Faces of terrorism

by Jeff Kingston

The Richman’s Cafe seemed an unlikely place to meet a terrorist, but at least it was well lit and public.

We were on the outskirts of Osh, the largest town in southern Kyrgyzstan, close to the border with Uzbekistan. Alisher Saipov is a slightly built young man, editor of the local newspaper and a frequent contributor to the Internet news agency Ferghana.ru. He still bore signs of a savage beating that had landed him in hospital six weeks earlier. Apparently some readers took exception to his editorial line on the political links of organized crime. Scars around his left eye and a broken cheekbone attested to the price of forthright reporting in a country where violence and intimidation trump the rule of law.

Over dinner, Saipov showed no signs of backing down, saying that the duty of a journalist is to give people hope by not giving in to fear. Oppressors thrive, he maintained, when they can rely on a fearful populace and their methods go unchallenged. But journalists, by challenging the fear-mongers and exposing their shady deals and practices, embolden the people. Holding those in power accountable is the duty of journalists, he insisted — and here, as in many countries, that is a risky business.

Listening to Saipov’s story and his discussion of the problems of democracy in Kyrgyzstan, I wondered how he had become labeled a terrorist. He is an articulate and passionate advocate of a free press and expresses a commitment to democracy.

However, he told me that the key obstacles to democracy in Central Asia are clan obligations and the nepotism and corruption they breed. Officials and politicians face powerful pressures to take care of their own. While civil society is becoming more vibrant, traditional tribal politics impedes democratization and tarnishes the process in the public eye.

Saipov also said that ethnic relations — especially between the Kyrgyz and the Uzbeks who constitute 16 percent of the total 5 million population — remain tense. There is little intermarriage, and communal bloodshed in 1990 remains fresh in the collective memory.

Saipov is somehow designated a terrorist on some list in some agency in the U.S. government — but he doesn’t know why. Others speculated to me that his recent reporting on members of the Islamic Movement of Uzbekistan seeking asylum in Iran may have been a factor. Also, his reporting on Islamic groups advocating the creation of a Central Asian caliphate may have landed him in the Kafka-esque purgatory of terrorist “fellow traveler” redolent of McCarthy-era red-baiting.

Ironically, Saipov was urged by one government agency to apply for a program designed to curry favor among promising young leaders by taking them for study tours of the United States — while another arm blacklisted him.

Nonetheless, Saipov remains favorably disposed to America, and supports keeping the U.S. air base in Kyrgyzstan. He scoffs at the government’s demand to up the rent for the base from $2 million to $200 million, dismissing that as typical bazaar-style haggling — ask for the moon and take what you can.

What Saipov is more concerned about is the rebound of Russian influence in this former Soviet republic where they, too, have an air base — that, and the rising tide of Chinese economic penetration.

Working out of his simple two-room office, Saipov multitasks with a vengeance, typically writing stories, welcoming visitors, fugitives and refugees, conducting phone interviews and Internet searches while covering the odd rally. He seems too busy just being one of the more highly regarded journalists in his country, launching a newspaper and contributing to Voice of America radio, to fit in any terrorism.

* * * * *

Marcus Bensmann, 36, a German reporter for the Swiss Neue Zurcher Zeitung, has lived in and reported on Central Asia for more than a decade. When I caught up with him in Bishkek, he was preparing to leave the region. He too is a terrorist — at least in the eyes of the Uzbekistan government.

Bensmann is an inconvenient and credible eyewitness to the Andijan massacre that happened on May 13, 2005. There he saw Uzbek government troops open fire without warning from armored personnel carriers on a large anti-government demonstration, mowing down several hundred protestors.

He and fellow journalist Galima Bukharbaeva, 31, his girlfriend at the time and now his wife, ran from the carnage and managed to avoid the roadblocks on the alleys leading out from the square where most of the slaughter took place. Back in her hotel room she took her notebook out of her backpack and a shell fell out. A very close call.

Bukharbaeva was a reporter for the British-based Institute for War and Peace Reporting. But because she is an Uzbek citizen, Marcus reasoned that getting her out of the country to safety as soon as possible was the only option. She was already the target of government hooligans and staged demonstrations because of her unfavorable reporting about the abysmal human-rights record of Uzbekistan’s authoritarian government under President Islam Karimov.

Corruption, repression and torture are the hallmarks of this regime — and Bukharbaeva kept shining a light into the dark recesses. Her reporting challenged the government’s webs of deceit and demonstrates that it is a menace to its own people. Once she managed to flee the country she could not safely go back. She recently completed a masters degree in journalism at Columbia University in New York on a Fulbright Fellowship, and is now seeking political asylum. Among Uzbek refugees in Kyrgyzstan, she is looked upon as Uzbekistan’s Aung San Suu Kyi. Like the Burmese icon, she is seen as a woman of principle and integrity who reminds the world of the plight of her countrymen while offering them hope.

