Secular Uzbekistan’s Struggle with Islamic Terrorism

Uzbekistan flag
Uzbekistan, as the other Central Asian republics, has been struggling to cope with the rising of Islam in the country (Credits: Foto di engin akyurt su Unsplash)

Geopolitical Report ISSN 2785-2598 Volume 41 Issue 18
Author: Silvia Boltuc

Executive Summary

Since the collapse of the Soviet Union, Islam has played a new role in the nation-building process in the Central Asian Republic of Uzbekistan. The region is witnessing a rising popularity of radical Salafi Islamism, marked by its fervent pursuit of overthrowing secular governments.

The primary aim of these radicals is to establish a unified Islamic totalitarian state in the region, grounded in Sharia law.

Considering this concerning trend, in contrast to former President Islam Karimov’s stringent stance on Islam, the Uzbek government has recognised the necessity to allow religious education and practice while bolstering oversight on them.

Background Information

In response to the recent Islamic State attack on Crocus City Hall in Moscow, Uzbekistan has escalated its efforts against religious extremism and terrorism. This includes conducting numerous raids, collecting the passports from all the country’s imams, and cautioning parents about allowing their children to travel abroad to Islamic schools without supervision.

The internet remains a platform utilised for organising, preparing, and financing terrorist activities, focusing particularly on radicalising youth. This is an additional concern for Uzbek authorities.

To address current challenges, Uzbekistan will host a joint anti-terror exercise (East-Anti-Terror-2024) of the Commonwealth of Independence States (CIS). According to CIS Anti-terrorism Centre, the key factor influencing the emergence and development of terrorist threats to the CIS states is ‘the high activity of international terrorist organisations in Afghanistan, the Syrian-Iraqi zone, as well as events in Ukraine and the Middle East’.

Geopolitical Scenario

In the aftermath of the Soviet Union’s dissolution, Tashkent recognised the potential to strengthen national identity through Islam. By de-Sovietising the population, Islam has served as a unifying force, fostering a sense of unity among the nation.

Nowadays, Islamic leaders are gaining increasing popularity in Uzbekistan. The advent of the internet has facilitated the resurgence of influence for imams and preachers, who have now millions of followers and playing a notable role in the political discourse.

Terrorist threats are significantly reinforced by rising risks of illegal trafficking of weapons and ammunition to the territory of the CIS and criminal use of advanced information and technology achievements (AI, UAVs and other robotic systems). As the CIS Anti-terrorism Centre noted, the threat of cyber-attacks on critical information facilities, industrial, fuel-energy complex and transport facilities’ control systems remain relevant.

Additionally, there is growing apprehension regarding the emergence of the Islamic State Wilayat Khurasan (ISKP), especially given the Taliban’s challenges in controlling militant factions throughout Afghanistan. ISKP has managed to establish a presence in the northern regions of the country, posing a threat to its northern neighbours, including Uzbekistan. On April 18th, 2022, for instance, a rocket attack originating from neighbouring Afghanistan targeted Uzbek forces stationed in the border city of Termez in southern Uzbekistan.

It’s crucial to highlight that internet propaganda is recruiting individuals across Central Asia, including Uzbekistan. Therefore, Uzbek government’s crackdown on religious extremism.

Read also | Islamic State Khurasan Province threatens Uzbekistan, Central Asia, and neighbouring countries

Risk Assessment

Islamic leaders’ increasing power poses a threat to the Uzbek central authority and the secular framework of the government, contributing to regional destabilisation.

Heightened insecurity could exacerbate economic challenges, as the country may face difficulties in attracting investments amidst the resurgence of terrorism.

The attack on Crocus City Hall served as a potent warning of terrorism’s resurgence in Central Asia. Advancements in technology have expanded the propaganda avenues available to terrorist groups, presenting an unprecedented challenge for the state to manage its citizens and ensure internal security.

Additionally, the risk of being perceived as curtailing religious freedom within the country complicates this challenge further. A government’s repressive policies could inadvertently fuel extremist propaganda, portraying them as a resistance against oppressive authorities and potentially inciting individuals towards extreme actions.

Yet another precarious factor is the overall wealth of the society and the standard of education. Frequently, terrorist propaganda targets those who are uneducated, impoverished, or socially isolated for recruitment purposes.


In Uzbekistan, 94% of the population identifies as Muslim.Historically, Uzbekistan lacked strong central bodies for religious regulation.

However, with political changes after the collapse of the Soviet Union and the rise of radical Islamic movements, governments recognised the necessity of stricter central control over religion. Undoubtedly, maintaining secularism in a post-Soviet society with a predominantly Muslim populace presented many challenges.

While regional entities such as the CIS Anti-terrorism Centre, the Eurasian Economic Union (EAEU), the Shanghai Cooperation Organisation (SCO) Regional anti-terrorist structure, the Collective Security Treaty Organization (CSTO) and the Eurasian Group on Combating Money Laundering and Financing of Terrorism, are cooperating on counterterrorism, concerns grow over the Uzbek government policy to address this issue.

Reports have surfaced regarding contentious trials involving religious crimes, alongside allegations of torture and sexual abuses aimed at eliciting confessions.

Similar to the response after the 1999 attack that claimed 16 lives, Uzbekistan is now taking harsh action against religious figures in the aftermath of the Crocus City Hall attack. The primary concern for the secular government persists in the intertwining of religion and politics.

The nation grapples with multifaceted challenges, ranging from the resurgence of radical Islamist movements to the delicate balance between religious freedom and state control. Uzbekistan’s strategic location, bordering Afghanistan and situated within the Central Asian region, imbues it with both opportunities and vulnerabilities.

The evolving dynamics within Afghanistan, particularly under Taliban rule, exert significant influence on Uzbekistan’s security and stability.

Prior to the withdrawal of U.S. troops from Afghanistan, the Uzbek government received millions of dollars in aid, while the U.S. utilised its bases for the neighbouring Afghanistan conflict.

Nowadays, the Taliban-led Afghanistan represents a significant threat to Uzbekistan because of Islamic insurgents and water rights disputes. Still, it should be underlined that, conversely, Tashkent exercises considerable influence over Afghanistan’s vital infrastructure, including one of its three international rail lines, and trade.

Furthermore, the intersection of religion and politics poses a persistent dilemma for the secular government, highlighting the ongoing struggle to navigate a path that safeguards national interests while respecting individual freedoms.

The proactive measures taken by Uzbekistan, including crackdowns on religious extremism and efforts to bolster central control over religious institutions, reflect its commitment to addressing internal challenges and mitigating external threats.

Cooperation with Eurasian states and anti-terrorism organisations remains vital, as underscored by the recent meeting of CIS countries in Moscow and the upcoming joint drill in Uzbekistan.

Read also | Uzbekistan Economic Performance in 2023, Country’s Future Development and the Karakalpakstan’s Issue

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