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Abu Saloh, the leader of Jannat Oshiqlari (Loving Paradise)

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's YouTube channel
Abu Saloh's YouTube channel

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.

Kyrgyz Connection?

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.

Where have all the militants gone?

Russian and Central Asian militants fighting alongside Islamic State (IS), Al-Qaeda, and the Taliban in Syria and Iraq are disappearing from social-networking sites like Odnoklassniki and VKontakte.

Whereas just a few months ago, these networks were abuzz with propaganda and recruitment activity from personal militant accounts and official propaganda pages, many accounts have been banned, gone quiet, or closed.

Where have all the militants gone?

Continual bans -- particularly on VKontakte -- as well as concerns that law enforcement agencies could monitor recruitment efforts likely account for some of the reduction of militant activity.

Some militants may have deleted their own accounts for security reasons.

Another reason for the slowdown in militant activity could be an uptick in deaths.

And there is also evidence that militants are moving over to the new and more secure Telegram messaging service.

Telegram

Over the past months, IS has shifted at least some of its propaganda and recruitment efforts to the Telegram mobile messaging app.

More recently, Russian-speaking and Central Asian militants from IS-, Taliban-, and Al-Qaeda-affiliated groups have also opened Telegram accounts.

There are at least four official or semiofficial Russian-language IS news accounts on Telegram -- IS News, ShamToday, FuratMedia, and Voenkorr. The IS News account has been advertised on Twitter this week as the official Russian-language IS Telegram group.

The ShamToday account was opened on September 23 and has just 21 members.

FuratMedia has yet to broadcast any messages and appears to be a very new bot. Since the summer, Furat has operated as the de facto official Russian IS propaganda channel, has been repeatedly banned from Facebook and Twitter and has been unable to maintain a presence on VKontakte.

Other militant groups from the former Soviet Union have also recently created platforms on Telegram.

The Uzbek group Tawhid wal-Jihod, which joined Al-Qaeda's Syrian affiliate, has a Telegram group that allows it to broadcast to subscribers and the Taliban-aligned Imam Bukhari Jamaat runs a personal account.

Why Telegram?

There are several reasons why Russian and Central Asian militants likely prefer Telegram for recruitment and propaganda.

The most important feature is security. Telegram offers "secret chats" that use end-to-end encryption -- so recruiters can chat securely to would-be recruits or donors.

Abu Rofik, a publicist and recruiter for Syria's Al-Qaeda affiliate, the Al-Nusra Front, instructed wannabe recruits to contact him privately via his Telegram account this week.

For militants whose propaganda efforts have been hampered by frequent bans from VKontakte, Telegram is also attractive. The messaging service says it does not process any takedown requests relating to Telegram chats and group chats, as these are "the private territory of their respective participants."

So recruiters like Abu Rofik who operate private accounts will not be banned, although Telegram will consider requests to ban public bots that receive complaints including "terrorist (e.g. ISIS-related) bots."

Deaths

The noticeable slowdown in militant activity on VKontakte and Odnoklassniki could, at least in part, be a result of an increased number of deaths that has built up over recent months.

The slowdown has been particularly noticeable among Tajik militants, according to RFE/RL's Tajik Service, which noted this week that Tajik activity on social networks has all but completely subsided.

The Tajik authorities believe that the silence is a result of a large number of deaths among Tajik militants, as well as an uptick in militants who have become disillusioned and tried to return home, according to a law enforcement source.

The source, who spoke to RFE/RL's Tajik Service on condition of anonymity, said 300 Tajiks had been killed in Syria and Iraq and only around 200 remained. The source added that more than 20 parents of individuals who went to Syria had asked for help returning their children, who are on the Turkish border.

It is not possible to independently verify these figures, though the combined total of 500 is the official figure given by Tajikistan's Interior Ministry in June for the number of Tajiks fighting in IS.

IS does not publish casualty figures for its militants, making it impossible to know how many fighters of each nationality have died. But there have been signs of an increased casualty rate among IS militants over the past months, including of Russian-speaking and Central Asian fighters in IS's offensive at Baiji in Iraq.

"Obituaries" posted on social media over the summer and early fall by Russian-speaking militants indicated that large numbers of IS recruits had been sent to Baiji as "cannon fodder."

Non-IS sources in Syria claimed that the Baiji offensive was led by IS's ethnic Chechen commander, Umar al-Shishani, who is noted for sending waves of inexperienced fighters to their deaths.

Iraq claimed to have pushed IS out of Baiji last month, and said its forces had found 19 mass graves containing around 365 IS bodies, though it was unclear how long the bodies had been buried there.

Security

Some IS militants may have removed their VKontakte or Odnoklassniki accounts deliberately, fearing that if they give away their locations or phone numbers they could be targeted in Russian or U.S.-led air strikes.

IS commanders -- including Umar al-Shishani, who has not been photographed for months -- may have issued orders insisting that militants remove their accounts.

In April, IS militants from the Chechen-led Al-Aqsa Brigade accidentally gave away the location of what appeared to be a training camp in Muqla Kabir in Raqqa Province by forgetting to turn off location services on a photograph posted to VKontakte.

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About This Blog

"Under The Black Flag" provides news, opinion, and analysis about the impact of the Islamic State (IS) extremist group in Syria, Iraq, and beyond. It focuses not only on the fight against terrorist groups in the Middle East, but also on the implications for the region and the world.

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