Uzbekistan maneuvers to face changing security threats

By Unus Latip

National Security Service (SNB) personnel carry out an operation in Tashkent Province June 26. [Unus Latip]

National Security Service (SNB) personnel carry out an operation in Tashkent Province June 26. [Unus Latip]

TASHKENT -- Uzbekistan is in the process of upgrading its security apparatus to accommodate the changing threats facing the country.

One priority is "re-equipping the army with modern weapons and gear", President Shavkat Mirziyoyev said in his speech during Defenders of the Homeland Day on January 14.

In addition, he said, the majority of laws governing national security "do not address today's realities".

One foundation in need of reform is the national security law of 1997.

The law cites the threats of extremism, international terrorism and organised crime and strengthened the National Security Service (SNB), but has fallen behind the times, experts say.

Challenges brought by progress

Twenty years ago, the principal threat to Uzbekistan came from terrorist groups based in neighbouring Afghanistan, said Jalol Khasanov, a retired SNB officer from Tashkent.

"Globalisation and technological progress" mean that today's terrorists "don't have to find ways to smuggle prohibited literature into Uzbekistan", he told Caravanserai. "Even recruitment is done on social media sites."

The time has come to amend that law to reflect the changing threat, he said.

The composition of Uzbekistani militants abroad reflects the change in extremist influences, especially with the advent of the "Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant" (ISIL).

"About 1,000 natives of Uzbekistan are fighting alongside ISIL in Syria," an SNB analyst told Caravanserai requesting anonymity.

Uzbekistanis in Syria represent a mix of some who joined the Islamic Movement of Uzbekistan (IMU) and Hizb ut-Tahrir 20 years ago and others who became radicalised in recent years through the internet, he said, adding that other Uzbekistani militants are fighting in Afghanistan.

Like Khasanov, he urged "harmonisation of [counter-terrorism] laws ... and ensuring the effectiveness of counter-terrorism measures nationally, regionally and internationally".

One of the younger generation of radicalised Uzbekistanis is Abdulkadir Masharipov, whom Turkish police arrested January 16 in Istanbul. He is accused of killing 39 Istanbul nightclub-goers on January 1.

In another incident last June, three gunmen killed over 40 people at the Istanbul airport. Turkish authorities identified one of the gunmen as an Uzbekistani national. All three assailants were killed during the attack.

Vulnerable to radicalisation

Terrorists recruit young Uzbekistanis under two circumstances: either when they are working abroad -- often underpaid and/or alienated -- or when they are unemployed in Uzbekistan, Khasanov said.

Authorities consider the domestic risk of radicalisation highest in the Fergana Valley, which borders Kyrgyzstan and Tajikistan, he said. Authorities fear the possibility of infiltration by militants coming from Afghanistan.

Mindful of these risks, Deputy Prime Minister Tanzila Narbayeva on January 20 began a three-month effort to report on the problems youth confront in Uzbekistan's three Fergana Valley provinces: Andijan, Fergana and Namangan.

The working groups carrying out the task include participants from the country's Women's Committee and Committee for Religious Affairs, as well as NGOs Nuronii and Mahalla.

Mirziyoyev also assigned Narbayeva to reduce "the incidence of women falling under the influence of extremist movements and terrorist groups".

One remedy for disenchantment among younger citizens is "job creation and support for entrepreneurship and handicrafts", Gulirano Alimukhamedova, a member of the Namangan city chapter of the Women's Committee, told Caravanserai.

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