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Central Asia: the next front in the terror war?

After fighting alongside the Taliban last fall, Uzbek insurgents on Bush's terrorist list are now regrouping.

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Central Asian Islamic militants with ties to Al Qaeda, who survived the war in neighboring Afghanistan, are beginning to regroup, and analysts are warning of a shift from insurgency to terror.

"They are going to move towards assassinations and terrorism, possibly against US forces," says Ahmed Rashid, author of "Jihad: The Rise of Militant Islam in Central Asia," reached by telephone in Lahore, Pakistan. "Their underground network in Central Asia hasn't been touched."

As part of the US war on terror, American troops are now stationed at bases in two nations in Central Asia – the first Western troops to deploy there since Alexander the Great's armies in the fourth century BC.

Analysts say those troops and other US installations are likely to be high on the target list of the Islamic Movement of Uzbekistan (IMU) – a group of battle-hardened veterans who fought and were pummeled alongside the Taliban and Al Qaeda last fall.

The IMU has been on the Bush administration's list of terrorist organizations since shortly after Sept. 11.

Western intelligence sources detected a surge of radio traffic last month from Afghanistan to Central Asia, in which frequent references to Juma Namangani – the IMU's charismatic leader, declared dead by US commanders – appear to indicate that the leader is alive.

"The subject is: 'We're here,' in terms of regrouping," says Tamara Makarenko, an expert on Central Asian militant groups at Glamorgan University in Wales.

Despite the IMU's loss of rear bases, arms supplies, and funding with the collapse of the Taliban regime in Afghanistan and the dispersion of Al Qaeda, experts and some Central Asian officials are warning that the question is no longer if the IMU will strike, but when.

Symbolic of the concern is a 12-foot concrete wall now being erected around the US embassy in Tashkent, the Uzbek capital, where six bombs aimed at the fiercely secular regime of President Islam Karimov in February 1999 sparked a massive and continuing government crackdown on anyone suspected of sympathizing with Islamic extremists.

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