TASHKENT, Uzbekistan The hunt continues for Osama bin Laden, America’s Public Enemy No. 1, but the scourge of Central Asia is no more.
Sources on both sides of the Afghan conflict indicate that Juma Namangani, the bin Laden lieutenant fighting to establish Taliban-style rule in Uzbekistan, died over the weekend, either in a shootout with Northern Alliance forces or during U.S. air strikes near Kunduz.
Whoever fired the shot or dropped the bomb, the news, if confirmed, is sweet revenge for the West’s new ally, Uzbek President Islam Karimov. Mr. Karimov was humbled by Mr. Namangani at an election rally in 1991, and nearly assassinated by him two years ago.
But the news is unlikely to herald new freedoms for the 25 million people of Uzbekistan, trapped within an authoritarian system Mr. Karimov justifies by exaggerating the Islamic fundamentalist threat.
Mr. Namangani never gave an interview, and now it seems he never will, but the shadowy figure, 37, became infamous across Central Asia.
An agriculture student from Namangan, a conservative town deep in the Ferghana Valley, he fought for the Soviet Union in Afghanistan from 1987 to 1989. But on his return, he encountered the extremist Islamic beliefs slipping across Ferghana’s jigsaw borders, sliced up among Uzbekistan, Tajikistan and Kyrgyzstan.
Armed with cash and Korans, Muslim missionaries from Saudi Arabia’s Wahhabi sect revived the old Silk Road, and inspired students such as Jumaboy Khojiyev, who soon took the name Namangani from his hometown.
At an election rally there a decade ago, Mr. Karimov endured a lecture from the young radical. Once confirmed in power in 1992, Mr. Karimov forced Mr. Namangani to flee Uzbekistan, whereupon he joined the tribal and religious war in neighboring Tajikistan.
Later, Mr. Namangani crossed into Afghanistan and built contacts in Iran and Pakistan as he crafted the Islamic Movement of Uzbekistan (IMU), an opposition group guaranteed to scare Mr. Karimov, a former Communist Party boss.
After independence in 1991, Tashkent initially encouraged the re-Islamization of society as a way to recover pre-Soviet identity.
“The government made many mistakes,” said Marfua Tokhtakhodjaeva, a leading women’s activist in Tashkent. “It tried to use Islamic terminology as a foundation for independence, because the ideological basis for independence was lacking. So the seeds sown at that time are now growing, for example Hizb ut-Tahrir.”
Once he pursued and crushed independent political parties, but now Mr. Karimov has targeted Islamic groups, such as the radical, multinational Hizb ut-Tahrir, that moved into the vacuum left by the absence of secular opposition.
While the lack of a beard spelled trouble in Taliban-ruled Afghanistan, young men in Uzbekistan are jailed merely for growing a beard. The crackdown has been strongest in Namangan, birthplace of Mr. Namangani, and home to perhaps 1,000 of the country’s estimated 8,000 political prisoners mostly scapegoats and nonviolent protesters, say human rights activists and family members.
Uzbek police believe Mr. Namangani’s IMU was behind the February 1999 car bombings in Tashkent that killed at least 16 persons near several government locations.
Over the past three years, IMU fighters, estimated from a few hundred to several thousand in number, have made repeated incursions from Afghanistan. Tashkent has recovered the trendy Caravan Art Cafe now occupies the site of one bomb blast but the country at large remains highly jumpy.
Before Mr. Namangani’s apparent demise last weekend, reported by Northern Alliance commander Gen. Abdul Rashid Dostum, Tajik military forces, and Taliban sources quoted by Pakistani media, he was involved in the unsuccessful defense of Mazar-e-Sharif, having been promoted to senior Taliban commander in recent months.
Mr. Namangani was widely considered to be one of bin Laden’s senior advisers and responsible for the Taliban’s northern front in Afghanistan.