Uzbekistan fights extremism in Fergana Valley

By Maksim Yeniseyev

Newlyweds in Andijan in October pose near a monument to the Mughal Emperor Babur. Andijan is the most populous city in the Fergana Valley. [Maksim Yeniseyev]

Newlyweds in Andijan in October pose near a monument to the Mughal Emperor Babur. Andijan is the most populous city in the Fergana Valley. [Maksim Yeniseyev]

FERGANA, Uzbekistan -- Uzbekistani authorities recently swept through Namangan Province to collect evidence on possible extremists who now live abroad.

More than 100 law enforcement personnel November 9 in Kasansay District, Namangan Province, went door to door to inquire with the families of residents who had gone abroad -- and were still abroad -- to do long-term migrant labour, Radio Free Europe/Radio Liberty (RFE/RL) reported November 11.

Authorities are concerned that Uzbekistanis who went away for the long term could become radicalised, as they fall victim to militant recruiters and to alienation in foreign surroundings. Several hundred Uzbekistanis are said to be fighting alongside militants in Syria.

Namangan Province is situated in Fergana Valley, where a religiously conservative population has seen the emergence of several terrorists and even of the Islamic Movement of Uzbekistan (IMU) terrorist movement.

A thorough search

During the search of Kasansay District, the police "inquired about those who had gone to Turkey and Syria", an anonymous district resident told RFE/RL. "They asked family members ... who had gone abroad, where he went, whether it was a son or husband and what he's doing now." The vast majority of migrants are male.

Police have been conducting such door-to-door inquiries nationwide since September, according to RFE/RL.

The Interior Ministry (MVD) refused to comment to Caravanserai, citing the need for confidentiality in the investigation.

The province and Fergana Valley's history causes authorities to keep a sharp eye on developments there.

Juma Namangani founded the IMU in Namangan Province in the early 1990s, Tashkent-based political scientist Valerii Khan told Caravanserai. Other extremist groups had their heyday during the same time in Namangan.

"After the authorities crushed them, the [extremist] groups vanished, and some militants followed [IMU founder] Juma Namangani to Afghanistan," Khan said.

Namangani was killed in combat in Afghanistan in 2001.

An ever-present threat

Even though the last terrorist attack in Uzbekistan occurred in 2004, authorities are still rounding up extremist recruiters.

Caravanserai recently reported on Mamayusuf Makhmudov of Namangan, who received a nine-year prison sentence in July for establishing a small group of extremists who planned to join the "Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant" (ISIL) in Syria. The other six members received shorter sentences.

Such operations are relatively rare within Uzbekistan because recruiters have an easier time recruiting migrant workers abroad, Khan said.

"In Uzbekistan they have to operate covertly and very cautiously," he said, noting that labour migrants live under "crowded, isolated [from host country citizens] conditions" abroad that facilitate recruitment. Also, the migrants in foreign countries "are acutely aware of ... injustice", he added.

Another raid

Police November 16 in the Fergana Valley arrested another suspect whom they are investigating for possible militant ties.

The suspect is Bakhtiyer Khasanov of Kokand, General Prosecutor's Office spokesman Arif Atajanov told Caravanserai. "He had many types of handgun bullets ... and many other items. He is a past offender with four convictions."

Police are determining whether Khasanov has extremist ties, Atajanov said.

The message from the top is one of continued commitment to defeating extremists.

"We strongly condemn the persons who are exploiting the religion of Islam for the purposes of violence and bloodshed, and we will never come to terms with them," Acting President Shavkat Mirziyoyev told the summit of Organisation for Islamic Co-operation (OIC) member-states' foreign ministers in Tashkent in mid-October, according to the Uzbekistani Foreign Ministry.

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