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Failing To Explain the Roots and Essence of Moderate Islam Is One of the Reasons of Radicalisation in Uzbekistan

By Dr Akram Umarov

January 16, 2019


The terrorist attack by Sayfullo Saipov, a US permanent resident from Uzbekistan on October 31, 2017, [1] raised the attention on the increasing number of “Uzbek terrorists” in different parts of the world. Earlier there had been reports on the terrorist attacks conducted by Uzbek nationals: a shooting attack at an Istanbul nightclub in January 2017, [2] and a vehicle attack against a crowd in Stockholm, in April 2017. [3]

In addition, there is also increasing evidence regarding the participation of a number of fighters from Central Asian countries, including Uzbekistan, in military activities and combat in Syria. [4] Some became members of different radical groups like Katibat al-Imam al-Bukhari (KIB), [5] aligning with other local terrorist groups like the Al-Nusra Front [6] and actively participating in combat operations against Bashar al-Assad’s forces. Estimates on the number of Uzbek nationals fighting in Syria and Iraq vary from only 200 [7] to more than 1500 people. [8] according to different sources. Other famous terrorist groups formed mainly by Uzbek fighters, like for example the Islamic Movement of Turkestan, declared their support for ISIS in 2015, and their willingness to act together.

The Key Drivers of Radicalization in Uzbekistan

In the case of Uzbekistan, there are some widely recognized factors that serve as drivers of radicalization in the country:

1. Lack of quality education, both secular and religious. In 2017 out of more than 700,000 high school graduates, only 9% were able to continue their education in higher institutions – a stark decrease compared to the 1990s, when there was enough room to accommodate 46% of youth in universities. [9] The whole education system, starting from nurseries, primary schools to higher institutions, has been facing a number of problems like corruption, excessive hierarchic structure, lack of autonomy, low level of public funding, and outdated approaches to teaching.

While creating the conditions to practice moderate religious norms, the government was not able to establish a system of religious education that encompassed ordinary citizens (not just professional mullahs), failing to explain the roots and essence of moderate Islam to a wide segment of the population. In this context different radical and extremist religious movements like Hizb ut-Tahrir, Wahhabism, and Nurchilar, tried to infiltrate the country and propagate their ideologies among the population. As a result, the number of clandestine religious schools for children was high in different parts of the republic. Only in the first six months of 2018, 116 of these schools were discovered and closed. [10]

2. The high level of population upsurge and migration. As was mentioned above, the number of youths in Uzbekistan is increasing tangibly, but the economic development and creation of jobs have not been able to keep up with the consistent rise in the workforce. Consequently, a multitude of labour migrants have moved to Russia, Europe, the USA, and other parts of the world. The previously mentioned examples of terrorist attacks executed by Uzbek nationals abroad also demonstrated how all of the attackers had lived (for a long time) and radicalized in the countries where they carried out the attacks. Due to the lack of employment and education opportunities, many youths left Uzbekistan seeking new prospects overseas. However, the difficulties of settling in new countries as well as cultural differences have at times led to their adhesion to radical groups.

Current Tendencies

1. The most “famous” terrorist group associated to Uzbekistan, the Islamic Movement of Turkestan (IMT), is now rarely mentioned in the media. In August 2015, the group pledged its allegiance to ISIS and announced its support of activities in Afghanistan. In November 2015, the Taliban, who had been angered by this shift of position by the IMT towards ISIS, attacked the group in the Zabul province of Afghanistan, reportedly killing the movement’s leader, Usman Ghazi. [11] The movement’s activity almost stopped after these events and even though there might still be some number of supporters of this group, their number and resources are limited.

2. On the contrary, the popularity of the KIB in different media sources is increasing. The group is now trying to concentrate most of its efforts in Afghanistan. The success of al-Assad’s forces in different parts of Syria decreased the opportunities of KIB to participate actively in battles and reduced the territory under its control. KIB is instead expanding its activity in the northern and eastern parts of Afghanistan (mostly in Faryab and Jowzjan) by pledging loyalty to Al-Qaeda and cooperating with the Taliban.

