of the presentation by Alisher Siddique, Director of RFE/RL’s Uzbek Service, November 15, 2017
I’m very humbled to address such a knowledgeable crowd actually. And from my short conversation some of you have already learned that you visited the country where I have not been for the last 15 years actually. So you are more a more frequent visitor of Uzbekistan than I. But where do we get all our information? I think just so you know how deep we are in the country. Uzbek Service, we are running the biggest network of citizen journalists. We have 50,000 people contributing from Uzbekistan. Even in every village we have two-three people working for us, sending us the latest things what’s happening in Uzbekistan. So that’s the work of the past 10 years of building the network. So this is the biggest network now in Uzbekistan. Basically, as I’m sitting here this information would still be coming and coming on a constant basis.
So talking about terrorists, extremists, we were in direct contact with them in Syria, in Iraq, asking what they think, why they want to cut off my neck usually, or what they’re saying. So that’s the source of our information. Besides, we are partners with OCCRP, Organized Crime Corruption Reporting, with ICJI here. We have sources in the government, in the security, almost in every government institution. So the basic things, there’s nothing we cannot know if there is a request to know something, we will know it. We’re also well connected with Russia. We have two great correspondents there. Again, a lot of contributors.
So the way we put in a funny way, of course, many of you hate Uber, but we’re Uber for news in Uzbekistan basically. So people take care of the news themselves. And our role as a journalist to verify the accuracy, to put together the storytelling part, to highlight the stories that serve our mission. So there’s a lot of information, including the price of potato in some market today, which is useless and serves no mission at this point. That’s the basic source that we directly work with all layers in Uzbek society. So that’s why I don’t even need to travel, and I am not planning to travel to Uzbekistan. And the security concerns. And we would not want to undermine the network. So that’s the basic thing. A lot of people over the past 10 years since we were ousted from Uzbekistan, driven away, we collected all these sources. And the travel of each of my journalists could lead to very bad things for many people that trusted us. So we keep everybody anonymous. Your neighbor could be some contributor for us and you don’t know about it. So basically that’s the level we are in, very deep inside.
We have trouble with analysis of course. As journalists, what we would always do, as the new information comes we would change our mind, revisit our thinking. So it’s basically your job I think to analyze, to be more in this. So we are not very powerful in this part.
So about terrorists. What we see that for the past two years the most high profile terror attacks were committed by Uzbeks, by Uzbek nationals, or ethnic Uzbeks. As you know the extremist Uzbeks are also not one big kind of group. You have the worst radicals in Syria and Iraq. Majority of them are former labor migrants in Russia. They got radicalized in Russia because they were living in awful conditions together, they were doing near slavery jobs. So the cause and the recruitment is very easy. To travel to Turkey and then crossing the border and ending up in Syria and Iraq is very easy. The cause is to fight Syrian regime. The cause is jihad. The situation in Russia, the major thing is you better die in Syria fighting for Islam than being a slave in Russia. And that’s what they said, told us. Police constantly intimidate them in Russia.
They feel much better in Syria and Iraq with their brothers and fighting for something. Because majority of them are from Russia. Also then when they get to Syria and Iraq some of them, many of them were able to lure the families also, took their wives and kids with them. So now after the operation’s pretty much successful there, and most of Uzbek extremists were killed because in the IS ranks they were basically occupying the frontliner positions. They were not around the commander-in-chief. Most of them were just fighters. And most of them died. Now we have families in the camps in North Africa, in the Middle East, their Uzbek families, Tajik families, Kyrgyz families with kids. And Chechen leader Ramzan Kadyrov is taking care of bringing them back. So that’s what he promised last week to President Mirziyoyev. So they already brought I think 40 of them to Chechnya, and nine children, two women will be soon heading to Uzbekistan.
There’s no such thing as estimate of Uzbek terrorists. If someone tells you it’s 2,000, 1,000, 1,500, you can’t believe, you can say there’s nothing like headcount. So that’s why I’ll just skip this. Because it’s a lot of politics in the number. Tajik government claims they have 500 men. Uzbeks then have four times bigger population. Then we have 2,000. Like this. So you can come up with any number, nobody will sue you.
This is a most extreme group at this point. And they’re mainly beaten. The previous groups, and I know very old story in Afghanistan, a group led by Tahir Yulashev, they also very much not very much Uzbek group now. It is consists of Afghan and Afghan Uzbeks now. And we know it by the list of martyrs that it annually release and send to us. All the names are no longer Uzbek, from Uzbekistan.
