Radical Islamic Groups in Central Asia and Their External Contacts

Andrew McGregor


“Radical Islamic Groups in Central Asia and their External Contacts,” in: Central Asia and the Northern Caucasus: Salafis, Shi’ites, and Jihadists, al-Mesbar Studies and Research Center, Dubai, 2014, pp. 105-126 (Arabic language).

Introduction; Modern Origins of Islamic Militancy in Central Asia

The Islamist movement in Central Asia has its modern origins in the post-Soviet environment of Central Asia’s Ferghana Valley, a traditional cultural and economic meeting point now divided by the national borders of Uzbekistan, Kyrgyzstan and Tajikistan. A growing youth population, high unemployment rates and stagnant economic conditions have created conditions in the Ferghana usually associated with the growth of Islamist militancy, but effective (though heavy-handed) security measures and a general lack of resonance for the Islamist project means the region has avoided the massive sectarian clashes predicted after the emergence of the Islamic Movement of Uzbekistan (IMU) [1] and its predecessors in the 1990s.

Central Asia MapThe Salafist approach to Islam favored by most Islamist militant groups in the region is mixed in Central Asia to a large degree with Deobandism, a pan-Islamic revival movement developed in India as a reaction to 19th century British imperialism. Deobandism became politically radicalized in modern Pakistan and came to be the basis of the Taliban system in Afghanistan

Salafist Islam and Islamist militancy initially made inroads in Central Asia in the dying days of the Soviet empire as residents of the region began to explore their Islamic heritage in the interests of reasserting local identities in a post-Soviet and possibly post-secular world. Scholarships to Salafist religious/educational institutions helped introduce reformist Islam to Central Asia through the medium of its own young scholars. However, conditions have changed since the days when Central Asia emerged from seven decades of official atheism and the militants’ message does not seem to have the same penetration it once did, even in the face of continued drivers of radicalism such as poverty, lack of access to education and authoritarian repression.

Adolat, the predecessor to the IMU, established Shari’a law under the direction of the late Tahir Yuldash (formerly Yuldashev; a.k.a. Muhammad Tahir Faruq; 1967 – 2009) in the town of Namangan in the Uzbek part of the Ferghana Valley in 1991. [2] Adolat was eventually repressed by the Uzbekistan government, but Yuldash and several other prominent members escaped to Taliban-ruled Afghanistan, where they formed the Islamic Movement of Uzbekistan as a means of expelling the regime of Islam Karimov and founding an Islamic Caliphate that would eventually spread throughout the ex-Soviet republics of Central Asia. [3] There are reports that Yuldash travelled throughout the Gulf region in the 1990s, establishing funding conduits with sympathetic groups and individuals, including the Uzbek diaspora in Saudi Arabia, formed from survivors of the 1918-1928 anti-Soviet Basmachi Rebellion in Central Asia. [4] Yuldash also travelled to Turkey and Pakistan, attempting to gain the financial and material support of the intelligence services of those nations. Pakistan’s Inter-Services Intelligence (ISI) is believed to have responded favorably to the IMU commander’s overtures. [5] The strong Saudi influence on the IMU appears to have had its origins in Tahir Yuldashev’s religious training and fundraising activities in the Kingdom.

A unit of roughly 100 to 200 IMU fighters under the leadership of commander Juma Namangani (a.k.a. Jumaboy Ahmadjonovich Hojiyev, a reputed former Soviet paratrooper in the Soviet war in Afghanistan) gained military experience fighting alongside Islamist factions in the Tajikistan civil war (1992-97) but found no place for the movement in the negotiated settlement of 1997, leading the movement to shift to bases in Afghanistan under the sponsorship of the Taliban. From there, the IMU launched its 1999-2000 campaign in Tajikistan and Kyrgyzstan which ultimately failed to achieve its goal of entering Uzbekistan and deposing President Karimov (the movement was also targeting the rulers of Kyrgyzstan at this point). Though the campaign was largely restricted to small-scale attacks and hostage-taking (including the commander of Kyrgyzstan’s Interior Ministry), the militants’ apparent better training and equipment reduced national security forces to chasing the group around the mountains and briefly caused alarm in regional capitals.

IMU Escape to FATA – A problem of relevance

The movement proclaimed its allegiance to Mullah Omar and the Taliban when the U.S.-led alliance invaded Afghanistan in late 2001. The IMU suffered a severe blow when Juma Namangani, its military leader and the architect of its surprising if ultimately multi-nation Central Asian campaign, was killed during an American bombing of pro-Taliban positions in Kunduz.

In an operational sense, the IMU never recovered from the death of Namangani, their unchallenged military commander. With his death passed the time when the movement could mount large operations that created serious concern in the capitals of the Central Asian republics. Under military pressure from the U.S. and its allies, the IMU left for the Federally Administered Tribal Areas (FATA) of Afghanistan in 2001, establishing themselves in the Wana region of South Waziristan.

Having escaped the U.S.-Northern Alliance offensive in Afghanistan, the movement took refuge in the Wana regin of South Waziristan, where they enjoyed the protection of local warlord Maulvi Nazir and the Ahmadzai Wazir until 2007, when they were expelled for offending local customs and behaving like “occupiers.” [6] The movement then intensified its alliance with a new patron from the Mahsudi rivals of the Ahmadzai Wazir, Tehrik-e-Taliban Pakistan (TTP) leader Baitullah Mehsud, though some fighters appear to have joined the Taliban in Afghanistan or to have joined previous waves of disillusioned fighters in making a stealthy return home. During their residency in north-western Pakistan, many of the original members of the movement established successful farms and businesses as well as integrating into the local community through intermarriage. The IMU’s last confirmed operations of any significance in Central Asia occurred in 2004. The movement has claimed responsibility for attacks in Uzbekistan and Kyrgyzstan in 2009-2010, but these claims seem more likely to have been an attempt to reassert some relevance for the movement in Central Asia.

The IMU’s gradual loss of purpose in its long exile from Central Asia is often reflected in reports that members of the movement frequently act as bodyguards for Tehrik-e-Taliban Pakistan (TTP) leaders or as enforcers-for-hire in the FATA region. In December 2012, Federal Minister Shaykh Waqas Akram (Pakistan Muslim League-Q) told Pakistan’s National Assembly that Uzbek militants of the IMU were acting in league with various banned organizations in Punjab Province and were ready to carry out terrorist acts for a payment of $40,000. [7] The minister’s claims came only days after a devastating suicide attack by a squad of militants on Peshawar’s Bach Khan Airport on December 15. Though the attack was claimed by the TTP, authorities blamed Uzbek militants based on an examination of the remains of the attackers, the usual method used to generate body counts of alleged Chechens, Daghestanis, Uzbeks, Tajiks, Uyghurs and other Muslim ethnic groups useful in framing local conflicts as internationally-generated threats to the state. [8]

A glimpse of the indigenization process experienced by the IMU in their Afghan/Pakistani exile can be obtained from a list of 87 IMU “martyrs” in 2011. 64 of the individuals hailed from Afghanistan, while only four came from Uzbekistan. The remainder originated in Kyrgyzstan, Tajikistan, Germany, Pakistan and Tatarstan (Russian Federation). [9] Analyst Jacob Zenn has pointed out that even “the IMU’s current ‘mufti’ (expert in Islamic law), Abu Zar al-Burmi, is an Urdu and Arabic-speaking Pakistani national of Burmese Rohingya descent with neither a trace of Uzbek blood nor proficiency in the Uzbek language.” [10]
While based in FATA, the IMU developed strong ties with TTP leader Baitullah Mehsud (killed by a U.S. drone strike on August 5, 2009) and his successor Hakimullah Mehsud (killed by a U.S. drone strike on November 1, 2013), for whom members of the group often acted as local enforcers. Tahir Yuldash was himself killed by an American drone strike in Pakistan in 2009. His successor, Abu Usman Adil, developed a relationship with Hakimullah Mehsud and his TTP deputy Waliur Rahman before he was also killed by a U.S. drone strike in April, 2012. The IMU is currently led by Adil’s former deputy, Usman Ghazi.

The Threat to Tajikistan

Soon after obtaining its independence from the collapsing Soviet Union in 1991, Tajikistan experienced a devastating civil war from 1992 to 1997 that killed roughly 100,000 people, displaced over a million more and provoked the loss of most of Tajikistan’s ethnic Russian and European population, which formed much of the country’s professional and administrative classes. The war pitted ethnic groups from the Garm and Gorno-Badakhshan regions who felt they were underrepresented in the regime of President Rahmon Nabiyev against groups from the Leninabad and Kulyab regions that had formed most of the ruling elite under Soviet rule. The disparate opposition eventually united under the banner of the United Tajik Opposition (UTO), an awkward coalition of liberal democrats and Islamists. By 1993 the Garmi and allied Pamiri Isma’ili Shi’a opposition forces were suffering from serious reverses on the battlefield and a violent campaign by government forces determined to drive Garmi and Pamiri civilians from Tajikistan. Both Garmi and Pamiri civilians and Islamist fighters took refuge across the border in Afghanistan, where the Islamist fighters received arms and assistance from ethnic Tajik Ahmad Shah Massoud, leader of the Northern Alliance military forces. The fighters also received religious training in Pakistan and Afghanistan.

A peace and reconciliation agreement in 1997 promised a new era, but in recent years the regime expelled most of the former armed Islamist opposition from their posts in the reconciliation government, adding to a wave of unrest fueled by corruption, economic failure and the revival of Islam after decades of Soviet repression. [11]

The Tajik Civil War has often been characterized as an Islamist-led rebellion against the central government, though there were other elements behind the violence that had more to do with tribal and regional rivalries than with religious observance. According to journalist Igor Rotar, who covered the struggle for Nezavisimaya Gazeta, “even the combatants themselves admit that the civil war was not so much a political struggle as a fight for power between different regional groups of Tajiks, who had not developed into a single nation at the time.” [12] Since then, however, there has been significant growth in Islamic extremism in northern Tajikistan, but few signs of involvement by external groups such as the IMU or the Afghan Taliban.

