The Merits of the Mukhtarov Case, and Why Skepticism Is Not Conspiracy

by Joshua Foust on 1/30/2012 · 12 comments

My friend and frequent sparring partner Daveed Gartenstein-Ross thinks I wrote “an epistemological wreck” about the Mukhtarov case last week. He raises some good points, and also neglects some follow-up work on what we covered here. So in the spirit of collegial debate, I figured I should respond.

One thing Daveed and I disagree on is the presumption of Mukhtarov’s guilt. That doesn’t mean he’s not guilty — I am trying to keep an open mind — but as I noted in a followup post, Mukhtarov has a truly bizarre personal history as a human rights activist resisting Karimov’s tyranny that makes me question if he really did convert to become a terrorist after being evacuated to the U.S. as a refugee. That doesn’t mean he didn’t (it’s happened before) but given how commonly groups that resist Central Asian regimes are called terrorists — and how fuzzy they’re defined, and how much they engage in bombast on the Internet, both of which are germane to this discussion — I do think it’s better to stay skeptical rather than gullible about the indictment.

Now, despite Daveed and my agreements on the pitfalls of relying on the Uzbek government to designate groups as terrorists, that doesn’t mean there’s something weird going on about the arrest. As Daveed notes, Mukhtarov does seem to have fallen afoul of the “material support” laws in the U.S. My argument, poorly stated in that initial post, was that those laws are themselves inherently flawed, a point JM Berger also picked up on in the comments and as I repeated. Saying the law is flawed is not the same as saying Mukhtarov broke no law, which is what Daveed (incorrectly) reduces my argument to.

All that being said, and this is separate from me and Daveed, there is a growing chorus of skeptics that seem to allege some sort of weird-ass plot between the Uzbek government and the State Department, or whatever, to trade Mukhtarov, a prominent dissident, in exchange for access to the NDN. That is, put simply, silly and completely without data even to suggest it is the case. I can say that more than one U.S. official working on Uzbek policy was genuinely surprised by Mukhtarov’s arrest, and it almost certainly wasn’t a feature of the NDN negotiations (and it isn’t something either State or DOD would do anyway). That being said, Turkey does have a large Uzbek population, and that population is vocal in its dissidence and opposition to the Karimov regime. There are perfectly legitimate and innocent reasons for Mukhtarov to travel there, whatever his emailed statements have said.

Back to Daveed’s point: about the real threat posed by the IJU, he too engages in some epistemological perfidy. While scolding me for reducing the Mukhtarov indictment to “crimes on a chatroom,” Daveed pulls from the indictment itself a list of crimes that include sending emails favorable of Juma Namangani and saying he supports the goals of a website administrator. I fail to see the distinction, even if he is working on semantics rather than specifics, between “email correspondence with a website administrator” and “crimes on a chatroom.” It comes down to a lot of big talk on the Internet (including the bay’ah, because who ever engages in hyperbole on the Internet, ever?) and the purchase of a plane ticket. I don’t dispute that that can constitute a U.S. crime — I do, however, think that is a dumb basis for a law.

Then there’s Daveed’s point that the IJU is a really real thing that does stuff and is scary. His evidence for it indicates the problem with designating such groups: the 2007 Germany investigation was for supposed operatives of the Islamic Jihad Group, which might be the same thing as the Islamic Jihad Union (or it might not, since the two maintain different websites and claim responsibility for different attacks). While the IJU website administrators claim responsibility for a lot of attacks, this is hardly unique within the community of crazy dudes with beards and websites (the KavKaz Center is a great example of such wannabe terrorist bombast). Apart from the IMU, which does have a defined organization, web presence, and has openly engaged in militant activities, the IJU/IJG groups are much harder to define, more difficult to pin down, and half the time don’t even correspond in Uzbek (the German operatives could not communicate in Uzbek, but rather spoke German).

Now, getting ideas from a website or chat group (like the three Germans) and buying explosives can legitimately be called a crime. But Mukhtarov didn’t do that: he allegedly got ideas from a website and bought a plane ticket. This is the crux of my skepticism with this case: lots of people talk big on the Internet, and lots of groups that don’t exist much outside of the Internet and Northwest Pakistan like to lay claim to things to appear more powerful than they are. Think of when Zabiullah Mujahid had to withdraw a Taliban claim to have assassinated Berhanuddin Rabbani — sure they could have actually done it, but they also use claims and retractions strategically to achieve messaging goals. Just because a group says it has global aspirations, that doesn’t mean they are capable of global action or warrant a global response. And just because Mukhtarov said some scary things on the Internet, that doesn’t mean he committed any traditionally-defined crimes in doing so. To criminalize this sort of correspondence veers dangerously close to creating thought-crimes.

So when Daveed says that I argued the IJU doesn’t exist, he’s misrepresenting my argument, and when he says that I think the Uzbek authorities duped the U.S. into arresting Mukhtarov, he is misrepresenting my argument once again. I did neither of those things: I argued that the U.S. gets bad information from the Uzbek government, and that this has led some analysts and officials to overstate or hype the threat posed by these groups, and that some of them, like the IJU, either do very little or exist mostly on the Internet and thus don’t really post a vital risk to anyone. Despite his lengthy bluster about the indictment, none of the facts and arguments Daveed produces — when he even produces them accurately — address those concerns, and simply noting that the IJU websites want Europeans hardly justifies such an angry response to skepticism about a terrorism indictment (and don’t even get me started on the ridiculous playing up of “khorasan” that pollutes the Counterterrorism writing on this stuff).

In short, Daveed’s and my disagreement comes back to an argument we had about a year ago about the nature and process of radicalization: whether you take people at their literal word or not. The way the U.S. government tends to view radicalization treats it not only as something that can be easily tracked using indirect indicators, and as something that is driven by ideology rather than environmental factors — think of the dispute over whether religion actually does play a role in radicalization in this post. There, Daveed had rejected taking people at their word when discussion their descent into radicalization and terrorism; here, however, he seems to think that bombast on the Internet constitutes an appropriate threshold for arresting someone.

Daveed seems to think that if someone talks big on the Internet then boards a plane to a country with a major dissident population from your distant homeland, it makes sense to arrest that person on suspicion of terrorism. I think that makes no sense, since it doesn’t constitute anything we’d normally consider criminal. That Daveed lapses into caricature while complaining that I’ve done the same? Well… this is the Internet, after all. People engage in bombast.


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This post was written by...

– author of 1849 posts on Registan.net.

Joshua Foust is a Fellow at the American Security Project and the author of Afghanistan Journal: Selections from Registan.net. 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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{ 12 comments }

Nathan Hamm January 30, 2012 at 2:36 pm

I’ve been wrestling most of the morning with whether or not I wanted to write a post responding to some of this, and I’m leaning toward the world not needing yet another post at the moment. I share your call for skepticism, but I think the targets of your skepticism here have been a bit broad and make more of this case than is warranted. I agree that we should be skeptical about the indictment, but the discussion about it gets really muddled if you weave it too tightly into the discussion of hyping the threat of Uzbek terrorists

As I was reading through these posts the other day, I was a bit shocked to see the claims that, “the U.S. government is doing the Uzbek government’s dirty work for it, about a group that probably doesn’t really exist” and ” the IJU probably isn’t even a real thing” offered without empirical evidence to back them up. I’m trying to unpack exactly what you mean because I think you’re probably not being entirely clear in posts that are to some extent written off-the-cuff. You clarified here, but on their faces though, those claims are as absurd as the one that the US arrested Muhtorov in order to secure NDN access. And I think it’s hard to say that Daveed is grossly misrepresenting your position when you, well, said these things.

I get the reasoning you’re using in claiming the IJU might not even exist. Since the position is philosophical, where you do draw the line? When is the organization “real?” There was a period when the fair question would have been whether or not the IMU existed anymore. The tables are now turned, and the IJU doesn’t do much beyond an odd job here and there and, apparently, practice horrible communications security. Small and unsuccessful as it now is, it’s not non-existent. They don’t pose much of a threat, but they are still active. Are you arguing instead that they don’t rate high enough to be a designated terrorist organization? Or are you saying that they aren’t actually active they’re just some dudes who talk big on the internet? You’re right that they’re hard to pin down, and we’ve both seen people fill in gaps with a lot of bullshit, but in laying out the realities of the organization and putting its threat into context, I think you have to be careful not to go overboard.