Back in Uzbekistan it is a different story. Both Bensmann and Bukharbaeva are reviled as terrorists. Naturally, as reporters their job entails covering political unrest. The KGB-trained secret service in Uzbekistan, however, has twisted this inside out, concocting a case that both are instigators and terrorists. Their frequent presence at anti-government rallies is “evidence” they are co-conspirators fomenting rebellion. Their faces are flashed on government-controlled television as subversives who must be arrested and prosecuted.

I asked Bensmann about the necessity for journalists to maintain objectivity and balance. He replied that it is desirable, but in some cases the facts indicate that there are not two equally plausible versions of a story. Should government denials concerning the Andijan massacre be accorded equal credibility with eyewitness accounts? Should these denials and minimizations of casualty figures be allowed to stand when his own investigation at morgues, cemeteries and hospitals in the immediate aftermath tell a very different story?

He asks, “How can one not become involved in reporting a massacre when in doing so one becomes an enemy of the state? When uncovering the government’s role in gross human rights violations, the reporter is spreading information that the government doesn’t want to admit or allow out into the world. In that sense he takes sides just by doing his job.”

Bensmann has paid a high price, having been branded a terrorist and chased out of a country where he developed an expertise and career. Leaving Bishkek was prompted by concerns that Uzbekistan’s security services might kidnap his wife for a show trial or otherwise bring her to harm.

* * * * *

We met the third terrorist at the bustling Karasuu market nestled beside the border with Uzbekistan.

While nosing around the bazaar, we spoke to some we met about rumors of an underground video concerning the Andijan massacre.A bespectacled man wearing a skullcap approached. He said he knew what we had been asking for, and that he had a copy. We followed him back to his walled compound and entered his living room. Sitting on cushions drinking tea in that spartan space, we watched him pull out a video player and television. The grainy video taken surreptitiously showed what seemed to be some contraband seizures at the Karasuu market. But there were no scenes of Andijan.

Ayoob Mashrapov, 32, is an apparently successful trader with 10 years of schooling. Despite his disappointing video, he is also a terrorist advocating the creation of a Pan Central Asian Caliphate. According to him the former Soviet republics that now constitute the nations of Central Asia are artificial creations and a source of weakness. He believes that eventually the region will be unified under an Islamic caliphate. Poverty and inequality, he argues, can only be addressed once corrupt governments are replaced with the rule of Islamic law.

In the meantime, he reasons that the worse things get the better are the chances for the Utopia he envisions. The caliphate will spontaneously emerge from the smoldering ruins of Central Asia’s failed states and eventually spread around the world. There is therefore no need for terrorism, or jihad, or guerilla movements, nor for any violence whatsoever; the situation will inevitably worsen and lead to an Islamic revolution.

Mashrapov has been a member for 10 years of Hizb-ut-Tahrir (Party of Liberation), an organization founded in 1952 in Jerusalem. It is banned throughout Central Asia, where it is believed to have up to 20,000 followers. Hizb-ut-Tahrir is on the U.S. terror list and is also banned in the United Kingdom and Germany. A harsh crackdown on the movement in Uzbekistan from the end of the 1990s forced many members to find refuge within ethnic Uzbek communities in neighboring states. Kyrgyzstan has been relatively lenient, and there the party openly engages in charitable work benefiting many impoverished families who feel neglected by their own government in a country where 40 percent of the population lives below the poverty line.

Meanwhile, many Hizb-ut-Tahrir members languish in Uzbek jails, accused of terrorism and plotting an overthrow of the Karimov government — a regime that is accused of exaggerating Islamic extremism to justify its brutal tactics.

Mashrapov explained that his group opposes direct action against his comrades’ jailers in Uzbekistan, arguing that jihad should only be directed against invaders. However, the party’s leaflets take a sterner line, referring to Uzbek President Karimov as a “Jewish kafir.”

Mashrapov is angry that the United States is using globalization to advance its own interests and agenda. He warned that the Bush administration should understand that the actions it is taking now to humiliate and dictate to the Islamic world will be remembered and come back to haunt it. Suicide bombings, in his view, are a reaction to U.S. injustices and are a legitimate defense of family and home. He accuses the West of abandoning its principles and creating an international system that imposes poverty on much of the world.

Why, he asks, is the high level of intellectual development in America not reflected in its policies?

* * * * *

Across the country, beside the magnificent Lake Ysyk Kol, I stayed at a charming pension where I unintentionally again found myself hot on the trail of terror networks. The landlady introduced me to her 14-year-old niece who was studying English. The niece spoke halting, simple English, and so I was surprised when she showed me her homework exercises. The questions for her assignment were: 1) Why is there terrorism?; 2) Can terrorism be stopped?; and 3) Does terrorism scare you?

These questions were surprising on a number of levels, especially given her very basic level of English.

Intrigued, I asked who was teaching her English. “Peace Corps volunteers,” she replied. Who would have thought.

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