Mystery Surrounds Tashkent Explosions

by Alisher Ilkhamov | published April 15, 2004

Four days of mysterious explosions in Uzbekistan, from March 28 to April 1, have once again belied the country's desired image as an island of stability among the post-Soviet republics of Central Asia. For some years, in fact, Uzbekistan has been one of the least stable and secure countries of the region. Coming after the involvement of Uzbek Islamists in the civil war in neighboring Tajikistan in 1993, the beheading of police officers, allegedly by Islamists, in Namangan province in 1998, large-scale government repression of Islamic grassroots institutions, and then a series of bomb blasts in 1999, followed by the mass arrest and torture of pious Muslims, the recent explosions appear to be the latest link in a chain of escalating political violence. Two extreme poles—a brutally authoritarian regime and militant Islamist groups—conspire to maintain the political vacuum between them.

But what exactly happened in Uzbekistan during those four days? The government of President Islam Karimov, as one would expect, promptly condemned "international terrorism" as being responsible for all the explosions, which reportedly killed 47 people in total. Uzbek officials have endeavored assiduously to tie these "terrorist" events to Hizb-ut-Tahrir, a London-based network whose goal is to establish a supra-national Islamic caliphate with an anti-Western stance across Central Asia. Meanwhile, a previously unknown group calling itself Islamic Jihad issued a statement claiming some of the bombings as its revenge for the thousands of Uzbek Muslims who have died or still rot in Karimov's jails, and its warning to the regime to break its fast-growing alliance with the United States. Media reports have been little help in sorting out these claims, let alone in establishing the basic facts, due largely to restrictions on access to information that have become familiar in a country where freedom of expression exists only in the speeches of the president. During the first three days, most of the state-controlled media limited itself to rhetorical appeals for the vigilance of the citizenry. Even weeks after the events, the fragmented media reports leave the picture far from complete.

Fragmented Reports

At least ten incidents—it is by no means clear that all the explosions were "terrorist attacks" or "suicide bombings"—have been reported. On March 28, a blast rocked the house of Nemat Razzakov, a pensioner allegedly from a religious family, in the Bukhara region. Eight people died and two were injured. In the ruins, Uzbek police reported finding extensive traces of plastic explosives, aluminum powder, automatic weapons, a radio transmitter and Hizb-ut-Tahrir literature. The same day in the capital of Tashkent, traffic police stopped a car at a checkpoint. Two male passengers ran away, allegedly leaving two bags containing ten makeshift bombs in the car. One was later detained.

Early in the morning of March 29, three assailants killed two policemen at a checkpoint near a Tashkent tractor plant, absconding with the policemen's guns. At almost the same time in another district of the capital, another policeman was killed and one injured. Later that morning, two female suicide bombers struck the bazaar of Chorsu in Tashkent. One bombing hit near a big supermarket, killing and wounding a number of policemen as well as civilian passersby. Half an hour later, another bomb went off near the Kukeldash mosque. In the evening of March 29, another detonation—so powerful that it dislodged a wall of an apartment and blew out the apartment door—sounded in the Ferghana Valley city of Andijan. Police claimed the cause to be a gas leak, though other reports spoke of the smell of gunpowder in the apartment. Residents say that three young military contractors lived there.

The next morning, a small vehicle carrying three people was headed into the capital when a truck belonging to OMON, the Uzbek equivalent of American SWAT teams, commenced hot pursuit. In the village of Yalangach, the militants got out of the car and one woman blew herself up, while another was detained. Four more militants in a second car started shooting at police and then broke into a private home nearby. OMON surrounded the house and then stormed it using light artillery and an armored vehicle, destroying the dwelling and killing those inside. After the battle, the police reported that 20 terrorists had been killed, five of whom were women, while the police had lost three dead. The discrepancy between the number of militants reported to have entered the house and the number of dead could be explained if some of the dead were civilians, though after the operation the police assured the press that they had first evacuated the local population. Some reports say that at least one civilian victim died. Another vague report mentioned an exploded minibus not far from the Charvak reservoir in the mountains above Tashkent. A rupture of the reservoir dam would flood the capital and surrounding settlements.

Of these incidents, only three appear, at least in the reported details, to be possible "terrorist attacks" as claimed by the regime. At least three of the explosions—those in private homes—were either suicides, accidents or events orchestrated by the security services. The last two incidents remain unexplained, as the official explanations are dubious. On March 31 in Tashkent, a man being chased by police locked himself into an apartment. According to police, he blew himself up as an OMON unit was breaking down the door. But none of the journalists who had gathered in the area heard the explosion. Finally, on April 1 another explosion happened in the Bukhara region. A woman named Farogat Damadova, a wife of one of the men who had died in the Razzakov home explosion on March 28, allegedly set off a bomb strapped to her body, killing her daughter though not herself.

