The synchronized, suicide bomber attacks against the American and Israeli embassies in Tashkent on July 30 reveal a number of disturbing realities.
The first is that some issues in Central Asia, such as how governments liberalize their domestic policies, have changed only in the realm of rhetoric. Another reality, based on the target selection of the suicide attacks, indicate the involvement of the once brow-beaten Islamic Movement of Uzbekistan (I.M.U.) - however, with a new twist from its original strategic mandate.
Inspired by the legacy of the Basmachi insurgency that faced off against the Tsar's invading army in the early 19th century, the I.M.U. was born in 1996 under the tutelage of Tohir Yuldashev. Ideologically and politically, the I.M.U. philosophy emerged from Yuldashev's experiences with the United Tajik Opposition that was later imbued into a radically politicized mandate encased within an Islamic message. This message was the formation of an Islamic empire that would span modern day Central Asia. The following year Jumaboi Khojiev, known as the infamous Namangani, joined forces with Yuldashev and together they formed a powerful force that eventually spread far beyond the Ferghana Valley.
The I.M.U.'s recently refocused interest on high value Israeli and U.S. targets is evidence of a strong readjustment compared to the organization's old strategy. The tactical and symbolic targeting of the recent bombings draws evidence of fragmentation and political change within the group itself. Thus, this new shift may indicate a splintering of the I.M.U. in the midst of experiencing a tactical self-assessment in respect to both the expansion of its objectives as well as its own self-ascribed role within the context of a globalized "war on terrorism."
From this angle, the bombings, while symbolic in the effort to remind President Islam Karimov that regime instability is still the business of the I.M.U., also acted as a direct warning to the U.S. and Israeli governments. In the case of the United States, such action diverges beyond mere anti-American rhetoric and harassment that has customarily been reported in known I.M.U. operations. Indeed, whatever name the group may now contend to lay claim to, or whatever new leadership emerges to replace the long-deceased Namangani and the unknown fate of Yuldashev, the means and objectives will remain the same. And that objective is that the I.M.U. will take singular and direct action against U.S. assets in the future.
The phenomenon of splintering within such groups such as the I.M.U. is not uncommon and often falls upon generational and/or ideological fault lines. In this case, if indeed a split has occurred, it appears that the younger generation of "Young Turks" has decided to direct more operational focus toward Western targets at home in the efforts to solidify a new "front" against regionally deployed U.S. interests. The I.M.U.'s force posture, while exerting both presence and support across the Middle East, Africa, and Europe, finds its operational base on the local level -- i.e. Uzbekistan, Kazakhstan, the Ferghana Valley. More critically, it appears that this younger generation of leadership now visualizes the local linkage of the global jihad message, a development that likely did not affect the older generation.
This will indeed increase the threat assessment of U.S. and allied military forces in the region. Historically, the I.M.U. has focused on undermining the Uzbekistani government and has branded the Uzbek president, Islam Karimov, as an apostate ruler who must be removed. Generally, Uzbekistan's membership in several international forums such as the Shanghai Cooperation Organization has facilitated both a sign of "effort" to support the "war on terrorism" as well as the ability to launch Karimov's own personal "war on terrorism" at home. Nevertheless, many Uzbekistanis do not recognize Karimov's efforts of "good will." Consequently, opposition groups such as the I.M.U. inherit support and legitimacy as islands of resistance in the kingdom of a tyrant.
From this context and definition of support, the I.M.U. uses Islam as an ideological Rosetta Stone to insulate the relationship with its constituency. In the case of Central Asia, target groups such as the unemployed and/or disgruntled youth are and will remain a malleable group. This demographic generation of males, which now includes an increasing number of females, under the age of 30 is the future and fate of the group's membership - and, in due course, its potential chance for survival. Ironically, this demographic grouping is also the very source of the I.M.U.'s splintering integrity. For obvious reasons, this generational zone is also where the attention of Karimov's propaganda efforts is centralized.
An additional factor is that, to many of the individuals who belong to the younger generation of post Soviet Central Asia, the legacy of al-Qaeda continues to be replaced by younger, regional leaders who continue to look beyond their ethnic and regional borders for religious and financial inspiration in the name of Islam. In this realm, the legacies of Namangani and Yuldashev, in their physical absence, will remain ghosts to follow but not necessarily to mimic.
In the meantime, as the global "war on terrorism" continues its deepest expansion yet into the realm of American partisan politics, its domestic perception continues to become more tainted - and thus less realistically perceived by the general public. In this interim, various militant groups will continue to evolve rapidly - in the form of structural realignments, nominal name changes, as well as ideological shifts. Local frustration in the Central Asian states will remain one key cause of such repositioning catalysts and, at least in Uzbekistan, the call for Islamic-based attacks toward U.S. interests near and afar will surely remain another.
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