In September 2018, KIB published photos of spoils of war that included Kalashnikov variants, rocket-propelled grenade launchers and PK machine guns that had been captured after overrunning Afghan military posts in northern Afghanistan. Earlier that month, KIB disseminated two other photos showing similar weapons. [12] Katibat al-Imam al-Bukhari also claimed an ambush on Afghan troops in northern Afghanistan in February 2017 and demonstrated videos of its training camps in the northern parts of the country. [13] These activities of KIB led to its inclusion to the US government’s list of specially designated global terrorist organizations, in March 2018. [14]

3. The new president of Uzbekistan, Shavkat Mirziyoyev, has made changes in the state’s approach and policy on religion and religious organizations. The government is on the way to eliminate the outdated strict regulation regarding religion, promoting the heritage of well-known moderate Muslim scholars and theologians who were born and work in Uzbekistan, removing thousands of people from special extremist blacklists, and easing the registration procedures for religious organizations. Because of these efforts, on December 11 (for the first time since 2006), Uzbekistan was not designated by the U.S. State Department as a “Country of Particular Concern” for restrictions on religious freedom. [15]


Most of the contemporary radicalization threats to Uzbekistan are external in nature, considering the increasing number of hostile terrorist groups in Afghanistan and the possible return of fighters from Syria and Iraq. At the same time, the presence of KIB is still not widespread, even in most parts of northern Afghanistan, and Tashkent’s current foreign policy in regards to Afghanistan might be helpful in establishing a positive relationship with a range of Afghan political forces, that would be capable of cooperating with Uzbekistan against common threats.

The current reforms of state policy on religion should be aimed at the construction of the new and modern relationship between religious groups and public authorities, which will assure the prevention of possible radicalization trends among the youth. The changes in the sectors of education and economic development should also take into account the necessity of creating new opportunities for younger people, the provision of their employment and accessible training at different stages of education. The elimination of visa procedures and mitigation of border crossing procedures between Central Asian countries might also facilitate the movement of the members of radical groups and increase their activity in Uzbekistan. Development of cooperation between security and law enforcement agencies of regional countries can contribute to the prevention of negative activities of these destructive groups.

[1] Corey Kilgannon and Joseph Goldstein, “Sayfullo Saipov, the Suspect in the New York Terror Attack, and His Past”, The New York Times, 31 October 2017:

[2] Zia Weise, “Istanbul nightclub attack: Man suspected of killing 39 in New Year’s Eve massacre captured by police”, The Telegraph, 17 January 2017:

[3] Christian Lowe, “Sweden truck attack suspect tried to join Islamic State: source”, Reuters, 12 April 2017:

[4] Thomas M. Sanderson, “From the Ferghana Valley to Syria and Beyond: A Brief History of Central Asian Foreign Fighters”, Center for Strategic and International Studies, 5 January 2018:

[5] Thomas Joscelyn and Caleb Weiss, “Jihadists in Syria denounce US designation of Uzbek group”, Long War Journal, 26 March 2018:

[6] Uran Botobekov, “ISIS and Central Asia: A Shifting Recruiting Strategy”, The Diplomat, 17 May 2016:

[7] “? ????? ???? ????? ????? 200 ??????? ???????????” [200 Uzbeks are fighting in the ranks of the ISIS], Regnum, 26 March 2015:

[8] Richard Barrett, “Beyond the Caliphate: Foreign Fighters and the Threat of Returnees”, The Soufan Center, October 2017:

[9] Botir Kobilov, “?????????? ?????? ??????????? [Deficit Higher Education]”,, 28 May 2018:

[10] “?????????? 116 ?????????? ??????????? ????” [116 religious schools were discovered],, 13 August 2018:

[11] Jacob Zenn, “The IMU is extinct: what next for Central Asia’s jihadis?”, The CACI Analyst, 3 May 2016:

[12] Caleb Weiss, “Uzbek group shows spoils from Afghan base”, Long War Journal, 20 September 2018:

[13] Caleb Weiss, “Uzbek jihadist group claims ambush in northern Afghanistan”, Long War Journal, 9 February 2017:

[14] “State Department Terrorist Designation of Katibat al-Imam al-Bukhari”, The U.S. State Department, 22 March 2018,

[15] “Briefing on Religious Freedom Designations”, The U.S. State Department, 11 December 2018: