The Islamic Movement of Uzbekistan: Crackdown (2005-2010)

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. Part one covered the origins of the group, and part two covered the movement’s split in 2002 and the 2005 massacre in Andijan. This is part three. Part four can be found here.

Crackdown

In the aftermath of the Andijan uprising, the Uzbek government led a massive crackdown on people suspected of participating or aiding in the incident, and Islamic extremists in general. The neighboring countries of Kyrgyzstan and Tajikistan also showed an increasing willingness to both pursue and extradite Uzbek militants to Uzbekistan. In February 2006, law enforcement officials from Tajikistan and Kyrgyzstan met to set up a joint task force to detain militants from the IMU.[1] The meeting came a week after several members of the IMU attacked a detention facility in northern Tajikistan. The chief of the facility was killed in the attack aimed to free a prisoner.[2]

One of the most significant arrests happened in Kazakhstan in November 2005. Uzbek national Rukhitdin Fahrutdinov, along with at least eight other suspected Uzbek religious extremists, was apprehended in Shymkent while in hiding. The men arrested were all extradited to Uzbekistan, showing increased cooperation between the two countries. The Uzbek government has claimed that Fahrutdinov is one of the leaders of the IMU, and after the 1999 Tashkent bombings, he emerged as No. 1 on the authorities’ list of wanted religious extremists. His family has maintained his innocence, calling the charges by the Uzbek government a fabrication.[3]

The arrest and extradition of Fahrutdinov was however, just the beginning. Following the Andijan incident, several countries actively pursued suspected members of the IMU, in addition to the aforementioned Tajikistan and Kyrgyzstan. According to a report by the Associated Press in 2005, Uzbeks who were accused or admitted members of the IMU, have been extradited home by the dozens. Pakistan, Afghanistan, Turkey and Iran are some of the countries that have secretly sent Uzbeks back, where they have faced long prison terms for religious extremism. These countries have been criticized for ignoring international law and extradition treaties.[4]

In some instances, suspected IMU members have not been sent to Uzbekistan. In January 2010, Kazak authorities deported an alleged member of the IMU back to Tajikistan where he was suspected of several crimes.[5] In July of the same year, Tajikistan extradited two Kyrgyz citizen, suspected of terrorist activities, back to Kyrgyzstan. The suspects were believed to be members of the IMU.[6]

Outside of Asia, both the Ukraine and the United States have extradited suspected members of the IMU. In February, 2006, Ukraine deported 10 Uzbek asylum seekers to Uzbekistan. The Ukraine Security Agency defended the controversial decision, saying the Uzbeks were members of the IMU. The U.S. State Department criticized the Ukrainian government for ignoring proper asylum procedures, yet the United States has also extradited suspected IMU members. In March 2006, two Guantanamo detainees were sent back home to Tajikistan. The men, Mukit Vokhidov and Rukhiddin Sharopov, were put on trial in Dushanbe in 2007 on charges of serving as IMU mercenaries.[7] In addition to these countries, China has also committed itself to fight Central Asian terrorism through the Shanghai Cooperation Organization (SCO).[8]

The battle in Pakistan

One of the key battlegrounds in the fight against the IMU proved to be in Pakistan. After Operation Enduring Freedom in 2001, several Uzbek militants fled to Wana, South Waziristan in Pakistan, a tribal area that has been a significant security problem for the Pakistani government.[9] The army arrested several Uzbek members of the IMU in 2006,[10] and in March, 2007, there was intense fighting between IMU fighters and pro-government tribesmen in South Waziristan. According to the local Pakistani authorities, 160 people were killed, including 130 militants from Uzbekistan and Chechnya. The tribesmen captured another 60 militants.[11]

