If one listens to ISAF and to Central Asian governments, there are overlapping networks of jihadist terrorists subverting Afghanistan and Tajikistan, if not the whole region. Few of these reports are substantiated by details that can be independently scrutinised. But they are often picked up by media and other outlets, presented as proven facts and amplified by repetition. This creates a data mist that helps Central Asian governments to exaggerate, if not invent, events, asserting groups are present and concealing their own repressive policies against all manner of opposition forces. AAN’s Thomas Ruttig, continuing his series from Tajikistan, looks at the ‘Afghan connection’ in such reporting and weighs its substance.Lost leader. IMU's Tahir Yuldashev was killed in Pakistan in 2009 - as was his predecessor. Central Asian analysts doubt reports about the IMU's strenght and influence, rather concede that “little is known about the IMU’s organisation or aims” in general. Picture source: Image shack
After Part 1 (read here) dealt with the perception and presentation of the jihadist threat in Tajikistan (finding that much of the jihadist activity is home-grown, not instigated from abroad), part 2 looks at the most prominent case of a jihadist organisation, the Islamic Movement of Uzbekistan (IMU), allegedly bridging Afghanistan and Central Asia.
Although including the IMU in Tajikistan’s terror list makes more sense after its past activity, some analysts are careful when estimating the scope of the group’s activity in Central Asia. The usually not very dovish Institute for the Study of War states in the Tajikistan and Afghanistan overview on its website that:
It is believed that the IMU is still active in Central Asia (Tajikistan, Uzbekistan, Kyrgyzstan, and Kazakhstan), and in some countries it has allegedly reconstituted itself as the Islamic Movement of Turkestan.
The Jamestown Institute even writes that “the last major attacks in Uzbekistan associated with the Islamic Movement of Uzbekistan (IMU) were carried out in 2004” – obviously expressing doubt about an IMU role in the sporadic 2009-2011 fighting. And Noah Tucker, in a recent article on the Registan blog, adds that the IMU “rarely mentions Uzbekistan, and never mentions the country at all in terms of operational plans and priorities,” but rather refers to the Taliban’s government as “our Emirate of Afghanistan”, projecting itself less as a national, “Uzbekistani” actor than one in a “global jihad”. Tucker concludes that “it seems sometimes that in all the chatter about the supposedly imminent threat of an IMU invasion of Central Asia the only people not talking about it are the IMU themselves.”
Consequently, IMU activity in Central Asian countries seems to be comparatively minimal. It also seems to originate from within those countries, not from Afghanistan. In May 2009, for example, it was reported that, a small armed group attacked a border post, then a police station in Uzbekistan but that it had “crossed from Kyrgyzstan”. In January 2013, when Tajik forces arrested two small groups of alleged IMU fighters, it was again in the north of the country, in the Ferghana Valley with its confusing border lines between Tajikistan, Uzbekistan and Kyrghyzstan (but not Afghanistan). A Jamestown report confirms that, throughout 2012, Dushanbe has regularly reported about arrests of IMU members in the Tajikistan part of the Ferghana Valley. However, many analysts doubt that they have real connection with the IMU leadership. “There is no IMU branch in Tajikistan now. Maybe there are some remnants of the IMU in Tajikistan, but I am not sure that most of the so-called IMU members have real links with Afghanistan,” it quoted Daniil Kislov, director of the analytical-information agency Ferghana.
Still, even the usually reliable ICG became alarmist about cross-border IMU activities into Central Asia. In its 2011 report, it stated that, “limited infiltration of armed guerrillas from Afghanistan has been taking place for several years” and “a small number of fighters from the North Caucasus have also been active in Tajikistan in recent years.” But it does not give any proof, merely noting that “Afghan officials believe that Pakistan was directly involved in the IMU’s build-up in the north [of Afghanistan]” and that “Afghan officials and politicians and German intelligence analysts … expected a further deterioration in that part of the country in 2011.” Furthermore, the ICG report refers to an April 2011 statement by the head of Kyrgyzstan’s state security service that appears to be exaggerated. He claimed that “400 Kyrgyz citizens, predominantly of Uzbek ethnicity”, were receiving terrorist training in Afghanistan and Pakistan. (This was the only report on such a large group that surely would have been noticed by other sources sooner or later.) ICG itself states in the same report, concerning similar allegations about “some 200 young ethnic Uzbeks from [southern Kyrghyzstan]” who had “gone to Afghanistan for military training” in 2010 that even a senior government minister with responsibility for the area had seen “no information to substantiate this claim”. The authors of the report also concede that “little is known about the IMU’s organisation or aims” in general.