In 2009, Tajikistan launched Operation Kuknor (“Poppy,” loosely disguised as an anti-narcotics operation) against an armed group led by Lieutenant General Mirzo Ziyoev, a military commander of the Tajik Islamists in the civil war who was given a high military rank and his own paramilitary in the reconciliation that followed. Ziyoev was dismissed in 2006 and accused of having joined a unit of the Islamic Movement of Uzbekistan (IMU) led by Shaykh

Nemat Azizov in June 2009, an assertion that was quickly denied by late IMU leader Tahir Yuldash, who suggested instead that Ziyoev had “fallen victim to intrigues of the government.” [13] Ziyoev was captured by security forces on July 11, 2009 and died later that day in crossfire between security forces and a group of militants that some Tajik authorities claimed were IMU gunmen, an assertion similarly denied by Tahir Yuldash. [14] A well-known guerrilla leader in the Tajik civil war, Shaykh Nemat Azizov was made leader of the Tavil-Dara division of Tajikistan’s Emergency Situations Ministry as part of the post-war reconciliation before he allegedly returned to armed opposition to the Tajik state, allegedly as an IMU commander, according to security services. [15] In July, 2009 a Daghestani individual made a televised confession that he and two other Daghestanis had joined Shaykh Nemat’s group. [16]

Some of the militants seized in 2009’s Operation Kuknor were part of a mass escape of 46 prisoners from a Tajik State Committee for National Security (SCNS) prison on August 25, 2010. A number of these militants were believed to have participated in an attack on a military convoy by an unidentified militant group in the Kamarob gorge of eastern Tajikistan, about 260 kilometers from Dushanbe, on September 19, 2010. The well-executed attack killed at least 28 soldiers (and possibly as many as 40) and left many more wounded. Though Tajik security officials identified Abdullo Rakhimov (better known as “Mullo Abdullo”) as the main suspect, the Tajik Defense Ministry insisted fighters from Afghanistan, Pakistan and Chechnya were part of the ambush force, but, as usual, failed to provide any details on these identifications. [17] Despite a lack of evidence that the IMU, which has had little presence outside the northwest frontier region of Pakistan since 2001, was operating in large numbers in the remote Kamarob Gorge, the attack was claimed in a statement purported to have originated with IMU spokesman, Abdufattoh Ahmadi, who said the ambush was in response to a government crackdown on Islam (rather than the more likely struggle between Dushanbe and dissident former commanders who had been excluded from government): “This is our response to Tajikistan’s government, which has lately shut down a thousand mosques, which arrests Muslims without any reason and prohibits women from wearing Muslim clothes. We demand a stop to this policy. Otherwise, terrorist attacks will continue.” [18] The high death toll in the attack was at least partly explained by the poor training and inadequate equipment of the mostly young and inexperienced Tajik troops, leading to calls for the resignation of the Tajik defense minister. [19]

On September 10, 2010 a Tajik border patrol encountered what they described as a large group of Islamist fighters, including Afghan Taliban, trying to cross the border from Afghanistan. A firefight lasting nearly 24 hours ensued, with the border police eventually driving off the alleged Taliban incursion. Authorities claimed one officer and 20 Taliban were killed, though only seven Taliban bodies were recovered. The battle took place roughly 210 kilometers south of Dushanbe on the banks of the Pyandzh River in the remote autonomous Gorno-Badakhshan region and on a number of islands in the river occupied by Taliban fighters. The Taliban appear to have been using the islands as a local base and the clash did not seem to be part of any effort by the Afghan Taliban to mount a campaign within Tajikistan, but was more likely an attempt to evade an ongoing U.S./ISAF (International Security Assistance Force) military operation in the area. The mountainous border along the Pyandzh River was again closed in July 2012 as Tajik authorities claimed Afghan Taliban were infiltrating Tajikistan to support former warlord Tolib Ayombekov, who was accused of murdering Major General Abdullo Nazarov, the regional security service chief. Tajik officials claimed to have captured eight Afghans who were fighting in support of Ayombekov. [20]

Tajik authorities have consistently asserted a leading role for the IMU in Tajikistan’s internal armed opposition, despite strong indications that the 2009-2011 fighting had far more to do with that nation’s tribal rivalries and internal political competition than with a Central Asian jihad. Dushanbe clearly prefers to suggest that its political violence is solely the result of the machinations of international jihadists rather than admit to continuing difficulties in creating a stable state while failing to establish a national purpose or identity that would subsume deep-set political and tribal rivalries.

Rasht ValleyRasht Valley, Tajikistan

Before and following his death during a military sweep in the Rasht Valley in April 2011, Mullo Abdullo (a.k.a. Abdullo Rahimov) was described by Tajik authorities as not only an IMU field commander, but the leader of al-Qaeda in Tajikistan, though evidence in support of these claims was never presented. [21] There is little evidence to suggest that Mullo Abdullo had ties of any significance to the IMU and it is common for Tajik courts to identify local militants as IMU members, identifications confirmed by forced confessions. [22] It is informative that most of the major charges brought against former Islamist commanders in recent years relate to crimes allegedly committed in the 1990s rather than current militant activity, a sign that the government’s offensives are directed at eliminating the former Islamist commanders from the Tajik power structure. The international “War on Terrorism” has allowed the Dushanbe regime to follow Karimov’s example in Uzbekistan and frame its struggle with opposition forces as counterterrorism operations against Islamist extremists pursuing a global jihad. This process has also been used in other Central Asian nations, as described by Tajik historian Kamoludin Abdullaev:

On the pretext of fighting Islamic terrorists, Kazakhstan and Kyrgyzstan have also rashly strengthened their defense and security bodies. Not capable to resolve problems arising from Islamist mobilization and driven by Soviet-time authoritarian impulses Central Asian governments call for external support receiving millions of dollars from the US to suppress Islamic dissent. Sadly, in the aftermath of September 11, Central Asian governments have begun to apply the rhetoric of the “war on terror” to justify their pressure on opposition. Tajikistan is another source of instability, because the military elite is comprised of former adversaries—hardened militias from pro-Communist Popular Front and United Tajik Opposition—and most gunmen are independent from the state, remaining loyal to regional political entrepreneurs and field commanders who control the remote regions, “protect” the Tajik-Afghan border and are heavily involved in illegal trafficking. [23]

Instability continues on a low scale in the Rasht Valley, in the western part of the Gorno-Badakhshan Autonomous Oblast (GBAO), the last region of Tajikistan to be brought under the control of the regime of President Imam Ali Rahmon. The GBAO, located in the Pamir Mountains, occupies 45% of the territory of Tajikistan but has only 3% of the total population. The Garm district of the Rasht Valley has a long history as a center for Islamist militancy, dating back to its days as an important center for the anti-Soviet Bashmachi rebellion of the 1920’s. By now, however, most of the leading UTO Islamists are dead, indluding Abdullo, Ziyoev, Ali Bedaki and Mirzokhuja Ahmadov. Nonetheless, analyst Thomas Ruttig has noted a trend to internationalization of Islamist militancy as reported by official sources that is difficult to support with hard evidence:

If one listens to ISAF and to Central Asian governments, there are overlapping networks of jihadist terrorists subverting Afghanistan and Tajikistan, if not the whole region. Those networks, it is said, link the Taleban and the Islamic Movement of Uzbekistan (IMU) with al-Qaeda and other Pakistan-based groups. Few of these reports are substantiated by details that can be independently scrutinised. But they are often picked up by media and other outlets, presented as proven facts and amplified by repetition. [24]

Ruttig goes on to point out that much of the activity described as IMU/Taliban penetrations along Tajikistan’s borders is actually related to smuggling rather than jihad. Any IMU effort to insert itself operationally into Tajikistan will be countered by the presence of the Russian 201st Motorized Rifle Division, permanently based in Tajikistan where it has been responsible for guarding the border with Afghanistan against militant incursions since 2001.

In recent years there is greater evidence for the out movement of Tajik extremists taking refuge in Afghanistan than for an inflow of Taliban militants. Nonetheless, Tajik authorities continue to cite an al-Qaeda-assisted IMU revival in Tajikistan in league with Tajik dissidents who would otherwise seem to present only a minimal threat to the Tajik state. Presenting its troubles in the framework of the “war on terrorism” allows the Dushanbe government to avoid discussions of official nepotism, corruption and inefficiency as factors causing unrest in the country.

The European Connection – IMU and IJU

The IMU has attempted to draw on European sources for financial contributions and recruitment, particularly amongst the Turkish diaspora community. In May 2008, Dutch, French and German police announced the break-up of a financial support network run by ethnic-Turks. [25] The IMU has also produced German-language recruitment videos, which have had some limited success. The IMU has successfully recruited a number of German nationals, including Bekkay Harrach, a cell leader born in Morocco and the brothers Mounir and Yasin Chowka.

Another important connection between the Central Asian jihad and Europe was established by the Islamic Jihad Union (IJU). [26] The IJU split from the IMU in 2002, led by two ethnic Uzbeks, Najmiddin Jalolov and Suhail Buranov. While sharing the IMU’s goal of deposing the Karimov regime in Uzbekistan, the movement quickly displayed a more global approach to its jihad, growing close to core al-Qaeda and focusing its activities on attacks against U.S. and ISAF forces in Afghanistan from bases in the north-west frontier region of Afghanistan and recruiting members from the West, especially Germany. Using the name Jama’at al-Jihad al-Islami, the group claimed responsibility for a series of attacks in Uzbekistan in 2004, though the Tashkent government claimed the attacks were the work of Hizb ut-Tahri and the IMU.

