Friday, August 26, 2016

Qishloq Ovozi

The Islamic Movement Of Uzbekistan: An Evolving Threat

Militants of the Islamic Movement of Uzbekistan (IMU) pose for a photo in Afghanistan's northern Konduz Province.
Militants of the Islamic Movement of Uzbekistan (IMU) pose for a photo in Afghanistan's northern Konduz Province.
The Islamic Movement of Uzbekistan (IMU) has been a threat looming over Central Asia for 15 years. Once the threat was clear and present, when IMU militants burst into southern Kyrgyzstan in the late summer of 1999 and fought with Kyrgyz troops and then returned the next summer fighting with troops in Kyrgyzstan and Uzbekistan.

Much has happened since then, and now the bulk of the IMU militants are in Pakistan's tribal areas and, increasingly, in northern Afghanistan, just across the border from Central Asia.

Three Turkmen soldiers were killed along the Afghan border on May 24 and although it is not clear who killed them, took their weapons, and fled back into Afghanistan, the incident inevitably had people thinking about the IMU, who are known to be in Afghan provinces bordering Turkmenistan.

The director of RFE/RL's Turkmen Service (Azatlyk), Muhammad Tahir, recently organized a roundtable on the current situation of the IMU and the group's potential for causing instability in Central Asia after foreign forces complete their drawdown at the end of this year with an eye toward total departure by the end of 2016.

Participating were Alisher Sidikov, director of RFE/RL's Uzbek Service (Ozodlik); Aleksei Malashenko, Central Asia analyst at the Moscow office of the Carnegie Endowment; Jacob Zenn, Eurasian affairs analyst for the Jamestown Foundation who focuses on terrorism and who was speaking from Urumqi; Noah Tucker of, one of the premier websites on Central Asia, who was speaking from Washington; and Haji Seyit Dawud, director of the Afghan media-resources center in Kabul.

A Different Organization

The panelists noted that one of the biggest differences between the IMU in the late 1990s and today is that the group is less cohesive now. The IMU had a core of several hundred to, maybe, more than a couple of thousand fighters in the late 1990s. Almost all of them were from Uzbekistan and they operated in a confined area, generally along the Pamir Mountains between northern Afghanistan and southern Kyrgyzstan.

November 2001 was a pivotal time for the IMU. They had been fighting alongside their Taliban allies in Afghanistan when U.S. air strikes decimated the IMU, killed their military leader, and sent the battered remnants fleeing into Pakistan's tribal area. The IMU found new recruits, but many were not ethnic Uzbek and some were not from Central Asia.

Alisher Sidikov noted the IMU website lists its martyrs killed in battle and while many are Uzbeks, they are Afghan Uzbeks. Ethnic Tajiks and Turkmen have also been reported in IMU units.

And for most of the years since they arrived in Pakistan, the IMU have been engaged in fighting there.

That situation has changed.

In the last few years, reports from Afghan media, the Afghan government, and NATO confirm an IMU presence in northern Afghanistan that stretches from the Pakistani to Iranian border.

But as the group has spread its area of operations it has also become less centrally controlled. Noah Tucker said the IMU seemed "to exist almost as two different groups, one in Pakistan and one in Afghanistan."

It might be even more complicated than that. The IMU split into factions shortly after it reached Pakistan, with the Islamic Jihad Union the best known of the splinter groups. Since 2009, at least three IMU leaders have been killed and each time a reshuffle of leadership took place, some people split off from the core and it appears most made their way into Afghanistan. Some of them retain the IMU name, others have mixed with the Taliban or other groups.

Zenn said that "some other Central Asian militant groups like the Turkestan Islamic Party or the Kazakh one that emerged in 2011, the Jund al-Khilafa, mostly these are Central Asians that mixed together in Pakistan as well as parts of Afghanistan and then they used their names, like 'Islamic Movement of Uzbekistan,' as a brand for propaganda purposes to recruit."

A Different Jihad

From Kabul, Dawud said the move to Afghanistan was natural for the IMU since they are more likely to get support there than in Pakistan, where the IMU are clearly foreign militants and "the [Pakistani] army will kill them."

But some of the IMU fighters leaving Pakistan are going farther than Afghanistan. Tucker noted the IMU was "losing members and losing recruits to Syria." Part of the reason for that, Tucker said, was that for would-be recruits outside Afghanistan and Pakistan, "it's not only easier to get to Syria but it's cheaper to get to Syria."

At this point it's worth noting that some of the first Central Asians known to have been fighting in Syria were four Turkmen nationals who were caught by Syrian government forces in June 2013.

One last note on how widespread the problem is: At the start of May, Yemeni authorities reported government forces killed a commander of Al-Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula, a citizen of Uzbekistan known as Abu Muslim al-Uzbeki.

A Wider Threat

The panelists varied somewhat on how immediate the danger of the IMU is to Central Asia and further away. Malashenko said Russia saw the biggest danger coming from the radical ideas and teachings being brought by Central Asian migrant laborers to cities across Russia. In the last five or six years, dozens of people suspected of being IMU members are arrested in Russia every year. Alleged members of other banned Islamic groups are also routinely apprehended on Russian territory.