Bleuer, commenting on the ICG report in his blog, talks about an overestimated “external threat” and a “pervasive exaggeration” of the IMU:
In the vast majority of analysis out there, the Islamic Movement of Uzbekistan is the undying bogeyman of the terrorist/insurgency world… The Pakistani and Afghan security forces want to blame foreigners for everything. And many in the US government and military are blindly consuming this.
It should also not be forgotten that the IMU “started as a relatively peaceful Islamic movement”, in the sense that it did not aim at overthrowing the government, according to Central Asian scholars, Kamoludin Abdullaev (here) and Bakhtiyar Babajanov (quoted here). According to the latter, the IMU originated from Adolat, “a voluntary group to provide protection for the local entrepreneurs against racketeers and patrol cities at night” in 1989 in the Ferghana valley. A few years later, it “took religious orientation and was renamed the Islam Lashkarlari”. By 1992 or 1993, writes Abdullaev, it had taken “steps to forcibly introduce an Islamic state in Ferghana [and was] persecuted by the Uzbek regime.” This it had in common with all other opposition groups, including moderate ones.(11) Most IMU activists left Uzbekistan for Tajikistan where they fought alongside the local Islamists against the secular government from 1992 to 1997. There, Abdullaev continues, “this Islamist alliance of Tajiks and Uzbeks was ruined in 1996, however, in favour of ethnic nationalism. Being deprived of political participation in Uzbekistan and finding no place in reconciled [post-civil-war] Tajikistan, [it] joined the regional geopolitical terrorist network,” moved to Afghanistan and allied itself with the Taleban regime. From there, it was forced to migrate even further away from its country of origin, to distant Waziristan in 2001, following its defeated Afghan allies. In its own propaganda, Tucker notes, the IMU even claims that its then leader, Yuldashev, played a key role in turning the Afghan jihad against its Pakistani funders and in founding the Pakistani Taleban umbrella, the TTP.
Stratfor stated in a 2010 report that the IMU was “largely wiped out after 9/11 and the subsequent US invasion of Afghanistan in the battle of Kunduz … its remaining members relocated … to northwestern Pakistan [and] the group is no longer the coherent movement it was in the late 1990s.” By 2009, the IMU had lost its two original leaders in US drone strikes, first Juma Namangani in 2001 in Kunduz and then Tahir Yuldashev in Pakistan in 2009.(12) The OSCE report quoted above, says that, of the “estimated 2000 fighters” belonging to the IMU between 1998 and 2001 when it was based in the Taleban’s Islamic Emirate, only 1,000 escaped to Waziristan.(13) From there, the OSCE report continues, “a significant part” had recently relocated to northeastern Afghanistan. But how many out of 1,000 is a “significant part”, particularly when the OSCE report, elsewhere in its text, says that only 600 IMU fighters were in the Taleban Emirate’s period? It skates on thin ice with its estimates. The ‘small groups’ the Taleban commander mentioned in the Daily Beast story might be closer to reality, and less of a threat. Stratfor even casts a doubt on whether the IMU as such continues to exist:
… governments frequently use the IMU as a catchall phrase for Islamists in Central Asia who would like to overthrow the regions’ governments. In reality, various factors divide the region’s militants, and continuing to use convenient labels like IMU frequently masks real shifts and complexities in Central Asia’s militant landscape…. The name IMU to a large degree has become a generic label for Islamic militant activity in a similar fashion to how the devolution of al Qaeda has shifted the original understanding of the group and its name.
The case of the IMU convincingly shows how the persecution of opposition forces by Central Asian regimes has contributed to home-grown radicalisation and how those pushed into ‘the mountains’ or the underground come back helpfully as bogeymen for the same regimes, who now shop in the West in their fight against terrorism (see here. The latest crackdown against the legal Islamist opposition party in Tajikistan (see the second part of our Tajikistan series here) could lead to similar effects.