The IJU was central to the 2007 “Sauerland Group” plot to use car-bombs against Germany’s Ramstein Air Base (used by U.S. forces) and Frankfurt International Airport. Of the three principal suspects, one was an ethnic Turk raised in Germany and two were German converts to Islam. All three had been trained at IJU camps in South Waziristan. [27] In April 2009, Turkish police arrested members of an IMU cell operating in Turkey. Like the IMU, the IJU now seems to have adapted to a long-term presence in north-western Pakistan but appears to rely on strong support from ethnic-Turkish sources. [28]

Hizb ut-Tahrir and the Tabligh Jama’at

Despite its Palestinian/Jordanian origins and London headquarters, the Central Asian branch of the Hizb ut-Tahrir (HuT) movement appears to be a largely localized phenomenon, with affiliates operating with various degrees of success in most of the Central Asian nations. The movement’s international resources are well-deployed in the production of videos and internet communications, but within Central Asia, where technological resources are still in short supply, the movement relies on locally photo-copied leaflets (shabnama – “night letters”) and posters. [29] Though HuT advocates the establishment of a Central Asian caliphate (as the precursor to a global caliphate) and the full implementation of Shari’a through solely peaceful means, it is consistently treated as a militant group by authorities who regard its radical political message as being at least as dangerous as any armed group. Central Asian rulers are mindful of the example of the Askar Akayev regime in Kyrgyzstan, which was overthrown by political protests in the 2005 “Tulip Revolution” rather than by militant groups like the IMU, who have criticized the HuT’s passive approach to political change. [30] The outlawed movement’s cell structure and attention to security makes it particularly difficult to infiltrate, adding another layer of concern for authorities. [31] The harshness with which local authoritarian regimes have dealt with suspected HuT members has in turn helped convince these regimes that the movement will eventually respond with violence. While HuT’s activities do not bear the enormous costs associated with mounting an armed rebellion, the sources of its financing remain obscure, though the existing literature on the movement contains the usual but vague references to Islamic charities and private donors in the Gulf States (which include a substantial Uzbek diaspora population). After dismantling an “HuT network,” Kazakh authorities claimed the operation had “helped dismantle routes that were used to deliver books promoting extremism and money from abroad.” [32] Despite repression, the group has managed to survive, though its activities remain largely limited to the distribution of Islamist and pro-Caliphate literature.

A similar, but less political organization, the Tablighi Jama’at, has also faced repressive measures in Central Asia. The Deobandi-influenced movement was founded in India in 1926 with the aim of bringing about a spiritual revival in the Muslim community through missionary work. The movement has gradually become a well-funded, global mechanism for promoting spiritual reform while avoiding political confrontations with authorities wherever possible. Unlike Hizb ut-Tahrir, the Jama’at considers the establishment of a caliphate as a long-term goal possible only after significant reforms have been achieved in the Islamic community. Despite this, the movement’s call for a return to conservative Islamic principles has alarmed the secular post-Soviet governments of Central Asia. In Tajikistan, the Jama’at was banned in March 2006 after authorities determined the movement aimed to subvert constitutional order in Tajikistan in order to establish an Islamic Caliphate. [33] The movement has made inroads in the Kyrgyz community in the Ferghana Valley and has begun spreading into the Russian Federation republics of Tatarstan and Bashkortostan, where they have attracted the attention of Russian authorities. [34]

In 2012, Kazakhstan attempted to disrupt the movement’s activities by expelling or fining 205 Jama’at missionaries on the grounds that religious activities by unregistered organizations were prohibited. [35] The movement is also banned in Uzbekistan and Turkmenistan, partly because of the theory that the organization acts as a “gateway” to radicalization and eventual militant activity, based on the examples of a number of militants killed or captured worldwide who were former members of the Jama’at, which has at least 100 million members in 213 countries. Despite significant global resources, the movement’s non-political stance makes it difficult to mobilize against government repression. There are no signs at the moment that the Tablighi Jama’at intends to engage in militant activities in Central Asia.

According to Thomas Ruttig:

Statements by Central Asian governments contain high doses of self-serving alarmism, seem to exaggerate and misrepresent relatively small incidents, and describe scenarios that could only become true if different groups significantly increased the intensity, scope and coordination of their activities… Labelling all domestic dissent as ‘Islamist’ or ‘terrorist’ is a long-established pattern. [36]

The ISAF/U.S. withdrawal from Afghanistan and the future of Central Asia’s militants

Uzbekistan’s President Karimov has warned of “an increased threat of the expansion of terrorist and extremist activities” in his nation following the 2014 withdrawal of U.S. and ISAF forces, while Tajik President Rahmon has warned of growing threats from Afghanistan due to Tajikistan’s “weak military situation” and need for modern military equipment. [37] Various Russian sources have similarly predicted that Russian troops in Tajikistan might come under fire from the Afghan Taliban after the US withdrawal from Afghanistan in 2014.

Attacks by Islamist militants in Uzbekistan have become rare in recent years, partly as the result of a relentless government campaign against any activity that remotely resembles any form of religious extremism. Security services have cast a wide net in their search for militants and there are numerous reports from human-rights organizations that detention can mean severe treatment and even death. Uzbekistan’s national security service, the Milliy Havfsizlik Hizmati (MHH), has even gone so far as to issue a warning in November 2011 to Uzbekistan’s writers, artists, dramatists and filmmakers to avoid the use of any kind of religious theme in their works.

At this point, the IMU has clearly shifted its focus from Uzbekistan and the other nations of Central Asia to a new role, created through a decade of effective integration, as a largely locally-recruited militia deeply engaged in the tribal politics of the Afghan-FATA frontier region. Despite numerous external claims that the IMU will head back to Central Asia to carry out new, state-threatening operations, the IMU itself has of yet given no indication of such intentions. Since relatively little is known about the discussions taking place within the IMU’s increasingly reclusive leadership, the possibility of an IMU incursion must still be regarded as a possibility, if an unlikely one. The IMU has shown itself incapable of even resisting tribal militias in South Waziristan, which does not hold promise for any IMU effort to vanquish state security forces in Uzbekistan or elsewhere in Central Asia.

A Taliban offensive into Central Asia following the withdrawal of Western forces (or an IMU offensive backed by the Taliban) would not only jeopardize the gains made by the movement in over a decade of bitter fighting, but would also bring it into almost immediate conflict with China and Russia, nations that have prepared for such an eventuality and that do not rely on the long and vulnerable supply lines of U.S. and ISAF forces in Afghanistan.
Predictions of a Taliban overspill into Central Asia from a post-occupation Afghanistan depend greatly upon assumptions that Afghanistan’s Pashtun community harbors a previously unexpressed desire to expand into its northern neighbors or that the Taliban leadership learned nothing from its 2011 experience and is set on repeating behavior that will lead quickly to its annihilation.

The Afghan Taliban have taken little action to disrupt the northern distribution network through extra-territorial strikes, preferring to focus instead on disrupting the Karachi to Khyber Pass supply line in league with their TTP allies. If the Afghan Taliban has been reluctant to strike its Central Asian neighbors when it mattered most, this would seem to argue against Taliban aggression after the 2014 withdrawal. Linguistic, ethnic and cultural differences with the Central Asian communities would also complicate an incursion by the largely Pashtun Taliban.


All of Central Asia’s militant movements share one element in common: their political ambitions exceed their operational capacity. Syria and, to a lesser extent, Iraq, both provide more favorable grounds for financial contributions from jihad supporters in the Gulf States than Central Asia, with the added enticement to Gulf donors of being similarly Arab in nature.

Jihadists are not the only armed groups operating in Central Asia; they may even be smaller in number than trans-national narcotics trafficking groups and smuggling outfits working in the porous and difficult border regions of Central Asia. Many of the reported encounters with “foreign militants” may in reality be clashes with well-armed and highly organized trafficking groups who do not fear small detachments of border guards posted in remote places. The smugglers have at times shown a vicious intent to combat government attempts to interfere with their lucrative activities – in July 2012, suspected tobacco smugglers dragged General Abdullo Nazarov from his car outside the town of Khorog and stabbed him to death, wounding his three bodyguards and driver in the process. General Nazarov was the head of the Tajik State National Security Committee forces in the Gorno-Badakhshan Autonomous Oblast and was directing operations against tobacco smugglers at the time. [38] The region is frequently cited by authorities as a center of Islamist militant activities.

Corruption within Central Asia’s anti-narcotics agencies has only contributed to the success of the traffickers and encouraged the identification of gangs of armed gunmen as “foreign militants” rather than local smuggling rings operating with the clandestine cooperation of elements of the regional security forces. In the latest such example, on September 19, 2013, the Kyrgyz general prosecutor’s office announced it was opening a criminal case against members of the Southern Region office of the Chief Administration for Fighting Drug Trafficking for their role in trying to smuggle more than 25 kilograms of drugs to Bishkek disguised as an official shipment. [39] In another example, police in the Kazakh city of Petropavlovsk intending to incinerate more than 100 kilograms of marijuana discovered the drugs had been replaced by bags filled with tobacco and bricks despite being stored in a secured police warehouse. [40]

The IMU’s long absence from its Central Asian homeland has inhibited its ability to recruit locally and diminished the resonance of its message in the Ferghana Valley and elsewhere. [41] The kind of political and/or religious disturbances that might indicate a welcome return to Central Asia from some elements of the population at large have not materialized. Attrition and desertion have weakened the IMU, which now likely numbers only in the hundreds of fighters rather than thousands, with many of these being locally recruited replacements for more experienced IMU veterans. In the event of an IMU reinsertion into Central Asia, many of these fighters would find themselves on unfamiliar geographical and linguistic terrain. Even surviving Uzbeks of the original IMU have experienced a high degree of social integration in their 13 year stay in Afghanistan and north-west Pakistan and might show some reluctance to leave defenseless families and homes behind to engage in somewhat improbable “invasion” of Central Asia, with or without external support.


1. Uzbek – O’zbekiston Islomiy Harakati; Arabic – Harakat al-Islamiya Uzbekistai
2. Igor Rotar, “Under the Green Banner: Islamic Radicals in Russia and the Former Soviet Union,” Religion, State & Society 30(2), June 2002, pp. 89-153.
3. See Ahmed Rashid, Jihad: The Rise of Militant Islam in Central Asia, New Haven: Yale University Press, 2002, pp. 137-40; Bakhtiar Babadzhanov, “Islam in Uzbekistan: From the Struggle for Religious Purity to Political Activism,” Boris Rumer (ed), Central Asia: A Gathering Storm? London: M. E. Sharpe, 2002, pp. 299-330.

4. Kamoludin Abdullaev, “Integrating Political Islam in Central Asia: the Tajik Experience,” November 3, 2010, http://kamolkhon.com/integrating-political-islam-in-central-asia-the-tajik-experience/
5. Michael Feldholm, “From the Ferghana Valley to Waziristan and Beyond: The Role of Uzbek Islamic Extremists in the Civil Wars of Tajikistan, Afghanistan and Pakistan,” Islam, Islamism and Politics in Eurasia Report no. 22, Monterey Terrorism Research and Education Program/Monterey Institute for International Studies, August 25, 2010, http://csis.org/files/publication/100825_Hahn_IIPER_22.pdf
6. Andrew McGregor, “South Waziri Tribesmen Organize Counterinsurgency Lashkar,” Terrorism Monitor, January 14, 2008, http://www.jamestown.org/programs/tm/single/?tx_ttnews[tt_news]=4649&tx_ttnews[backPid]=167&no_cache=1#.Unf3JhAljoY
7. “Punjab banned outfits in contact with Uzbek militants, NA told,” Dawn [Karachi], December 18, 2012, http://dawn.com/news/772230/punjab-banned-outfits-in-contact-with-uzbek-militants-na-told
8. Amir Mir, “TTP using Uzbeks to conduct terrorist attacks,” The News [Islamabad], December 18, 2012, http://www.thenews.com.pk/Todays-News-2-149025-TTP-using-Uzbeks-to-conduct-terrorist-attacks; “Uzbek militants behind Peshawar Airport attack,” The Nation [Islamabad], December 17, 2012, http://www.nation.com.pk/pakistan-news-newspaper-daily-english-online/national/17-Dec-2012/uzbek-militants-behind-peshawar-airport-attack; See also Christian Bleuer, “Instability in Tajikistan? The Islamic Movement of Uzbekistan and the Afghanistan Factor,” OSCE Academy, 2012, http://www.osceacademy.net/upload/file/bleuer_policy_brief7.pdf .
Twelve years of claims by various terrorism “experts” regarding a Chechen military presence in Central Asia, whether as part of IMU, Taliban or al-Qaeda formations, have yet to yield any proof of the existence of these phantom legions of fanatical Chechen extremists. See Brian Glyn Williams, “On the Trail of the ‘Lions of Islam’: Foreign Fighters in Afghanistan and Pakistan, 1980-2010,” Orbis 55(2), 2011, pp. 216-39.
9. See http://furqon.com/index.php?option=com_content&view=article&id=195:-1432-2011-&catid=1:2011-08-26-10-42-51.
10. Jacob Zenn, “The Indigenization of the Islamic Movement of Uzbekistan,” Terrorism Monitor, January 26, 2012, http://www.jamestown.org/single/?no_cache=1&tx_ttnews[swords]=8fd5893941d69d0be3f378576261ae3e&tx_ttnews[any_of_the_words]=uzbekistan&tx_ttnews[pointer]=11&tx_ttnews[tt_news]=38931&tx_ttnews[backPid]=7&cHash=abba18744b7d716ca4d2c38bcecd7340#.UmaT5hAliRN
11. Michael Taarnby, Islamist Radicalization in Tajikistan: An Assessment of Current Trends, Korshinos Center for Socio-Political Studies/OSCE Tajikistan, Dushanbe, 2012.
12. Igor Rotar, “Will Tajikistan’s Karategin Valley Again Become a Militant Stronghold?” Eurasia Daily Monitor, September 13, 2012, http://www.jamestown.org/programs/edm/single/?tx_ttnews[tt_news]=39842&tx_ttnews[backPid]=587&no_cache=1#.Unf2axAljoY \

13. RFE/RL Uzbek Service, July 16, 2009; Ferghana.ru, July 16, 2009.
14. Radio Free Europe/Radio Liberty, “IMU Leader Says Group Did Not Kill Former Tajik Minister,” July 16, 2009, http://www.rferl.org/content/IMU_Leader_Says_Group_Did_Not_Kill_Former_Tajik_Minister/1778214.html ; see also Millat [Dushanbe], July 23; al-Jazeera, July 16, 2009; IWPR, July 23, 2009.
15. See Interfax, August 5, 2009; Asia Plus [Dushanbe], July 29, 2009.
16. See Asia-Plus [Dushanbe], July 28, 2009.
17. See RIA Novosti, September 20, 2010; Itar-Tass, September 26, 2010.
18. Roman Kozhevnikov, “Al-Qaeda ally claims Tajik attack, threatens more,” Reuters, September 23, 2010, http://www.reuters.com/article/2010/09/23/us-tajikistan-security-idUSTRE68M28M20100923; See also Radio Liberty Tajik Service, September 23, 2010; Ferghana.ru, September 24, 2010.
19. See Farazh [Dushanbe], September 22, 2010; Chark-i Gardun [Dushanbe], September 22, 2010.

20. Moign Khawaja, “Tajik security forces clash with Taliban along border,” Foreign Policy Journal, September 13, 2010, http://www.foreignpolicyjournal.com/2010/09/13/tajik-security-forces-clash-with-taliban-along-border/; Reuters, “Tajikistan seals Afghan border, NATO trucks can pass,” July 27, 2012, http://tribune.com.pk/story/413786/tajikistan-seals-afghan-border-nato-trucks-can-pass/
21. Lola Olimova, “Few tears shed for ‘Tajik Bin Laden’,” IWPR, May 5, 2011, http://iwpr.net/report-news/few-tears-shed-tajik-bin-laden
22. Alexander Sodiqov and Payam Foroughi, “Tajik Security Agencies Face Allegations of Detainee Abuse and Extrajudicial Killings,” Eurasia Daily Monitor, December 7, 2011, http://www.jamestown.org/programs/edm/single/?tx_ttnews[tt_news]=38753&tx_ttnews[backPid]=512&no_cache=1#.Unf2JRAljoY
23. Kamoludin Abdullaev, “Integrating Political Islam in Central Asia: the Tajik Experience,” November 3, 2010, http://kamolkhon.com/integrating-political-islam-in-central-asia-the-tajik-experience/
24. Thomas Ruttig, “Talebs in Tajikistan? The ‘terrorist spill-over’ hype,” Afghan Analysts Network, October 10, 2013, http://www.afghanistan-analysts.org/talebs-in-tajikistan-the-terrorist-spill-over-hype
25. Einar Wigen, Islamic Jihad Union: Al-Qaeda’s Key to the Turkic World? Norwegian Defence Research Establishment, 2009.
26. Uzbek – Islomiy Jihod Ittihodi; Arabic – Itiha’ad al-Jihad al-Islami.
27. “Terroralarm in Deutschland: Die Bombenbauer aus der Provinz,” Spiegel Online, September 7, 2009, http://www.spiegel.de/politik/deutschland/terroralarm-in-deutschland-die-bombenbauer-aus-der-provinz-a-504464-3.html
28. Guido Steinberg, “A Turkish al-Qaeda: The Islamic Jihad Union and the Internationalization of Uzbek Jihadism,” Strategic Insights, Center for Contemporary Conflict. December 30, 2007, http://www.swp-berlin.org/fileadmin/contents/products/fachpublikationen/sbg_IJU_Strategic_Insights_ks.pdf
29. Ehsan Ahrari, “Countering the Ideological Support for HT and the IMU: The Case of the Ferghana Valley,” CSRC discussion paper 05/44, September 2005, p.5, http://www.marshallcenter.org/mcpublicweb/de/component/content/article/628-art-pubs-occ-papers-03.html?directory=19
30. “Tahir Yuldash, ‘US fiasco is nearing. Look us up in Washington’” Ferghana.Ru News Agency, October 15, 2007, http://enews.fergananews.com/article.php?id=2167
31. Dilafruz Nabiyeva, “Hizb ut-Tahrir grows more active in Tajikistan: Government takes anti-terrorist measures,” Central Asia Online, September 6, 2011, http://centralasiaonline.com/en_GB/articles/caii/features/main/2011/07/06/feature-01; “Tajikistan detains influential member of Hizb ut-Tahrir,” Interfax [Dushanbe], June 15, 2011, http://www.interfax-religion.com/?act=news&div=8517
32. “Hizb ut-Tahrir network dismantled in Kazakhstan,” Interfax-Religion.com, December 22, 2006, http://www.interfax-religion.com/?act=news&div=2412
33. See Central Asia Online, July 21, 2009; Interfax, August 11, 2009.
34. Igor Rotar, “Tablighi Jamaat: Islamization from Ferghana Valley to Russian regions?” Eurasia Daily Monitor, January 23, 2013, http://www.jamestown.org/programs/edm/single/?tx_ttnews[tt_news]=40356&tx_ttnews[backPid]=685&no_cache=1#.Unf15xAljoY
35. Ibid
36. Thomas Ruttig, “Talebs in Tajikistan? Part 2 on the alleged IMU-Taleban nexus,” October 11, 2013, http://www.afghanistan-analysts.org/talebs-in-tajikistan-part-2-on-the-alleged-imu-taleban-nexus
37. See Trend.az [Tashkent], January 14, 2013; “President of Tajikistan informs about increasing threats from Afghanistan at CSTO summit,” AKI Press [Bishkek], September 24, 2013, http://www.akipress.com/_en_news.php?id=137484.
38. “Tajik GKNB general killed by smugglers,” Central Asia Online, July 23, 2012, http://centralasiaonline.com/en_GB/articles/caii/newsbriefs/2012/07/23/newsbrief-03
39. “Kyrgyz accuse suspected drug smugglers,” Central Asia Online/RIA Novosti, September 20, 2013, http://centralasiaonline.com/en_GB/articles/caii/newsbriefs/2013/09/20/newsbrief-01
40. “Kazakh police warehouse loses more than 100kg marijuana,” Tengri News [Astana], April 15, 2011.
41. Maksim Yeniseyev, “IMU lacks popular support: Uzbeks urge terrorist group members to lay down arms,” Central Asia Online, July 15, 2011, http://centralasiaonline.com/en_GB/articles/caii/features/main/2011/07/15/feature-01

Ambivalence or Radicalism? : The Direction of Political Islam in Kazakhstan

Andrew McGregor

Modern Kazakhstan: Between East and West, Conference at the Munk Centre for International Studies, University of Toronto

December 5, 2003

Despite being surrounded by states experiencing various degrees of religious/political turmoil, Kazakhstan’s independence era has so far been marked by the relative absence of radical trends in Islam. Moderate religious traditions, the influence of Soviet secularism and the presence of a large Orthodox Christian population have all played a part in the general absence of radical Islam in Kazakhstan. Since the events of 9/11, however, there have been warnings from within the Kazakhstan government of growing Islamic radicalism, especially in the south of the country, which has a substantial Uzbek population.

