Uzbekistan strengthens security measures

By Daus Latip

Two Tashkent police officers help protect the capital in October. [Daus Latip]

Two Tashkent police officers help protect the capital in October. [Daus Latip]

TASHKENT -- Uzbekistani authorities are preparing to ensure a peaceful and safe presidential election December 4.

The country is preparing to select only the second president in its post-Soviet history. Islam Karimov died in September.

All Defence Ministry and law enforcement units guarding Tashkent have orders to stay in their bases or stations should they have to respond to an emergency.

Extremists might attempt to destabilise the country in the run-up to the election, according to intelligence that law enforcement obtained. Authorities are on high alert to prevent any threats from coming to fruition.

"Attempts to destabilise the Afghan, Kyrgyz, Kazakhstani and Tajik borders with Uzbekistan are not unthinkable," National Security Service (SNB) analyst Akmal Toirov told Caravanserai.

"We're focusing much of our efforts on strengthening borders and co-operating with Central Asian law enforcement agencies to counter terrorism," he added.

Uzbekistani troops are prepared to repulse attacks from militants in neighbouring Afghanistan, Toirov added.

A risk of militancy

Today's Afghanistan, ravaged by war, could become a place to regroup for al-Qaeda, the Taliban and surviving Islamic Movement of Uzbekistan (IMU) and "Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant" (ISIL) units, according to Tashkent-based political scientist Linara Yuldasheva.

Moreover, analysts of the Syrian situation do not rule out the possibility of ISIL members fleeing to Afghanistan from Syria, where their situation is deteriorating.

Every militant attempt to date to invade Central Asia has met with resounding failure, and all the Central Asian countries are capable of thrashing any militant invading force, Yuldasheva said.

However, militants determined to score a public relations victory might want to exploit the international attention that the Uzbekistani election is garnering, Yuldasheva said.

"It's an opportunity to gain attention ... and financing," Yuldasheva said.

Possible threats from within

Authorities are on the look-out for a real threat of trouble from terrorist recruiters and small terrorist cells inside Uzbekistan, even though the country has not suffered a terrorist attack since 2004.

The internet poses problems too, because extremists use it to spread extremist literature and audio and video files.

In one such case, border guards in early October arrested Khafiza Kh., 31, of Andijan. She is accused of having extremist audio and video files on her tablet, as well as logs of chats with someone called Mukhammadshokh.

Khafiza is in custody and awaiting trial.

That individual invited Khafiza to come to Syria and marry him after a month of online chats, Khafiza told authorities.

Khafiza complied with Mukhammadshokh's request to share various messages on social media and with her friends, Khafiza admitted. Authorities analysed those messages and found them to be extremist appeals to overthrow the Uzbekistani government.

Khafiza followed instructions that were meant to conceal her identity and the identity of the postings' creators, according to the SNB.

Despair can create extremists

Her story, though, might bear the mark of desperation. Khafiza was widowed four years ago and said she had been unable to remarry or find work since.

Central Asia's core problem remains economic instability, observers agree.

"It's important for youth to be employed and have an opportunity to study, earn money and build a career," acting President Shavkat Mirziyoyev said while campaigning for the presidency in Namangan city November 2, according to UzReport. "We need to develop the economy."

Namangan Province is a bright spot in the Uzbekistani economy, a province that actively promotes entrepreneurship, Tashkent-based economist Bakhtiyer Nurmatov told Caravanserai.

Namangan Province youth are less likely than youth in other provinces in the Uzbekistani part of the Fergana Valley to become migrant workers, Nurmatov said without citing statistics.

"Just 10 years ago, Namangan Province was seen as a hotbed of radicalised youth, but today things have calmed down because the economy here is growing," he said.

Labour migration a problem too

Another concern for Uzbekistani officials is the radicalisation that labour migration can cause. Terrorist recruiters exploit migrant workers' distance from their homelands and their ignorance of laws and religion. They claim to offer naive migrant workers a religious education.

In mid-October, law enforcement in Uzbekistan, Kyrgyzstan, Tajikistan and Kazakhstan broke up a ring of terrorist recruiters who tried to lure migrants on international trains into altering their routes to go fight for the "Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant" (ISIL).

The four countries' authorities made nine arrests, according to early reports.

Such operations show the extent of Central Asian law enforcement co-operation, Toirov emphasised, adding that they exchange information and share a database containing the names of those involved in terrorism, as well as conducting joint raids.

Attaining stability will provide a solution, Aleksei Malashenko, a foreign analyst of Central Asian security, told Caravanserai.

Ordinary Muslims "don't need a violent extremist-driven 'jihad'," he said. "For the common Muslim, jihad means constructive labour sanctified by Islam."

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