The Taleban-IMU nexus
Since 2010, many reports say that the Afghan Taleban and the IMU not only conduct joint operations but have somehow merged their structures in a three-way coalition that also includes al-Qaeda. Most of these reports originate from ISAF in northern Afghanistan, like the one referred to earlier concerning the ten election workers who were killed in September 2010 (quoted here; the Long War Journal described the killing of “a dual-hatted Taliban sub-commander and al Qaeda group leader” who was also “a senior leader of the Islamic Movement of Uzbekistan in Kunduz”.(14) A March 2011 article in the Small Wars Journal mentions IMU activity in southern Afghanistan: “In places like the Deh Chopan district of Zabul province, the IMU is a critical piece of the local insurgency.” The author concludes, without including any detail about other districts, that, “though its members and operations are focused in only a handful of districts in Afghanistan, the IMU’s disciplined fighters form an elite training cadre acting as a true combat multiplier for the Afghan Taliban, and thus its influence is felt exponentially across much of the country’s south.” He also writes that the relocation of IMU fighters from Waziristan to Day Chopan was not voluntary but the result of conflicts with Pakistani Taleban factions in Waziristan – and definitely not a sign of strength.
According to ISAF, the IMU regularly appoints chiefs for its operations in Afghanistan and “ISAF and Afghan forces have killed the IMU’s top commander in Afghanistan three times since April 2011”. Both after suicide attacks on the US PRT in Panjshir and on the Bagram air base in October 2011 (here and here) as well as a the so-called complex attack (using multiple suicide bombers) against Panjshir’s provincial administration compound in late May 2013, ISAF reported that “the IMU and the Taleban claimed responsibility for what they said was a joint attack on the provincial governor’s compound in Panjshir” (here).
The IMU-Taleban claims reported in connection with the May 2013 Panjshir incident, which included an announcement of “future conquests in the Mawr-an-nahr region” – a historical term for the area between the Amu Darya and Syr Darya rivers north of the Afghan borders – do not contain direct proof that both organisations were really involved in the attack. In fact, the only ‘proof’ available were “a statement on the Internet claiming the Panjshir attack, and … two photos of four of the suicide bombers”, reported the Long War Journal, referring to the original ISAF report on the incident. Internet communiqués and photos without any ‘action’ on them can easily be uploaded; usually, jihadi groups use video footage to bolster claims of attacks. Consequently, such statements might be worth as much as the Taleban’s almost-daily pronouncements via social media about their attacks and the massive losses of the ‘invaders’ and ‘hirelings’ – like here, here or here – that are rarely confirmed by any independent source.
The same goes for an IMU list of 87 ‘martyrs’ killed over the previous year published in November 2011. It included the names of 64 Afghans. Verifying these names is impossible. As AAN’s Kate Clark wrote in another context, it is still “highly unusual for … an Afghan to be a member of the IMU.” She added that, however, this “appears to be a fairly routine allegation for ISAF to make when Special Forces kill or capture any Afghan who is an ethnic Uzbek whom they suspect of being a Taleb.”
How dead terrorists can be connected to any particular ethnic group remains questionable, too. The 2013 Panjshir suicide bombers, for example, all reportedly died in the incident but were, nevertheless, identified as including “two Uzbeks and one Kyrgyz” by ISAF. Bleuer, who has convincingly assessed recurrent reports about Chechens fighting in Afghanistan as a myth, mentioned in a recent paper how such ‘identification’ is done, quoting communication with a “former ISAF officer with several years’ experience in northern Afghanistan”:
We see it here [in Mazar-e Sharif] in the provincial hospital, where dead bodies of insurgent KIAs [killed in action] are brought to. When the bodies are not claimed by family members they are automatically labeled Foreign Fighters and depending on their faces: Asiatic = Uzbeks; dark-skinned = Pakistani; and caucasian = Chechens. This is done by doctors as well as police and everybody takes it at face value.
Sophie Roche and John Heathershaw, two renowned Central Asian analysts, provide another example, this one from Tajikistan in 2010 (here – not-really-about-radical-islam):
The claim that foreign terrorists take part in the fights stems from bodies found after the government’s bombing of Ahmadov’s [a former opposition commander] house in Gharm. However, local people claim that these were Kyrgyz workers who were building his house. Kyrgyz from Djirgatol have been working on Gharmi construction sites for many years. It is claimed that these Kyrgyz were among the victims of the recent military attacks and falsely identified as international terrorists.
AAN’s Kate Clark comments:
Labelling dead ethnic Uzbek Afghans as IMU adds to the narrative of an external ‘terrorist’ threat and makes whoever was killed or captured sound extremely dangerous. From our point of view, it just underlines that international security forces have a blurred picture about whom they are opposing and that not much is known about IMU and its links to the Taleban, al-Qaeda and other militant Islamist organisations.
Conclusion: exaggerated alarmism
To realistically assess the dangers of an Afghan conflict overspill into Central Asia, particularly one linked to armed jihadists, filtering out the hard facts from unproven claims in official statements is necessary. Statements by Central Asian governments contain high doses of self-serving alarmism, seem to exaggerate and misrepresent relatively small incidents, and describe scenarios that could only become true if different groups significantly increased the intensity, scope and coordination of their activities. Whether this will ever happen simply cannot be predicted. To speak of an already existing high-level threat is simply unrealistic. Labelling all domestic dissent as ‘Islamist’ or ‘terrorist’ is a long-established pattern. This form of alarmism has proven highly successful: some Central Asian leaders mobilised support from Western governments for their alleged fight against jihadist or Islamist terrorism despite their human rights violations and the home-grown causes of much of the internal tensions in their countries.
Increasing official Afghan reporting of the involvement of alleged foreign fighters in the domestic insurgency reflects an interest in projecting that most insurgent activity in the country’s north emanates from beyond the borders. The alleged IMU activity is only one case.
Exaggerating the jihadist threat is also part of the re-opened power games in the ‘Greater Central Asia’ (the term has recently come into use among Russian academics and politicians and includes the Central Asian republics plus Afghanistan) expected after most NATO combat troops have withdrawn by the end of 2014. Transition in and withdrawal from Afghanistan are increasing some neighbouring countries’ interest in the Afghan situation. With regard to Russia, this interest is epitomised by its ongoing discussion about possibly returning its troops to the border with Tajikistan where they had been from Tajikistan’s independence in 1992 until 2005. After the recent CSTO summit in Sochi on 23 September, the organisation’s secretary general said surprisingly, however, that there was “no need” to send Russian border guards to Tajikistan, and that Tajik troops will be provided with military and technical assistance instead (see here and here).
The claimed nexus between the Taleban, IMU and other groups does exist in Waziristan – where the IMU’s focus of activity moved in 2001 and partly in northern Afghanistan, but no evidence of it exists beyond Afghan borders. The scope of the alleged overlap between the Taleban, IMU, al-Qaeda and other groups is difficult to confirm given the lack of open and verifiable detail. According to Roche and Heathershaw, there is also “no evidence” that the Islamic Revival Party of Tajikistan (IRPT), the legal Islamist opposition party, consented to the former civil war commanders’ actions during the 2008–2011 fighting or that the party is radicalising as a result of the current government crackdown (see the second part of our Tajikistan series, here).
For Afghanistan, it is far from clear whether fear that the Taleban will take over all or most of the country, or show significant gains in its north, is realistic. But even if that happened, the likelihood of an aggressive spill-over, in the form of cross-border attacks, seems low. This is neither indicated by Taleban leader Mulla Muhammad Omar’s statements (as in his 6 August 2013 Eid-ul-Fitr address) where he reiterated that the insurgent movement wants good relations with all countries, including the neighbours; he also did not express any Taleban concern about those countries’ involvement in the Northern Distribution Network (more AAN analysis here). But more importantly, the Taleban’s practical behaviour indicates a lack of interest in any substantial cross-border activity. Stirring up Central Asia would lead the Taleban into direct confrontation, not only with the region’s five governments, but also with Russia and possibly China. Those countries have built up regional security mechanisms like the Shanghai Cooperation Organisation (SCO) and the CSTO. Such a confrontation would ultimately jeopardise any hypothetical Taleban gains, as happened when al-Qaeda’s 9/11 attacks led to the fall of its Islamic Emirate. It would make Afghanistan a pariah again in the international community.
