Yesterday, U.S. federal counterterrorism agents descended on O’Hare International Airport to arrest an Uzbek man, Jamshid Muhktarov, on charges of terrorism.
According to U.S. investigators, Jamshid Mukhtarov was working with Islamic Jihad Union, an affiliate of al-Qaeda, when he was arrested Saturday night at O’Hare while changing planes for an overseas flight.
Mukhtarov, 35, a refugee from Uzbekistan, had been residing in Aurora, Colorado, outside Denver. According to these charges and an affidavit under federal court seal since last March, Mukhtarov pledged to commit foreign terrorist acts, even if it meant dying.
This is one of a number of U.S. terrorism cases that involve, essentially, arresting people for sending emails. But there’s more to the case.
Court documents show Muhtorov told suspected terrorists he was “ready for any task, even with the risk of dying.” …
West says Muhtorov was arrested early, before he had enough training to carry out an attack.
“He doesn’t know how to build a bomb. He doesn’t know how to plan a terrorist attack. He just has the desire. It’s these kinds of early arrests that really nip future attacks in the bud,” West said.
That West fellow works for STRATFOR so… well. The arrest affidavit (pdf) is interesting as well. Mukhtarov was apparently in email contact with “the IJU” and had apparently pledged “e-bayah,” or a life-pledge, to some suspected member of the IJU before boarding a flight to Turkey.
This is awfully thin stuff for a terrorism investigation — essentially criminalizing participation in a chat room. It’s also, sadly, not uncommon for U.S.-based terrorism cases (which often convict on really thin evidence more often than many Americans would likely feel comfortable about). But it’s also part of a larger global freak out about Uzbeks.
Unpacking the “Uzbeks are scary” is a recurring theme here on Registan.net, and there is a recent cluster of stories about them that bear further discussion. For starters, there’s this IJU group, which still doesn’t exist outside of some Internet chat rooms. The one thing the IJU has supposedly done — some bombings in Tashkent in 2004, was identified by the SNB, the Uzbek secret police. The SNB are also fond of labeling every dissident religious leader in the country an IMU or IJU terrorist as well. Based on their recommendation, the U.S. government classified the IJU a foreign terrorist organization and made it a crime to communicate with them (or to “provide material support”). In other words, the U.S. government is doing the Uzbek government’s dirty work for it, about a group that probably doesn’t really exist. And they do this a lot: a few years ago Registan.net contributor Sarah Kendzior wrote a brilliant article about how the regime in Tashkent invented another group, Akromiya, to justify its massacre in Andijon.
So the IJU probably isn’t even a real thing, yet was still used to arrest this guy for the crime of sending some emails then boarding a plane. What about other Uzbeks? In the Asia Times, JZ Adams makes the case:
The Islamic Movement of Uzbekistan (IMU) in November released on its website, alfurqon.com, a list of its “martyrs” of 2011. The most striking aspect of the list, with its biographies and profile photographs written in the Cyrillic alphabet of the Uzbek language, is that only four of the 87 martyrs were from Uzbekistan.
The list shows how the IMU has evolved from being a group focused on overthrowing the “apostate” regime of Islam Karimov in Uzbekistan in the late 1990s and early 2000s into the global jihadi movement that it is now. Neither the biographies nor the preface to the list focus on Uzbekistan, and while 64 martyrs come from Afghanistan, 10 were from Tajikistan, six from Kyrgyzstan, with one each from Tatarstan (Russia), Germany and Pakistan.
Okay… so this too is basically all wrong. All of it. It is patently ridiculous to call the IMU a “global jihad threat,” while only talking about some things they do in Northwest Pakistan. While only a few martyrs came from Uzbekistan, there were a lot more Uzbek-sounding names on that list. I met a lot of Uzbeks in Kyrgyzstan (not “from” Uzbekistan, mind you) who spoke openly of joining the IMU in response to the pervasive bias they experienced there. Similarly, the guys from Afghanistan probably come from the huge Uzbek enclaves either in Balkh or Zabul. And further, when 3% of the names come from outside Central Asia, and those Central Asian countries represented also host huge Uzbek minorities, it’s just not accurate to call the movement “global.” Maybe, MAYBE regional, but definitely not global. It’s over-hyped rubbish.
Later, Adams writes scary things about how the IMU is moving into Northern Afghanistan and threatening the U.S. withdrawal. What would you expect an Islamist terror group to focus on? By 2011 they’ve been fighting or resisting the U.S. military for as long as they’d been trying to topple the Karimov regime — and the U.S. military been much better at killing or capturing them than Karimov or Akaev ever were. We should expect them to recruit locally to expand their ranks, and to focus on U.S. plans in the region.
Sadly, this isn’t new. The Ferghana Valley is a constant source of terrible, evidence-free implication-fests about the frightening Uzbek Menace about to sweep the world into terror and darkness. To this day, minor criminal issues are blamed on AL-QAEDA TAKING OVER acts of fear mongering. Everyone from Ahmed Rashid to even Barnett Rubin (whom I respect a great deal) to Reuters have fallen for this trap: assuming that a few incidents somewhere indicate some ginormous threat to global security.
Really, the threat from Uzbek terror groups is local. They barely have a presence, to say nothing of capability, in the Ferghana Valley anymore. Most of what they do is confined to their hideouts in Northwest Pakistan (mostly Waziristan). That is its own problem, make no mistake about it. But it hardly rises to the level of a massive threat requiring a massive response to counter it.
And as for Jamshid Muhtorov? His case will probably proceed like most of the other thought-crime counterterrorism cases before him: it will go to trial, some self-made Internet lurker like Evan Kohlmann will say some emails and a video means he’s totally a terrorist, and a jury will freak out at the word ISLAM and send him to prison for 15 years.
Justice will be served.