So then there’s another group that is more in the news, guys that made it to the west, from Russia. So you remember all those high profile attacks, recent attacks. Stockholm, Drottninggatan Street, truck attack by Uzbek. Then you have Reina nightclub attack killing dozens of people. Then you have Russia’s metro attack killing a lot of people. You have finally New York attack. And then there’s a very legitimate question, what’s wrong with the Uzbeks? And whenever this attack happens now my mother starts kind of betting, “Let it not be Uzbeks. Ah, again. How come we keep winning this lottery?”
It’s puzzling what’s wrong with us, why out of so many nations in the world. And then they call us, say, “Please investigate the profile better. They might be Tajiks or Kyrgyz. I said, “What?” It’s a call from Uzbekistan. So you always screwed up. Tell us the truth, they’re not Uzbeks, right? I said, “No, unfortunately, they’re Uzbeks. Sleep well.” Even your president’s saying it.
But again, the biggest thing we discussed it with our colleagues, that the acknowledgment that something is wrong is not there in Uzbekistan. Because the system in Uzbekistan was built in a way that it’s very comfortable for itself. It’s not particularly a terrorist exporting country. In Uzbekistan, if you decide to be a terrorist, one day you wake up and say, “I will be an extremist, a terrorist,” the problem is that you cannot. There’s nothing. You cannot find the literature, you cannot find right people to recruit you. You will end up with some agent and end up in jail and sentenced for 20 years and never come back from prison. It’s very convenient system that Karimov built to eliminate any … You go to mosque you’ll hear the same sermon in every mosque, there’s a one sermon for all mosques. Certified and stamped, which is not bad sermons usually. But they don’t cover many issues of course that they want to hear.
So the life in Uzbekistan is a life in a fully sanitized surger laboratory. So nothing can kill you, everything’s clean, everything is sanitized. So you’re not gonna end up somewhere. But the problem it creates, you will become very vulnerable when you leave the country. There was analysis that people in Uzbekistan they don’t trust their religious leaders anymore, they don’t trust the imams because they’re not telling the truth. That’s not true. The problem is that they trust imams a lot inside the country. They trust the mentality, so you need an Uzbek to explain it of course.
The mentality is that whenever a religious person says it’s good, it’s good. That’s the mentality. If a religious person in Uzbekistan tells you that the price is good, it’s good. If you marry this person … So the lack of critical thinking when it comes to religion, I think that’s one of the reasons why after leaving they are very much easy to manipulate, being recruited.
In a way they live in Uzbekistan in a small kind of pond with a swim ring pretending they’re good, they’re playing, splashing, it’s good. When they come here it is an ocean. It is sharks, no rings, swim ring, nothing. They don’t realize this. They are so kind of sanitized in Uzbekistan, no immunity for anything. So all the profiles that we made of those terrorists show that in Uzbekistan they were well-off guys under neighborhood control, educated some of them. Saifulla Saipov. We were the only immediate talking to his family members, trying to go wherever he went in Uzbekistan. And talking to his friends, everybody. Basically, he’s not someone who’s standing out of the crowd. The same could have happened to his friend. So family is good, they’re traders in a big market, they have shops, they have a villa, they have two cars. In Uzbekistan, having two cars, it’s a great thing. He graduated from finance institute. He was working as an accountant in a normal hotel. So he could have continued like this and being a normal citizen without any problem, going to wedding parties, enjoy, and sometimes going to mosques.
But all of a sudden he wins a lottery, a green card lottery. And he played because his friend played it and his friend, “Why don’t you also play it?” And his friend win nothing and this guy won it. He came here in … All of his story’s here basically. Then beard starts growing all of a sudden, yeah? So he had his friends here. He was going to mosques. So listening. The internet access is great. The news coming from Iraq, how people suffering. So then you make up your mind to yourself that he was on his own in this thing, as far as we know. There was no active recruitment in his particular case. So at least we don’t know yet, FBI did not release this. But how we were talking to his family members, when he had this beard he stopped sending photos to Uzbekistan, to his family members. Even after the wedding he always sent his wife’s pictures. And they said, “Do you have a photo when you are together? We want to see you together.” And he said, “Don’t worry, we are fine.”
And once he sent his photo like this. And they were terrified in Uzbekistan. Because for that it’s something that, I don’t know, equal to learning that your son is gay. They were terrified, they told him, “Why are you doing this? Why you have this thing?” And he explained that “I look older when I have it. And Afro-Americans don’t beat me something like this. And I’m more serious. They’re afraid of me.” So okay, they thought, “Okay, if it’s America problem, everybody’s walking around like this.” So they let it go.
