The Islamic Movement of Uzbekistan: Current capabilities, purpose and lessons

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, part two covered the movement’s split in 2002 and the 2005 massacre in Andijan, and part three covered an international crackdown of the group. This is part four.

Current organization

Since its inception in 1998, the Islamic Movement of Uzbekistan (IMU) has gone through many changes, prompted by both external and internal factors. The IMU of today is quite different from the group originally envisioned by Tohir Yuldashev and Juma Namangani. By most recent open-source estimates, the group is currently operating in North Waziristan in Pakistan and the southern areas of Afghanistan where the Haqqani network is prolific.[1] In addition, the IMU continues to be connected to terror plots in Europe, with Germany a particular area of recruitment for fighters and potential terrorists.

The Germany connection was highlighted in January 2011, when the IMU announced that Bekkay Harrach, an al Qaeda member raised in Bonn, had been killed in Afghanistan. Harrach achieved notoriety through a video released in 2009 where he claimed that Germany would be the target of terrorist attacks if the country did not withdraw from Afghanistan. He is but one of several Islamists who have left Germany to fight alongside jihadi groups such as al Qaeda, the IMU and Islamic Jihad Union (IJU) in Afghanistan. Several of them have been arrested or killed by coalition forces.[2]

Following the foiled terror plots in Europe in 2010, the IMU was once again tied to terrorist activities on March 2, 2011, when a gunman opened fire on several U.S. servicemen at Frankfurt airport. Two servicemen were killed and another two were wounded. A 21-year-old ethnic Albanian from Kosovo was arrested and charged for the shooting. According to German officials, the man allegedly lived in the same block of flats as Rami M., a suspected terrorist with alleged links to the IMU.[3]

Recently, Uzbek militants have been the target of Afghan and coalition forces in Afghanistan’s northern provinces, indicating that the IMU has expanded its area of operations beyond southern Afghanistan and northwestern Pakistan.[4] The group is allegedly operating in Samangan, Balkh, Kunduz, and Takhar provinces. The latter three border on Tajikistan, while Balkh also borders on Uzbekistan. Afghan officials fear it is going to use Northern Afghanistan to launch attacks against the country’s northern neighbors.[5]

This has led the coalition forces to expand its efforts against Uzbek militants, and several IMU commanders were killed and captured recently in northern Afghanistan. [6] In addition, U.S. Special Forces have for several months, if not longer, had permission to enter Kyrgyzstan, Tajikistan, Turkmenistan, and Uzbekistan when conducting counterterrorism operations. The incursions are done on a case-by-case basis and with the permission of the host nation.[7]

Beyond the geographical relocation, how has the IMU evolved as an organization? The evolution of the IMU offers some lessons on how militant groups work, but it also highlights several dilemmas for the governments fighting such extremist organizations. Looking at how the group’s purpose and organization has changed over the last 13 years should give us some answers – or, at least, show us what areas need more research.

The purpose of the IMU

The IMU has proven difficult to classify as a group, and its operational approach, structure and apparent goals have evolved during its existence. The IMU’s stated goal has always been the creation of a Central Asian caliphate, but how they would achieve that aim has changed considerably, both because of choice but also by necessity. While the group was initially founded to topple the Karimov government, it quickly morphed into a group bent on international jihad. The IMU quickly learned that penetrating into the Uzbek part of the Ferghana Valley was difficult at best once President Karimov tightened the screws. The IMU’s initial contact with the Taliban and al Qaeda then proved valuable. The IMU received funding and training from their partners in Afghanistan, but in exchange they had to focus their military efforts on the battle in Afghanistan, instead of toppling the Uzbek government. When the move into Afghanistan proved disastrous during Operation Enduring Freedom, IMU fighters fled to Pakistan’s tribal areas in search of a new safe haven. In Waziristan, the IMU first allied itself with the Mehsud clan and the Tehrik-i-Taliban (TTP), but when the Uzbeks fell out of favor with the local population and the Pakistani government upped the pressure on foreign fighters, the group moved north. There, it found a new partner in the Haqqani network, which meant a shift in focus away from Pakistani targets to Afghan and coalition targets in Afghanistan.

