By Maksim Yeniseyev
Uzbekistani troops conduct exercises in Tashkent Province December 4. [Uzbekistani Defence Ministry]
TASHKENT -- Uzbekistan's efforts to prevent extremism and crack down on terrorism are continuing to pay off, with residents saying they feel safer as the terrorism threat has decreased.
The impact of terrorism has fallen in Uzbekistan, according to the Global Terrorism Index 2017, an annual report assessing terrorism trends and patterns compiled by the Institute for Economics and Peace, a think tank based in Sydney, Australia. The study was released in November.
Over the past year, Uzbekistan went from one of the countries assessed as having the "lowest impact of terrorism" to having "no impact of terrorism" at all.
The Institute for Economics and Peace issued 130 rankings for 163 countries, with numerous ties, assessing the impact of terrorism on them.
Uzbekistan finished 125th. Higher numbers mean more-secure countries in that index. Iraq and Afghanistan took the undesirable first and second places.
The country has not recorded a terrorist attack since 2004, but authorities refuse to rest on their laurels.
The data reflect the reality on the ground, say local observers, as residents of Uzbekistan say they are feeling safer.
"Comparative analysis demonstrates that [the number of citizens] concerned about religious extremism dropped to 64.1% in 2017," according to a survey released November 17 by the Tashkent-based polling agency Ijtimoiy Fikr.
"Surveys conducted in 2015 and 2016 found that 80% and 85.8% of respondents [respectively] saw religious extremism as a danger to the republic," News of Uzbekistan reported, referring to the same survey.
The whole country's attention has been largely concentrated on economic reforms this year, said Tashkent political analyst Umid Asatullayev.
"Issues that directly impact the standard of living", such as making the Uzbekistani som freely convertible and allowing freedom of enterprise, dominated the news in 2017, he told Caravanserai. "Security issues took a back seat."
Extremism remains a threat even though life in Uzbekistan is calm, say observers.
During Operation Sweep Anti-Terror, which runs from November 20 to December 20, Uzbekistani authorities uncovered a network of Hizb ut-Tahrir (HT) in Tashkent, according to Tashkent police (GUVD).
Officials in the capital arrested Umida Uzakova, a suspected member of the banned extremist organisation accused of recruiting others, said the Tashkent GUVD November 27.
"We are conducting an investigation. Active members of the organisation have been detained and are in custody," Tashkent Police Chief Bakhodir Kurbanov said, according to Gazeta.uz.
Officials recently broke up another HT cell in Tashkent, arresting two men and two women, police officials said December 11. During searches of their residences, police seized electronic storage devices containing banned extremist videos and literature and notes on the ideas of HT.
Several wanted extremists are still at large, according to the GUVD. For example, Guzal Tokhtakhojayeva has been on the wanted list since 2009.
Authorities accuse her of committing crimes against the state and of creating, participating in or directing a banned organisation.
Uzbekistani authorities are continuing to work to prevent extremist crimes, focusing on suspects who have been abroad for long times, including migrant workers.
"Recently, Uzbekistani citizens who have spent a long time abroad for various reasons ... are falling under the influence of terrorist ideologies and joining the ranks of terrorists," a November 27 GUVD report said.
"Individuals who are out of the country for a long period of time commit religious crimes. Because of that, as part of Operation Sweep Anti-Terror, more than 10 outreach talks took place in the city's ... mahallas," said the report.
Similar meetings recently took place at 15 Tashkent universities with the participation of officials from religious organisations, said the GUVD.
The defeat of IS in Iraq and Syria will bring an end to the group in Afghanistan, Pakistan and Central Asia -- where security forces are ready to deal with any new challenges, analysts say.
What is the biggest threat to peace and security in your country for 2018?