Terrorism in Central Asia: Will Al-Qaeda take control over Uzbek terror movement?


LONDON (TCA) — With the recent death of its last strongman, the oldest and most threatening terrorist organization of Central Asia, the Uzbek-dominated IMU, has disappeared – or may be not? From recent events it is easy to observe that Al-Qaeda is absorbing the global jihad conglomerate into its own ranks. This includes Daesh, apparently considered too exposed to be of further use, and of course the Taliban, making the danger toward Central Asia all the more acute.

Most feared terrorist group

It seems that the so-called Islamic Movement of Uzbekistan (IMU) has ceased to exist as such over last winter. Its leader “emir” Usman Ghazi was reported killed in the province of Zabul in the central-south of Afghanistan bordering Pakistan in December last year, months after he had announced his loyalty to Al-Baghdadi, the “caliph” of Daesh, also known as the Islamic State, following the latter’s deadly terror attacks in Paris. Into the new year, however, Ghazi shifted sides again, abandoning Daesh in favour of Al-Qaeda, the group of the late Osama bin-Laden responsible for the September 11, 2001 attacks on New York and Washington. Al-Ghazi had taken on the IMU’s leadership in early August 2012 and his death put an end to his terrorist attacks.

From Al-Qaeda to Daesh – and back

According to a recent article posted by the Jamestown Foundation, Al-Ghazi’s second shift came along with a massive shift in which most if IMU’s “fighters” in Syria, who had been placed under the command of Daesh which had recruited most of them in Uzbekistan, defected to Al-Qaeda’s Syrian command known as Al-Nusra.

The IMU’s history goes back to the days of the Soviet invasion into Afghanistan, when an Uzbek paratrooper named Jumaboi Khojayev, later to be known as Juma Namangani, returned to his home in the town of Namangan in the Uzbek part of the Fergana Valley, where he got acquainted with a local muezzin and self-proclaimed “theologist” called Tahir Yuldashev. Together, they founded a movement called Adolat, meaning “Justice” in 1991, coinciding with the break-up of the USSR and Uzbekistan’s subsequent independence. From the late 1990s on, Yuldashev was a member of the so-called supreme council of Al-Qaeda, maintaining close relations with the Bin-Laden family – a position he was to hold until his death.

Tajikistan and Kyrgyzstan – a foiled safe terror haven

During the civil war from 1992 till 1997, the IMU operated from a base in Tajikistan under the protection of “Islamic” insurgents and the local branch of the Taliban. After the war, which coincided with the rise to power of the Taliban in Afghanistan, the movement sought a new home base in the province of Batken in the extreme southwest of Kyrgyzstan.  In 1999, shortly after the entry of Al-Ghazi, IMU claimed a number of bomb explosions in Tashkent. The following year, a series of bomb attacks occurred in the southeastern Uzbek province of Surkhandarya which borders both Tajikistan and Afghanistan as well as the kidnapping of a team of American mountaineers in Batken. Attempts to clear the province from IMU units by the Kyrgyz army took several years, resulting in the deaths of at least 49 Kyrgyz military. Ever since, the province has been believed to be free of terrorist camps even though the area still serves as a hub to smuggle recruits for terrorist groups through Tajikistan into Afghanistan, and from there across Pakistan to the Middle-East.

‘Deeper and more current networks’

A recent report by the Central Asia and Caucasus Institute read: “While some of the first Central Asian militant recruits in Syria claimed to be from the IMU, by 2014 new Uzbek-led militant groups had emerged, such as Katibat Tawhid wal Jihod (KTJ) and Imam Buhari Brigade (IBB). Both of them carried out attacks in Syria with the al-Qaeda affiliate in Syria, Jabhat al-Nusra, and pledged allegiance to al-Qaeda and the Taliban. Other Uzbeks, however, joined ISIS. The Uzbeks in KTJ and IBB frequently also fought with the Uighur-led Turkistan Islamic Party (TIP). […] Around 80 per cent of the approximately 3,000 Central Asians in Syria are in the KTJ, IBB or other al-Qaeda-aligned groups.”

Changing coats and labels

This, even with some reservations, makes at least one thing clear. If Daesh is under pressure and Al-Qaeda, now reborn and stronger in terms of allegiances with likeminded groupings, is keen on taking its place, recent developments explain indeed a lot. In Syria, it clarifies the growing involvement of Al-Nusra in attacks on the ground against the Syrian community and its army. In Afghanistan, it sheds light on the (apparently) dwindling presence of Daesh especially in the northeast of the country.

Siding with winners

As for the Taliban, the rise of Haqqani and consorts only means that they are keen on siding with winners, in this case Al-Qaeda. For Central Asia, it means further integration of Uzbek terrorists with their Near-East protectors and the latter’s Taliban cohorts, and thereby a more dangerous situation than ever before since the power they can use to enter one or more Central Asia republics in the area will be far less disputed, and thereby far more shattering, than up till now.