In early August, news broke that Usmon Ghazi, the current leader of the Islamic Movement of Uzbekistan (IMU), had pledged the Central Asian militant group's allegiance to Islamic State (IS). Ghazi had voiced the IMU's support for IS in September 2014, but stopped short of saying his group was joining IS.
There were plausible reasons for Ghazi's hesitancy last year and plausible reasons for his recent decision to tie IMU's fortunes to those of IS.
But questions surround Ghazi's "bay'ah," or oath, to IS, not least of which is how much support Ghazi actually enjoys within the IMU.
In an attempt to shed some light on the IMU's current situation, RFE/RL's Turkmen Service, known locally as Azatlyk, assembled a panel to discuss the recent changes, what they could mean for the IMU's future, and, most of all, who is Usmon Ghazi and what credentials he has to be the IMU's leader.
Azatlyk director Muhammad Tahir moderated the panel, which comprised two members of RFE/RL's Uzbek Service, known locally as Ozodlik -- director Alisher Sidik and Sirojiddin Tolibov. I also participated in the discussion.
Ghazi's recent announcement was not so surprising, given that the IMU leadership's relations with the group's Taliban allies have become strained in recent years. Ghazi and others from the IMU had been critical of Taliban leader Mullah Omar's long absence -- and Ghazi's pledge of allegiance to the extremist IS group came after the Taliban admitted publicly that Omar had been dead since 2013.
The panelists suggested there were also some basic reasons for aligning with IS.
According to Tolibov, the IMU "was forced to join Islamic State because of the financial difficulties they face." He said that funding from Gulf countries had dried up to a large extent in recent years and that the group was now struggling to survive.
Change Of Focus
Since late 2001, most IMU militants had been living in Pakistan's tribal areas, chased there from their lairs in Afghanistan after the United States military had bombed the group's sanctuaries in northeastern Afghan provinces. The IMU joined their Taliban and Al-Qaeda allies in the tribal areas, carrying out cross-border attacks in Afghanistan and increasingly fighting against Pakistani forces.
IMU leader Juma Namangani was killed in the U.S. bombing of Afghanistan's Kunduz Province in November 2001. Two successive IMU leaders -- Tohir Yuldash and Odil Usmon -- were killed in drone strikes during the time the IMU was in the tribal areas.
The IMU's focus changed as they spent years in Pakistan. The aim of overthrowing the Uzbek government was supplanted by the need to survive in the tribal areas and the group gradually became part of the military-political landscape of the rugged mountain area along the Afghan-Pakistani border.
Sidik suggested that Ghazi's pledge, in some ways, brings the group closer to its original goals. "The IMU in that sense is coming back to its original claim, [which] was to establish a caliphate in this vast region," he said.
The longer the IMU kept its base mainly in Pakistan, the harder it was for the group to attract recruits from Central Asia. According to Sidik, the IMU may now "be capable of engaging more new recruits, more extremist youth." By allying with IS, Sidik said, the IMU is setting its stall out "to fight the real jihad" rather than being seen as a militant group carrying out raids and ambushes on Afghan and Pakistani security forces.
Ghazi's statement was posted on the IMU's website so it is the official word of the group's leader. But the situation on the ground in Afghanistan is extremely confusing at the moment and it is not clear how many IMU members -- stretched out across Pakistan's tribal region and northern Afghanistan -- are heeding, or will heed, their leader's call.
Split With The Taliban?
Many, and possibly most of the IMU fighters in Pakistan have been driven into northern Afghanistan since the Pakistani security forces launched a large-scale military operation in North Waziristan in the spring of 2014. These IMU fighters joined their long-time allies, the Taliban, and Afghan officials blame the drastic increase in violence in northern Afghanistan this year on the arrival of the Uzbek militants.
Ghazi's statement appears to have been made in Pakistan's tribal areas. But the bulk of his forces are fighting alongside Taliban militants against Afghan government forces and the Taliban leadership has already criticized IS involvement in Afghan affairs.
At the same time, Sidik noted, the IMU "has been very much in disagreement with the Taliban, which they claim in their statements have become more nationalist -- more pro-Pashtun type of nationalists." But, of course, this only pertains to the IMU leadership based in the tribal areas, not the rank-and-file militants living with the Taliban in northern Afghanistan.
There is a big question about how much support Usmon Ghazi has among IMU fighters. Every time an IMU leader has been killed, the organization has splintered. (The Islamic Jihad Union is one example of a group that was once part of the IMU.)
There is also evidence that the IMU split after Odil Usmon was killed in 2012 and Ghazi was named leader. One group went to Syria to join Al-Qaeda militants there.
"The Katibut Imam al-Buhari [group] who are now in Syria, there are several hundred of them…are Salafis, Wahhabis," Tolibov said. "But the Islamic Movement of Uzbekistan has always been proud of being Hanafi."
Another group apparently went to Afghanistan's northwestern Faryab Province where violence started increasing in April 2013.
A Murky Figure
There is not a lot of information available about Ghazi.
"All we know is he is from Tashkent, the capital of Uzbekistan," Tolibov said. "He grew up in an educated family, a typical Soviet family, and he was not a popular figure, or a well-known figure even among the IMU fighters."
Sidik pointed out that in one report about Ghazi -- admittedly from a website believed to be controlled by Uzbekistan's National Security Service (SNB) -- an SNB official called "Mikhailov" said he "was not very much respected but he was from the very beginning with the IMU." According to Mikhailov, Ghazi left Uzbekistan when he was 30 and went to Tajikistan, where he joined the IMU.
Unlike the three previous IMU leaders, Ghazi has no reputation as a fighter and appears to have spent most of his career with the IMU away from the battlefield. According to Sidik, Ghazi does not quote the Koran very much in his speeches, something former leader Tohir Yuldash did quite frequently.
There was consensus that the fate of the IMU, at least in the near future, rests to a great extent on what happens with the Taliban.
Sidik said Ghazi could afford to pledge the IMU's allegiance to IS now, because the Taliban are divided, more so since the death of Mullah Omar was officially confirmed. The Taliban cannot presently do much to prevent the IMU from defecting to IS, even if that represents a threat to its own existence due to the presence of large numbers of IMU fighters in Afghanistan.
But since there have been no reports of black IS flags suddenly being raised across northern Afghanistan, it seems IMU fighters there are also waiting to see if the Taliban, the IMU's allies for nearly two decades, can reunite and reinvigorate under new leader Mullah Mansur.
The roundtable went on to discuss these topics and other issues in greater detail. You can listen to the entire discussion in this audio recording: