Information emanating from Tajikistan suggests that, in mid-May, Juma Namangani, the leader of an Uzbek Islamic guerrilla group, evacuated his base in northern Tajikistan and moved to new quarters in Afghanistan. Nevertheless, Kyrgyz security officials remain concerned that Namangani's guerrilla group will launch new attacks aimed at duplicating last summer's successful raid in the southern Batken region.
According to Tajik sources, Namangani and about 200 guerrillas abandoned their Tajik base following a meeting with three high ranking Tajik leaders. The high ranking Tajik officials includied one of the leaders of the former United Tajik Opposition, Said Abdullo Nuri. According to the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR), up to 5,000 refugees from Uzbekistan live in Tavildara region, a former stronghold of Tajik Islamic opposition.
Officials in Kyrgyzstan are not easily convinced, however. They have asserted that Namangani's renegades are massed near the mountainous Tajik-Kyrgyz border, and are poised to stage another raid. They also have alleged that the Islamic rebels are receiving support from both Afghanistan's Taliban and Chechen separatists. In addition, Kyrgyz officials have claimed that between 2,000-5,000 Islamic militants have been receiving military training in Tavildara camps.
Whether Namangani is in northern Afghanistan, in Tajikistan, or in southern Kyrgyzstan, is a major concern for security experts in Central Asia. Last summer, Namangani's group demonstrated its ability to wreak havoc when several hundred militants invaded Kyrgyzstan twice taking hostages. Those hostages included Kyrgyz officials and four Japanese geologists, and they were released only after the payment of a large ransom. Since then, Japanese nationals have been officially forbidden from travelling to southern Kyrgyzstan, while many other foreigners have been warned by their respective embassies to avoid travel in the region.
The hostage-taking exposed Kyrgyzstan's military as being unprepared to handle such a security challenge. Not only were the armed forces unable to contain the movements of the guerrillas, but the Kyrgyz leadership also showed themselves to be inexperienced in negotiating the release of the hostages. Many experts believe that the payment of ransom last year merely encourages the guerrillas to take more hostages in the future.
Kyrgyz authorities reacted to the events by creating a new administrative district, separating the Batken region from Osh. This move was supposed to reinforce the local administration and improve its response capabilities, as well as provide for more efficient use of state resources to combat poverty in the region.
Namangani's raid last year helped focus attention on the economic factor in the rise of Islamic radicalism. The impoverishment of a significant portion of Batken's population has been identified as a contributing factor in the rise of Islamic militant activity.
The radical Islamic activists, called "Wahhabis" by authorities, are portrayed in official circles as fanatics or extremists. Government leaders allege that Wahhabi leaders have imported foreign ideas and are preying on the widespread economic discontent of the population. Radical Islamic ideas have strong appeal for young men, many of whom have been disoriented by the Soviet collapse and have few economic prospects.
The mayor of Osh Jusulbek Sharipov, commenting on the influence of Islamic militants in the region, said: "I cannot say there are no problems. Wahhabis are active among the youth, who know little about Islam. But our special services are dealing with that."
The official response in Kyrgyzstan has been to strengthen official, state-sponsored Islam, and to repress radical Islamic teachings. But according to Raya Kadyrova, a local NGO active in southern Kyrgyzstan, "the official propaganda is far from reaching the local population. I cannot say the same about [radical Islamic groups]. Nearly each house we visited we could find their material."
Officials have so far shown little understanding about the challenge posed by the Islamic radicals, and how efficient their methods are. For example, during their incursion last year, Islamic guerrillas seem to have liberated all hostages who could read Arabic, the language of Koran. Since then, students in the Batken Oblast have placed greater importance on learning Arabic than on their daily schoolwork. Another legend that circulates about the guerrillas is that they paid a peasant $100 for a sheep. "The population in our region is starving. For them it does not matter who they deal with, Namangani, (Shamil) Basaev or (Osama) Bin Laden. What matters is that they have something to feed their families," said Karine Ilyasova, a journalist based in the southern city of Jalal-Abad. According to Kadyrova, "92 percent of graduates in Batken region are unemployed."
Before leaving the region last year, the Islamic guerrillas seem to have left behind large quantities of weapons and ammunitions among the peasants of Batken region. According to a recent Interfax report, Kyrgyz authorities have discovered one such cache of three tons, in the village of Hadji Ashkhan. The haul included four grenade launchers, anti-tank mines, automatic rifles and ammunition.
Vicken Cheterian is a freelance journalist, who specializes in Caucasus and Central Asian political affairs.