A group of Central Asian militants from the predominantly Uzbek faction Katibat al-Imam Bukhari have pledged allegiance to the Islamic State (IS) group and its leader, Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi.
IS social-media accounts on October 30 shared a video showing the faction pledging "bay'ah" (allegiance) to Baghdadi. The accounts said that a group of militants from the faction had joined IS, but it does not appear that the entire faction has done so.
The video, titled "Join The Ranks" and dated October 29, shows addresses from two Uzbek militants, named as Abu Hafs al-Uzbeki and Abu Sa'ad al-Uzbeki. The militants explain that they come from "the land of Mawarannahr," or "Transoxiana," an ancient Arabic term meaning the "land beyond the Oxus River" and referring to the part of Central Asia roughly corresponding to modern Uzbekistan, Tajikistan, southwest Kazakhstan, and southern Kyrgyzstan. It is not clear when the footage was shot.
Katibat al-Imam Bukhari has been fighting in Syria's Aleppo Province alongside the Al-Qaeda-linked Syrian faction Jabhat al-Nusra and two Chechen-led factions, Seyfullakh Shishani's Jamaat (which is part of Jabhat al-Nusra) and Jaish al-Muhajireen wal-Ansar (affiliated to the Northern Caucasus-based Caucasus Emirate militant Islamist group). The group maintains a presence on the Internet and on social networks and releases frequent videos showing its militants in Syria, including footage of a training camp run by the group in Aleppo Province. The group takes its name from the ninth-century Uzbek-born Islamic scholar Muhammad al-Bukhari.
In its most recent video published earlier this month, Katibat al-Imam Bukhari showed its militants participating in the offensive against Syrian government and pro-government forces at Handarat, north of Aleppo city. Jabhat al-Nusra, as well as Western-backed Free Syrian Army factions, notably Harakat Hazm, are also fighting at Handarat.
It is not clear why a group of militants from Katibat al-Imam Bukhari would defect to IS, but likely explanations could include disputes within the group, possibly stemming from ideology but perhaps also catalyzed by IS's propaganda about its gains in Syria and Iraq. In recent weeks, Syrian government forces have pressured and pushed back Islamist militants (and therefore also Katibat al-Imam Bukhari) and Syrian rebel fighters around Handarat, leading to reports of losses.
The militants from Katibat al-Imam Bukhari are not the first Uzbek and Central Asian fighters to join IS. The predominantly Uzbek faction Sabri's Jamaat, which has fought in Aleppo and Homs, is also a part of IS, and swore allegiance to the extremist group and to its military commander in Syria, Umar Shishani, in March.
The release of the video showing the Uzbek-led faction joining IS comes amid growing concerns in Central Asia about the threat posed by the extremist group and its radical Islamist ideology.
In Kyrgyzstan, for example, the government, security services, and local nongovernmental organizations have expressed concern about Kyrgyz nationals, including women, joining IS in Syria.
-- Joanna Paraszczuk