Prior to September 11, several terrorist groups were also involved to varying degrees in the regional drug trade. Most terrorist groups implicated in the trade, such as Al-Qaeda and the Tamil Tigers, played a very limited role: some of their members used their group networks to profit from small-scale trafficking operations. The only group significantly involved in trafficking Afghan opiates was the Islamic Movement of Uzbekistan (IMU). However, given the organization and operations of the IMU prior to September 11, it appears that they were driven more by criminal interests than by political or religious purposes. Unlike other insurgent or terrorist groups operating in Afghanistan – identified by their political motivations – the IMU is the only group that encompasses the entire range of the crime-terror nexus. It is both criminal and terrorist in nature: criminal because of its direct involvement in the drug trade, and terrorist because of its explicit (even if only rhetorical) political declarations.
Although the leadership of the IMU can be traced back to the Islamic opposition parties that appeared in the Ferghana Valley in the 1990s, it was not until the late 1990s that the IMU emerged as an organized force. The IMU's declared intentions were to focus international attention on the persecution of Muslims in Uzbekistan and to replace the current Uzbek government with an Islamic state. Following this declaration the government of Uzbekistan held the IMU responsible for planning and conducting a terrorist campaign, which included an attack on policemen in Namangan in late 1997 and a series of bomb attacks in Tashkent in 1999. By 2000 the group had been placed on the US State Department list of terrorist groups.
Although the IMU has not conducted terrorist acts in Central Asia (i.e., they have not targeted innocent civilians), they have led an insurgency against the government and trafficked in illicit narcotics. The activities of the IMU suggest that the driving motivation of their insurgent incursions in 1999 and 2000 was not to establish an Islamic state in Uzbekistan, but to destabilize border areas in order to maintain and secure narcotics transportation routes. In other words, the IMU successfully manipulated a political situation through the use of what has been labeled terrorist activity to pursue criminal interests.
So, this group is not, based on this description, actually a terrorist group. It could be described more as a guerrilla force, except that it seems the real motivation behind its operations is not some political agenda, but rather the facilitation of narcotics trafficking.
Throughout 1998 and 1999, IMU insurgents appeared to concentrate most of their efforts on locating trafficking routes and, as a result, had little reason to conduct terrorist activities in Central Asia. Insurgents searching for routes and trafficking in narcotics went undetected or unreported for most of this time, despite increasingly frequent border clashes with border guards. It was not until mid-1999 that reports of incursions into southern Kyrgyzstan and clashes on the Tajik-Uzbek border began to cause heightened concern about regional security. This was especially true following the bomb attacks in Uzbekistan and growing concerns within the Uzbek government over strengthening opposition forces. In two separate incidents in August, the IMU entered the Batken district of Kyrgzystan and took hostages. The official demand presented to the Kyrgyz government was that the IMU would free the hostages in exchange for the release of approximately 50,000 unjustly imprisoned Muslims in Uzbekistan, in addition to safe passage into Uzbekistan. Despite these demands the IMU released the first set of hostages for US$50,000 ransom, and the remaining hostages were released after a two month stand-off in exchange for an alleged US$2 million and safe passage to Tajikistan. The ease with which the leadership of the IMU abandoned their initial demands immediately called into question their stated motivations. While regional leaders and the international media focused on the relatively small groups of militants that held hostages in Batken, other members were transporting illicit shipments over the borders while simultaneously conducting reconnaissance missions to confirm potential new trafficking routes.
A high-profile "terrorist" act, a criminal act with a supposed political agenda, was in fact a diversion, cover for narcotics trafficking.
This is a pattern that we have all seen, even though we don't recognize it. I have written on this before at my blog, and will do so again.
