The terrorist threat against Central Asia is real and not in dispute. Groups like the Islamic Movement of Uzbekistan (IMU) and its offshoot the Islamic Jihad Union (IJU) have demonstrated the capability to conduct small-scale operations inside Uzbekistan, Kyrgyzstan and Tajikistan, and as the US prepares to draw down from the conflict in Afghanistan and hand over critical security functions to the Afghan National Police there is also no shortage of concern that these groups might refocus their efforts on their original targets.
The threat that these groups, especially the IJU, pose is a common problem for the United States and the countries of Central Asia: the CA focused militant groups have kidnapped US citizens, attacked US troops in Afghanistan and the U.S. (and Israeli) Embassy in Tashkent, targeted a US Air Force installation in Germany and allegedly worked to recruit operatives inside the United States.
The reality of that threat is something that I have some personal experience with. In 2004 I was living in Tashkent, where US Embassy security staff and diplomats received intelligence that an attack was imminent and worked hard to relay threat information to US citizens and the local staff of projects we worked on. I will always remember nervously looking around the gymnasium of the Tashkent International School at what seemed like every other American in Uzbekistan as we listened to the ambassador and the regional security officer warn us to avoid hotels, night clubs and restaurants where foreigners often gathered.
Most of us at the time didn’t take it very seriously, and we made jokes about varying the route we drove to work each day and calling the embassy if a new food vendor suddenly appeared across from our office. But that attitude was short lived. Later that summer, the American targets in the end were the embassy staff themselves: in July two Uzbekistani guards gave their lives defending their American guests from the IJU, and those briefings in the school gymnasium and consular warnings that would vibrate and shimmer to life on my cell phone screen became a somber but regular fact of life.
But before the well-known July attacks on international embassies and a prosecutor’s office, there were other attacks in March that are less often remembered by outsiders but shook the population of the city much more broadly. For three days that month a series of events paralyzed Tashkent, beginning with confrontations and a shootout at police checkpoints outside the city on the first night, followed by the country’s first female suicide bombings near a police substation in the ancient, crowded Chorsu bazaar in the very heart of the city early the next morning.
As explosions and scattered gunfights continued, rumors flew through the markets and mahallas that a group of terrorists from Afghanistan had infiltrated the city and were planning more operations. As security forces narrowed in on a house in residential neighborhood where the group was hiding, an extended firefight ensued that left many dead and held the city in quiet panic. Details even now are sketchy, and the time they were impossible to ascertain—frightened parents across the city kept their children home from school as another rumor spread that the terrorists would target schools and kindergartens next. No one knew how many of them there were, what their targets were, or how well they were armed. Dozens were dead the figures grew exponentially in the rumor mills.
I spent those days inside my apartment near the city center, trying hard to figure out what was going on and whether it was safe to go out anywhere else. Several of my local friends and co-workers came to help, and we bunkered together huddled in front of the TV in and on the phone with other friends, sharing meals, whatever news we could gather, and fear. I had lived in Southern Russia during the height of the second Chechen War and the many apartment bombings that shook the country in 1999, but I had never before (or since, thankfully) lived in a city under attack. We eventually learned that the group was much smaller than the rumors said, but that was the point of terrorism—the city was in a panic.
But even in that state, it was easy to explain why I loved living there. The worst of circumstances brought out the best in my Uzbekistani friends. We all took care of one another, we watched out for one another, and even though their families no doubt reminded them I was a likely target my friends made sure I was not left to fend for myself.
I haven’t been able to return to Tashkent for several years, but I still have several close friends there and have kept in close touch with some of those who came to help me that day. A year ago one of them—Sergei, an ethnic Korean born and raised in Tashkent–contacted me in another panic: he needed help and advice and didn’t know where to turn. Sitting in the home of some friends at lunchtime one day, men had burst in with guns and grabbed their books, computers, and notebooks searched the house for every last person until they found the last young woman in the group frantically attempting to hide in a closet.
Slowly Sergei understood that these armed men were the plainclothes police, and that his friend’s house had been raided without a warrant on the pretext that they were hiding a bomb there and were all part of the same kind of terrorist group we had all hidden from in my apartment in 2004. The books and media the police were seizing from the apartment were religious texts, collected as evidence to make the case against him. Everyone in the group was arrested, taken to the police station and interrogated for hours, young women in the group were sexually harassed and the investigators shoved pre-written confessions at them demanding that they sign without even having an opportunity to read what they were supposed to confess.
Sergei maintained he had done nothing wrong, had broken no laws, and refused to sign. After many hours, he was allowed to leave but knew it was only a matter of time before the police would arrive at his own door again. Afraid of what might come next, he chose to leave the country and once again stay with friends and wait for news that the danger had passed.