Islam penetrated Kazakhstan’s southern region in the 9th and 10th centuries, but did not spread to the northern nomads until the 18th and 19th centuries. Russia encouraged the work of Tatar missionaries as a means of ‘civilizing’ the nomads. A reversal of this policy in late Tsarist times began a period of religious repression that lasted down to the collapse of the Soviet Union. In relative isolation the Kazakhs developed a very localized brand of Islam that is strongly flavoured by native customs and traditions.

Like most successful religions, Islam has proven remarkably adaptable to local situations and traditions. This is due, in part, to the lack of centralized control so that the concept of what constitutes Islam draws not only on the Koran, but also from the consensus (ijma) of local scholars. It is this tendency towards innovation (bid’a) that the Islamist reformers seek to correct through the application of a narrow interpretation of Islamic scripture that is not subject to regional readings and understanding. Many of these reformers are inaccurately referred to as “Wahhabis,” though they are better described as “Salafists” in that they call for a return to the ways of the salaf, the pious ancestors who lived at the time of Muhammad and the first four Caliphs. With their rejection of secularism and even most types of Islam, the Salafist movement is frequently cited as a threat to the governments of Central Asia, including Kazakhstan.

In dealing with the growth of Salafist movements Kazakhstan has adopted the language used throughout the rest of the former Soviet states, warning of the ‘Wahhabi’ threat. Wahhabi is a popular catch-all term that implies Saudi inspiration and direction of all types of Islamic reform in Central Asia and the Caucasus. The term has become inextricably linked with religious violence in the popular imagination, though in practice it may be applied to almost anyone involved in Islamic worship outside of the official structures.

In the Soviet era Kazakh religious affairs were administered from Tashkent by the Muslim Spiritual Board of Central Asia and Kazakhstan. Most Kazakhs recognized Uzbekistan’s important role as a regional centre for Islamic study, but the location of both seminaries and administration in Uzbekistan left religious structures comparatively underdeveloped within Kazakhstan. In the 47-year history of the supervisory board not a single Kazakh served as director of the muftiate, while Kazakhs had little say in the distribution of religious donations, all of which were sent to Tashkent. As Bruce Privratsky puts it: “Religious ambivalence was a strategic advantage for the Soviet Kazaks, who could apologize to the Russians that, in comparison to the Uzbeks, they had never really been religious at all.”

In 1990 the establishment of the Spiritual Board for the Muslims of Kazakhstan (DUMK) returned control of official Islamic structures to the Kazakhs. This was done in anticipation of a sudden growth of interest in Islam as Soviet ideology passed into history. The further creation of a Higher Islamic Institute offered a chance for Islamic education in Kazakhstan.

Recently the Kazakh government has identified the southern regions of Shymkent, Kentau and Turkistan as areas of growing Islamic radicalism. Shymkent is home to most of Kazakhstan’s Uzbek minority, who are increasingly viewed as a channel for Islamic radicalism. Islamic communities that fail to register with the authorities risk being labeled as ‘Wahhabis’. New laws on religious activity seek to re-establish state control of Islam, using the threat of religious radicalism as justification. Missionaries will have to register with the government, the result of a lengthy trial of two Arab teachers who began to agitate for the restoration of the Caliphate after their arrival in Kazakhstan. The republic’s small Uyghur minority also remains suspect due to the insurgency in the Uyghur homeland in China’s western province of Xinjiang, or East Turkistan as it is known to the Uyghur nationalists. Kazakhstan has endured great pressure from China to crack down on Uyghur groups suspected of aiding the insurgency.

Mosque in Astana, Kazakhstan

Kazakhstan is unique among the Central Asian states for its sizable Russian Orthodox minority. The government has resolutely stood behind official secularism in an effort to stem the outflow of ethnic Russians from the republic. Moderate religious leaders have managed to maintain a sense of harmony between the faiths, a situation the government would like to preserve. Islamist propaganda in Central Asia is frequently anti-Christian, but the choicest invective is always saved for the Jews, who are held responsible for many of the region’s ills despite having an insignificant presence in the area.

Shortly after 9/11 Uzbekistan became the main beneficiary of American largesse after offering nearly unrestricted use of several former Soviet bases. The Karimov regime has been immensely strengthened through its close cooperation with the American military. The result was an increased antagonism within the Kazakh government towards Uzbek leaders they feet had become dismissive of Kazakhstan’s regional concerns. In 2002 important steps were taken to improve relations with Uzbekistan. The long festering border disagreements were finally resolved and Kazakhstan returned two Uzbek fugitives who were wanted in connection with the 1999 Tashkent bombings. Military aid from the U.S. has now begun to flow to Kazakhstan, initially in the form of much-needed high-tech equipment for the border guards. The conclusion of a new five-year defence cooperation plan between the U.S. and Kazakhstan gives Kazakhstan access to increased military aid, including helicopters. Both the US and France have offered assistance in turning Kazakhstan’s defence forces into a professional army ready to undertake peacekeeping and anti-terrorism activities. Astana has also grown closer to NATO after having been a member of NATO’s Partnership for Peace since 1994. In talks with NATO last summer, Nazarbayev was reportedly seeking greater military aid and training.

Supreme Mufti of Kazakhstan Absattar Derbisali with President Nursultan Nazarbayev

For many Kazakhs the subsequent conduct of the Afghanistan campaign dulled the attraction of a close alliance with the United States, but there are still many who argue the economic and strategic benefits of opening Kazakhstan to the American military. Opposition politicians urged the government to condemn the American invasion of Iraq, but such efforts found little popular support, as most Kazakhs had little sympathy for the Baghdad regime. More covert attempts by the Islamists to rouse anti-American indignation have not met with any more success.

The main Islamist challenge to the Kazakh government comes from the Hizb ut-Tahrir, a Salafist movement founded by diaspora Palestinians in 1952. Though the movement has members throughout North Africa, Great Britain and the Middle East, the party only came into its own in Uzbekistan in the latter half of the 1990s. Compared to the violence of the Islamic Movement of Uzbekistan, the movement appeared to offer a peaceful path to the establishment of an Islamic state. Highly secretive, the movement adopted the cell structure usually found in terrorist movements in order to protect its leaders and organization. The party’s leaders oppose both Sufi and Shi’ite interpretations of Islam, seeking a return to the ‘pure Islam’ of the ‘Righteous Caliphs’ who followed Muhammad. In recent years the movement has spread into Kyrgyzstan and Tajikistan, and there are reports of efforts to establish a foundation in southern Kazakhstan.

Hizb ut-Tahrir regards it as obligatory for every Muslim to work towards the re-establishment of the Islamic Caliphate. According to the movement, Islamic rule has ceased to exist since the abolition of the Caliphate in 1924. No system but Islam is suitable for government over Muslims, and no system of law but Shari’a is permissible. It is haram (forbidden) for the Muslim states to seek the protection of America, Britain, ‘or other kufr states’. Also forbidden is the participation of Central Asian armies in military maneuvers with Western forces (such as in NATO’s Partnership for Peace exercises). Since the establishment of US bases in Central Asia, the Hizb ut-Tahrir has accused the region’s leaders of turning their states into ‘US colonies’. Only a handful of Hizb ut-Tahrir activists have been arrested in southern Kazakhstan in the last couple of years, and there have been no reports of religious violence despite police reports of arms seizures. In the most recent cases, the Kazakh language pamphlets have criticized American and British activities in Iraq, together with the usual calls for the re-establishment of the Caliphate. Despite the unease of Kazakh authorities, there is little resemblance between the relative calm that prevails in south Kazakhstan and the growing religious/political turmoil of Uzbekistan and southern Kyrgyzstan. The distribution of leaflets to a largely indifferent Kazakh populace hardly represents an immediate threat to the Kazakh regime. The level of religious/political dissent is largely in the hands of the government as it deals with accusations of corruption in the distribution of oil revenues and issues of political succession surrounding the leadership of President Nazarbayev.

Long active in Uzbekistan, Hizb ut-Tahrir propagandists have been extremely busy in southern Kyrgyzstan in the last few years. Though the circulation of leaflets seems to be the party’s main weapon Kyrgyz security forces claim to have foiled an attempt to set off 30 bombs throughout Jalalabad. The attempted assassination of the Secretary of the Security Council (Misir Ashirkulov) has also been attributed to the Hizb ut-Tahrir. It is difficult to assess the validity of these claims, but they represent a substantial deviation from the party’s customary tactics. While its secret nature shields the movement’s leaders from arrest and prosecution, it also prevents the development of a well-known and charismatic leadership capable of mobilizing public sentiment. The movement’s ‘paper rebellion’ also fails to satisfy those Islamic militants seeking more direct action.