Jumping to Conclusions

During a TV appearance on March 29, Karimov stated that he knew that the "terrorist" actions had been plotted six months in advance. Indeed, the authorities had taken steps indicating intelligence of forthcoming attacks. In 2003, parking lots near some city bazaars and public buildings in Tashkent were closed to cars; such measures were undertaken near the Chorsu bazaar, where the most lethal bombing took place, in early 2004. But Karimov's statement begged the question of why the government failed to prevent the incidents if they knew of the plots beforehand.

In general, the Uzbek media, like regime officials, were very generous with their conclusions about the provenance of the explosions, but very miserly with supporting facts. Only three times did officials organize briefings to present evidence for their theories. On April 2, Prosecutor General Rashid Kadyrov limited his evidentiary presentation to enumerating the liters of explosive chemicals and the weapons the police had confiscated during their operations. Yet at all these briefings, the regime spokesmen were quick to name Hizb-ut-Tahrir, as well as the Islamic Movement of Uzbekistan (IMU) and unspecified "Wahhabis," as the prime suspects in the violence.

In a speech on September 20, 2001, George W. Bush identified the IMU, which in 1999 declared an aborted "jihad" on the Karimov regime, as one of three US enemies in the "war on terrorism." As the international community recognizes the word "Wahhabi" as a reference to al-Qaeda and the Taliban, Uzbek officials have been anxious to associate this moniker with its political opponent Hizb-ut-Tahrir. Though radical in its ideology, Hizb-ut-Tahrir rejects violence as a means of achieving a pan-Islamic state and has denied any involvement in the Tashkent bombings. To date, the purely propagandistic methods employed by Hizb-ut-Tahrir have prevented the Uzbek government from convincing Western countries to add the group to their lists of terrorist organizations. Among Western countries, only Germany has banned it, on the grounds of anti-Semitic themes in its literature, though Russia and other Central Asian and Arab countries share Uzbekistan's tougher approach to Hizb-ut-Tahrir.

At least one year before the incidents of March-April 2004, the Uzbek government started to fertilize world opinion by "sharing" confidential information that Hizb-ut-Tahrir, according to its sources, might switch to violent tactics in order to speed up the overthrow of the secularist regime in Tashkent. The explosions, and the alleged discovery of Hizb-ut-Tahrir pamphlets at one bombed-out home, have provided the government with new "facts" revealing a link between the Islamist party and terrorism.

Widening the Circle

Zeyno Baran, director of international security and energy programs at the Nixon Center in Washington, pushed a similar line in an April 2 online article for the right-wing National Review. Referring to intelligence sources and speakers at a Nixon Center conference, she charges that Abu Musab Zarqawi, the Jordanian who the White House accuses of being the al-Qaeda mastermind in post-Saddam Iraq, was originally a member of Hizb-ut-Tahrir in Jordan. Baran describes the party as an ideological "launching pad for Muslim believers toward terrorist organizations" such as the IMU. She concludes that "terrorist acts are the tip of the iceberg," and that therefore the war on terrorism should be expanded into "a war of ideologies" that would require worldwide prohibition of Hizb-ut-Tahrir for its incitement of religious and anti-Western hatred. Such a ban is exactly what the Uzbek government pursues.

The record of the Karimov regime, including its documented jailing and torture of Uzbek men for the offense of wearing a beard, certainly points to the dangers of widening the conceptual circle of terrorism-linked actors to include people having "ideologies" deemed uncongenial by the authorities. On April 6, the European Bank for Reconstruction and Development (EBRD), citing the regime's "very limited progress" in initiating political reforms and curbing human rights abuses, decided to curtail its investments in Uzbekistan. Human Rights Watch reported on April 13 that Uzbek police have swept up "dissident Muslim women," possibly numbering in the hundreds, and some of whom may be related to men imprisoned for their religious beliefs or practices. Should recommendations like Baran's acquire the currency that Karimov seeks, there might be little to stop the regime from including in its circle of "terrorism supporters" human rights activists who defend the right of Islamists to express their opinions.

Counter-Claim

Furthermore, the regime's linkage of the explosions to Hizb-ut-Tahrir cannot be accepted on faith. On March 31, a counter-claim of responsibility for the Tashkent suicide bombings appeared at one of the most popular Russian-language news websites in Central Asia (www.centrasia.ru). In broken Russian, unknown parties calling themselves "Islamic Jihad" (or "Islomyi Jihod" in Uzbek) said they had set off the bombs. Their statement disappeared from the website the same day, only to resurface on April 3, phrased in well-edited Russian and Uzbek.

The poor Russian of the first version of the statement indicated that the authors are not well-educated. They are certainly not from the capital, where most Uzbeks speak and write Russian quite well, and most probably come from rural areas where Russian language skills have been substantially lost since Uzbekistan's 1991 independence from the former Soviet Union. Such an unprofessional origin for the claim of responsibility would correspond to the poor organization and coordination of the shootings and bombings, as evidenced by the fact that so many blasts failed to strike the government or the police. The aluminum powder and ammonium nitrate found at several explosion sites are easily purchased in local markets. The alleged "terrorists" obviously also had great difficulty penetrating the city perimeter, more than one would expect from people trained by "international networks," since most of them were either detained or detected by police at checkpoints.