On that note, I wouldn’t bring the Uzbek government into this at all. The US-Uzbek bilateral relationship might be better, but it’s not 2003-2004 level good. Most people are well-aware by now that the SNB is extremely unreliable. Your original argument and your clarification here both imply that the US is acting on intelligence provided by the Uzbek government. (We have an active intelligence-sharing arrangement?) I’m really trying to give you the benefit of the doubt here, but the best I can come up with is a pretty tortured case connecting anything from the Uzbek government to this case. It reads like you’re saying that the IJU was designated a terrorist organization primarily because the Uzbek government wanted it so, they provided us phony information to justify it, they aren’t much of a threat, Muhtorov is connected to the IJU in the arrest documents, and therefore, the US is doing the Uzbek government’s dirty work in this case. Again, I know you’re writing off-the-cuff, but come on, that’s getting into rich tapestry territory.

You make some good points about the law he’s been arrested under. Like so many of our counterterrorism laws, this is unsettling. And even under those laws, the charges against Muhtorov are pretty minor. The affidavit describes him attempting to act as a facilitator for a donation, saying he would travel to Turkey for the IJU, and him trying to go to Turkey. You’re right that he could have been going for innocuous purposes, and the way he handled the “anti-virus” situation suggests he might not have been so hardcore. I think he was probably only picked up because he was trying to leave the country. Everything in the affidavit makes him so small fry (even to such a hobbled and small fry organization) that I’d be shocked if he’d been picked up if he’d stayed in the US.

Joshua Foust January 30, 2012 at 3:22 pm

Woahh-hh. I did not mean to imply that the U.S. is acting on Uzbek orders, or anything, like at all. I do think there’s something to saying that the U.S. pays too much attention to marginal Uzbek groups as a result of old or even OBE data acquired from the government (much of the “data” on the formation of the IJU comes from that period of data sharing), but that is a far cry from the implication you draw out here, I think a bit unfairly.

To be precise, I did not actually say “the U.S. government is doing the Uzbek government’s dirty work for it, about a group that probably doesn’t really exist.” I’ll cop that one can read that into what I was writing, which you’re right is the result of an off-the-cuff history of how the government forms its opinion about these groups. But I most certainly didn’t say that quote, and I don’t think that’s an accurate distillation of what I did write.

As for the threat Mukhtarov poses… I mean yeah. I’m still lost for what he did that would actually constitute criminal activity, at least apart from the “material support” laws (and that’s what really worries me). I’m not sure, however, that you can neatly disaggregate Mukhtarov’s indictment from a broader overreaction to some Uzbek groups — especially when the one we even really talk about as a “threat” anymore, the IMU, is bottled up in the Afghanistan-Pakistan nexus.

Nathan Hamm January 30, 2012 at 7:39 pm

Josh, I’m not reading that in or paraphrasing with some lazily inserted quotation marks. You wrote those precise words here.

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.

What I’m trying to say is that I don’t think you actually believe that and you’ve swung the pendulum too far in the other direction looking for the balance.

I’m not too concerned about the FTO designation for the IJU, as I think they do meet the criteria for inclusion, even if they’re not a terribly successful group anymore. I love context, really, I do. But I need convincing a ho-hum arrest announced by press release (vice press conference trumpeting the halting of a major victory against America’s enemies) of a dude who probably sent some cash to a group that sucks at what it does because it plans attacks on countries with decent security services is really a case that demands contextualizing the threat posed by Central Asian terrorist organizations. If someone does in fact say that this proves these groups are scary, existential threats, sure. But I don’t see anyone doing this yet (though I’m sure the Internet Haganah guys will). Hell, Ulugbek Qodirov actually wanted to attack targets in the US and nobody made a big deal about Uzbek terrorists afterwards.

Joshua Foust January 30, 2012 at 8:31 pm

Ahh, you linked to a different post. Which is why my control-F for “dirty work” came up dry and I called foul. So deal with that.

Anyway in the original piece I was referring specifically to the 2004 events as doing dirty work. And frankly, the open source IJU evidence that us peons have access to about that event is crap. Even the Sauerland testimony is awfully thin gruel for deciding a group is really real and it poses a threat.

