TASHKENT -- Uzbek law enforcement agencies are continuing efforts to stop extremists from targeting and recruiting youth through online outlets and social media, experts say.
On February 19, Uzbek law enforcement officials said they broke up a network of 21 extremists in Tashkent. All the militants were members of the international terrorist organisation Tawhid wa Jihad Katibasi, according to the Tashkent police department (GUVD).
Authorities arrested another ring of extremists in Tashkent January 10, according to the government newspaper Pravda Vostoka (PV).
Joint operations by the Interior Ministry (MVD) and the State Security Service (SGB) netted those members of the banned group Jihadists, according to PV.
They carried out orders from Syria and persuaded youth to commit crimes and travel to Syria, the report said.
"These arrests show that extremists have no established network in Uzbekistan, and they rely only on random people whom they manage to recruit," said Valerii Khan, a Uzbek political analyst from Tashkent. "As a rule, these are uneducated young people. They [the extremists] can't count on more recruits in Uzbekistan. They don't have supporters here."
Tawhid wa Jihad Katibasi is also known as Katibat al-Tawhid wal Jihad. The Uzbek Supreme Court in 2016 banned it nationwide.
It is believed to be a splinter of the better-known Jama'at al-Tawhid wal-Jihad group, which the late Iraqi terrorist Abu Musab al-Zarqawi founded. It is responsible for many terrorist attacks worldwide.
Last December, Uzbekistan's Committee on Religious Affairs (KDR) added the splinter group's propaganda materials to the list of materials prohibited inside the country, Radio Free Europe/Radio Liberty reported in January.
Katibat al-Tawhid wal Jihad achieved notoriety after the suicide bombing of the St. Petersburg, Russia, subway in April 2017.
A Russian court last December convicted 11 immigrants from Uzbekistan, Tajikistan and Kyrgyzstan of helping organise the bombing. It left 15 people dead, according to the BBC.
The defendants all belonged to the group, at the time led by Abu Saloh, an ethnic Uzbek from Kyrgyzstan who was fighting in Syria, according to Russian authorities.
Saloh is still a fugitive but presumed to be in Syria. He resigned from the group's leadership last April, according to a Katibat post on Telegram.
In 2018, Uzbek state television showed a former member of the outfit, Sherzod Jurayev, expressing remorse for fighting in Syria as part of the group.
Targeting vulnerable youth
Extremist recruiters are continuing to target vulnerable young people online and through the Telegram messaging app, which is popular in Uzbekistan.
On January 22, the Uzbekistan National News Agency reported the second arrest of T.A., a 23-year-old native of Kokand, in connection with charges of distributing extremist audio and video files on Telegram.
T.A. had completed a three-year sentence doing hard labour for a previous conviction.
Joining him in court was another Kokand resident, 21-year-old T.I. He used Telegram to put together a group with 45 followers, where he posted materials from Katibat al-Tawhid wal Jihad and the Islamic Movement of Turkestan (another name for Islamic Movement of Uzbekistan).
In the case of the 21 suspects arrested in February, police blame a 24-year-old Uzbek, A. Shodibekov, for recruiting them.
He is presently in Syria but recruited them from afar, they said.
Mindful of such online perils, Tashkent police urged youth not to succumb to the influence of questionable websites and social networks and not to use, store or distribute materials that could threaten public order.
"I don't think that Uzbek youth are inclined to believe extremists," said Anvar Muzaffarov, a member of the Tashkent branch of the Union of Youth of Uzbekistan. "But it is still worth understanding that this is a failing due to low involvement in education and a lack of media literacy. We are working on this."
Extremist activity continues to be suppressed amid Uzbekistan's large-scale campaign to rehabilitate former members of extremist groups, who have returned from Syria to peaceful lives.
Among the 156 Uzbek citizens returned from Syria through a mass repatriation called Operation Dobro, some were former members of Katibat al-Tawhid wal Jihad.
Last December, authorities pardoned 79 extremists during the latest amnesty. Authorities are taking measures to integrate them and their family members back into a peaceful life and to provide them with work.
In total, 472 convicted extremists were pardoned in 2019, while 20,000 citizens have been removed from "blacklists" and the government no longer keeps such lists, according to the Uzbek KDR.
Those statistics emerged during a January 30 Tashkent roundtable on religious freedom.