The IMU has made another significant shift in the last few years – the result of both opportunity and outside influence – by joining the international jihadist cause of al Qaeda. According to David Witter, the IMU is a “multi-faceted terrorist group with broader objectives and increased capability to fight coalition forces in Afghanistan and launch terrorist attacks in Europe.”[8] While the IMU remains a relatively small player in international terrorism, the group’s shift shows the intertwined relationship between local insurgencies, international terrorism, and the organizational aspects tying them together. International jihad offers the IMU many things, including a new base of recruitments and source of funding, more publicity, and a greater sense of purpose when faced with increasingly difficult odds locally and regionally.

The IMU’s movements over the last years could be interpreted as opportunistic. The group has relocated to where they could find the support and sanctuary that would enable them to continue the fight for a Central Asian caliphate. However, that requires that we accept the sincerity of their ideological rhetoric. There is another theory questioning the ideology of the IMU, which tries to explain why it operated in Tajikistan and Kyrgyzstan, instead of Uzbekistan. The IMU has for years been involved with drug trafficking. Already in 2000, the IMU allegedly controlled the majority of the heroin entering Kyrgyzstan.[9] Svante E. Cornell has argued that there is a correlation between IMU operations and drug trafficking, indicating that the IMU’s operations are as much motivated by financial needs as Islamic ideology. Its camps and activities correspond in location with drug smuggling routes and in time with opium harvests. In the late 1990s, Osh, in southern Kyrgyzstan, became a major transit route for drug smuggling into Central Asia, and as opium cultivation skyrocketed, another route appeared through Tajikistan. These locations correspond with locations and activities of the IMU.[10] Given this evidence, one could argue that the IMU, at in terms of its operations in Central Asia, have been motivated by financial reasons and not religious ideology. Cornell’s observation might also give insight into IMU’s incursions into Russia, which has seen a booming heroin problem the last few years. In 2006, approximately 2,449 kilograms of heroin and morphine was seized in Russia, putting it sixth amongst the highest-ranking countries.[11] According to a Russian official, at least 80 people die from heroin every day in Russia, with Afghanistan being the main supplier of the drugs.[12] IMU’s incursion into Russia could have been part of a criminal enterprise, though more research is needed before any conclusions can be drawn.

These two opposing views are not necessarily mutually exclusive, because the IMU does not appear to be a monolithic organization. The group has been described as “an amalgam of personal vendetta, Islamism, drugs, geopolitics, and terrorism”.[13] Their lack of attacks in Uzbekistan since 2005 could very well be a result of pragmatism. President Karimov’s hardline politics appear to have made the governments of Tajikistan and Kyrgyzstan more willing to clamp down on the IMU and other similar organizations, making it harder for the IMU to launch attacks from abroad into Uzbekistan. Similarly, the mass arrests of suspected Islamic extremists have made it more difficult to organize anti-governmental movements within the country. Under these circumstances, it would be difficult for the IMU to launch any attacks against the sitting regime. In this light, the incursion into Russia could be seen as another attempt to rebuild the organization, perhaps through drug trafficking.

Allies and benefactors

In addition to its relationship with the Taliban and al Qaeda, the IMU has developed ties with other groups and states. As noted earlier, Yuldashev received funds from various intelligence agencies during the late 1990s. In addition, the IMU appears to have informal ties with Hizb ut Tahrir al-Islami. It has been argued that the IMU does not have an ideological and theological framework that justifies their actions, so the group has instead relied on the comprehensive teachings of HT.[14] There is evidence of a sort of symbiosis between the two groups, even though the two advocate different means in order to reach the goal of a caliphate. The Russian FSB has on repeated occasions tried to tie the two groups together, and Tajikistan’s Deputy Interior Minister Abdurahim Kaharov claimed in 2006 that the two groups often share members.[15] HT literature has been found on dead IMU soldiers,[16] and several arrests made since 2005 indicate some sort of cooperation.[17] Whether or not the groups have actively cooperated in staging attacks, remains unclear. The Central Asian governments, and Russia, have a clear motive for vilifying HT, since the group is a threat to the secular regimes. The obvious attempt by President Karimov and his colleagues to suppress Islamic radicalism makes their claims suspect and should not necessarily be taken at face value.