Incursions into Uzbekistan and Kyrgyzstan by IMU militants during August 2000 further confirm that the group was focused on their role in the regional drug trade. Having gained from militant activity the previous year, it was expected that the IMU would attempt to duplicate their successes. At the beginning of August, militants engaged an Uzbek border guard post on the Tajik-Uzbek border and a day later engaged Kyrgyz forces. Although this direct confrontation with Central Asian security forces could be interpreted as an act of guerrilla warfare, it is unlikely that these two incursions represented IMU attempts to overthrow the government. It was, however, their intent to create a sense of instability and confusion within the two districts that were used as a transit route for drugs.
What is becoming another recurring theme at Stop Islamic Conquest is how armed conflict presents opportunities for organized crime, especially smugglers.
The incursions of 1999 and 2000 occurred in areas through which several important trafficking routes transit. Instability in these areas created perfect conditions for moving large illicit shipments. Furthermore, all of these incidents happened at roughly the same time of year, just after the annual opium harvest in Afghanistan. The question that should be asked is therefore whether the pattern of incursions in August 1999 and 2000 were coincidental or whether they were planned at the height of the summer to maximize trafficking potential due to weather constraints. It may be concluded that the IMU used regional instability created by insurgent activity to transport drugs across borders. Given that the IMU reportedly controls up to 70 percent of the narcotics entering Kyrgyzstan, and likely a portion of shipments entering Tajikistan, the onus for securing trafficking routes was placed on the IMU if they wanted to maintain control over this portion of the "Northern Route."
Opiate Monopoly: the more they corner the market, the more they can manipulate the prices of opiates for their own benefit. Seventy percent is not a bad market share.
What we appear to be witnessing in Central Asia is similar to the situation that emerged in Pakistan as a result of the international drug trade. Despite the radical Islamic programs espoused by fundamentalist groups in Pakistan, their primary interest over the past few years has been in trafficking narcotics. As Ahmed Rashid argues, "in Pakistan by having a veneer of Islam, it's very difficult to discredit these parties or explain their criminalization."
Hypocrites? Some of these mullahs are shrewd businessmen and adept politicians.
All the events perpetrated by the IMU prior to September 11 indicate that the primary motivation of the IMU, under the leadership of military commander Juma Namanganiy, was criminal. After 1999 the IMU was predominantly under the control of Namanganiy. Although he has been described as a 'born again' Muslim, there are no indications that he was a strict Muslim with any associated allegiances. On the contrary, prior to dedicating his life to the IMU it is believed that Namanganiy was involved in the drug trade. It is not surprising that under his leadership the IMU was focused on securing its role as a leading trafficker of opiates into Central Asia. Given the death of Namanganiy during the US-led counter-terrorist offensive in Afghanistan, it is likely that the IMU will re-emerge as an ideological group under the leadership of the group's political leader Tahir Yuldashev.
Current anecdotal evidence suggests that Yuldashev is reforming the IMU, and is likely to reserve membership to individuals dedicated to radical Islamic ideals. If this were to happen, the IMU would exhibit a reverse trend in that, unlike most criminal-terrorist groups which began with strict political motivations that turned into criminal considerations, the IMU may turn from a predominantly criminal organization to one that gives priority to its political aims. Given the current situation in Central Asia, with insurgent extremists scattered throughout the region and with continuing human rights abuses against Muslim groups (such as Hizb-ut Tahrir), it is unlikely that Yuldashev will find it difficult to recruit a solid membership base for the IMU. In the absence of the financial and operational support base that once existed in Afghanistan, it remains likely that a resurgent IMU will continue to depend on narcotics trafficking to secure financing despite the group's new political focus. Unless the regional drug trade receives greater international attention, the IMU's continued involvement in drug trafficking may eventually secure the funding required for it to overtly seek political objectives through terrorist activities.
"Current anecdotal evidence suggests that Yuldashev is reforming the IMU, and is likely to reserve membership to individuals dedicated to radical Islamic ideals."
Money corrupts, and drug trafficking pays big bucks, in cash.
As soon as they see how profitable jihad can be, they'll find religious indulgence for running heroin.
After all, Allah understands.