The largest Uzbek militant faction in Syria has pledged an oath of allegiance to Taliban leader Mullah Omar.
The Imam Bukhori Jamaat, which is based in Aleppo Province, released a video of the oath last week.
It is not possible to independently verify the authenticity of the video, but the footage was posted on the official website of the Imam Bukhori Jamaat, which has also posted a number of videos of the group fighting in Aleppo in Syria.
The move came after Islamic State (IS) social media released a video showing a group of Uzbek militants that it claimed had come from the Imam Bukhori Jamaat swearing allegiance to IS leader Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi.
The video, which includes a speech by the Imam Bukhori Jamaat’s leader, known only as Sheikh Salahuddin, sheds light onto the deep ties between some Uzbek militants in Syria and extremist networks in Afghanistan and Pakistan. It also raises questions as to why groups who have (or claim to have) a long history of militancy in Afghanistan have shifted to Syria.
The video is in Uzbek, but a Russian summary of Salahuddin’s speech has been shared on social media by Chechen militants based in Latakia Province.
According to the summary, the Imam Bukhari Jamaat was created by “authorization of the Islamic Emirate of Afghanistan,” the name used by the Afghan Taliban and the name given by the Taliban to the area of Afghanistan under their control from 1996 until their fall from power in 2001.
Salahuddin, who is reputed to have spent a long time in Afghanistan before coming to Syria, and whose face is blurred out in the video, claims that before he went to Syria he met with several leading Taliban figures, including Sirajuddin Haqqani, a Pashtun warlord believed to provide shelter to Al-Qaeda operatives in Afghanistan. The United States has offered a $10 million reward for Haqqani’s capture.
Salahuddin’s claims are interesting -- and strange -- in the light of denials by Afghan Taliban officials that the group has sent fighters to Syria.
A report by the "Gulf Times" in September cited a senior Taliban official source as saying that it was the “official policy of the Afghan Taliban that we don’t send any of our fighters anywhere else but Afghanistan."
If the video is accurate, however, it shows what is apparently the first documented case of a foreign fighter militant faction in Syria pledging allegiance to Mullah Omar and the Taliban.
It is not clear precisely what the move will mean for the future of the group in Syria.
However, the pledge to the Taliban does set Imam Bukhori Jamaat openly at odds with Islamic State in Syria, which declared in June that it had established a “caliphate” under the leadership of the self-appointed “caliph” Baghdadi. As "The Long War Journal" has noted, both Baghdadi and Mullah Omar call themselves the “Emir of the Believers.” In a significant move in July, Al-Qaeda publicly renewed its oath of allegiance to Taliban leader Mullah Omar, via its new online bulletin, al-Nafir.
In an unexpected move, the Islamic Movement of Uzbekistan, which has had close ties with both the Taliban and Al-Qaeda since the late 1990s, recently announced its support of IS. It could be that this move prompted a split in the Imam Bukhori Jamaat, with some militants pledging allegiance to IS and others to the Taliban.
The video also offers more insight into which networks in Syria Uzbek militants are joining.
Uzbek militants have been active in Afghanistan and Pakistan since the late 1990s, chiefly via the Islamic Movement of Uzbekistan, which advocates overthrowing the Uzbek government and establishing an Islamic state in its stead.
While analysts have been aware that Uzbek militants are playing an increasingly prominent role in the Syria conflict, this latest video suggests that at least some of them are not recently radicalized young men but battle-hardened jihadis with connections beyond Syria, in Afghanistan and Pakistan.
-- Joanna Paraszczuk