A group of Uzbek citizens arrested in Uzbekistan's capital, Tashkent, were allegedly planning to go to Syria to join a militant group there, according to the 12news.uz news site, which has links to the country's National Security Service (SNB).
A security source told 12news.uz that the group -- whose numbers were not revealed -- had been attempting to join the Jannat Oshiqlari (Loving Paradise) group in Syria.
Recruitment & Propaganda
Jannat Oshiqlari is also known as Tawhid wal-Jihod (TWJ), an Uzbek-led group based in Aleppo Province. The group recently pledged allegiance to Al-Qaeda.
The Uzbek reports of the arrest of individuals seeking to join TWJ suggests that the militant group has upped its recruitment efforts in Uzbekistan.
TWJ runs a slick propaganda effort that broadcasts its activities in Syria.
The group has two websites, a Facebook page, and a YouTube channel on which it posts professionally made videos. The videos include footage of battles in which TWJ militants are fighting, as well as speeches by the group's leader, Abu Saloh.
Abu Saloh also has his own YouTube channel, via which he broadcasts frequent audio messages in Uzbek, including lengthy sermons about various aspects of jihad. In a recent audio message, titled War Of Suspicions, Abu Saloh talked about how some Muslims doubt "jihad."
On October 19, TWJ opened a channel on the secure messaging service Telegram.
All of the group's propaganda communications are in Uzbek, indicating that TWJ is targeting a purely Uzbek audience. Some Chechen groups, in contrast, will produce propaganda videos in Chechen with Russian subtitles to reach a broader audience.
TWJ previously had Twitter and VKontakte accounts, though these have been shut down.
Pledge To Al-Qaeda
TWJ was one of several foreign Islamist groups to pledge allegiance to Al-Qaeda's Syrian affiliate, the Al-Nusra Front, in September.
Prior to joining Nusra, TWJ had fought alongside it in battlefield coalitions in Aleppo and Idlib provinces.
TWJ's pledge to Al-Qaeda revealed important details about the group's beliefs, its loyalties, and its connections in the so-called jihadi world.
In a video of TWJ's pledge to Nusra, Abu Saloh said that TWJ would be directly subordinate to Al-Qaeda's leader Ayman al-Zawahiri.
"[Zawahiri] promised us that our next battle will be in Damascus, and after that we will go directly to Palestine," Abu Saloh said.
Abu Saloh also said that before agreeing to pledge allegiance to Al-Qaeda, he had asked for advice from Al-Qaeda-linked ideologue Abu Qatada al-Filistini.
Abu Qatada said that for TWJ to unite with Al-Qaeda would bring "nothing but good," Abu Saloh recalled.
The 12news.uz report claimed that the Uzbek suspects had been advised by a contact in Kyrgyzstan, though no further details were supplied.
Kyrgyzstan banned TWJ -- alongside the Islamic State (IS) group, the Al-Nusra Front, and another Uzbek group, the Imam Bukhari Jamaat, in March.
The bans indicate that Kyrgyzstan believes TWJ is active in the republic.
Kyrgyzstan's National Security Committee (KNB) claimed in March that some 80 percent of Kyrgyz citizens who have joined militant groups in Syria are ethnic Uzbeks.
Blame Hizb Ut-Tahrir
The Uzbek security source also told 12news.uz that the detained men had also been in contact with an activist named Abdulaziz Rakhimov from the Hizb ut-Tahrir organization, which is banned across Central Asia and Russia.
The security source alleged that Rakhimov had facilitated communication between Hizb ut-Tahrir and Tawhid wal-Jihod.
Rakhimov had "conducted joint meetings, where there were discussions about ways and means of building a 'caliphate' in Uzbekistan with all the trappings of the Middle Ages," the source was quoted as saying.
This is not the first time that the authorities in Uzbekistan and in other Central Asian countries have suggested that Hizb ut-Tahrir plays a role in a strategy used by Al-Qaeda and IS militants to radicalize young people and recruit them to fight in Syria and Iraq.
In this case, however, the Uzbek security source alleged that Hizb ut-Tahrir members are directly involved in connecting potential recruits in Uzbekistan with Tawhid wal-Jihod in Syria.
Hizb ut-Tahrir, a London-based Sunni political organization, seeks to unite all Muslim countries into an Islamic caliphate but says its movement is peaceful.