BISHKEK, Kyrgyzstan – This Central Asian nation hosting U.S. troops is a preferred sanctuary for an al-Qaida-linked terrorist group because of loose border controls and widespread corruption, convicted terrorists said in interrogation records examined by The Associated Press.
“Kyrgyzstan has the most favorable conditions to carry out terrorist attacks and for former members of the Islamic Movement of Uzbekistan to settle down,” Azizbek Karimov said in court documents.
He was sentenced to death last month in neighboring Uzbekistan for involvement in two Kyrgyz bombings that killed eight people.
The Islamic Movement of Uzbekistan fought alongside the Taliban and al-Qaida against the U.S.-backed Northern Alliance in 2001 in Afghanistan. Labeled a terrorist group by the U.S. government, the IMU was blamed for a series of incursions and kidnappings in Central Asia from 1999-2001.
The group, which seeks to overthrow Uzbekistan’s secular government, is believed to have been seriously weakened by the U.S.-led anti-terror campaign since the Sept. 11, 2001 attacks.
Still, Kyrgyz Foreign Minister Askar Aitmatov said last month in Washington that “it is too early to talk about the end of terrorism” even though the Taliban have been forced from power in Afghanistan.
Kyrgyzstan is hosting some 1,100 U.S. troops at the main civilian airport near the capital Bishkek, who conduct missions supporting air operations over Afghanistan, some 450 miles to the southwest.
Last year, the Kyrgyz National Security Service arrested three Kyrgyz nationals allegedly preparing a terrorist attack against the base, and their trial starts Tuesday.
An earlier pair of bombing attacks at a Bishkek market in 2002 and a bank in the southern city of Osh in 2003 were tied to the IMU. Along with Karimov, 25, two Uzbek nationals — Ilkhom Izatulloyev, 25, and Assadullo Abdullayev, 24 — were tried in Kyrgyzstan for the bombings and sentenced to death last month.
The attackers told authorities they chose those targets because of the high security around their preferred objectives, the U.S. Embassy in Bishkek and a Turkish-owned hotel.
Karimov and Izatulloyev were active members of the IMU and allegedly under the direct command of the group’s leaders, Kyrgyz officials say. Both lived in Afghanistan and were trained in camps there in 1999-2001 until the U.S.-led war on terror began.
Karimov also trained in Chechnya, where the Russian government has been fighting separatists since the 1990s.
“In our first days in Chechnya, we studied weapons, tactics and topography. We didn’t have any special instructions on explosives but we always asked our instructors about how we could make an explosive,” Karimov said in his interrogation, conducted in May by Uzbek authorities, who handed over the transcripts to Kyrgyzstan.
The two countries cooperated closely in the investigation, and the documents are signed by Karimov. However, the United Nations has complained of “systematic” torture in Uzbek jails and the judicial system is closely controlled by the government, which could cast doubts on the veracity of the documents.
Uzbek President Islam Karimov, who has no relation to the terrorist, has also criticized Kyrgyzstan before for being soft on extremists.
In Kyrgyzstan, Izatulloyev and another accused IMU member — Ilimbek Mamatov, a Kyrgyz national who remains a fugitive — allegedly prepared the bombs used in the two attacks.
They received the explosives from three Kyrgyz National Guard troops also convicted last month, including Mamatov’s brother. The other two were ordered immediately released, with the judge saying they didn’t know the materials would be used in terrorist attacks.
Karimov and Izatulloyev used fake documents when they traveled separately from Afghanistan to Kyrgyzstan in early 2002. In Kyrgyzstan, they both obtained fake passports provided them by Tuokheti Tursun, another fugitive who is an alleged member of a separatist movement in a majority Muslim region of China that borders Kyrgyzstan.
Karimov said he was detained by border guard officials when he flew to the country in 2002 with a fake passport, but was released after paying a $100 bribe.
Kyrgyzstan has long been criticized by international organizations for its passport system and the low quality of its identity documents, which make it easy to obtain falsified passports. This year, the government is expected to introduce new identity documents.
However, Kyrgyzstan also enjoys the reputation of being the most open country in formerly Soviet Central Asia, with less restrictive regulations on foreign visitors and a liberal visa regime.
Deputy Interior Minister Keneshbek Diushebayev acknowledged Friday that there was corruption among police officers that might have helped terrorists. But he denied Kyrgyz police were to blame for the bombings.
Terrorists “take advantage of our liberal political regime,” Diushebayev told AP.
U.S. State Department spokesman Richard Boucher said Washington was helping Kyrgyzstan with passport reforms to strengthen border security.
In his interrogation, Karimov warned terrorists would continue using Kyrgyzstan as a base of operations “if the state does not strengthen its law enforcement bodies and does not heighten control over its people.”