Since 1996 Kazakhstan has participated in a regional security alliance with Russia, China, Kyrgyzstan and Tajikistan. Initially called the Shanghai Five, the group’s transformation in 1991 to the Shanghai Cooperation Organization coincided with a new emphasis on counter-terrorism activities. The organization conducted anti-terrorism exercises in Kazakhstan and Xinjiang last August, demonstrating a spirit of cooperation amongst the member countries in the face of a perceived threat from militant Islam. Kazakhstan is the only member state of the SCO not to have experienced armed conflict with Islamic radicals or Muslim nationalists, but the exercises prove the government’s concern with the possibility.

The SCO has in large part taken its lead from the US in its rhetoric and the intensity with which ‘Islamic’ threats are dealt with. Soon after George Bush revealed the existence of ‘evil-doers’ in the world, the SCO began to refer to its war with ‘evil forces’. SCO members have closely observed the overwhelming force the US has brought to bear on Muslim nations identified as a threat to American interests. There is a feeling among these states that the ‘war on terrorism’ represents an opportunity to deal with political and religious dissent free of the usual criticism of human rights abuses.

In the years preceding 9/11, Kazakhstan displayed little interest in the fighting against the guerrilla army of the Islamic Movement of Uzbekistan. Though the conflict had spread to Kyrgystan, the Kazakhstan government preferred to remain aloof from its neighbours’ problems. Since then, however, the regime has moved much closer to the concerns of its SCO partners, which by happenstance have become nearly identical to the interests of the United States and its allies in the ‘War on Terrorism’.


The crash in oil prices expected once the U.S. took control of the Iraqi oilfields has not materialized, sparing Kazakhstan’s oil-reliant economy from a severe shock, as well as depriving the Islamists of an opportunity to exploit economic dissatisfaction as a source of anti-government agitation.

I would suggest that only some type of internal crisis could create the conditions under which a militant Salafist-type Islamic movement might achieve a significant presence in Kazakhstan.  The special conditions of Kazakhstan’s ethnic composition and the staggered and very local development of Islamic practice in the republic almost preclude such a possibility. Having received Islam mostly through the work of Tatar missionaries, the Kazakhs may not feel a special need to look towards the Arab world for spiritual guidance, nor do they feel especially inspired by extremist elements in Uzbekistan. Even non-official Islam tends to be inextricably tied to Kazakh nationalism. In this sense there is an eagerness in Kazakhstan to define and develop Kazakh Islam free of external influence. A complicating factor is general displeasure with the leadership of the DUMK, which opens the possibility for foreign-influenced unofficial Islam to increase its following in Kazakhstan. For the moment though, pan-Islamic movements hold little appeal for Kazakhs.

Despite the emergence of separatist tendencies in the ethnic Russian north, the Nazarbayev government has succeeded in avoiding the ethnic-based conflict that has plagued other post-Soviet states in Central Asia and the Caucasus. For the moment Islam represents one of several competing identities in creating the post-Soviet national character of the republic. The government’s efforts to create a civil Kazakh identity that would subdue the importance of religion are inhibited to some extent by the regime’s failure to engage the citizenry on a political level. Without the development of democratic norms and a viable opposition the independent structures of radical Islam may provide an alternative for political expression. In this context the centralization of executive powers in recent years by President Nazarbayev is not encouraging. A decline in the President’s accountability has been accompanied by allegations of corruption in the state-controlled oil industry, human rights abuses and political repression. These activities all contribute to the attraction of political opposition outside the rather narrow official structures.

We also have to ask to what extent the Kazakh government feels legitimately threatened by terrorism, and to what extent it is manipulating its wealthier security partners to improve its own security structure and keep apace with Uzbekistan’s improved strategic position. Western military assistance provided in the name of anti-terrorism operations can also help Kazakhstan to strengthen its defensive capabilities in the all-important and much-contested Caspian Sea region. Russia also appears eager to inflate the threat from radical Islam, allowing it to justify its actions in the Caucasus while bringing it closer to its “counter-terrorism” partners in Central Asia. President Putin speaks constantly of the threat posed to Russia by the creation of a revived Islamic caliphate encompassing Central Asia, the Caucasus and much of Russia. In the post 9/11 world such fantasies have found a receptive audience.

From a military point of view, the presence of American air-bases and a newly energized Shanghai Cooperation Organization would rule out the possibility of an IMU style guerrilla movement operating within Kazakhstan. The republic is also favoured by geography in this sense; guerrillas cannot operate in the open steppes without air cover. IMU operations were always restricted to the mountains of Central Asia, likewise the Chechen resistance, which ranges widely through the southern mountains, but operates only with great difficulty in the open plains of the north. If small radical groups found it impossible to proselytize peacefully they could turn to terrorism as a means of expressing their grievances, though this would surely alienate the vast majority of the Kazakh people.

Kazakhstan has an opportunity to avoid much of the religiously inspired conflict that has engulfed its neighbours in Central Asia, but ultimately much will depend on the ability of the government to create opportunities for political expression alongside an equitable and sustainable development based on growing petroleum revenues.

Mummies and Mullahs: Islamic Separatism in China’s ‘New Frontier’

Andrew McGregor

Canadian Institute for International Affairs, Summer 1999

Confronted by separatist movements on several frontiers, the Chinese government watched with alarm NATO’s unsanctioned intervention in Yugoslavia. They needn’t have worried. There is little expectation of foreign support in Xinjiang, but the deeply divided Uyghur nationalists are determined to continue their struggle for autonomy.

The NATO air assault on Yugoslavia in support of the minority Kosovars has distressed the Chinese government which is trying to deal quietly with several minority movements of its own. Somewhere between the high-profile Tibetan independence movement and the virtually unknown separatists of Inner Mongolia is the Uyghur independence movement. The non-Chinese Turkic Uyghur people want independence for their traditional homeland of Xinjiang (or “Eastern Turkestan”), a mineral and petroleum-rich province in the northwest that covers one-sixth of China’s territory. Ever since Turkic Muslims displaced central Asia’s Indo-Buddhist civilization in the 11th and 12th centuries AD, Xinjiang has remained culturally Islamic.


Lying at the heart of central Asia, Xinjiang acts as a bridge for the extension of Chinese trade and economic influence, while it also serves as a security buffer between the Chinese and their Turkic and Persian Muslim neighbors. Some of the world’s most formidable mountain ranges surround the northern Zungharia region of northern Xinjiang, while the southern Tarim Basin contains the forbidding Taklamakan desert. Most Uyghur settlement is in the oases on the fringe of the desert, but there are also two small but economically depressed areas, the Ili Valley and the Turfan depression. The harsh terrain means that many regions exist in relative isolation and often possess different histories.

The modern use of “Uyghur” to designate the main group of Turkic Muslims in Xinjiang began only in 1924, when Soviet ethnologists used it to describe Turkic Muslim residents of the Soviet Union whose roots were in China. The term came into wide use after 1949, but many nationalists now prefer the old name of “Eastern Turkestan.” Whatever the designation, it should not be used to disguise the very real differences among the oases of the Tarim Basin or to imply a cultural and social unity that does not exist. Poor communications among Xinjiang’s population centers has meant that most oases historically look beyond the province for trade and cultural interaction. After the communist takeover in 1949, however, the city of Urumqi became a transportation hub for the rail exports of goods to eastern China. The province was also opened up to settlement by the majority Han Chinese.


Since 1949, Xinjiang has suffered almost continuously from ethnic division and a low-level insurrection that seems to be waiting for an opportune moment to blow wide open. The Chinese Communist Party (CCP) has been vigilant in suppressing religious and political dissent, but the almost endless rounds of protests, mass arrests and executions have served only to keep the political pressure at boiling point. Since the early 1990s numerous small opposition groups have adopted violence in pursuit of independence. Assassinations, bombings and train derailments now accompany the more common street riots, demonstrations and attacks on ethnic Han Chinese.

In 1999, violence has become increasingly frequent, particularly in the separatist stronghold of the Ili Valley. In February, two leading Muslim separatists were executed in Yining City, while 1,000 crack troops were rushed in to dissuade retaliation. Because foreign correspondents and human rights organizations are generally barred from Xinjiang, the potentially explosive situation has an unusually low profile internationally. The absence of a high-profile spokesman (such as Tibet’s Dalai Lama) or a government in exile does not help, nor does the presence of a divided Uyghur opposition often consumed by personal feuds or such petty differences as what to call an independent Xinjiang. Some promote a “Greater Uyghurstan,” incorporating Xinjiang with parts of Kazakhstan and Kyrgyzstan. Such dreams are not only unrealistic, they tend to ensure an unreceptive attitude among the central Asian states. The Islamic and pan-Turkic nature of the Uyghur separatist movement makes it generally unappealing to the Western social activists who have turned Tibet and even East Timor into international causes.

From Silk Road to Cultural Revolution

Xinjiang’s early history is revealed in the ruined cities of the famous Silk Road that ran through it, the great trading route that connected the Far East to the Middle East and beyond to Europe. There is ample evidence of Manichean, Buddhist and Nestorian Christian beliefs before the arrival of Islam. The province became part of the Chinese empire when Emperor Chen Lung defeated the ruling Zungarian Mongols in 1759. An independent Muslim khanate followed several minor revolts, and real Chinese authority came only with an invasion by the Manchu Qing dynasty in 1876. Resistance to Chinese rule continued under the republican government, with a short-lived Turkish-Islamic Republic of East Turkestan established around Kashgar. Massacres of Chinese, Hindus and Christian missionaries followed, until the nation was destroyed by the Soviet Union in 1934 at China’s invitation. During the republican period, ethnic-Chinese Muslims (Hui) enjoyed great power in Xinjiang as soldiers and administrators. Rebellions began to take on an anti-Hui character, especially after the republican leader, Chiang Kai-Shek, argued that all minorities were branches of the Han family.