The deadly battles prompted the Pakistani Taliban to negotiate a ceasefire between the tribesmen and the foreign militants,[12] and the following month tribesmen in South Waziristan promised the Pakistani government not to shelter Uzbek militants and not to obstruct development in the area.[13] The agreement was seen as a significant development in restoring peace to the volatile area, and a news report in May claimed the IMU had now been “bled dry” by the fighting in March.[14] The Pakistani government had seemingly been successful in getting local tribesmen, with Taliban sympathies, to turn against the foreign fighters. The IMU fighters were forced to flee Wana. The group moved north to the enclaves of the Mehsud tribe where it aligned itself with Baitullah Mehsud and the Tehrik-e Taliban Pakistan (TTP, commonly referred to as the Pakistani Taliban).[15]

The Pakistani government was, however, not finished in its attempt to rid Waziristan of foreign fighters. On October 19, 2007, a news report quoted Pakistani security officials saying the military was now planning to launch an all-out battle against militants, both Taliban and foreign fighters.[16] IMU leader Tahir Yuldashev, who at this point was living with the IMU, responded the following January by calling for fresh attacks on Pakistani forces and the establishment of Islamic law in Pakistan.[17] Despite Yuldashev’s assertive tone, the fighting in Pakistan was taking its toll on the IMU. In an interview with Uzbek TV in 2009, a former member identified as Abubakr Xoldorovich Kenjaboyev asserted that the IMU was headed for collapse as its ranks shrink:

“We can see that Tohir Yoldosh, a man who once had more than 1,000 soldiers, has only 100 or 150 left today. He is busy replacing his lost men with a younger generation of members. But how much longer will he keep replacing them? Many of them are today coming to realize they were wrong. In other words, Tohir Yoldosh’s movement is nothing else but degradation. It is something that will cease existing by itself.”[18]

Yuldashev would not be around for much longer. By moving to South Waziristan and engaging with anti-government forces, the IMU found itself in the crosshairs of U.S. drone strikes. In August 2008, the United States escalated its covert operations in August 2008, and in February 2009 the CIA started targeting Baitullah Mehsud and the TTP – Yuldashev’s new ally.[19] Mehsud was killed in a drone strike on August 5.[20] Yuldashev was killed in a missile strike on August 27, 2009, leaving the movement without a leader.[21]

The Pakistani government delayed its much-anticipated offensive in South Waziristan, but finally made good on its threat on October 17, 2009. With around 28,000 Pakistani soldiers ready to go into Ladha, Makin, and Sararogha, Operation Rah-e Nijat was launched. The operation was targeted at defeating roughly 10,000 insurgent fighters, including around 1,500 Uzbek fighters, in the area.[22] In December, the 28,000 Pakistani soldiers had gained control over the three villages, “suggesting that the TTP strategy was to conduct a hasty withdrawal, temporarily relocate to other areas, and eventually return to continue the insurgency.”[23]

Following the loss of Yuldashev and Operation Rah-e Nijat, the IMU relocated to areas controlled by the Haqqani network in North Waziristan. This caused a noticeable change in the group’s behavior, as “the group’s visibility in the area dropped considerably.” David Witter suggests that pressure from the Haqqani network then led the IMU to shift focus away from targeting the Pakistani military and towards international targets. The Haqqani network is rumored to have strong ties with parts of the Pakistani military and the intelligence service ISI and might have persuaded the IMU to find a new cause.[24]

Afghanistan

The IMU’s decision to move to Pakistan and join forces with both local insurgent groups and al Qaeda clearly had an impact on its priorities. The group shifted focus and resources away from its core cause in Central Asia both out of necessity and due to opportunity. In Pakistan, the IMU fought with Pakistani forces in part because it had to in order to survive, but also because it allied itself with the TTP, which was at war with the Pakistani army.

