Vol. 5 Num 295 Sat. March 26, 2005  

Experts dismiss fears of Islamic extremism in Kyrgyzstan

Islamic extremists may be a force in parts of Central Asia, but they are unlikely to profit much from any void in Kyrgyzstan following the collapse of the government in Bishkek, experts say.

They said Islamic militants from Uzbekistan, Afghanistan and other Central Asian countries were unlikely to try to set up base in Kyrgyzstan or win over most Muslims there.

"Why would they give up Waziristan, the northern border between Afghanistan, Pakistan, and go to Kyrgyzstan?" asked Alex Vatanka, the Eurasia Editor at Jane's Sentinel Security Assessments.

"Somebody like Osama bin Laden and his lieutenants, they've been such a success hiding there for so long," Vatanka told AFP.

"Unless that area becomes totally unavailable to them, why would they go to totally new territory where you don't have the kind of connections with the clans and the warlords they've had in the past?" he asked.

Kyrgyzstan's regime under president Askar Akayev fell apart Thursday after opposition protesters took over the seat of government and the presidency in a dramatic escalation of rallies against a disputed parliamentary election.

The Islamic Movement of Uzbekistan (IMU) is weakened. Its military leader Juma Namangani probably died in Mazar i-Sharif, Afghanistan in 2001, during the US-led war that toppled the Taliban and drove out bin Laden's al-Qaeda, while IMU political leaders were believed to be hiding in Waziristan, he said.

Nor is Kyrgyzstan particularly fertile ground for Islamic extremism, according to both Vatenka and Oksana Antonenko, a specialist at the London-based International Institute for Strategic Studies (IISS).

Antonenko doubted that Hizb-u-Tahrir, which is the only organised Islamic group with declared political ambitions, would emerge as a "unified force" across the country following the collapse of the government in Bishkek.

Hizb-u-Tahrir has also described itself as non-violent.

With a possibly chaotic transition period, "it is possible that on some regional level, particularly in the southern part of Kyrgyzstan, some of those organisations will be able to recruit perhaps even more members," she said.