The rise of the Islamic Movement of Uzbekistan

Whatever happened to the Islamic Movement of Uzbekistan? The militant group bent on overthrowing President Islom Karimov’s regime in Uzbekistan came to prominence through some very public attacks in the late 1990s. Over a decade later, the group appears to be stuck in Pakistan’s tribal areas bearing little resemblance to the movement that once stirred up fear and prompted brutal government retaliation in Central Asia. In a four-part series Hegemonic Obsessions will explore the origins, evolution, and current state of the IMU. This is part one. Part two can be found here, part three can be found here, and part four is here.

The IMU before 9/11

Islamic movements in Uzbekistan have a long history. For decades during Soviet rule, religious clerics spread teachings of Salafism and Wahhabism in madrassas or through documents or audiocassettes.[1] When the Soviet Union collapsed, the authoritarian government of President Islom Karimov cracked down harshly on radical Islamic movements in the country, seeking to suppress any threats to the regime. One of the most significant events of this period was the disappearance of Abduwali qori Mirzoev, an Imam at the main mosque in the Uzbek city of Andijan, in August 1995. Though the Uzbek government denied involvement in his disappearance, Amnesty International reported in 2001 that Abduwali qori was in fact held and repeatedly tortured in an underground cell in Tashkent for years.[2] In December the same year, a police officer was captured and killed, in an apparent retaliation for the disappearance of Abduwali qori. Using the brutal killing as a pretext, President Karimov imposed curfews in the Ferghana Valley and detained large numbers of suspected religious extremists.[3]

President Karimov feared the rising influence of Islamist groups in Uzbekistan. One of these groups was Adolat, a radical Islamist group created in 1991 by Tohir Yuldashev and Juma Namangani.[4] With Saudi funds and about five thousand followers, the group started building a religious community in Namangan, a city on the northern edge of the Ferghana Valley. Adolat demanded that Karimov impose sharia law across Uzbekistan and even invited the president to talks in Namangan. Karimov went to see Yuldashev and Namangani, but as Ahmed Rashid describes it, the meeting soon turned into a “fiery shouting match” and ended without any compromise. The Uzbek regime tolerated Adolat’s presence in Namangan for some months, but in March 1992 it had had enough. The group was banned and 27 members were arrested.

The crackdown in Namangan prompted many Adolat members, including the two leaders, to cross the border into Tajikistan, where they found refuge. The government of Tajikistan was weakened by the ongoing civil war, and the Uzbek militants joined the Islamic Renaissance Party of Tajikistan, another Islamist group, in fighting the sitting government.[5] The Uzbek militants would later join the United Tajik Opposition (UTO), a coalition of various democratic, liberal, and Islamist forces. When the civil war ended in Tajikistan in 1997, the Uzbek militants’ sanctuary was under threat. In addition, the crackdown on Islamists in Uzbekistan had worsened, and this prompted Yuldashev and Namangani to establish a new militant group with bases in Afghanistan.[6] The Islamic Movement of Uzbekistan (IMU) was formally established in Kabul in 1998,[7] and the stated goal of the group was the forceful overthrow of the Karimov government and creation of an Islamic state in Uzbekistan.[8]

The IMU came into the international spotlight on February 16, 1999, when a group of Uzbek Islamists detonated a series of bombs in the Uzbek capital Tashkent. The alleged target of the attacks was President Karimov, but he failed to show up at the location of one of the bombs. Instead, the bombs claimed the lives of 16 civilians, while over 100 were wounded. The Uzbek government blamed the IMU for the attacks, and 22 people were later found guilty in court of attempting to assassinate Karimov and overthrow the government.[9]

The conflict between the IMU and the Uzbek government intensified after the Tashkent bombings, with IMU fighters crossing the border from Tajikistan through Kyrgizstan into the Ferghana Valley in Uzbekistan. At this point, the IMU still had bases in Tajikistan and Kyrgyzstan. In August 1999, the IMU conducted several operations in Kyrgyzstan. In the first one, a mayor and three of his employees were taken hostage. They were later released in exchange for a ransom and a helicopter to take the terrorists to Afghanistan. But it was the second operation that drew international attention. Japanese geologists, along with Kyrgyzstani government officials and military personnel in southern Kyrgyzstan were taken hostage.[10] Some hostages were initially released, but when the IMU kept issuing demands, the Kyrgyz government responded by sending in troops, forcing the militants to retreat back into Tajikistan with some of the hostages. Though the details of these battles are unclear, the Japanese geologists were eventually released, allegedly in exchange for a substantial ransom paid by the Japanese government.[11]