Similar mechanics led the IMU to move into Afghanistan. While the IMU had a presence in Afghanistan before 2001, the increasingly difficult situation in Pakistan led the group to focus more on battling NATO and Afghan forces around 2007.[25] According to David Witter, the IMU likely moved “much of its forces into both southern Afghanistan and North Waziristan prior to Operation Raj-e Nijat in 2009.”[26] Deh Chopan district in Zabul province became one of the most important areas for the IMU in Afghanistan. Exactly when the move there happened, is unclear, but the largest migration into Deh Chopan happened in the last six months of 2007.[27] The IMU looks to have allied itself with the Afghan Taliban (also referred to as the Quetta Shura Taliban) in Zabul, and by March 2010 the group had built itself up to be a significant actor in the Afghan war:

“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. In places like the Deh Chopan district of Zabul province, the IMU is a critical piece of the local insurgency.”[28]

The international jihad

In the years following 9/11 it became increasingly clear that both the IMU and the IJU had joined the cause of international jihad. Both groups started releasing propaganda videos in order to gain publicity for their operations and to encourage Muslims to join their cause in South Asia. In some respects, the two groups are competing, vying for attention and building credibility as an international jihadist organization.[29] A lot of the recruitment has focused on Europe, in particular Germany. This push into Europe has been met with expansive police efforts. European police conducted several extensive antiterrorism operations between 2007 and 2010, with two major plots being foiled.

On September 4, 2007, three men were arrested in Germany under suspicion of planning terrorist attacks against U.S. and German targets in central Germany, after “intense cooperation with the U.S. authorities”.[30] The three men were charged the following year, and the federal prosecutor’s office in Karlsruhe accused the men of being members of the IJU. The German cell had stockpiled 1,600 pounds of highly concentrated hydrogen peroxide at a rented cottage in preparation for attacks that could have been deadlier than the ones in Madrid in 2004 and London in 2005, according to German authorities.[31] Following the arrests in Germany, the U.S. government moved to freeze any assets the suspects held in the United States,[32] and in March, 2009, two more men were charged in Germany for supporting a terrorist organization. Both men had alleged links to one of the original suspects.[33]

Meanwhile, efforts were under way in Europe to clamp down on the financiers of the IMU. On May 16, 2008, French, German and Dutch police arrested 10 people suspected of collecting money for the IMU. The French police, who instigated the joint operation, called the arrests preventative, since the funds collected were not believed to have been used to carry out terrorist attacks yet.[34]

By 2010, such doubts had been cast aside as the IMU was implicated in the planning of a major terrorist plot in Europe. Sometime in 2009, al Qaida began assembling a team that was supposed to conduct a commando-style attack inspired by the 2008 attacks in Mumbai, India. The operation was aimed at numerous targets in the United Kingdom, France, and Germany, and the targets included government buildings, tourist sites, and transportation infrastructure. Several of the operation’s intended operatives had ties to the IMU. Some had been trained at an IMU base in North Waziristan, while others on an IMU propaganda video. However, the attacks were thwarted thanks to a multinational operation in 2010. Some suspected operatives were killed or captures in Afghanistan and Pakistan, while others are now in custody of Western security services.[35]

Russia

One aspect of the IMU that has received little attention is its apparent incursion into Russia. According to some reports, the IMU penetrated Russian territory as early as 2000.[36] The Russian Federal Security Service (FSB) has for the past few years conducted several operations against Islamic militants, including deportations of suspected IMU members to Uzbekistan, and in 2008, FSB director Nikolai Patrushev warned of the threat posed by Islamic extremist groups:

“There have been repeated attempts by the international terrorist organizations Hizb ut Tahrir al-Islami and the Islamic Movement of Uzbekistan to move their operations to the territory of the Russian Federation, including the Urals region.”[37]

Russian authorities have also grown concerned about the IMU’s role in drug trafficking in the region. The group has allegedly sought to become a distributor of Afghan heroin in Central Asia and Russia, making the Afghan-Tajik border a critical policy point.[38] Shared concerns over militancy and drugs have prompted cooperation between Tajikistan and Russia to become “exceptionally high in all fields,” according to Tajik Interior Minister Abdurahim Qahhorov.[39]

Forgotten cause

With the intense international crackdown and events in Pakistan and Afghanistan, the IMU lost sight of its original goal. After the Andijan uprising and through 2010, there has only been a handful of successful terrorist attacks perpetrated by the IMU in Central Asia.[40] Though the Uzbek government has repeatedly warned against the operational ability of the IMU, the empirical evidence suggest otherwise.[41] What follows is a brief rundown of the attacks the IMU has admitted to or been accused of perpetrating in that period:

