BACKGROUND: In 2014, when Al-Baghdadi declared the Caliphate, the IMU was already losing its recruits to Syria. Syria did not only have greater religious and historical significance than Afghanistan, where the IMU was based. Syria was also logistically much easier to reach – mostly overland via Istanbul, a destination accessible by flight from Central Asia, Russia or the Middle East.
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), which migrated from its original bases in Afghanistan to Syria, as well as Chechen and other militant groups in al-Qaeda’s coalition. The Uzbeks in ISIS, similarly, have fought with other Russian- or Turkic-speakers. It is likely that around 80 percent of the approximately 3,000 Central Asians in Syria are in the KTJ, IBB or other al-Qaeda-aligned groups.
Watching all of this action in Syria from its hideouts in Afghanistan and Pakistan, the IMU – perhaps surprisingly – chose to discontinue its historical fealty to al-Qaeda and to diverge from the alliance patterns of the majority of the Uzbek militants in Syria, who were part of a coalition with al-Qaeda. Contrarily, in 2015 Usman Ghazi announced his loyalty (baya’a) to Al-Baghdadi, which was reciprocated by an acknowledgement of Ghazi’s loyalty from Al-Baghdadi’s spokesman. This was likely a marriage of convenience: the IMU was starved of recognition and funds that were diverted to Syria from Afghanistan and of support from al-Qaeda’s senior leadership, which was being decimated by U.S. airstrikes in Pakistan and was relocating from Pakistan to new theatres, such as Syria. At the same time, ISIS needed to present the image that it was expanding to Afghanistan (“Khurasan Province”). ISIS could raise the IMU’s profile and, like it did to other Provinces, provide the organization with needed funding. In turn, the IMU and other defectors from the Taliban to ISIS could demonstrate that ISIS was in Afghanistan through propaganda videos.
IMPLICATIONS: The Taliban did not take kindly to Ghazi’s pledge of loyalty to Al-Baghdadi, especially since Ghazi did so after denouncing the Taliban and accusing them of lying about Mullah Umar still being alive (Ghazi proved to be correct on this point, as the Taliban later admitted Mullah Umar was indeed dead). As punishment for this betrayal, in late 2015 the Taliban killed (or severely injured) Ghazi and many IMU members at a base in Zabul Province, as revealed by photos posted on Facebook and other Taliban claims. Since then, the IMU has been silent and can for the most part now be considered extinct.
The Taliban’s elimination of the IMU is a stark reminder that despite 15 years of U.S. and coalition involvement in Afghanistan, many terrorist groups were not eliminated. Ironically, in this case, the Taliban has achieved an objective that the Americans could not. For Uzbekistan’s government, this is also good news, but it will add a new element of pressure on Tashkent.
Uzbekistan’s government was able to ratchet up support for its national security strategy, based at least in part on the justification of strict measures against alleged extremist groups due to the threat posed by the IMU. Now that the IMU is much less of a threat, if at all, international watchdog groups will have more leverage to argue for Uzbekistan’s government to relax its pressure on religious groups, including those that the government considers extremist. In this sense, the IMU’s demise could ironically have a troubling effect from the government’s perspective.
Nonetheless, serious concerns remain about terrorism in Uzbekistan. The IBB, KTJ and other Uzbek militants in Syria continue to attract followers, gain battlefield experience and make international connections. Moreover, the Russian airstrikes, which have taken a toll on the IBB and KTJ, have increased their desire for revenge against Russia and has by association refocused their interest to the Russian-speaking Central Asian states. Since the Russian airstrikes, the IBB and KTJ have increased their outreach in social media networks to target Russian-speaking audiences, which has allowed them to skirt Uzbekistan’s otherwise state-controlled media policy and acquire thousands of online followers who sympathize with the plight of the Syrian civilians affected by the Russian airstrikes – and therefore also the militant groups like the IBB and KTJ that claim to defend civilians.
The IBB’s claims of attacks in northern Afghanistan in early 2016 also suggest that the IBB has the capability to return to Afghanistan and could, like the IMU in the late 1990s, obtain a haven provided by the Taliban, with whom the IBB and KTJ remain aligned. Thus, despite the elimination of the IMU, the IBB and KTJ could take over the mantle of Uzbek militancy in Afghanistan and Central Asia. Moreover, the ongoing instability in Afghanistan and the IBB’s and KTJ’s deeper and more current networks in Central Asia, as compared to those entertained by the IMU in 2015, means that the threat to Uzbekistan – and the region – posed by militancy is far from over.
CONCLUSIONS: The IMU was the longest lasting Central Asian militant group. However, Ghazi’s decision to pledge loyalty to ISIS forced the Taliban to retaliate against the IMU and virtually eliminate it. Uzbek militant groups in Syria now appear ready to take the IMU’s place as the leaders of Uzbek militancy and likely have the experience, funding and international networks to sustain themselves and pose a security threat to Uzbekistan. This means that the government will assert its legitimacy to clamp down on extremist groups in the country even when international pressure groups disagree. The government will likely also continue to seek alliances with international partners, possibly by balancing Russia, China and the U.S., to combat Jihadist influences in Afghanistan and in the region.
AUTHOR’S BIO: Jacob Zenn is a Fellow of Eurasian and African Affairs at The Jamestown Foundation.
Image Attribution: www.rferl.org, accessed on May 3, 2016