Xinjiang’s Turkic Muslims took advantage of the turmoil of the Second World War to found the East Turkestan Republic (ETR), which lasted from 1944 to 1949. Having grown out of the Uyghur and Kazakh “Ili Rebellion,” the ETR government was multi-ethnic. At the time, Mao Zedong was promoting autonomous rule for Chinese minorities to win support for the CCP. After most of the ETR leadership died in a mysterious plane crash en route to negotiations with the CCP in Beijing, Xinjiang was reoccupied and brought under communist control as the Xinjiang Uyghur Autonomous Region. [1] Mao’s Cultural Revolution (1966-76) was a devastating period for the Turkic population as mosques were closed, books were burned, hard labor camps created and religious leaders arrested. More than 100,000 Uyghurs and Kazakhs escaped to the Soviet Union; others fled to Turkey, Germany, Taiwan, India, Afghanistan and Australia. A more lenient religious and cultural policy in the 1980s only encouraged the growth of nationalism.

The Mummies of the Tarim Basin

As in other ancient but disputed territories, archaeology has found itself at the center of territorial claims. In 1979, Chinese archaeologists began uncovering large numbers of well-preserved Caucasian “mummies” in Xinjiang Province, all of which appear to have belonged to an advanced Indo-European culture. A number of Uyghur nationalists, led by Turghan Almas, an officially banned historian, identify the mummies with the ancient culture of the Tarim Basin, as preserved in Uyghur folklore. The carbon-dated remains have been used to substantiate Uyghur nationalist claims that, not only were their ancestors the ancient inhabitants of Xinjiang, but their civilization was substantially older than that of the Han Chinese. The ancient Uyghur culture, language and script have always held the highest reverence in the Turkic nations across Asia as the earliest manifestations of Turkic civilization.

China’s Other Muslims

China has at least 20 million Muslims organized into at least ten ethnic groups. [2] Of these, only the Uyghur and the Hui are significant in terms of numbers. (The Chinese always distinguish between the Hui or “common Muslims” and the Turkic or “turbaned Muslims”). The approximately 9 million Hui – Han Chinese converts to Islam – are found throughout China, but particularly in Gansu and Ningxia provinces. Historically, many Hui in Xinjiang have been soldiers, administrators and even warlords, but they command little respect from the Uyghurs. Though the Hui and the Uyghurs are unlikely to make common cause, the Hui have also proven turbulent subjects at times; serious disturbances erupted in 1992-93 in Ningxia province when local government officials attempted to interfere with the Khufiya Sufi order.

The vast majority of Muslims in China are orthodox Sunnis (the mainstream of Islamic thought). Because Sunni Sufi orders pursue a mystical path of worship, they are seen as potential breeding-grounds for Islamic extremism. They flourish nonetheless in Gansu, Ningxia and Qinghai, as well as in Xinjiang. Similar orders helped keep Islam alive during the communist occupation of the Muslim states of the Caucasus and central Asia.

Hui Muslim Girls

The Islamic Opposition

CCP efforts to restrain Islamic practice by closing mosques and Islamic schools create an opening for more extreme forms of Islam to penetrate the rather moderate Sunni-style Islam of the Uyghurs. Chinese attempts to control Muslim clerics are unpopular; in March 1996 a pro-government religious leader was assassinated in Xinjiang.

The Uyghur nationalist opposition is deeply divided. At least 20 distinct groups (mostly exiles from the Uyghur diaspora [3]) range from “letterhead” organizations to guerrilla groups running terrorist/low-level insurgency operations. The most prominent and credible of the exiled leaders is Erkin Alptekin, son of the former secretary-general of the ETR. He is the current chair of the Unrepresented Nations and Peoples Organization (UNPO), formed in 1989. [4] His father, the late Isa Yusuf Alptekin, joined with Tibet’s Dalai Lama in 1985 to found the Allied Committee of the Peoples of East Turkestan Tibet and Inner Mongolia, a group which organizes demonstrations and conferences to publicize alleged Chinese human rights violations. The movement, which favors dialogue over violence, is frustrated by Chinese refusals to talk with any “splittist” organization.

Attempts to build a cohesive nationalist consensus among Xinjiang Uyghurs have also been frustrated by what Justin Rudelson, a central Asian scholar, has called “oasis chauvinism.” Uyghur identity tends to be closely tied to the oasis of origin, be it Kashgar, Yarkand, Karghalik or Turpan. Each nationalist “attempts to create a nationalist ideology which places his own oasis at the forefront of Uyghur history in order to facilitate the acceptance of a national identity at the oasis level.” [5]

New States, New Policies

The collapse of the Soviet Union introduced five new central Asian states to the world community – Uzbekistan, Turkmenistan, Kyrgyzstan, Kazakhstan and Tajikistan. All were Turkic-Muslim in character, save Tajikistan, where the majority language and culture has Persian roots. Though the Uyghurs are the last significant Muslim group under communist rule, they have received little encouragement from their central Asian cousins. Aside from Askar Akayev of Kyrgyzstan, the current central Asian leaders are all former members of the Soviet communist elite and are unlikely to support any activity that could threaten their positions. Pan-Turkic nationalism and Islamic sentiment played no role in the independence of these states, which were virtually cast off by a re-organizing Russia. Continued Russian influence, particularly in security matters, is another factor in discouraging activities which might threaten Russian-Chinese relations in what both nations would concede is a historically sensitive area. The damage to Islamic life and tradition over 70 years of communist rule in the ex-Soviet central Asian states makes a home-grown Islamic movement of any strength in the area (other than Tajikistan) unlikely in the near future.

Uzbekistan, the largest central Asian state, is the most fervently anti-Islamist. According to President Islam Karimov: “Such people must be shot in the head. If necessary, I’ll shoot them myself.” [6] In 1996, China used its economic power to pressure Uzbekistan, Kyrgyzstan and Kazakhstan into signing the Shanghai Accords, essentially an agreement to repress Uyghur separatists and other Islamic movements in any of the signatory countries. Karimov claims that recent bombings in which 16 people were killed in Tashkent were the work of Uzbek Islamists trained in Afghanistan and Tajikistan.

Kyrgyzstan has long-standing border ties with Kyrgyz communities in Xinjiang and with Uyghurs in Kyrgyzstan. In 1990, the Chinese subdued what they described as a “counter-revolutionary rebellion” led by Kyrgyz preparing for a jihad against Han Chinese, [7] and in 1998 a number of Uyghurs were arrested in Kyrgyzstan for “Wahhabist” activities. Because Kyrgyzstan is worried about the state of its relations with China, Uyghur exiles have been warned not to use it as a base for separatist activities. Like the other new states of central Asia, Kyrgyzstan is concerned about maintaining relations with China now that it can no longer count on Moscow’s might in support of decisions affecting cross-border ethnic ties.

With a population of 300,000 Uyghurs, Kazakhstan is most sensitive to potential difficulties with Beijing. Many of the urban “Russified” Kazakhs look to their Uyghur relatives in Xinjiang for authentic Turkic culture. After Kazakhstan signed a border agreement with China in 1994, the offices of several Uyghur nationalist groups in the capital of Almaty were closed. In 1998, Kazakhstan extradited two Uyghur mullah-s (Islamic teachers) and their families who had fled from Xinjiang. Chinese-Kazakh trade totals more than that of Turkey with all of central Asia, and the Kazakhs are currently engaged in joint ventures with the Chinese National Petroleum Company (CNPC) to develop Kazakhstan’s extensive energy reserves. Nonetheless, Kazakhstan has been a source of concern to China since it hosted military manoeuvres involving American troops as part of NATO’s Partnership for Peace programme. Because the Kazakh government also fears Islamist movements, it formed an alliance with Russia, Uzbekistan and Kyrgyzstan against “Wahhabist extremism.”

Although China would find it difficult to project its military power westwards into central Asia to suppress any cross-border support for a Uyghur insurrection, it may count for the moment on central Asia’s leaders to do the work for it.

Islamic Extremism?

The post-communist governments of central Asia are alarmed by any sign of “Wahhabist” activities, a reference to Islamist activists who take their inspiration from Wahhabism, a highly conservative religious revival movement founded in Arabia in the mid-18th century by Muhammad ibn ‘Abd al-Wahhab. The puritan movement became closely tied to the al-Sa’ud family, who eventually conquered most of the Arabian Peninsula. The Wahhabists (who prefer to be called Muwahhidun or Unitarians) reject any Islamic trend that interfered with the direct contemplation and worship of God. Wahhabist control of the holy cities of Saudi Arabia allows the movement to spread its influence amongst Islamic pilgrims, including those from Xinjian and central Asia. The use of jihad to establish an Islamic state is central to Wahhabist doctrine. The degree of Wahhabist influence in central Asia is difficult to gauge, as the term is often used by various governments to describe any militant Islamist group so as to justify extreme measures against them. China rarely uses the term in official declarations, probably in deference to Saudi Arabia, with whom China needs to maintain good relations because of its energy needs.

Terrorism, often described as the weapon of the powerless, has erupted in Xinjiang and elsewhere in China – allegedly the work of Uyghur nationalists. In 1997, there were bus bombings in Urumqi and Beijing. The latter was especially embarrassing to the Chinese government because it coincided with the funeral of Deng Xiaoping. The Organization for Turkestan Freedom, which has its headquarters in Istanbul, claimed responsibility for the bombings, which came only a day after punishments for terrorism were increased and new charges of “inciting ethnic hatred” and “taking advantage of religious problems to instigate the splitting of the state” were added to the criminal code.

Many Uyghurs were arrested and executed, but a statement from the UNPO questioned Uyghur participation: “We now believe that the Chinese authorities or some elements within the government may have set off the devices… to discredit the Turkic peoples of East Turkestan, and to create a pretext for even more severe repression in our region.” [8] The accusation is unlikely; the bombings brought world media attention to Xinjiang’s problems, and what the CCP fears more than anything is internationalizing the issue.