June 13, 2005: A bomb is set off near the building of the Tajik Emergency Situations ministry in the capital Dushanbe. Tajikistan’s Prosecutor-General Bobojon Bobokhonov later blamed the IMU for the attack.[42] The attack was allegedly aimed at Emergency Minister Mirzo Ziyoyev,[43] but no one was hurt in the bombing. In 2007, 11 men were sentenced to a maximum of life in prison for that attack, and two other bomb attacks, against the ministry. The judge stated the men were members of the IMU.[44]

January 28, 2006: A group of militants attack a detention center in Kairakum in Tajikistan, killing the prison administration chief in the process. According to Tajik police, the attack was conducted by several members of the IMU in order to free a criminal from jail.[45]

May 12, 2006: Six gunmen attack Kyrgyz and Tajik border guards, killing nine people. The men then fled into Kyrgyzstan. One gunman was killed in the pursuit, while another was captured. Six alleged members of the IMU and HT were later arrested and brought to trial for the attack in Kyrgyzstan.[46] In 2007, 14 men and women were convicted in a Tajik court for their role in the same attack. One man, and three women were freed under an amnesty announced earlier that year.[47] Abdulkhai Yuldashev, a man suspected of being one of the most active members of the IMU, was apprehended in Kyrgyzstan in February, 2008. The border incursion was one of the many acts of terrorism he was charged with.[48]

September 27, 2006: An unknown number of gunmen fire shots at a car belonging to Tajik officials in southern Kyrgyzstan. Later that year, five alleged members of the IMU were arrested and put on trial for the attack.[49]

May 26, 2009: Several men attack a police station in the town of Xonobod in Andijan province in Uzbekistan. A government official accused the IMU of orchestrating the attack, but the IJU later claimed responsibility for the attack.[50]

May 26, 2009: Hours after the police station shooting, a suicide bomber kills a local policeman and wounds several others in the city of Andijan. The IMU were initially blamed for the attack, but the IJU later claimed responsibility.[51]

August 23, 2010: A group of 25 Islamic militants serving time on terrorism charges attack their guards and escape a prison in Tajikistan’s capital Dushanbe. According to officials, several of the escapees were members of the IMU.[52]

September 3, 2010: Two policemen are killed and 25 officers are injured in a suicide attack in the city of Khugand in northern Tajikistan. The IMU was initially blamed for the attack, but a previously unknown group calling itself “Jamaat Ansarullah in Tajikistan” later claimed responsibility for the bombing. On September 18 Tajik officials announced they had apprehended three suspects, all IMU members, in relation to the attack.[53]

September 19, 2010: 25 Tajik soldiers are killed and several others injured in an ambush near Tajikistan’s border with Afghanistan. The IMU were immediately blamed for the attack, and the following day Tajik forces launched a large manhunt to catch the perpetrators. A few days later, the IMU announced it was behind the ambush.[54]

While the above list might not be complete, it is quite clear that the IMU is no longer operating in Central Asia on the same scale as it did before 2001. Though there have been only a few confirmed attacks by the group in the region, there have been numerous arrests and shootouts between IMU members and the government forces in Central Asia during arrest raids.[55] President Karimov and his colleagues have put tremendous pressure on the IMU, and it remains unclear if the group will ever regain its foothold in the former Soviet republics.

The IMU has spent the last five years under intense pressure in Pakistan, Afghanistan, Central Asia, and Europe. In part four of our series on the group we estimate where the group is today, both in terms of capability and purpose.


[1] “Tajikistan, Kyrgyzstan discuss plan to track down militants,” Central Asia General Newswire (February 2, 2006).

 

[2] “Attackers kill prison administration chief in Tajikistan,” Russia and CIS General Newswire (January 28, 2006).

[3] “Uzbek authorities’ most wanted Islamic radical: terror preacher or people’s

imam?” Associated Press (December 19, 2005).

[4] “Uzbeks across Central Asia secretly picked up, jailed for Islamic militancy,” AP (June 9, 2005).

