Central Asia: Terrorism, Religious Extremism, and Regional Stability

For my testimony today, I would like to underscore the fact that although there is certainly a link between terrorism and religious extremism in Central Asia, much of the extremism that we see is fueled by the radicalization of politics in the region rather than by political Islam, as governments have steadily squeezed the space for legitimate political opposition and broad-based public participation in politics. I would suggest that harsh government repression of dissent is as much, if not more of, a threat to Central Asian stability today and in the immediate future as the radical Islamic movements that have developed indigenously or moved into the region. This contention is underscored by the fact that in spite of faltering political and economic reforms, mounting social problems, and constraints on opposition forces in all the Central Asian states, the most fertile ground for radical groups has been Uzbekistan where government repression has been more acute and targeted than elsewhere. Radical groups have also flourished in northern Tajikistan and southern Kyrgyzstan among heavily Uzbek populations who feel disenfranchised and excluded from the political mainstream in both of these countries on the basis of ethnicity.

Having just returned from two extended research trips to the region (to Uzbekistan, Kazakhstan, and Kyrgyzstan in May and June, 2003), I would also urge Committee members and others concerned with developments in Central Asia to pay particular attention to reports drawn from on the ground research and interviews rather than to conclusions based on second-hand sources or on face value analyses of the literature of extremist movements.

The picture that one draws from a distance and the realities close-up are strikingly different. I sometimes wonder if the Central Asian countries and people that I read about in commentary in the United States and the countries and people that I visit are entirely different entities. These may be states united by a common geography, poverty, and the challenges of post-Soviet transition, but they also have complex internal political and economic dynamics and striking regional differences. All the states are moving in quite different directions. The only way to understand the complexities of Central Asia is to visit the region and to meet with as wide a range of people from Central Asia as possible. I hope that Committee members will consider a fact-finding visit in the near future.

Terrorism, Religious Extremism, and the IMU in Central Asia

Radical Islamic opposition movements have a long history in Central Asia dating back to the Tsarist era. During World War I, for example, Islamic militants took up arms to oppose the Russian government’s attempts to mobilize Muslims to work in the rear of the front. Again, in the 1920s, Muslim partisans in the so-called Basmachi movement opposed the Bolshevik takeover and the advance of Soviet power into Central Asia. And, the most recent resurgence of Islamic opposition was spurred by the 1979 Soviet invasion of Afghanistan. This tied Central Asia’s and Afghanistan’s fates together in many respects. Central Asian Muslims sent to fight in Afghanistan gained a new appreciation for their history and religion and drew inspiration from the mujaheddin fighters that opposed the invasion. After the 1989 Soviet withdrawal and the subsequent collapse of the USSR, the creation of international Muslim brigades to fight the occupying Soviet forces in Afghanistan set the tone and provided manpower for Islamist insurgents in Central Asia.