamic State leader Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi, criticising Mullah Omar, who had not been seen in public since 2001. “On behalf of members of our Islamic Movement, I herewith announce to the world that we are siding with the Islamic Caliphate,” the statement read. Ghazi stopped short of pledging bay’a [the oath of allegiance] to ISIS. A few months later, in March 2015, a group of Uzbeks in northern Afghanistan claiming to be from the IMU, went a step further, pledging fealty to the Islamic State. Ghazi did not officially endorse the move.
The move comes during a tumultuous period for the movement.
Authorities in Kyrgyzstan have fallen largely silent about the alleged Islamic State cell that they neutralized earlier this month, only for the group itself to purportedly address a video message to the nation.
The nine-minute clip, titled “Address to the people of Kyrgyzstan,” was posted on July 25 and remained online for only a few hours before being taken down, news website Kloop.kg reported.
As Kloop reported, the video consisted of an address to camera by a man speaking in Kyrgyz who appealed to viewers with calls for the Kyrgyz people to “relocate to the lands of Islamic State from infidel nations.” The speech was accompanied by Russian subtitles.
It is specified by the speaker that Kyrgyzstan is one such “infidel nation,” because of the country’s embrace of “man-created laws and rules, “such as democracy.
The video was stamped with the logo of Furat Media, the Russian-language wing of the IS group’s online propaganda operation. Pending further verification by security experts, the authenticity of the video remains in question.
Authorities have for months been warning of a Kyrgyz contingent within the IS group. According to the Interior Ministry’s latest estimates, 422 citizens of Kyrgyzstan, including 55 women, are engaged in combat activities with radical Islamic organizations in Iraq and Syria.
Kloop notes that the footage issued over the weekend was bereft of the scenes of brutality or violence that have increasingly come to typify the IS group’s output.
In an episode that is going to sow fears of an imminent surge of terrorist activity in Central Asia, authorities in Kyrgyzstan said July 16 that they killed four gunmen who they said were planning attacks in the capital, Bishkek.
A spokesman for the security services at the scene of the shootout said special forces were forced to open fire after the armed group resisted arrest.
“During the special operation, four security service special unit officers were wounded and later hospitalized,” the State Committee for National Security said in a statement.
Officials were unable to provide more than a few cursory details in the wake of the shootout, but the security services spokesman described the men as belonging to an international group. Local media reported that the group was comprised of citizens of Kazakhstan and that they were militants with the Islamic State group, but officials declined to confirm either of those claims.
Plumes of black smoke could be seen rising in the early evening above the central neighborhood where the shootout took place. Police cordoned off the street where the fighting occured, but crowds of local residents stood and watched from the distance for hours after the worst of the unrest had subsided.
Sustained gunfire and blasts can be heard in footage of the clash uploaded to the Internet. Onlookers at the scene shared video footage of one person with his hands behind his back being marched away from the area. It was not immediately clear if the man was involved in the unrest.
Three Central Asian men have been arrested in the United States and charged with conspiring to support the Islamic State. The charges underscore the threat of lone wolf attacks by people inspired to fight for the Islamic State without ever having traveled to the Middle East, American officials say.
The three live in Brooklyn, New York, news agencies reported.
Akhror Saidakhmetov, 19, of Kazakhstan, was arrested February 25 when boarding a flight to Turkey, the Justice Department says. Abdurasul Hasanovich Juraboev, 24, of Uzbekistan, had purchased a flight to Istanbul for next month. Thirty-year-old Uzbekistani citizen Abror Habibov was arrested in Florida and accused of paying for Saidakhmetov’s efforts.
According to the New York Times, Juraboev and Saidakhmetov are permanent residents in the US; Habibov had overstayed his US visa. All three remain citizens of their countries, Kazakhstan and Uzbekistan, however.
It is unclear how many Central Asians are fighting for IS in Syria and Iraq, or if the suspects had any connection to compatriots there.
Investigators used a paid, confidential informant who posed as a sympathizer to record conversations between two of the men.
In those comments, Saidakhmetov allegedly said that if he were unable to travel to Syria, he would “just go a buy a machine gun, AK-47, go out and shoot all police,” Reuters reported:
Kyrgyzstan’s government has de facto blocked a popular and hard-hitting news website with the argument that reporting on terrorism is akin to supporting terrorists. Authorities seem to have pressured the website’s local host to disconnect its servers.