Much of the information about jihadi terrorist groups’ activities is classified. What comes into the public’s view is likely twisted – part of psychological warfare operations (or just propaganda) – or at least blown out of proportion by the proliferating military and intelligence-related analysis industry that does not put its sources on display for public scrutiny. As the reports about alleged joint IMU-Taleban attacks in Panjshir and Bagram and statements about forays into ‘Mawr-an-nahr’ show, they are exclusively based on insurgent material, such as photos or statements on websites that might as well be complete invention cooked up in propaganda units or internet cafés by jihadists knowing that such material will create media attention and busy the intelligence community. Real incidents in Central Asia that involve Afghan insurgents are very rare and limited to border areas. Insurgents have not targeted deeper into Tajik, or any other territory in the region and are driven by the cross-border drug trade in most cases.
Regional analysts, although not immune to threat scenarios, are often much more nuanced about the possible quality of a spill-over from Afghanistan than their government or Western analysts. IWPR quoted from three different countries recently who, more or less unanimously, said the same thing. “Instability in Afghanistan presents a threat to its neighbours only because conditions for radicals will improve,” said Almaty-based Kazak political analyst Marat Shibutov. Alexei Malashenko, a specialist on Central Asian politics and political Islam at the Carnegie Centre in Moscow, points to succession debates in both Uzbekistan and, less prominently, in Tajikistan, saying in possible “power struggles to replace Central Asia’s ageing leaders… political groups on the losing side might turn to [internal and external] Islamic groups for support”. Alexander Zelitchenko, director of the Central Asia Centre for Drug Policy in Bishkek, confirms that the Taleban “have never made any claims to the territory of others”. This sounds quite different as a narrative that implies a forthcoming IMU-Taleban offensive towards Buchara and Samarkand. In Tajikistan itself, jihadist terrorism or other forms of Islamist violence seem to be the exception 16 years after the civil war ended.
(1) They cite an interesting example: ‘In the 1980s, during the Soviet occupation of Afghanistan, the CIA in fact tried to facilitate the spread of insurgency from the mujahedeen it was supporting to infect the Washington’s ideological rival to the north. Yet they found the majority of Soviet Central Asians unsympathetic to the Afghan cause.’
(2) It is sometimes written that the IMU has renamed itself, or joined with other groups, to form IPT. This is incorrect. See the comment at the end of this article.
(3) Analysts in Dushanbe say Ozod Tojikiston (Free Tajikistan) is led by former Tajik army colonel Mahmud Khudoiberdiev, an ethnic Uzbek and former ally of the Rahmon government, who broke ranks, left the country, led an unsuccessful military incursion into the country in 1998, was wrongly reported dead and now is reportedly based in Uzbekistan, close to both the Tajik and Afghan borders (see here; more background about him here; only the author had to revise his opinion later about the colonel’s death). Claims by Tajik authorities in 2009 that fighters of this group have joined al-Qaeda do not sound very convincing.
(4) Ansarullah is reportedly led by a Tajik, Mulla Amruddin, and operates ‘in Pakistan and Afghanistan’. The Kabul-based Ariana News website quoted Afghan intelligence sources in June last year saying that ‘some Tajik terrorists are being trained in Pakistan and said that a movement called Ansarollah has been attracting young Tajiks to train them and dispatch back to Tajikistan’. The Jamestown Foundation, another terrorism watch institute, writes that ‘Jamaat Ansarullah is believed to have close ties with both the IMU and the Taliban.… While the group has not successfully attacked Tajikistan since 2010, they have been actively recruiting members via their webpage and through Twitter.’ It adds that some Tajik opposition activists question the group’s existence.
(5) The origin of the SCO is the 2001 Shanghai Convention on Combating Terrorism, Separatism and Extremism concluded between China, Russia, Tajikistan, Kazakhstan and Uzbekistan (which later left the organisation) (see here; see also here).
