Islamic radicalism in Central Asia and Caucasus
The Ferghana Valley, a region divided among Tajikistan, Uzbekistan and Kyrgyzstan, has proved to be the most fertile ground for the spread of radical Islamic movements in Central Asia and the Caucasus. Over the years, the main movements have been divided into smaller groups whose identification and containment poses difficulties. In the aftermath of the USSR’s collapse, Hizb ut-Tahrir (The Islamic Party of Liberation), the Islamic Movement of Uzbekistan (IMU), its derivatives (Islamic Movement of Central Asia, Islamic Jihad Group), and smaller groups like Akramiya and Tabligh Jamaat (TJ) became active in the region.
Islamic radicalism in the Ferghana Valley was expressed mainly by the Akramiya and Hizb ut-Tahrir groups. Despite their diverging methods, all have rallied around a common cause which is the creation of a caliphate ruled by the Shariah. In particular, IMU followers are considered to be seeking to create an Islamic base in south Kyrgystan as a springboard for jihad in Uzbekistan, in collaboration with Uyghur extremists and Al Qaeda.
The Hizb ut-Tahrir (HT)is perhaps the only organisation in the region that its roots can be traced within the Muslim Brotherhood’s realm. Also known as the Islamic Party of Liberation, was founded in Saudi Arabia and Jordan in 1953 by Diaspora Palestinians, led by Sheikh Taqiuddin an-Nabhani Filastyni of the Sunni Shafi’i school of Islamic religious law. According to a Terrorism Focus report “the initial core of the party consisted of members of the Palestinian branch of the Muslim Brotherhood and after the death of Takieddin al- Nabahani al-Falastini in December of 1979, the amir (leader) of the party became Abd al-Qadim Zallum. He was born in 1925 in the Palestinian town of al-Halil and is currently residing in Jordan. It was under his initiative that the party extended its activities to the former Soviet Republics, and especially to the Muslim states of Central Asia.” The party is relatively moderate, advocating a peaceful and educational Jihad and refraining from guerrilla tactics. The HT’s core belief is that jihad will spread through preaching and dialogue -even though the ultimate goal is to topple Central Asian regimes. The movement has not been characterized as a terrorist organization by the US, but it is seen as a potential threat due to the possibility of establishing ties with other Central Asian terrorist groups.
Beyond the Ferghana Valley, Islamic radicalism is also present throughout Tajikistan, in the southern parts of Kyrgyzstan as well as in nearby states. However, there are mainstream Islamic voices: the Islamic Revival Party of Tajikistan, also known as the Islamic Renaissance Party (IRPT), is legal, national and open to democratic change and it condemns Jihadi activities. With Azerbaijan being more susceptible to Western influence, radical political Islam’a activity there is relatively limited.
Compared to the situation in Central Asia, Islamic radicalism across the Caucasus has increased in the past decade, mainly as a culminating effect of the conflict in Chechnya (1994-1996). Islamist movements in the northern parts of Caucasus have developed through networks, known by different names such as the Islamic International Peacekeeping Brigade and the Special Purpose Islamic Regiment. Supporters are mainly Chechen fighters as well as Arabs who adhere to the doctrine of Wahhabism, but the groups also mobilize militants from Ingushetia, Ossetia, Georgia, and Azerbaijan. Their operational activity focuses on fighting Russia with the aim of creating an independent Chechen state. Training camps are mostly located in south-eastern Chechnya, subsidised and operationally supported by Al-Qaeda affiliates and through financial connections with the Gulf region and Middle Eastern countries. This is a great cause of concern as those movements can appear suddenly, due to their undercover political and military action.
Islamic militant groups have been to a great extent trained by militants linked to Chechen guerrilla fighters, led by Shamil Basayev, as well as by the Arab leaders of the Chechen Jihad, Al-Khattab and Abu Al Walid. In particular, the propagation of radical Wahhabism is overt not only in north eastern Caucasus, Chechnya and Dagestan, but in the north-western Caucasus as well (the Kabardino-Balkariia area and Karachaevo-Cherkessiia). The latter had been a cradle for moderate Wahhabis until 2005. However, the military suppression of Islamists, following the second Chechen war (1999-2000), combined with political and economic turmoil in the region, have helped reinforce Islamic fundamentalism in north-eastern Caucasus as well. Furthermore, South Caucasus, where ethnic and religious diversity is remarkable, is considered a Wahhabi-
Jihadi region, especially in Azerbaijan’s southern areas around Lenkoran and in parts of Georgia.
The moderates, meaning those who emphasize on the importance of Islamic education as the key means for the gradual re-Islamization of the region, are gathered mostly in Azerbaijan and South Caucasus. On the contrary, the radical Islamists or jihadists have embraced the introduction of Islamic rule modeled on the nineteenth century Imamat of Imam Shamil, the Avar religious and political leader of the anti-Russian struggle in the Caucasian war (1817-1864). Being in constant collision with local governments, some of them have been closely linked to the international Islamist centers in Pakistan, Afghanistan and Jordan.
They are primarily funded by Islamic foundations based in the Gulf, receiving scholarships for young Muslims to study abroad and subsidies for the construction of mosques and madrasas.
Of special significance, however, is the conflict between Wahhabis and Sufis (tariqatists), a rather esoteric Islamic trend, in the area of Dagestan. While the former view jihad as an armed struggle, the latter interpret the jihad mainly in spiritual terms. This differentiation has political repercussions, as Sufis are openly accused by the radical Wahhabis for their support of the Mukhu Aliyev regime.
Last but not least, Dagestan has witnessed the merging of Islamism with terrorism represented in the activities of the jamaats Jennet (Paradise) and Shari, radical Islamist groups commonly found in South Caucasus area. The latter are trained for acts of subversion and ideological indoctrination, while one of their new tactics has been shahidism (suicide in the name of Islam), a quite alien practice to their culture and religious traditions. Supportive of armed resistance and guerrilla acts, they are reinforcing the already sturdy North Caucasian Wahhabi Islamic network.
However, the existing doctrinal controversy is not likely to lay the groundwork for a mass Islamic movement in Central Asia. Radical Salafism is still attached to strict religious textualism, in an area where secularism has already gone a long way in undermining religious norms. It remains to be seen whether radical movements can re-emerge and re-assert themselves; until then they will surely remain a disruptive force for Caucasian governments to deal with.