Now my latest information, I don’t know from last week, the father and his uncle are in jail and being questioned. And of course, these questions are asked. “Why you allowed your son to get radicalized? Why you didn’t inform us?” Stuff like this. And immediately after President Mirziyoyev ordered an investigation in Uzbekistan that started kicking in.
So yeah, again, that would be the major, maybe our analysis that these guys are not prepared. And the policy inside Uzbekistan now, how adequate the policy inside Uzbekistan, that’s another big question. So they also don’t know, they have established this youth movement. And also asked this youth movement to get into this problem and propagate that alive. But again, the propaganda in Uzbekistan would be working to sanitize the situation even more. They know it’s bad. That’s the only song they hear.
But on another hand, the government has launched an easing its policy towards Islam. Very minor things. But already giving a lot of populist credits to the President. Last week they allowed launching courses for reading Koran. So just courses for elderly people, not for young people. Courses for elderly people. Those curses will be certified by religious authorities to allow some people to come and learn some Arabic alphabet, to read Koran in its original. That’s the big thing. Under Karimov, it was not possible, these type of things.
Then we also see some freedom given to imams. Freedom not in a sense that they would challenge the government or authority or say something out of box, but things like there’s a guy who was opposing men being kind of a baby delivering doctors. And that imam made a big splash in Uzbek society. He was saying, “How come men doctors serve to women? And that should not be, Islam prohibits this.” So these type of things. You don’t want to hear my personal opinion about these guys, but whenever you allow these guys to speak they will open their books and the book will make you crazy again. There’s a lot of things like this. It’s just a minor thing that they were allowed to say.
And immediately many start thinking if you allow these guys, imams speak out their opinions, and it’s easily digestible in the society, what will happen? The concern is whether Mirziyoyev is playing with this while Karimov kept it shut and Mirziyoyev letting it out. Karimov used the mosque for his own purpose, to support the authoritarian regime, to bring up a generation of obedient citizens. The major notion was that good as a Muslim is very obedient to his superiors, to his father, to the government, that the ruler is God’s basically choice. So that was the kind of major teaching.
There were also some xenophobic, in my opinion, preachers, sermons, concerning Shia. So we don’t have Shia that much in Uzbekistan. But if you go to mosques you can hear very nasty sermons about Shia … They are often kind of described as worse than infidels. Of course, there wouldn’t be any consequence of this because there’s nobody to kill after these sermons basically. But I don’t know for what reason they allow this type of notion in the mosque.
So that’s pretty much it. I just described these groups that you know how they work. And Uzbeks coming to the west, some of them, of course, many of them will be okay probably. But again it’s not excluded that the next high profile attack will be again by Uzbeks. In particular, the concern is Russia because ISIS that was defeated in Syria and Iraq, and those who survived that will much easier get back to Russia. There is a certain grievance against Russia. Their support of Assad. Their support of Shia. Though the majority of Russian Muslims are Sunnis. So that’s the concern, that Russia is the first target. There’s less concern that these guys will be coming back to Uzbekistan, because most of them lost their identities, passports. And losing Uzbek passport is like losing very much. It’s not like you go to an embassy and get it restored. You don’t want to show up in an embassy after you lose passport basically.
So Uzbekistan continues its repressive policy in terms of based on the information which they get from the interviews, interrogations. The system works like a guy coming back from Russia is interrogated. If he has some movements in his passport, Turkey, Russia, then they’ll interrogate. They ask who was others he was living with. And all of those families are put into blacklist. So around 17,000 were originally in the blacklist now, those guys who were abroad, wanted by Uzbek national security service. It’s 17,000, it’s the number revealed by President Mirziyoyev, because our estimate were a little bit more. We talk to these guys who are wanted, normal guys. We actually found a document of those listed people in one of the regions, in one of the regions of Uzbekistan that contained all contact details to their relatives. So we talked to their relatives, found those who were living abroad, talked to them. So these are normal people, students. Some live in Turkey. But so far there’s no solution. They are not amnestied, so they’re very much afraid to go back. Two weeks ago we highlighted one story of a guy who lives in Turkey and asked Mirziyoyev to go back because he did nothing. But he’s on the list. So that’s basically all the information on this.
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- One Year of the Mirziyoyev Presidency: What Has Changed in Uzbekistan?
- Research Note: Uzbek Online Recruiting to the Syrian Conflict
- Uzbekistan under New Leadership: What’s Changing, What’s Staying the Same