As Tucker noted, the trip to Syria is easier and cheaper for militants and a key starting point on that journey is Russia. But while the Kremlin might not see any threat from IMU militants on its own territory, that has not stopped Russian military and security officials from raising the alarm among the Central Asian governments. Malashenko said Russia's "military men like to exaggerate" the threat coming out of Afghanistan, "because it is a pretext to keep a Russian political and military presence in the region."

However, the threat was real enough when the Turkmen soldiers were killed on May 24 and when three Turkmen border guards were shot dead along the Afghan border on February 26.

The Turkmen-Afghan border was the quietest part of Afghanistan's roughly 2,200-kilometer frontier with Central Asia and suddenly it has become the most violent stretch. That fact will not bring any comfort to Central Asian governments as they watch foreign troops leaving Afghanistan.

The panelists made many excellent points during the discussion. Zenn, for example, also brought in the effect of Afghanistan's and Pakistan's militants on western China, where several attacks blamed on Muslim Uyghurs have recently happened.

But I could not fit all that information into one blog post. It was an honor and a pleasure to sit in on that discussion and for anyone else who wants to hear more of what was said, the entire discussion is available here:
IMU Roundtable
IMU Roundtablei
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-- Bruce Pannier
This forum has been closed.
Comment Sorting
by: Jayman from: London
June 01, 2014 05:19
If Islamists are violent and have a persecution complex, it is because the only education they get is Islamic and like any religious scripture, has content that is totally at odds with the modern world. While followers of other religions take the writings with a pinch of salt, Muslims take them literally. They have been brainwashed since childhood to do exactly that. Once the importance of oil subsides, reality will take hold and only then is change possible. They have too much easy money now to introspect. (Even Islamic nations without oil get petrodollars in the name of religion from their oil-rich brothers.)

by: Anonymous
June 02, 2014 11:07
The IMU is not a credible threat to Central Asia, as even the most ardent Islamists in the region (including Tajikistan's Islamic Renaissance Party) consider them to be war-mongers and will not welcome them into their own villages. As long as this is the case, the IMU may attempt to make crossings, but they will not find any safe quarters in Central Asia so long as this is the case. Central Asians are very afraid of war, to the point of extreme mistrust of opposition parties. The IMU therefore does not pose a threat to Central Asia, despite the paranoid rumblings of both Moscow and Washington (and for that matter Tashkent, Dushanbe, etc...), who each have their own ulterior motives for pushing the IMU card. The IMU, while certainly being a mercenary group for armed Islamists, is the biggest strawman in the region.

by: Lesley from: Kansas City
June 02, 2014 21:25
I wrote a paper on whether the threat of the IMU is legitimate or used by Central Asian governments as a pretext for clamping down on the rights of their citizens. People interested in this topic might also enjoy it:

by: Owais khan
June 23, 2014 13:31
According to the reports of Italian journalist, the members of Indian Secret Services at Farkhor Airbase and Ayni Airbase are recruiting underage unemployed youth from different under developed and backward part of Uzbekistan and Tajikistan in garb of highly paid jobs. Handsome money around US $5000 is also paid to their families in advance for their young children recruitment. Young men are provided lavish living including good food, dress, and living within camps. During this period religious preachers from India who are the agents of RAW, preach religion to them based on extremism, terrorism and hate against Pakistan thereby brainwashing the terror recruits. Problems of the Muslims are discussed; making them believe that the obvious reason to all problems confronting the Muslims, originate from Pakistan. Since, these religious preachers are fluent in Uzbek and Tajik language, they brainwash the recruited youth by employing Uzbek and Tajik languages as a convincing communication tool. After this stage they are asked whether they want to have an ordinary job or fight against Pakistan for the Muslims and Islam and get entry into Jannah. In the case of fight against Pakistan they are offered double pay.

Consequently, very few Uzbek or Tajik avoid fighting against Pakistan. Next comes the second stage, wherein the young men who refuse fighting against Pakistan, are sent to India for further brainwashing. Rest of them are given military training. This process continues for 4-6 months. They are trained to use automatic weapons, preparation of explosives and their installations and Guerrilla warfare. During training they are only allowed to meet their families on the condition that they will not disclose anything about their employment. They are also introduced to Indian civilization and made to believe that this is heaven on earth, where followers of all religions including Muslims live peacefully, while contrarily Pakistan wants to destroy it.

Before start of the mission their visit to India is arranged, where they interact with the so-called prosperous Muslim families that express their fears concerning Pakistan and its nuclear arsenal. On the return from India, they are launched into tribal areas of Pakistan through Kabul. In addition, the recruits from FATA and Balochistan are also involved along with these foreign recruits to make them feel at home.

About This Blog

Qishloq Ovozi is a blog by RFE/RL Central Asia specialist Bruce Pannier that aims to look at the events that are shaping Central Asia and its respective countries, connect some of the dots to shed light on why those processes are occurring, and identify the agents of change. Content will draw on the extensive knowledge and contacts of RFE/RL's Central Asian services but also allow scholars in the West, particularly younger scholars who will be tomorrow’s experts on the region, opportunities to share their views on the evolving situation at this Eurasian crossroad. The name means "Village Voice" in Uzbek. But don't be fooled, Qishloq Ovozi is about all of Central Asia.

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