He didn’t receive the summons to court that was delivered a few weeks later and was only informed by another friend that he was convicted in absentia for possessing religious literature and participating in an unauthorized religious gathering. Meeting together in a private home and discussing religious topics or praying together was illegal, according to the court’s interpretation of Uzbekistan’s extremely broad religion laws, and my friend is now a convicted criminal.
The tight controls and close management that all of the Central Asian countries have enacted on religious groups and individual religious practice are often begrudgingly supported by American and Western commentators. Were they to meet Sergei in person, they would no doubt explain that while such restrictions might conflict with democratic values and Western ideas about civil rights and freedom of conscience, the threat of terrorist groups is real. Since these groups are also Muslim, harsh restrictions are a regrettable but necessary compromise to protect our common safety. They would no doubt hope that like people accidentally placed on the TSA no-fly list, my friend would eventually be able to exonerate himself.
The problem with this line of reasoning is it relies too much on stereotypes that don’t hold up well, and severely underestimate the depth of the affect that illiberal measures ostensibly created to protect society from groups like the IMU and IJU have had on daily life of many Central Asians. You cannot receive a redress number and regain the right to freedom of conscience. Much like we huddled in fear in my apartment in 2004, Sergei is now afraid to practice his religion at all or even socialize with people he met at religious events, never knowing when the next time he will sit at a kitchen table with friends and armed men will come to take him away.
And while the threat that militant groups in distant Afghanistan and Pakistan pose is real and could potentially result in occasional small-scale attacks like the one Sergei and I experienced together in 2004, local police and security services are ubiquitous and just outside the front door. Policies that treat religious practice and many other types of independent civic activity as a threat affect the daily lives of far more Central Asians than a few dozen militants in Pakistan.
Many outside observers fail to understand that Central Asian governments approach the goal of ensuring security and stability in a fundamentally different way than we do. Sergei’s experience is a potent example of this, too; my friend is a convicted criminal for discussing religious topics others in private, but not because he was suspected of belonging to some Muslim extremist group. He and his friends are not even Muslims, and the religious literature seized during the “anti-terror” raid he was swept up in was not Islamic: they were considered “potential terrorists” for meeting together in a private home to have a Bible study, and the group that they belong to was part of a para-church network based in the United States.
They were viewed as a threat not for being Muslim extremists, but for participating in any kind of religious activity not officially registered and approved by the state. Had Sergei been a Muslim, he would never have been allowed to go free after interrogation and would likely have gone to jail for years in exactly the same circumstances, as thousands of others have.
My friend’s experience is only one anecdote, it was not an outlier, and was not unusual. The approach taken by the former Soviet countries of Central Asia toward religion of all kinds is nearly identical to the one taken by the Soviet Union (which is hardly a surprise, given that most of the countries continue to be ruled by former Soviet officials: in the case of Kazakhstan and Uzbekistan, exactly the same people who were formerly the First Secretaries of their respective Soviet republics).
While in the West we continue to debate exactly what the social roots of extremist beliefs used to justify terror are and how they can best be targeted, in former Soviet Central Asia there is little debate that the root problem is “foreign ideas,” defined so broadly as to become a target of opportunity for both every political purpose and every local policeman or official’s ambition. Any sign of dissent from state policies or ideology–and in Uzbekistan in particular any civil, entrepreneurial or political activity that doesn’t fit with carefully defined categories like “national tradition” or “national beliefs”–can be enough to bring the wrath of the state, sometimes with great violence.
The states of Central Asia are sovereign, and they have every right to build governments and societies that they feel best fit their own cultures, goals, and values. But they also must be accountable to their populations, to the people they insist they need our security assistance to protect. As we cooperate in areas of mutual interest and against common threats, it is critical that we keep in mind that the current approach the former Soviet states of Central Asia take to social problems and security is in conflict with both some our most important values and our understanding of the roots of these problems.
Independent thought, open politics and free religion are not the root causes of terrorism. The fear Sergei experienced when he was taken away by men with guns last year for talking about his faith with friends is no fix for the fear we both felt hiding in my apartment in 2004. As we continue to debate how we can best assist the Central Asian states in guaranteeing our common security against mutual enemies, it is important to keep in mind that their ideas about who those enemies include and where they come from may be significantly different than ours.
*Sergei’s name and some identifying details have been changed in order to protect his identity. The details of the raid and conviction are unmodified and have been documented by international monitoring organizations whose activities are banned in Uzbekistan. Like many others who face similar charges, my friend fears repercussions for himself and his family if he speaks out publicly; several of the people in his group have been subsequently re-arrested and face frequent harassment from the authorities. Many of them have chosen to leave the country because they cannot feel safe in their own homes.