The rash of terrorist violence that has afflicted Uzbekistan, leaving at least 42 people dead and several neighborhoods destroyed, might or might not be directly linked to al-Qaida, as Ilya Pyagay of Uzbekistan’s Interior Ministry has claimed. But the attacks illustrate the decentralized and increasingly flexible nature of Jihadist terror.
What seems likely, especially in the wake of what is coming out in the deliberations of the 9/11 commission, is the U.S. government has still not fully grasped the new face of terrorism and may not be flexible enough to deal with it.
Uzbekistan, which borders Afghanistan, Kazakhstan, Tajikistan, Kyrgyzstan and Turkmenistan, was one of the mostly Islamic Central Asian republics ruled by the old Soviet Union. President Islam Karimov, a former Communist Party official, still rules with an iron fist.
This might be of little interest to Americans except that after the 9/11 terror attacks, Karimov was the first Central Asian leader to offer the use of an air base, from which some of the attacks were coordinated and mounted during the war against the Taliban in Afghanistan. So, although he is virtually the opposite of the kind of democratic leader we say we want to install in Iraq, he is a key ally in our amorphous war on terror.
Steven Simon is co-author of “The Age of Sacred Terror,” which chronicles the rise of al-Qaida and similar groups. He said the Islamic Movement of Uzbekistan was closely tied to Osama bin Laden in the mid-1990s. But when the Taliban fell and Karimov did a crackdown, most Uzbeki al-Qaida members and sympathizers joined other al-Qaida fighters in the Afghan-Pakistan border area.
As last week’s violence shows, however, Karimov’s crackdown was not completely effective. It is likely al-Qaida had some connection to the violence, and that it may be intended to punish a de facto U.S. ally. But it could be weeks before the full extent of the connections is known — and in a way it might not matter much.
Al-Qaida does not fit the model of a state-sponsored terrorist organization with which experts became familiar in the 1970s and 1980s. It’s more like a multinational franchise corporation that offers an operating manual to local groups. And some groups that are not even connected to al-Qaida have learned from it and seek to imitate it.
All this means that today’s Jihadist movement, of which al-Qaida is only a part, is a hydra-headed monster that can’t be stopped just by killing or capturing a few leaders. It isn’t the kind of rigidly hierarchical, state-like organization our leaders are accustomed to.
Claims that we have killed or captured most of the leaders are suspect, since the leadership is self-regenerating. Military action, as in Iraq, might even spur terrorist activity where it had not been before.
Coping with Jihadist terrorism will require a more sophisticated, long-term approach than U.S. leaders have yet begun to imagine. So far they don’t seem to have even identified the threat correctly.