And I don’t think it’s out of line to note that that happened when Karimov was trying to pin another mass casualty event on a group that probably didn’t really exist either (as Sarah documented in her article about Akromiya).

Look, we can all talk about what people who claim to be the IJU/IJG say or plan on the internet right now, and that’s fine. That doesn’t change that the publicly available data we have about them doesn’t really add up to much because there just isn’t much beyond the Treasury FTO designation.

And this carping, of course, skips past my broader complaint that the FTO language is broadly written and the “material support” laws are even more weakly defined. To wit, the criteria for inclusion include not just proof that an organization has either engaged in terrorist activit or terrorism, but who, as an exclusionary clause (broken by an “or,” so it meets the criteria on its own), “retain the capability and intent to engage in terrorist activity or terrorism.”

In other words, any group capable of engaging in terrorist activity, with the intent to do so (loosely defined, since we lack the means to gauge intent reliably) can be designed an FTO. When you combine that with the material support laws (“” any property, tangible or intangible, or service, including currency or monetary instruments or financial securities, financial services, lodging, training, expert advice or assistance, safehouses, false documentation or identification, communications equipment, facilities, weapons, lethal substances, explosives, personnel (1 or more individuals who maybe or include oneself), and transportation, except medicine or religious materials”), the bar is set awfully low for indicting someone on this stuff.

That gets at the heart of my complaint. From what we have publicly available to us — not on the super secret TS/SCI networks but in the public, coming from officials — this whole thing stinks to high heaven. I know you’re going to insist that clearly he did something wrong and that’s why he was arrested — I don’t dispute that he may have fallen afoul of the FTO and material support laws. I’m arguing, once again, that those laws themselves are flawed.

Think of it this way: the government is indicting a man for providing support to a group it designated using secret evidence to perform things it documented in secret. That looks really bad, even if ultimately the case turns out to have merit, and it’s really unfair to react angrily when people who don’t have privileged access to this stuff sit back and say “well this looks really weak right now.”

And Ulugbek Qodirov, wanting to assassinate the President? He wasn’t charged with terrorism (and had done things Mukhtarov had not done, like purchasing an illegal weapon). Anyway.

Nathan Hamm January 30, 2012 at 9:18 pm

Yep, I linked the wrong post.

I don’t disagree on the big points on the designation standards and the material support laws, which is why I think this gets messy when you start mixing in particulars related to Muhtorov’s case and US-Uzbek relations prior to 2005.

On this case, I’m unconvinced he did something wrong. There’s nothing in the affidavit that strikes me as particularly damning. It all seems fairly circumstantial. He might have sent some money, but it doesn’t come out and say that. The whole thing reads like “he said these things; I’m a special agent, who by virtue of doing this stuff for a while swear that those things he said mean something really bad.” Maybe, but I’m skeptical of “I’m from the government and I’m an expert because I’ve worked on this a long time” claims. I think this whole is weak and that they probably only even bothered because he was leaving the country.

And I hate that secret evidence, which may not even ever make it to trial, being used to justify arrests. That’s bad juju. I’m less troubled by the use of it for FTO designations, and I wouldn’t even be bothered by a lower bar for inclusion — you’ve got the intent, capability, and have actually carried out an attack in the past — if the material support laws were much tighter.

I know Qodirov is a different case entirely. But my point is that I haven’t seen it used to hype the threat of Uzbek terrorism. The law he was charged under doesn’t really matter to those who want to hype this stuff.

I can’t tell, by the way, if you think I’m reacting angrily. I’m not. I just think that the threads need to be pulled apart a bit here for the sake of clarifying the points. They were getting mixed together and resulting in claims that seem a bit over the top.

Joshua Foust January 30, 2012 at 10:24 pm

No you weren’t. Others have, and it’s been because, as you note, we’re all talking about related but sometimes separate things and reading into them and them making statements.

Agreed on the material support stuff. That’s been a major issue for civil liberty types for a while (and there have been really unsettling cases where, say, the mere act of posting videos online gets one convicted as a terrorist. It strays really uncomfortably close to thought-crime and it leaves a really bad taste in my mouth.

