The world of a young man recruited for jihad or holy war is a frightening one. His training teaches hatred in the name of religious purification. He learns to divide people into those who embrace the true faith and properly follow its precepts and those who do not. His former colleagues and neighbors become enemies he must destroy with deadly weapons he learns to fashion out of everyday objects.
That reality describes the world of a group of Central Asians, mostly Uzbek by nationality, who went through local terrorist schools in the mid-1990s. Their course of study is laid out in 10 remarkable notebooks we acquired in 2001–2002. Covering topics such as the use of weapons, the making of poison, and the ideology of jihad, the notebooks offer a unique window into a frightening mind-set that predates the expansion of Osama bin Laden's network in the region and still holds sway in much of Central Asia.
References in the notebooks suggest that much of this training took place in Uzbekistan's Fergana Valley. Long a center of Islamic revival in the region, the Fergana Valley is a mix of scrub desert, low hills, and lush oases. It is the most densely populated area of Central Asia and one of the most densely populated regions in the world. Throughout Soviet rule, the valley was home to a host of underground mosques and religious "schools" that thrived even as Islamic teachings were banned or restricted. When the Soviet Union began to collapse, graduates of these schools played an important role in the revival of Islam in Central Asia, as thousands of new mosques and religious schools opened. Clerics who preached radical Islam gained new contacts and sources of financing when the mujahideen started fighting the Soviets in the Afghan war and when Saudi groups began what became a global crusade.
The late 1980s and early 1990s were difficult and confusing years for young people living in Central Asia. A seemingly invincible state had virtually disintegrated and was replaced by fragile new ones. Conditions were almost apocalyptic: The economy was in disarray, an expansive social safety net had shredded, and the powerful Red Army was in tatters, with those who served it selling off their weaponry to survive. Muslim activists who claimed that moral turpitude brought down the Soviet regime found it easy to muster arguments to bolster their cause, and they organized the Islamic Renaissance Party (IRP). Although the Uzbek government refused to register the IRPP, a number of charismatic clerics who preached rejection of the secular state continued to gain supporters, especially in the Fergana Valley. And these men in turn developed armed supporters, who in the first months of Uzbekistan's independence briefly took control of key government buildings in the city of Namangan. Fearing the outbreak of civil war, Uzbek President Islam Karimov authorized a purge of the official Islamic establishment and the arrest or disappearance of prominent unlicensed clerics and leaders of "extremist" Islamic groups.
Several prominent figures escaped the official dragnet, fleeing with followers into neighboring Tajikistan and the Tajik- and Uzbek-dominated parts of northern Afghanistan, long a host site for jihadi training camps. Thus was born the Islamic Movement of Uzbekistan (IMU), led by Soviet Army veteran Juma Namangani.
During the mid- to late 1990s, hundreds, and, some claim, even thousands, of young Uzbeks belonging to the IMU passed through terrorist camps in Afghanistan, Pakistan, and elsewhere in the region. Some of the Uzbek mujahideen went home to train their countrymen, and they created clandestine terrorist schools for this purpose. The notebooks we acquired belonged to students who attended such courses during the period of 1994 to 1996. [For more information on the origins of the notebooks, consult the Want to Know More] We purchased or otherwise acquired these books through various intermediaries, each unaware that we were collecting material from others as part of an effort to document the Islamic revival in Uzbekistan.
Taken collectively, the notebooks allow us to reconstruct the training of the young mujahideen. Students seem to have spent the bulk of their time on military subjects. Once they mastered these subjects, the students focused on when and how to make jihad -- and some of the students may have heard lectures on jihad by Namangani himself, or one of his close associates.
We don't know much for certain about the students themselves. Some of the notebooks have the names (or pseudonyms) of the fighters in training who wrote them -- for example, Abdumalik or Ayub. We have reason to think some of them studied in Namangan, possibly in the basement of the Juma mosque; reopened during the 1990s under pressure from the community, the mosque had been used as a storehouse for alcoholic beverages during the Soviet era. Our sources told us that all of the students were eventually arrested -- in one case, for smuggling consumer goods (and "trade" was, in fact, their livelihood). Uzbek security forces picked up most of the others as suspected terrorists. Their parents, who gave us or our intermediaries the notebooks, were reluctant to talk about them, save to disassociate themselves from their children's "mistakes."
We do not know whether the young men who studied in these schools were devout Muslims, but their notes suggest they were not very knowledgeable about Islam. The same may also be said about their teachers: In the lessons on jihad, for example, references to the Koran, offered by chapter and verse, sometimes cite passages unrelated to the subjects under discussion. These errors are clearly those of the teachers; most students at this early stage of religious education would not have possessed their own copies of the Koran, and they also lacked the necessary Arabic-language skills to read the Holy Book in the original.
We can also say with certainty that the students were not very educated. They made many grammatical mistakes when writing in Arabic, Russian, and even their native Uzbek. Some of the students seem to have had poor attention spans, and they were careless in taking notes and studying.