Language and Demographic Issues

At the core of Beijing’s attempts to pacify Xinjiang is a campaign to create a major demographic change in the ethnic proportions of the province’s population. When the CCP took control of Eastern Turkestan in 1949, Han Chinese [9] made up only five per cent of the population. With 300,000 arriving every year, the Han Chinese are now as numerous as the Uyghur, and there are plans to being many more settlers. A more liberal reproductive policy which allows two children per couple rather than one as in the rest of China encourages Han resettlement in Xinjiang. There are also plans to accommodate many of the up to two million people who will be displaced if the Three Gorges dam project proceeds.

Language is a major barrier between Muslims and Han Chinese, who live highly segregated lives in Xinjiang. While some Uyghurs may learn Chinese to facilitate trade, it is almost unheard of for Chinese to learn Uyghur or any other Turkic language. Most education in the province is in Chinese. The few Uyghurs who attain higher education can expect little in the way of employment opportunities; most of the preferred jobs are reserved for ethnic Chinese. Those works on Uyghur history and culture that are written in Chinese are all dedicated to proving the historical unity of the Uyghur and Chinese races. CCP intervention in Uyghur language issues has proved disastrous. The traditional Arabo/Persian script used for Uyghur was for twenty years replaced by the Pinyin Latin script before a reversal of CCP policy rendered a generation of Uyghurs illiterate in their own language.

Administrative Mechanisms

In the 1950s, the People’s Liberation Army (PLA) began an experiment with a “Production and Construction Corps,” a paramilitary force responsible for border defence and internal security, along with normal duties in agriculture and construction. The Xinjiang Production and Construction Corps (XPCC) is the only one still active. Run independently of the regional government, the XPCC has considerable autonomy and legal jurisdiction through its own police, courts and prisons and is a constant irritation to the Uyghurs. It diverts most of the available water for its irrigation schemes and pollutes the remainder with industrial waste. Land annexation is common and Uyghur farmers are often forced into agricultural “regiments” of the XPCC. As part of its internal security responsibilities, the XPCC rather than the PLA increasingly responds to riots and other disturbances. XPCC units were a major part of the 1996 “strike hard” campaign against “ethnic splittists” (the CCP term for minority separatists), carrying out mass arrests after meeting armed Uyghur resistance.

Communist Demolition of Mosques in Xinjiang (VOA)

China maintains an extensive network of prison camps in Xinjiang which receive thousands of criminals each year from all over China. After completing their sentences, the convicts are forbidden to leave the province, but are welcome to send for their families. Many Uyghurs blame rising crime rates on the presence of the hard-labor camps. In 1996, a leading Chinese dissident, Harry Wu, and Erkin Alptekin testified before a US senate subcommittee that the XPCC was using World Bank funds to build penal colonies.

Nuclear Testing and Petroleum Extraction

Another volatile issue is the ongoing programme of nuclear testing in the Taklamakan Desert. Protests against testing began in Xinjiang in 1985, and Uyghur émigré associations claim over 200,000 people have died from nuclear fallout. Illnesses and birth defects like those experienced by the victims of Soviet nuclear tests in neighboring Kazakhstan have been reported. While the Kazakhs are now receiving direct UN aid, the Uyghurs are still awaiting an investigation.

Chinese Oil Operations in the Tarim Basin (Upstream Online)

China’s determination to open up the oil resources of Xinjiang comes at a time when the nation has become a net importer of oil, but the reserves in the Tarim Basin are extremely difficult to tap. Though the experience of Western-based oil consortiums is essential, poor concessions and exorbitant fees have discouraged several companies. Worst of all is the lack of discoveries to support China’s estimates of 80 to 180 billion barrels of oil in the Tarim Basin. As estimates fall sharply, the attention of world oil companies has moved on.

International Implications

With its sovereignty challenged in Tibet, Xinjiang, Inner Mongolia and Taiwan, China is clearly alarmed by NATO’s unsanctioned military support of an internal rebellion in a sovereign nation, Yugoslavia. American strategic and economic interest in Kosovo is negligible; Taiwan, however, is another matter, and China fears a resumption of the pre-détente US/Taiwan military relationship. Chinese premier Zhu Rongji has even warned of the possibility of world war if the principle of non-intervention is not carefully observed in international law and conflict. [10]

The problem of Tibetan independence was raised repeatedly during Zhu’s visit to Canada in April 1999, but the lower profile problem of Uyghur separatism was not. Despite the continuing violence in Xinjiang, and to a lesser extent in Tibet, Prime Minister Jean Chrétien supported Zhu’s assertion that China’s minority difficulties were an internal affair: “There are no murders. We don’t have the rapes that we’re seeing right now in Kosovo. Those are two completely different positions. One is political, the other one is extremely violent.” [11]

With Chinese-American relations already strained over several issues, there is little political interest in Washington in inflaming relations by supporting Islamic minority rights in China. Closer to home, China maintains close ties with Pakistan and Iran, largely designed to counter the spread of radical Islamic movements from those countries. Pakistan has often been cited by the Chinese as the source of weapons for Xinjiang’s most militant nationalists, and they did not hesitate to ask Pakistan to crack down on a Muslim group suspected of smuggling arms to the Uyghurs. The Arab nations of the Middle East also want to maintain good relations with China, a major regional arms supplier.


With no expectation of substantial assistance or recognition from foreign sources, the Uyghur separatists have limited options; an extended terrorism campaign (which may get some international press but is unlikely to gain international support), a negotiated settlement (unlikely, as China refuses to talk to “splittists”), or an all-out revolt, as in Chechnya. Unlike the Chechens, the Uyghurs have little military experience to draw upon, while the PLA would have almost unlimited resources and manpower at its disposal from a strongly centralized state facing no major opposition.

China would be most reluctant to relinquish control of Xinjiang, which it needs for its energy resources, as a base for China’s still active nuclear weapons programme, as a security buffer to central Asia, and as a destination for China’s ongoing population resettlement. Most importantly, Xinjiang’s separatist movement does not exist in a political vacuum. Any sign of weakness on Beijing’s part could be interpreted as a sign for Tibet and Inner Mongolia to set up their own independence campaigns and cause serious problems for China’s effort to reunite Taiwan into the mainland fold. As in many post-communist states in Europe and Asia, nationalism and economic reforms have been used to keep multiethnic states together. The Uyghurs themselves have suggested that Beijing has deliberately exaggerated the militancy of the Uyghur nationalist movement in order to create an “internal enemy” around which the CCP can build strong nationalist sentiments amongst the Han Chinese at a time when economic and external pressures threaten the solidarity of the Chinese union. An emphasis on the threat of Islamic “fundamentalism” also serves to keep most Western governments at bay.

Some Uyghurs believe that only the collapse of the People’s Republic would create an opportunity for East Turkestan to secede, but others have become desperate in their belief that every new trainload of settlers makes independence a little more remote. Knowing that time is against them, it is clear that any serious drive for independence must be made sooner rather than later. Addressing their lack of international support, Ahmedjan Qari, a leading Uyghur nationalist exile, has warned that “The world doesn’t think we will die like in Afghanistan, like in Yugoslavia. We can. We will die in droves.” [12]


  1. There are five “autonomous regions” in China – Tibet, Mongolia, Ningxia, Guangxi and Xinjiang – which in practise often enjoy less autonomy than their non-autonomous neighbors.
  2. There are five Turkic Muslim groups in Xinjiang: Uyghurs, Kazakhs, Kyrgyz, Uzbeks and Tatars. There are also the Persian-speaking Tajiks and, in the region bordering Gansu and Qinghai provinces, the Salars (who speak a Uyghur dialect) and the Bao’an and Dongxiang, who both speak an archaic Mongolian language. The Hui, ethnic Chinese with a long Muslim tradition, are the tenth group. The language used by the Hui is Chinese, peppered with Arabic and Persian loan-words.
  3. There are Uyghur communities and exile organizations in Istanbul, Ankara, Almaty, Amsterdam, Munich, Melbourne and Washington DC.
  4. “Participation in UNPO is open to all nations and peoples who are inadequately represented as such at the United Nations.” At present, 52 “nations or peoples” have declared adherence to UNPO’s five principles.
  5. Justin Jon Rudelson: “The Xinjiang mummies and foreign angels: Art, archaeology and Uyghur Muslim nationalism in Chinese Central Asia,” in M. Gervers and W. Schlepp (eds.), Cultural Contact, History and Ethnicity in Inner Asia, Joint Centre for Asia-Pacific Studies, Toronto, 1996, p. 173.
  6. See: “Republic of Uzbekistan: Crackdown in the Farghana Valley: Arbitrary arrests and religious discrimination,” Human Rights Watch 10(4D), May 1998.
  7. Lillian Craig Harris: “Xinjiang, central Asia, and the implications for China’s policy in the Islamic world,” China Quarterly no. 133, March 1993, pp. 117-18. Jihad is a complex concept that involves a militancy on behalf of Islam that can take many forms based on interpretations of the Koran and the hadith-s (sayings of the Prophet). In general, the “greater jihad” is the struggle against the evil within oneself, while the “lesser jihad” is the effort to bring Dar al-Harb (areas outside of Islam) within Dar al-Islam (the “House of Islam”).
  8. UNPO, “Bombings will be used as pretext for severe repression in East Turkestan,” May 27, 1999.
  9. While there are no less than 70 million belonging to ethnic minorities in China, the Han Chinese still comprise about 94% of the population. “Han” is a cultural rather than a racial designation in that its use disguises the significant linguistic and physical differences that exist across China. The CCP has encouraged the use of the term to foster national unity.
  10. Miro Cernetig: “Chinese leader warns of global war,” Globe and Mail, Toronto, April 3, 1999.
  11. Heather Scoffield: “PM and China’s Zhu take heat on rights,” Globe and Mail, Toronto, April 17, 1999.
  12. Quoted in Tony Walker and Charles Clover: “Bombs rock China’s far west: Islamic militants put Uighur nationalism on the map with terrorist blasts,” Financial Times, London, February 27, 1999.

This article first appeared in the Summer 1999 issue of Behind the Headlines: Canada’s International Affairs Magazine, Canadian Institute of International Affairs, Toronto.