The incursions into Uzbekistan and Kyrgyzstan in 1999 had repercussions throughout the region. The new government in Tajikistan came under strong pressure to kick the group out of the country, and in fall 1999 the IMU were forced to relocate to Afghanistan. Responding to the incursions, the Karimov regime took unprecedented steps in securing the areas bordering Tajikistan and Kyrgyzstan. After the initial President Karimov ordered the unilateral mining of the frontier areas.[12] In addition, the military conducted search-and-destroy missions and air raids into Tajikistan and Kyrgyzstan, without the approval of the respective governments.[13]

Making friends in Afghanistan

Though the IMU was originally created to combat social injustice in Uzbekistan, the organization quickly evolved into fighting international jihad because of its close ties with the Taliban and al Qaeda in Afghanistan.[14] The connection between the IMU, the Taliban and al Qaeda began in the early 1990s. Yuldashev spent time in Afghanistan during the Tajik civil war where he established a “network of contacts and toured Muslim countries to raise funds and mobilise support.”[15]

During this period in the mid 1990s, it is also believed that Yuldashev formed a relationships with the Pakistani army’s intelligence service ISI receiving both funds and sanctuary from them. Russian and Uzbek officials have also claimed that Yuldashev received funding from the intelligence agencies of Saudi Arabia, Iran, Turkey and Islamic charities and organizations in those countries.[16] Working out of Pakistan, Yuldashev also set up underground cells of Adolat throughout Central Asia.[17] The further cementing of IMU-Taliban ties happened in 1999 when Namangano, who was at this point the military commander of the IMU, travelled to Afghanistan. There he established training camps for IMU fighters, with the permission of the Taliban.[18]

The securing of support, funds, and bases in Afghanistan ensured another sanctuary for the IMU. Uzbekistan’s strong influence in the region made sure the group had trouble staying in one spot for too long, but the Taliban offered the IMU a friendly and more stable partner. Or so it would seem. By aligning itself with the Taliban and al Qaeda, the IMU had made a sound tactical decision that would eventually be unraveled by forces much larger than it had ever encountered before in Central Asia. Soon the Uzbek militants found themselves fighting against the world’s only superpower because of the actions of its partners.

Operation Enduring Freedom

Estimates of the number of IMU fighters before the U.S.-led invasion of Afghanistan in 2001 (Operation Enduring Freedom) vary greatly. Different sources put the number of active members at everything between 300 and 6,000 in the beginning of 2001.[19] According to Ahmed Rashid, the IMU had since their move to Afghanistan grown from about 600 fighters with their families to a pan-Islamic force of around two thousand fighters in 2000.[20] Despite the lack of clear intelligence, the consensus is that at the time of the September 11 attacks, the IMU had a strong presence in Afghanistan, with a training camp in Mazar-e Sharif. Namangani had extensive contacts with al Qaeda and the Taliban, and in May 2001 the Taliban leadership appointed him head of his own unit, the 055 Brigade,[21] for the purpose of fighting Taliban opponents. The unit consisted of non-Afghan jihadist fighters, including Pakistanis, Turks, Uighurs and Uzbeks.[22]

When the American-led coalition launched its attacks on the Taliban on October 7, 2001, IMU members were fighting alongside the Taliban. The invasion and subsequent skirmishes in 2002 were disastrous for the Uzbek group. Namangani was fatally injured on November 18 when the convoy he was travelling with was struck in the Kunduz Province.[23] IMU militants, allegedly lead by Yuldashev, were also part of the Taliban forces fighting U.S. and Afghan forces during Operation Anaconda in March 2002.[24] According to the U.S. State Department, the coalition forces captured, killed and dispersed many of the militants who stayed to fight in Afghanistan, and the group’s ability to attack Uzbek or coalition interests were severely degraded.[25]

IMU fighters who survived the American invasion and Operation Anaconda went into hiding in Afghanistan, Pakistan, Iran, Tajikistan and Kyrgyzstan.[26] Yuldashev is thought to have taken many fighters with him across the border to Pakistan where they “encountered few problems finding support and shelter amongst the Ahmadzai Wazir tribesmen in North and South Waziristan.”[27] The Uzbek special services also claimed that IMU fighters had returned to their bases in Tajikistan and were being assisted by their Tajik allies, though the validity of that assertion is uncertain.[28] Nonetheless, the IMU was now scattered across several countries, far from their original base of operation.

