By Bruce Pannier
Radio Free Europe/Radio Liberty
November 18, 2021
When the Taliban seized control of most of Afghanistan in mid-August, one of the inevitable ripple effects was going to be a crackdown on suspect Islamic groups in the Central Asian states north of Afghanistan.
Uzbekistan has emerged as the Central Asian country most actively engaging with the Taliban government, in no small part because Tashkent wants to keep trade routes through Afghanistan open.
But Uzbek officials are also taking measures to ensure that no one in Uzbekistan finds inspiration in the Taliban conquest and wants to try changing the Uzbek government.
RFE/RL’s Uzbek Service, known locally as Ozodlik, reported on September 10 that 29 women were detained in the capital and districts in Tashkent Province for spreading Hizb ut-Tahrir propaganda among the population. On September 17, a group of 12 men were detained, also in Tashkent, for spreading Hizb ut-Tahrir propaganda on the Internet.
Hizb ut-Tahrir is a global organization based in London whose ultimate goal is to unite all Muslim countries into an Islamic caliphate, though it says it uses peaceful methods to pursue that goal.
Six people described as “leaders” of a Hizb ut-Tahrir group were detained in the southern Kyrgyz town of Kyzyl-Kiya in early October and, on November 4, another Hizb ut-Tahrir leader who was an Uzbek citizen was also detained in southern Kyrgyzstan.
In early October, Ozodlik spoke with an official in the Uzbek Interior Ministry who said, under condition of anonymity, that while many suspected Islamic radicals have been under observation in recent years, there have not been any raids or special operations against such groups since Shavkat Mirziyoev became Uzbek president in 2016.
The same source indicated there has been a policy change, claiming that some 200 people were detained in September as part of Operation Safety Zone, most of them from the banned group Hizb ut-Tahrir.
But in Uzbekistan it is not only Hizb ut-Tahrir members who are being detained.
On November 9, the State Security Service (MHH) detained a group of “jihadists” in Syrdarya Province.
Reports did not identify any specific group or say how many people were in the “jihadist cell” that was uncovered, only that the leader’s initials were “B.T.,” he lived in the Havast district, he and his associates regularly posted material online calling for jihad, and that B.T. was planning to go to Syria to join an unspecified terrorist group.
On November 8, the MHH brought a suspect back from an unnamed neighboring Central Asian state who was trying to make his way to Syria.
The man, identified only as S.S., was a member of Katibat al-Tawhid wa al-Jihad, an Uzbek jihadist group that was active in northwestern Syria and was allied with Jabhat al-Nusra, the Al-Qaeda wing in Syria.
S.S. was arrested and jailed in 2018 when he was identified as part of a group on Telegram posting and discussing sermons by extremist clerics and calling for jihad.
There were reports on October 30 that the MHH “returned” an Uzbek citizen identified as I.O. from an unnamed country.
I.O. was accused of being a member of the Islamic State militant group who fought in Iraq and Syria from 2015 to 2021.
The MHH said the man returned to Central Asia with the intention of carrying out a terrorist attack in a Central Asian state in September, though no details were given about which country it was.
In a sign that the Uzbek authorities’ search for terrorists is never-ending, in September the MHH announced it had detained a suspect in the deadly February 1999 bombings in Tashkent.
The MHH identified a man as Y.J. and said he had trained in Chechnya and was a member of the “Islamic Movement of Turkestan.”
Uzbek authorities were praised for freeing many Muslims who were wrongly imprisoned under authoritarian President Islam Karimov.
But many of those who were freed were under observation, a fact the Uzbek government confirmed and has confirmed again since the Interior Ministry source who spoke with Ozodlik said: ”Most of [those recently detained] were previously included on the [blacklists and had] previously served in prisons.”
The Uzbek government has reasons to be nice to the Taliban, but Tashkent does not want Taliban influence or inspiration inside its country. The more concerned Uzbek officials are about such possibilities, the more frequent the detentions and possible imprisonment of members of “suspect” Islamic groups.