Escape from al Qaeda
by Stephen Schwartz
I traveled with an Uzbek government employee and driver, but my visits to these former combatants in the conflict between Islamist radicals and the governments of the region were unannounced. A local journalist, Rustam Aminov of the twice-weekly Russian-language newspaper Ferghana Truth, took us to the residence of each man, where we simply walked up and knocked on the door. Although the Uzbek regime is widely described as a heavy-handed dictatorship, none of the three men appeared reluctant to speak to us.
Hadoyberda Aripov is 34 years old and lives in a hut in the village of Kakir-Taklash, where he was born and grew up. When asked about his personal life, he spoke first of a tragic circumstance. His parents had died while he was away in Tajikistan, where he spent six years in the Islamic Movement of Uzbekistan (IMU), a major al Qaeda ally.
Almost immediately his voice hardened, as he spoke of Juma Namangani and Tahir Yuldash, the IMU leaders. "They are not human. They are not Muslims," he declared. Asked if he believed reports that Namangani had been killed in the U.S. bombing of Afghanistan, he said, "I hope so. I hate him."
Aripov candidly stated his original motives for joining the jihad: A student of Islam for 11 years, he was angry at the regime of Uzbek president Islam Karimov, under which Aripov had been accused of supporting Wahhabism, the hate-mongering state religion of Saudi Arabia, which had sent militant missionaries throughout Central Asia. The overwhelming majority of Uzbek Muslims follow the peaceful tradition of Sufism.
A well-spoken individual, Aripov said he had organized a group of six men to go to Tajikistan to fight for Islam. But what they found there was not very different from Soviet indoctrination and forced labor. In an IMU camp, they were taught the use of weapons and terror tactics, as well as hatred of all existing regimes, especially those in the Islamic world. Among the instructors were Saudis and Pakistanis.
The training included very little about religion, Aripov said. "They pray in a strange way," he said, a common complaint of traditional Muslims about Wahhabis, who insist that prayers be restricted to a few prescribed prayers. "They interrupted us at prayers, laughing and joking about us."
Recruits who grew disillusioned with the atmosphere in the camps were simply killed. "Seventeen young men wanted to go home to Uzbekistan," Aripov said. The camp commander, alias Abd al-Aziz, personally murdered them, and they were thrown in a mass grave without any Islamic funeral. Local Tajiks found the bodies, because of the odor, and reburied them. "The Tajiks told the IMU, 'You are not Muslims--you killed your brothers,'" Aripov said.
Aripov's group of six also sought to escape, and Namangani threatened them with execution. Two went to nearby Afghanistan, where they were wounded, then were returned to prison in Uzbekistan.
"I hope they can someday be freed," Aripov said. Asked his views of the United States and the war on terror, he was as forthright as when he assailed the leaders of the terror movement. "I know that Muslims live in the United States and enjoy the religious freedom America created. If I were to meet President Bush, I would tell him there are millions of Muslims ready to fight the terrorists."
The second encounter took place in the Ferghana Valley city of Margilon, in a rundown apartment block of the kind found everywhere in the former Communist countries. Saidakbar Oppokhodjayev, aged 35, is thin and ascetic-looking. He had joined the radical Islamist group Hizb ut-Tahrir (Liberation party), known as HT, in the belief he would learn more about the faith into which he was born.
HT, founded by a Palestinian 50 years ago, is banned in most Muslim countries. It has also had considerable success in gulling Western human rights monitors with its claims that, while it preaches the overthrow of existing regimes and their replacement by an Islamic caliphate, it does not actually engage in violence. In Uzbekistan, HT is well known for its extreme anti-Semitism, including the bizarre claim that President Karimov is a Jew. Uzbekistan has been home to a Jewish community, in Bukhara, for 2,500 years.
Oppokhodjayev's experience in HT began with lessons in Islam, but, as he said, "it soon became obvious religion was not their real interest. Rather, they preached opposition to the government. We thought the political teaching was only part of the instruction, but we soon saw everything turn to politics and calls for the overthrow of the government in Uzbekistan. Everything was about distributing literature and calling demonstrations, and when some of the followers were arrested, we were told not to worry about them, but to continue handing out the leaflets."
Finally, Oppokhodjayev's family came to him and asked if he understood what he was doing. "I told them I had no idea what the real aims of the group were," he said. When the Karimov government offered an amnesty to any Uzbek radicals who had not participated in military actions, he and his wife, also recruited to HT, went to the authorities and applied. Amnesty was granted, and he resumed a normal life.
My third interview was the most remarkable, because of the almost absurd circumstances in which Aybek Khojayev, 23, found himself fighting for the Taliban in Afghanistan.
Khojayev's story has been told by his wife, Ziyoda Kuldasheva, and may be read at http://www.eurasianet.org/departments/insight/articles/eav102202.shtml. I met him in his family's compound, decorated with carpets, in the ancient town of Kokand. He corrected minor errors in the web version of his tale.
"In March 2000, my family refused me permission to marry my wife," he said. The couple ran away, ending up in the town of Kanibadam, in Tajikistan. There, without substantial resources, they fell into the hands of terror recruiters, who took them to a training camp at Tavildana, also in Tajikistan. The two were separated, their passports confiscated, and they were warned that anybody who tried to leave would be killed.
With about 200 others, they were then conducted to a mountain village where they waited a month before being transported to Afghanistan, still without passports or money. They remained in Taliban territory for a year, under the scrutiny of terror agents, and when Khojayev succeeded in sneaking away to call home, he was arrested and sent to prison in Kabul, while his companion was shipped off to Mazar-i-Sharif. Tahir Yuldash, the IMU leader, bragged to him that soon the movement would seize control of Uzbekistan. Khojayev was then sent to Mazar-i-Sharif. There, he was shown a video of the September 11 attacks on the United States. Later, he said, some 300 Uzbeks died in the climactic battle for Mazar-i-Sharif, in October 2001.
When the U.S. bombing of Afghanistan began, the couple were returned to Kabul, and in the ensuing confusion they escaped to Pakistan, after Khojayev sold his Kalashnikov to pay for their passage. The IMU offered a reward for his death, but after nine months the couple returned to Uzbekistan, in September 2002, and applied for amnesty. "I am grateful to the U.S. Air Force for bombing Afghanistan," Aybek said, "because without that, I would never have escaped." He and his wife now have a family, including a daughter born in Afghanistan in conditions of extreme cold and hunger--while IMU leader Yuldash enjoyed the services of the only available doctor and feasted on delicacies from a well-stocked refrigerator.
What are we to make of these narratives? Each of the men I interviewed represented a type commonly found in extremist movements: the charismatic leader, Aripov; the intense truth-seeker, Oppokhodjayev; and the hapless youth caught in chaos, Khojayev. Each found himself out of step with the movement that had swept him into terrorism.
One thing is apparent: The terror movements are not homogeneous and are not, so to speak, watertight. The jihadist commissars who rule the training camps, exercising the power of life and death over their subjects, are bloodthirsty fanatics. But many of the foot soldiers are victims of their own bad decisions, and of circumstances. If those who fight in the lower ranks of the jihadist legions can be induced to leave these movements, by amnesties or other means, they should be. If the jihadist movements can be split from within, every opportunity to accomplish that should be exploited.
There is no reason to credit the claims of bin Laden and other terrorists that their organizations are unshakable in their commitment. Even the most diabolical terrorists cannot act without seducing and manipulating people who, finally, are only human. When defectors speak, as some are eager to, we must listen. Said Aripov, "I never thought anyone would come so far to hear my story."