In part two of our series on the Islamic Movement of Uzbekistan we show how the group splintered and enjoyed a brief resurgence.


[1] For more background on Islamic movements in Uzbekistan in this period, see Vitaly V. Naumkin, “Militant Islam in Central Asia: The Case of the Islamic Movement in Uzbekistan,” Berkeley Program in Soviet and Post-Soviet Studies (2003).

[2] Ahmed Rashid, Jihad: The Rise of Militant Islam in Central Asia (New Haven and London: Yale University Press, 2002): p. 146 and pp. 256-257, note 11.

[3] Naumkin, “Militant Islam”, pp. 25-26.

[4] This paragraph relies heavily on Rashid, Jihad, pp. 137-140.

[5] Ibid, p. 140.

[6] Ibid, pp. 145-148.

[7] Naumkin’s article states that the IMU was established as early as in 1996, after the government’s crackdown, but the official founding happened in 1998 in Kabul.

[8] It has been claimed that the IMU was established as a reaction to the truce in the Tajik civil war, which ended in 1997, because the IMU feared this would threaten their safe haven in Tajikistan.

[9] Though it is commonly accepted that the IMU perpetrated the attacks, other experts have offered different theories as to who was behind the bombings. See Naumkin’s article for further details, pp. 29-30.

[10] Zeyno Baran, S. Frederick Starr and Svante E. Cornell, “Islamic Radicalism in Central Asia and the Caucasus: Implications for the EU” (July 2006), p. 26.

[11] Naumkin, “Militant Islam”, pp. 42-44.

[12] U.S. Department of State, Patterns of Global Terrorism 2001 (Washington, DC: May

2002), pp. 24–25.

[13] The range of estimates is from: Edward W. Walker, “Islam, Islamism, and Political Order in Central Asia,” Journal of

International Affairs, vol. 56, no. 2 (Spring 2003), p. 28.

[14] C.J. Chivers, “Uzbek Militants’ Decline Provides Clues to U.S. (New York Times, October 8, 2002).

[15] Mukhtar Kudratov, “Uzbek deaths highlight war on Islamic activism in Central Asia,” Muslimedia.com, http://www.mediamonitors.net/mukhtarkudratov1.html (Undated article, accessed March 26, 2008).

[16] Rashid, Jihad, p. 140-141.

[17] Ibid.

[18] Baran, “Islamic Radicalism,” pp. 26-27.

[19] Walker, “Islam,” p. 37.

[20] Rashid, Jihad, p. 174.

[21] Chivers, “Uzbek Militants’”.

[22] Richard Weitz, “Storm Clouds over Central Asia: Revival of the Islamic Movement of Uzbekistan?,” Studies in Conflict & Terrorism (August 2004), p. 507.

[23] There have been contradictory reports on what happened to Namangani. See Naumkin’s article, pp. 58-59, for further details.

[24] There are few available details on what happened to the IMU fighters during Operation Enduring Freedom, but the group is believed to have suffered substantial losses during Operation Anaconda. For more information, see: Sean Naylor, Not a Good Day to Die: The Untold Story of Operation Anaconda (New York: Berkley Books, 2006); Bill Roggio, “Islamic Movement of Uzbekistan confirms leader Tahir Yuldashev killed,” Long War Journal, August 16, 2010, http://www.longwarjournal.org/archives/2010/08/islamic_movement_of_1.php (accessed March 2, 2011).

[25] The State Department estimates that the IMU probably numbered less than two thousand after the fighting, though that figure is highly uncertain: U.S. Department of State, Global Terrorism 2001, Appendix B.

[26] Chivers, “Uzbek Militants’”.

[27] Imtiaz Gul, ”The Waziristan Wild Card,” Foreign Policy, October 1, 2009, http://afpak.foreignpolicy.com/posts/2009/10/01/the_waziristan_wild_card (accessed March 2, 2011).

[28] Naumkin, “Militant Islam,” p. 58, note 11.

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