Again, if the government was aware of pending attacks, as Karimov asserted, then presumably it could have chosen to preempt the operations or to interdict the "terrorists" at the moment of execution. Since the police did not do so, some observers cannot help noticing that a kind of controlled terrorism, when duly ascribed to its Islamist adversaries, might be acceptable and even desirable for the regime. In the latest official briefing on the March-April incidents, spokesmen said the "terrorists" represent "jamoats"—closed Islamist communities with strict internal norms of piety. This term evokes the now dissipated Gamaat Islamiyya of Egypt. After battling with the Egyptian government and attacking the country's tourist industry through much of the 1990s, and, in some cases, undergoing severe torture in Egyptian prisons, some members of the Gamaat wound up fighting alongside al-Qaeda in Afghanistan. Doubtless, the Uzbek regime uses the word "jamoat" with US backing for Egypt's "war on terrorism" in mind.

Parallels Weak and Strong

Uzbek officials have persistently sought to draw a straight line from the puzzling explosions in Tashkent back to the March 11 bombings at train stations in Madrid. But parallels between Uzbekistan and Spain are weak. In Madrid, the bombers appear to have aimed to punish the government of José Maria Aznar for embroiling Spain in the US-led "coalition of the willing" in Iraq. In Uzbekistan, the March-April events have unleashed a new campaign of repression in the country in the guise of fighting international terrorism. Right after the explosions, 200 people were arrested, according to local human rights activists (the government says only 45). Some of the detainees were imprisoned in the past for their alleged sympathies with the Islamist opposition, and were amnestied in December 2003 under international pressure.

At the same time, parallels with similar events in Tashkent in 1999 are conspicuous. Then, a series of shootouts and bombings, some linked to the IMU, occurred ten months before parliamentary elections and eleven months before a planned referendum on the continuation of Karimov's presidency, now 12 years old and counting. Today as well, the bloody events took place nine months before parliamentary elections. In February 1999, the regime seized the violence as justification for the mass roundup of up to 7,000 Muslims, some of whom were tortured. Now the regime looks for an excuse for a new wave of repression and restrictions on political and civic freedoms. The explosions in Tashkent, coincidentally or not, occurred at a moment when Uzbekistan is weathering deep economic crisis, popular discontent and a decline in foreign investments. The EBRD decision is part of considerable outside pressure to encourage the Karimov regime to prove its political will to implement economic and political reforms.

Karimov, it seems, has found his answer to such critics: let us deal first with the challenge of terrorism, and then we will come back to democratization. The regime effort to tie Hizb-ut-Tahrir to the bombings, coupled with the arrest campaign, indicates its plan to tie all forms of protest to terrorism. With this argument, autocratic rule in Uzbekistan may have gained some time.

Indicators of Insurgency

Some observers, however, cloud this picture by defining the suicide bombings and the attacks on police as manifestations of an insurgency, not international terrorism. This interpretation is based on the facts of the badly worsened living conditions in Uzbekistan, notably in rural areas. An insurgency has been predicted since the summer of 2002, when the government shut down scores of unlicensed bazaars and petty traders on charges of smuggling. By instituting highly centralized control over the cotton and grain sectors, the government had forced rural Uzbeks to engage in petty trade to survive. The result was a kind of social contract: the ruling elites controlled resources for export while allowing citizens to find their means of subsistence in the informal economy. The popular Uzbek saying, "Bozorimga tegma, mozorimga tegma" ("Don't touch my bazaar and don't touch my grave"), gave expression to this unwritten understanding.

The government broke the rules of the game with the market closures, and did not offer any kind of compensation for the petty traders' losses. As the police were the main agent implementing the crackdown on farmers and traders, often with physical force, they have earned the enmity of thousands. According to Inera Safargaliyeva of the Center for Extreme Journalism, the night before the explosions at the Chorsu bazaar, a policemen relentlessly beat an elderly merchant who was selling goods without a license. He later died of his injuries.

If the explosions in Tashkent are part of an insurgency, it was predetermined long ago that the Uzbek police would be the insurgents' main target. Islamic slogans and rhetoric may only be the means for a despairing people to express their disaffection. One Russian kiosk owner ridden down by the heavy hand of state agencies, and not a Muslim, confessed to an interviewer in a survey long before the incidents: "I would accept the rule of Islamists. Should they put things in order, I would then urge my wife to wear a hijab." Recent reportage in the New York Times indicates that people in Tashkent, both Russian-speaking and Uzbek-speaking, understand the bombings and shootouts as forms of protest against a deeply disliked government.

As the regime loses more and more legitimacy in the eyes of the population, it can do little but rely more and more on mechanisms of repression. Surely this is why Karimov, in a speech after bombs had ceased to shake Tashkent, effused: "First of all, I would like to say that I am hundreds and thousands of times thankful to our law enforcement bodies. On the whole, you know, I am really very delighted with the job carried out by these bodies, which are our pillar and are securing our peace."

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