The Non-Threat from Kyrgyzstan

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by Joshua Foust on 10/17/2011 · 1 comment

OSH, Kyrgyzstan — The Washington Times just ran an embarrassing story, claiming Kyrgyzstan is on the verge of terrorism because of its election.

The foiling of a terror plot by Islamic extremists in southern Kyrgyzstan over the weekend has underscored ethnic and regional tensions before presidential elections in Central Asia’s only parliamentary democracy.

The National Security Committee of Kyrgyzstan (GKNB) detained 11 members of the Islamic Jihad Union on Oct. 8 as part of a security operation in the southern province of Osh, according to GKNB leader Keneshbek Dushebayev.

“We had serious information that a group of people, related to international extremist organizations, was preparing a number of acts of terror in the run-up to the presidential elections,” Mr. Dushebayev said in the capital this week.

Yes, if you only talk to the local KGB chief, who is also angling to get a few more million dollars from cash-happy American defense policymakers, then of course you’ll hear about nothing but terrorism and fire and brimstone. Considering Osh is a 60-minute flight from Bishkek (and the ticket costs about $75 if you book it at KyrgyzConnect, the most expensive travel agency in Bishkek), there’s really no excuse for three reporters datelined in Bishkek to write what is basically a lazy transcription of what was already in an AP dispatch a few days ago plus an interview with a single Kyrgyz analyst based in Bishkek. No excuse whatsoever.

The problem with Mr. Dushebayev’s portrayal of the hostage taking, including the hijacking of the mashrutka, is that the group was led by an ethnic Kyrgyz. Starting with the very shaky proposition that the Islamic Jihad Union even exists outside a few Turkish-language chat rooms hosted in Germany, it is, in theory, an Uzbek group headed by Uzbeks (something the writers of this article don’t explain, nor do they explain how or if it really does have ties to “international terror organizations”).

This latest incident at Kara-Suu was not: the 11 militants included Kyrgyz, Tajiks, a Uighur, and supposedly (according to people in Osh, at least) a random Kazakh. Even if they were first identified all in a mosque together, it hardly fits even the Internet profile for IJU operations.

But even beyond the basics, Ruby Russell, Nurhan Kocaoglu and Tolkun Namatbaeva do not actually say how the IJU plans to disrupt the election, or even tie in any way the hostage incident in Kara-Suu to the many other issues surrounding the election. Much worse still, they then seem to deliberately conflate the ethnic tension that is very real here in the south with the spectre of Islamist terrorism, which is very much not real here in the south. Using an incident with no relationship to the election as a hook to write about the election is just mendacious, it makes Kyrgyzstan look like some simmering hot bed about to erupt in Islamist election volanco blasts of hot Muslim anti-democratic fury (to borrow a Friedman Construction).

The thing is, no one here in Osh or in Bishkek is really expecting terrorism during or after the election, despite the hostage crisis. They don’t even seem to expect much violence. While Sheradil Baktygulov says the “threat of attacks” might affect the elections (he seemed to clearly mean the government response to that threat), the Washington Times reporters portray that as terrorism is about to undue the election. It’s the worst possible reading of this country, and most astoundingly it is written from its capital. Most Kyrgyz seem to just want the election to happen so they can see what happens next. If anything, they have revolution fatigue.

Despite the fire and brimstone, I hope the Washington Times bothers to ask actual people who are either voting or not voting what their thoughts are—you know, like they’d do if they were in a Western country.

Even though that article is one of the few places you will ever see a somewhat mainstream American news source writing some true things about the election here in Kyrgyzstan, the picture it paints of this country is so misleading as to be actively harmful. Given how much I’ve been able to learn after just ten days here, such a lazy, condescending joke of an article should be totally beneath even a newspaper that hired Ted Nugent as an economic analyst. Sadly, it is not, and that is a real shame.

Pic: Atambaev’s campaign headquarters, in a giant building just outside of downtown Osh, Kyrgyzstan. Taken yesterday.

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This post was written by...

– author of 1848 posts on 17_PersonNotFound.

Joshua Foust is a Fellow at the American Security Project and the author of Afghanistan Journal: Selections from His research focuses primarily on Central and South Asia. Joshua is a correspondent for The Atlantic and a columnist for PBS Need to Know. Joshua appears regularly on the BBC World News, Aljazeera, and international public radio. Joshua's writing has appeared in the Columbia Journalism Review, Foreign Policy’s AfPak Channel, the New York Times, Reuters, and the Christian Science Monitor. Follow him on twitter: @joshuafoust

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{ 1 comment }

Catherine A. Fitzpatrick November 7, 2011 at 10:51 pm

*marshrutka* Joshua, *marshrutka*. From the French, marche route.

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