A wolf in Taliban clothing?

UZGEN, Kyrgyzstan – Washington’s mounting offensive against the Taliban may be causing ripples in this distant, dusty southern Kyrgyz town.

Details are difficult to confirm independently, but analysts and local officials insist that Islamic militants are filtering back from Afghanistan into this corner of ex-Soviet Central Asia (see map below).

The motives of the militants, if they exist, are difficult to discern. Some may be looking for a safe haven to regroup and then return to Afghanistan; others may have decided to open a new front and focus their energies on trying to topple the wobbly local governments, especially in next-door Uzbekistan. And others – members of Central Asian groups once allied with the Taliban but now in steep decline – may simply be returning home.

Whatever the case, law enforcement bodies here appear to be at the moment battling pockets of extremely well-armed individuals and groups. In Tajikistan, officials have cut off the Tavildara region to outsiders as they attempt to rid the area of what they say are Afghan insurgents. In Uzbekistan in May, officials said a militant attack killed a policeman in a southern town. Last month, Kyrgyz officials staged two raids in the country’s south – first in Jalal-Abad, where they said they killed five gunmen, and then in Kosh-Korgon, a small village outside the regional center Uzgen, killing three. In total, authorities say they have arrested 18 people for “assisting international terrorist groups.”

The Kyrgyz State Committee for National Security, the successor to the KGB, said that the leader of the “destroyed terrorist group” was Khasan Suleimanov, who was born in Osh, Kyrgyzstan in 1977 and was trained in “international terrorist centers in Pakistan,” agencies reported. Other information, however, indicated that a number of the gunmen may have been Russian-speakers who were not from the area.

The militants stockpiled weapons and may have had links to the Islamic Movement of Uzbekistan, a group bent on deposing the authoritarian regime of Uzbek President Islam Karimov and establishing an Islamic state. Uzbek officials say that the IMU has carried out numerous terrorist attacks inside their country, though the movement itself usually does not claim responsibility.

What is certain, however, is that the IMU is allied with the Taliban – fighting alongside the Afghans during NATO’s campaign in 2003-2004, and then possibly later in Pakistan. But many security analysts believe that western forces may have eradicated the IMU as a functioning organization.

This is also not the first time that officials have warned of the threat of Islamic extremism. Kyrgyz authorities staged similar raids three years ago, in one case killing a prominent local imam. Gunmen also apparently attacked border posts, and in a series of incidents earlier in the decade, battled government forces in a remote mountain region and took hostages.

And as with earlier incidents, the governments’ assertions are being met with a large dose of skepticism. Some observers say that the proportion of the threat is being overblown, or may not exist at all. The region’s officials, they say, use the terrorist menace to justify beefing up their police forces, crack down on dissent or just curry favor with the West. Local “wars on terror” are still very much a topic that garners immediate sympathy in Washington and elsewhere.

“The reports about these events are coming primarily from the security services, which have a history of reporting false information” said Alisher Hamidov, an expert based in southern Kyrgyzstan who is pursuing a doctoral degree at Johns Hopkins University.

“What we are seeing are criminal groups being reported as extremists,” he added.

Others, however, insist the danger posed by these fighters is indeed very real.

“They are very hard to trace — they are very bad people who are planting bombs and are very experienced,” said one western official in Kyrgyzstan who asked to speak off-the-record. Part of the problem facing local security services, Western officials say, is that the gunmen are blowing themselves up, rather than permitting themselves to be taken into custody by law enforcement bodies — and therefore are denying themselves as further sources of intelligence.

Perhaps an indication that the terrorists are being taken seriously is the recent announcement that Russia will establish a base in Kyrgyzstan’s south in the sensitive Ferghana Valley — which stretches across Kyrgyzstan, Tajikistan and Uzbekistan.

The installation will be Russia’s second in the country, after an airbase in the north — and a U.S. transit base for Afghan operations at Bishkek’s main airport.

In Uzgen, in the Ferghana Valley, locals say extremists have appeared very rarely, and that they seem to be from outside the region. “Everyone knows everyone else here — our neighborhood is very quiet," says Murad, an elderly Uzgen native sitting quietly in a tea house across the street from one of the town’s main mosques, waiting for prayers to start. But he adds: “There are a lot of local youth who have traveled to Afghanistan and Pakistan and come back acting as if they are brainwashed.”

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