[5] “Kazakhstan deports suspected activist of banned Islamic group to Tajiks,” BBC WM (January 28, 2010).

[6] “Tajikistan extradites suspected militants to Kyrgyzstan,” Central Asia General Newswire (July 22, 2010).

[7] “2 former Guantanamo detainees go on trial in Tajikistan,” AP (August 7, 2007).

[8] The SCO has six member countries: China, Russia, Kazakhstan, Kyrgyzstan, Tajikistan and Uzbekistan. At this time there is little indication that the organization has had significant impact on the fight against terrorism.

[9] Waziristan is part of the Federally Administered Tribal Area (FATA) of Pakistan, where there is a substantial degree of self-autonomy.

[10] See: “Pakistan security forces detain two Uzbek militants,” UzReport.com (February 16, 2006); “Pakistan detains Turkmen terror suspect in North Waziristan,” BBC Worldwide Monitoring (August 11, 2006).

[11] “Pakistan Says 160 Killed In South Waziristan Clashes,” Radio Free Europe (March 23, 2007).

[12] “Pakistani Taliban commanders negotiating ceasefire,” Agence France-Presse (March 22, 2007).

[13] “Pakistan: South Waziristan tribesmen agree not to shelter Uzbek militants,” BBC WM (April 16, 2007).

[14] “Uzbek Islamic group in Pakistan’s tribal area “completely crippled”,” BBC WM (May 4, 2007).

[15] For a more detailed account of the IMU’s troubles in South Waziristan and its eventual move north, see: David Witter, “Uzbek Militancy in Pakistan’s Tribal Region,” Institute for the Study of War (January 27, 2011), pp. 4-6.

[16] “Pakistan planning all-out war on Waziristan militants: Asia Times,” Hindustan Times (October 19, 2007).

[17] “Al Qaeda calls for fresh attacks on Pakistani forces, seize control of Islamabad,” Hindustan Times (January 19, 2008).

[18] Yoldosh is an alternative spelling of Yuldashev. “Ex-member says banned Islamic Movement of Uzbekistan having difficult time,” BBC WM (April 1, 2009).

[19] Greg Miller, “U.S. missile strikes said to take heavy toll on Al Qaeda,” Los Angeles Times (March 22, 2009); Mark Mazzetti and David E. Sanger, “Obama Expands Missile Strikes Inside Pakistan,” New York Times (February 21, 2009).

[20] Pir Zubair Shah, Sabrina Tavernise, and Mark Mazzetti, ” Taliban Leader in Pakistan Is Reportedly Killed,” New York Times (August 7, 2009).

[21] ” Uzbek militant Tahir Yuldashev killed in South Waziristan: officials,” Nation (October 2, 2009).

[22] ”Kayani writes to Mehsuds, seeks tribe`s support,” Dawn (October 20, 2009); Jane Perlez, ” By Air and Ground, Pakistani Soldiers Penetrate Militant Heartland,” New York Times (October 18, 2009).

[23] Seth G. Jones and C. Christine Fair, ”Counterinsurgency in Pakistan,” Rand Corporation (2010), p. 73.

[24] Witter, ”Uzbek,” p. 7.

[25] The IJU shifted its operations to Afghanistan in 2008, according to: Ronald Sandee, “The Islamic Jihad Union (IJU),” NEFA Foundation (October 14, 2008), p. 15.

[26] Witter, ”Uzbek,” p. 8.

[27] Andrew R. Feitt, ”Countering the IMU in Afghanistan,” Small Wars Journal (March 11, 2010).

[28] Feitt, ”IMU.”

[29] Jeremy Binnie and Joanna Wright, ”The Evolving Role of Uzbek-led Fighters in Afghanistan and Pakistan,” CTC Sentinel (August 2009), pp. 5-7.

[30] “German authorities: Close cooperation with U.S. helped terror arrests,” AP (September 10, 2007).

[31] “German prosecutors charge 3 in terror plot,” AP (September 2, 2008).

[32] “US targets sanctions at accused German terrorists,” AP (December 4, 2008).

