Uzbekistan’s President Islam Karimov has asked his Russian counterpart, Vladimir Putin, for assistance in combating the threat of extremism in the region.
At a December 10 meeting with the Russian president in Tashkent, Karimov referred to the threat from Afghanistan and the rise of the Islamic State (IS) militant group in Iraq and Syria.
The Uzbek leader said he feared that his country, which shares a (short) border with Afghanistan, could share the same fate as Iraq, where vast swathes of land have been overrun by gunmen from the Islamic State group.
“Various representatives of the Islamic State group have penetrated into Afghanistan from Iraq and Syria. This situation requires the introduction of preventative measures. Armed extremism and religious radicalism are spreading widely in Central Asia, as well as abroad, giving rise to serious concerns,” Karimov said.
Karimov said that Russia has regained a “very important role in maintaining peace and security” in Central Asia.
There is ample evidence that Uzbeks are fighting in Syria and Iraq. Estimates suggest that there could be as many as 300 Uzbeks fighting with militant factions, including with the Islamic State group. Uzbek militants in Syria also have deep ties with extremist groups in Afghanistan.
A predominantly Uzbek and Daghestani faction in Syria, known as Sabri’s Jamaat, pledged allegiance to Islamic State in March.
Islamic State has also claimed that Uzbeks have carried out suicide bombings in Iraq.
Beyond Islamic State, Uzbeks are fighting with a number of other militant Islamist factions in Syria and have links to terror networks in Afghanistan.
In November, the largest Uzbek militant faction in Syria, Imam Bukhori Jamaat, pledged allegiance to Mullah Omar, the leader of the Afghan Taliban. The leader of that faction is a shadowy figure known as Sheikh Salahuddin, who appears in the group’s videos with his face blurred so that he cannot be recognized. He is reputed to have spent a long time in Afghanistan before coming to Syria.
In a video released in December, Imam Bukhori jamaat showed footage of their militants fighting alongside Jabhat al-Nusra, Al-Qaeda’s Syrian affiliate, against Syrian government forces in the Shi’ite villages of Nubl and al-Zahra in Aleppo Province.
An ethnic Uzbek, known as Abu Ubayda al-Madani, is the leader of the Russian-speaking, predominantly North Caucasian faction known as Seyfullakh Shishani’s jamaat, which is part of Jabhat al-Nusra. The faction is fighting alongside Imam Bukhori in Nubl and al-Zahra.
Tashkent has also been concerned about other developments connecting Uzbekistan with militants in Afghanistan, Syria, and Iraq.
The Islamic Movement of Uzbekistan (IMU), which is active in Afghanistan, pledged allegiance to the Islamic State group in October. Uzbek officials have feared that the IMU seeks to destabilize Uzbekistan.
The IMU’s pledge of allegiance to IS leader Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi came two months after an Islamic State flag was hung from a bridge in the Uzbek capital, Tashkent, in August, sparking a large police investigation involving the questioning of dozens of people.
-- Joanna Paraszczuk