(6) The AEI’s Critical Threats Project distinguishes between affiliated groups, like al-Qaeda in the Islamic Maghreb or the Islamic Emirate of the Caucasus, and associated groups, like Boko Haram (in Nigeria), the TTP, LeT and SSP (all in Pakistan) and the Haqqani network; it does not include the Afghan Taleban as such, though. It writes: “Identifying formal inclusion in the network is straightforward: the al Qaeda emir recognizes certain groups that have pledged their allegiance, bayat, to him. All of these recognized groups share al Qaeda’s ideology, and their leaders justify the groups’ operations with that ideology. The formally recognized groups also share resources…. They also have a common signature: similar structures, training procedures, and patterns and methods of operations.” In contrast, “many” of al-Qaeda’s associates, the organisation says, “focus their efforts almost exclusively on local agendas” (see also here).
(7) The LWJ report has more such information: ISAF previously identified the Burkah district as ‘a Taliban and [IMU] safe haven’; also that ISAF said it has targeted there “a Taliban commander who is linked to the Islamic Movement of Uzbekistan and leads approximately 80 foreign fighters of Uzbek, Chechen and Tajik descent”. ISAF also had “begun to identify the location of safe havens and training camps in the north for the Taliban and the allied Islamic Movement of Uzbekistan. Both terror groups maintain a strong presence in the northern Afghan provinces of Badakhshan, Baghlan, Balkh, Faryab, Jawzjan, Kunduz, Samangan, Sar-i-Pul, and Takhar, and have established suicide training camps in the north over the past several years. As the two groups expand their presence in the north, top leaders of the Islamic Movement of Uzbekistan have integrated into the Taliban’s shadow government in the northern provinces.” LWJ also repeats the quote of “a Taliban commander from Baghlan named Mustafa” in the Asia Times, saying that “jihadis from Central Asia, including ‘Chechnya, Uzbekistan, Tajikistan, and Russia,’ make up a significant portion of the fighters in the Afghan north and that they are setting their sights on the neighboring country of Uzbekistan”.
(8) One of them was Mirzo Ziyoev, the civil war-time commander-in-chief of the opposition guerrilla force who, so far, has lived peacefully in the Rasht valley, the scene of most of the 2008–10 fighting. Ziyoev was accused of having joined the IMU, an assertion that was quickly denied by the late IMU leader Yuldashev. This led to speculations that Mullo Abdullo’s move was a provocation set up by the Dushanbe government to get rid of Ziyoev who had been one of the highest-ranking former opposition government members after the peace deal. He was dismissed by President Rahmon in 2006.
(9) Roche and Heathershaw wrote immediately after the events that “the government has set up an information blackout. It has issued threatening statements against Tajikistan’s beleaguered independent press and threatened criminal charges against journalists who report more than the official line”. They also detail the social problems in the area where the fighting took place, speak about young men disappearing into the mountains because they fear reprisals by the government forces (which makes them ‘rebels’ in the official accounts) and about the ‘phantom of foreign Islamism’ evoked by the government in Dushanbe.
(10) The March 2012 attack happened while President Karzai was in Dushanbe for joint Nawruz celebrations with other Central Asian heads of state. But none of the author’s interlocutors in Tajikistan mentioned the Karzai visit when talking about the episode (he only discovered the coincidence later), so he assumes they did not see a connection.
(11) Background on the original main moderate opposition groups Erk and Birlik, which were suppressed starting in 1992 here and about the current state of the non-violent Uzbek opposition here and here.
(12) Meanwhile, in 2011 and 2012, the IMU lost its main military commander and Yuldashev’s successor in drone strikes in Pakistan (here and here).
(13) In September 2010, the Christian Science Monitor, referring to “US estimates”, suddenly has 3,000 Uzbeks in Waziristan, “not to mention a number of militants belonging to other Central Asian states”.
(14) The report, picked up by LWJ, contains ISAF claims about an “Iranian-based Uzbek Islamic Movement of Uzbekistan facilitators” and that “a senior US intelligence official” told the website that a captured IMU facilitator operated “in Iran with the support of Qods Force, the special operations branch of Iran’s Islamic Revolutionary Guards Corps’. The US official added, “Qods Force helps the IMU and al Qaeda move fighters into Afghanistan, and backs local Taliban groups”.
This article was last updated on 9 Mar 2020