Joshua Kucera January 30, 2012 at 3:51 pm

Gents: as my post on this subject has been described here as “silly” and “absurd,” I think it’s been mischaracterized. I also agree that there is no data to suggest that this arrest and the sanctions of the other guys are directly connected to the NDN, in the sense of Hillary Clinton twisting Eric Holder’s arm so he railroads this poor innocent human rights activist. But the fact that the IMU is even on the State Department’s list of terrorist groups _is_ directly related to an earlier quid pro quo for U.S. military access to Uzbekistan and that that there _is_ data to back that up, i.e. the quote from Eric McGlinchey’s book, I think is noteworthy.

Joshua Foust January 30, 2012 at 4:07 pm

So, “seeming quid pro quo” is not the same as a transaction. Also the IMU had pretty clearly committed acts of terrorism before 2000, which that year included the abduction of those American rock climbers in Kyrgyzstan and lots of bombings and shootings. It’s not like State had to invent data or rely on the SNB for information — that was all public at that time: Yoldashov’s move into Taliban-controlled Afghanistan, the cross-border raids, all of it.

There is no direct parallel between that and the IJU-NDN stuff, at least that I can think of right now.

AJK January 30, 2012 at 6:13 pm

I’d like to write more fully about this because I kind of agree and disagree with everyone who’s spoken. There’s two main issues 1) Muhtorov’s arrest and 2) the NDN-IJU link.

The first is a legal issue and honestly pretty boring. It all goes into “probable cause” which has a specific legal definition, but on the other hand is historically used to beat up on disliked minority du jour (thus the driving while black parallel).

2) is pretty much all conjecture with this few data points, which I think everyone else agrees on. It’s not “silly” or “absurd” but it’s also not anything that could be remotely reported on as fact. It’s just something interesting to keep in mind going forward.

Nathan Hamm January 30, 2012 at 7:51 pm

Yes, it could be reported on fact. Even by reporters who go out and talk to sources. It could even be reported on with more data points by looking at how US-Uzbekistan relations, especially in regard to security cooperation and intelligence sharing, work by law and by deed.

If one wanted to think about this going forward, one should also consider why the many other Uzbek dissidents who live in the United States, many of whom are still actively attempting to organize political opposition to Karimov’s government, are running free. Why is an Uzbek truck driver who was likely off to die in Afghanistan the key to unlocking the NDN and not one of these others?

What could not be remotely reported on as fact would be the claim that invisible pink unicorns who live in the Andromeda galaxy and who psychically control fire-breathing space dragons, also invisible and wholly undetectable by mankind’s puny scientific instruments, demanded Muhtorov’s arrest to keep earth from being placed under pony-dragon dominion.

C.J. Chivers January 30, 2012 at 6:45 pm

Mind if I step in, not to untangle the larger argument, but to clarify a point you made in passing? Re Kavkaz Center (a predominantly Chechen site, that originated years back from the Grozny scene) — it does much more than post “wannabe terrorist bombast.” While the site does routinely post overwrought material (Putin with Hitler mustache, etc.) and giddy falsehoods (exaggerated body-count claims from skirmishes or bombings at several different wars, etc.), and more, it has also posted statements and videos that have stood up, including, to mention a prominent run of posts, several of Shamil Basayev’s claims of responsibility for various terrorist acts and “explanations” of same. It is a maddeningly frustrating site, and many posts do tilt far past facts and into bombast. But we also cannot, and should not, dismiss it outright. One more point: In addition to the postings of various Chechen leaders, over the years the site has provided an outlet for a network of underground local “correspondents” in Chechnya who have documented important events in the republic. I have met a few of these writers or editors in the Caucasus, and a few times out in the field, and some of their work was factually legit. So my take is this: For all of its flaws, Kavkaz Center has at times been one of the many tools we have of trying to understand a shadowy war. I’m not here to defend it. It has earned much of the contempt that seems evident in your characterization of it. But by my lights, it’s a listening post, and worth careful study, and we’d be wrong to ignore it in full. There are many back stories here. Some day, over coffee, we can discuss them. Thanks for allowing this small comment, written on the margins of today’s bigger fight. -cjc

Joshua Foust January 30, 2012 at 10:14 pm

Excellent comment but please don’t apologize for writing this! You raise several good points to what I admit was an off-hand comment about KavKaz.

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