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 Registan.net, 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:
-- Bruce Pannier