ProHost said on December 15 that it would immediately kick Kloop.kg off its servers following a request from the State Agency for Communications, Kloop co-founder Bektour Iskender informed readers through Facebook.
The block has been looming since November 24, when Kloop reposted a video from Britain’s Daily Mail featuring a propaganda video that showed Kazakh children allegedly training as jihadists in Syria. Officials in Kazakhstan and Kyrgyzstan both insist Kloop has aided the terrorist Islamic State by republishing the video.
Kloop was swiftly blocked in Kazakhstan after refusing a written request from the Kazakh prosecutor’s office to remove the offending material; harassment from Kyrgyzstan’s Interior Ministry quickly followed.
Kyrgyz authorities have stepped up pressure on the media in recent months. In October President Almazbek Atambayev broadly blamed journalists for sullying Kyrgyzstan’s reputation abroad.
By reporting on terrorist propaganda, is a journalist propagating terrorism? Journalists often debate how to cover terrorism without doing more harm than good. But prosecutors in Kazakhstan and Kyrgyzstan have a cut and dry answer.
Earlier this week, Kloop.kg – an innovative, independent news outlet in Kyrgyzstan – published a story about an Islamic State recruiting video that purports to show Kazakh-speaking children training for jihad in Syria and threatening to slaughter infidels. In its story, Kloop included stills the Daily Mail had reproduced and a link to video embedded in the Daily Mail's story. Few Kazakhstan-based news outlets covered the story, likely fearing Kazakhstan’s anti-extremism legislation.
Indeed, the day the story started circulating, November 24, Kazakhstan’s prosecutor warned media that Kazakhstani law forbids the “propaganda and justification” of terrorism.
The Kloop story was quickly blocked in Kazakhstan, as were several other stories about the video. (EurasiaNet.org’s story, although it did not include a link to the IS recruitment video, was also blocked in Kazakhstan.)
Editors at Kloop received an email from a Kazakhstani government agency calling itself the “Computer Emergency Response Team,” which demanded Kloop remove the material. Kloop, the email said, had violated not just Kazakhstani laws on the “justification of extremism and terrorism,” but international law, too.
By now, it's a well-established fact that foreign fighters looking to join extremist groups -- most worryingly the Islamic State in Iraq and Syria (ISIS), or simply the Islamic State (IS), as it now calls itself -- fighting the Assad regime in Syria have been using Turkey as a gateway to that country.
But more recently concerns have been rising about ISIS's activity inside Turkish cities, particularly with regards to the recruitment of vulnerable Turkish young men in poor neighborhoods. In a deeply reported piece in Newsweek, reporters Alexander Christie-Miller and Alev Scott take a look at ISIS's activity in Istanbul, telling the story of Deniz Sahin, a 28-year-old woman whose estranged husband recently went off to join the extremist group in Syria, taking their two children along. From the Newsweek piece:
Stories shared with Newsweek in recent days by Deniz and others show the group has sunk its tendrils deep into Turkey, a country that may now be in its firing line after being named as part of a Nato alliance to combat the jihadist group. Many fear Isis has the capacity to wreak havoc in a nation that attracts 35 million tourists a year and whose porous border adjoins Isis-controlled territory.
For Kazakhs seeking religious enlightenment, a telephone hotline is now available to guide them toward god. Twenty-four hours a day, a dedicated team of specialists is on call to answer burning questions about the divine – and to ensure authorities are kept abreast.
On the surface the hotline – 114 – serves people with genuine inquiries about religious matters. But, says one of its government backers, it will also be useful for ratting on those who deviate from Kazakhstan's myriad restrictions on religious practice.
“Information about breaches of legislation in the religious sphere and illegal and destructive religious activities […] is forwarded to the law-enforcement bodies and departments for religious affairs of the akimats [local government offices] for investigation,” Yulia Denisenko, head of the Association of Centers for Victims of Destructive Religious Organizations, the government organization behind the hotline, told a media briefing in Astana on November 28.
Kazakhstan experienced its first suicide bombing in May 2011. Since then, terror-related incidents have left at least 67 dead, mostly suspects and law-enforcement officers. This September Astana announced a new state program to fight terrorism and extremism amid fears of growing links between homegrown radicals and international terror groups. Kazakhstan's intelligence services estimate around 100 Kazakh citizens are waging jihad in foreign countries.