[33] “2 face terrorism charges in Germany,” AP (March 18, 2009).

[34] “10 arrested in France, Germany and the Netherlands in terror probe,” AP (May 16, 2008).

[35] This paragraph relies extensively on: Witter, ”Uzbek,” pp. 11-12.

[36] “Underground Islamic groups exposed in Moscow Region,” RIA Novosti (June 23, 2005).

[37] “FSB chief sees threat from Islamic extremist groups,” RIA Novosti (March 31, 2008).

[38] ”Islamic group seeks to launch drugs network in Central Asia, Russia – official,” BBC WM (May 19, 2009).

[39] ”Tajik interior minister upbeat on cooperation with Russia,” BBC WM (January 20, 2010).

[40] Potential attacks that have been twarted are not included since it is difficult to verify the authorities’ claims about planning of attacks. The low number of terrorist attacks conducted by the IMU can be ascribed to the various governments’ detainment of a large number of suspected IMU members, but other variables are likely to have influenced the group’s operational capabilities as well. The IMU’s decision to focus on operations in Afghanistan and Pakistan is likely to have affected its capabilities in the former Soviet republics. With finite resources and an extremely hostile environment, travelling to Central Asia would seem less to wield less results for the group than fighting near its base of operations.

[41] The news search was conducted in LexisNexis Academic using the search word “islamic movement of uzbekistan” under U.S. and world newspapers and wires from May 13, 2005, until December 31, 2010. Since the list is only based on open sources, some incidents might be missing.

[42] “Tajik official says Uzbek Islamic Movement involved in Dushanbe explosion,” BBC WM (January 16, 2006).

[43] “Tajik police chief: militant Islamic group behind two explosions last year,” AP (April 17, 2006).

[44] “Tajik court convicts 11 members of a militant group linked to al-Qaeda,” AP (April 24, 2007).

[45] “Attackers kill prison administration chief in Tajikistan,” Russia and CIS General Newswire (January 28, 2006).

[46] “6 alleged Islamic radicals go on trial in Kyrgyzstan for involvement in armed incursion,” AP (August 30, 2006).

[47] “Tajik court imprisons 10 for terrorism, membership in banned militant group,” AP (October 11, 2007).

[48] “Suspected terrorist wanted since May 2006 detained in Kyrgyzstan,” Russia and CIS Military Weekly (February 1, 2008).

[49] “Islamic group members arrested for trying to kill Tajik officials,” BBC WM (October 16, 2006).

[50] “Islamic Movement of Uzbekistan attacked Xonobod police department – agency,” BBC WM (May 26, 2009); “Uzbek Attacks Trip Alarm Bells in Ferghana,” Radio Free Europe (May 27, 2009).

[51] Ibid.

[52] “25 Islamic militants escape from Tajik prison,” AP (August 23, 2010).

[53] “Unknown Islamist Group claims responsibility for suicide attack in Tajikistan,” BBC WM (September 9, 2010); “Militants Suspected in Tajik Suicide Bombing Detained,” Radio Free Europe (September 18, 2010).

[54] “Islamists kill 25 Tajik soldiers: Official,” Al Arabiya (September 19, 2010); “Tajikistan hunts insurgents after 25 troops killed,” AFP (September 20, 2010); “Islamic group claims responsibility for attack on Tajik servicemen – website,” BBC WM (September 23, 2010),

[55] There are no total numbers available of arrests made in Kyrgyzstan, Tajikistan or Uzbekistan during this period, but the news search suggests that hundreds of people have been detained.

2 comments to The Islamic Movement of Uzbekistan: Crackdown (2005-2010)

  • [...] The rise of the Islamic Movement of Uzbekistan By Hans-Inge Langø, on March 2nd, 2011 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 five-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, and part three can be found here. [...]

  • [...] The Islamic Movement of Uzbekistan: Factions and resurgence (2002-2005) By Hans-Inge Langø, on March 5th, 2011 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. Part one covered the origins and rise of the group up to and including the U.S.-led invasion of Afghanistan in 2001. This is part two. Part three can be found here. [...]