Conclusion

Today, the IMU remains a potent force in parts of Central and South Asia, with an increasing focus on Europe. However, the group has only been marginally effective in the former Soviet republics for the past decade. This is partly the result of an international effort to combat terrorism. While President Karimov has cracked down hard in Uzbekistan, a long list of other countries have actively pursued, arrested and extradited suspected IMU members. Especially the efforts of the governments in Tajikistan and Kyrgyzstan, the former shelters of the IMU, have made it difficult for the group to maintain safe havens in Central Asia. The nature of the international cooperation is beyond the scope of this article and should be subject to further research. Especially the legal and ethical dimensions of the extraditions remain murky at best, and should be further explored.

But while the intense crackdown in Central Asia, along with international cooperation, seems to have damaged the IMU, there are other possible factors contributing to the decline, including the group’s own choices. The group’s leadership made several decisions prior to and after Operation Enduring Freedom that later proved to be disastrous. Perhaps the most important was the decision to solidify ties with the Taliban and al Qaeda in Afghanistan. As mentioned earlier, a large part of the IMU was destroyed in Operation Enduring Freedom, and most of those who survived scrambled over the border into the tribal areas of Pakistan. There, the IMU thought it had found a new safe haven, but under increasing international pressure, especially from the U.S., former President Pervez Musharraf decided to confront the growing problem of foreign fighters in Waziristan.

There was another consequence of getting in bed with the Taliban and al Qaeda. By adopting the rhetoric of international jihad and focusing its efforts outside of Uzbekistan, primarily Afghanistan pre-9/11, the IMU alienated the Uzbek people. According to Dr. Abdujabar Abduvakhitov, who has followed the group closely, the shift in ideology and rhetoric made the IMU repulsive to the Uzbek people.[18] Though it is difficult to gauge popular support for the IMU, especially considering the government’s repressive measures, the fact remains that the IMU has not perpetrated an attack of significance in its origin country since the Tashkent bombings in 1999. This might either indicate a lack of popular support, which it would need to operate within Uzbekistan, or it has decided that other countries are easier targets.

The fight against the IMU offers several lessons in combating terrorist organizations, though not every one should be followed. Increased international cooperation made it possible to clamp down on foreign bases and financiers, but the harshness of the crackdown, especially in Central Asia, could have potentially explosive consequences. President Karimov’s repressive regime could in the short-term pacify the country, but growing dissent amongst the population has the potential to be an even bigger threat than the IMU ever represented. Evidence of this can be found in HT’s increasing popularity in Central Asia.[19] The group’s admitted goal is the creation of a global caliphate. Though the organization, which is international in a far wider sense than the IMU, it professes to be nonviolent. Both the Uzbek government and scholars disagree with that claim.[20] Regardless of whether or not the HT is willing to use violence, President Karimov and his colleagues in Central Asia could now be sowing the seeds of an Islamic revolution by suppressing their population. Thus they will have traded one threat with limited popular support, the IMU, for a transnational political movement on the rise.


[1] See part three of our series on the Islamic Movement of Uzbekistan for a more detailed account of bases and operations.

[2] For more information on the German jihadists, see: Yassin Musharbash, “Al-Qaida Fighter from Bonn Believed Dead,” Der Spiegel (January 19, 2011), http://www.spiegel.de/international/germany/0,1518,740326,00.html (accessed March 22, 2011); Christoph Scheuermann and Andreas Ulrich, “The Fate of 11 Aspiring Jihadists from Germany,” Der Spiegel (October 18, 2010), http://www.spiegel.de/international/germany/0,1518,723640-2,00.html (accessed March 22, 2011); Holger Stark and Matthias Gebauer, “Hamburg-Based Islamists Targeted in US Drone Attack,” Der Spiegel (October 11, 2010), http://www.spiegel.de/international/world/0,1518,722242,00.html (accessed March 22, 2011).

[3] Helen Pidd, “Frankfurt airport shooting may have Islamist link, say police,” Guardian (March 3, 2011), http://www.guardian.co.uk/world/2011/mar/03/frankfurt-airport-shooting-islamist-link (accessed March 21, 2011).

[4] According to one report: “Taliban and the IMU have carried out attacks against NATO's new supply corridor from Tajikistan through the northern provinces of Kunduz and Baghlan. The Taliban, with the help of the IMU, control several districts in Kunduz and Baghlan. As many as 80 al Qaeda-linked IMU fighters, including Uzbeks and Chechens, are operating in areas southwest of Kunduz City.” See: 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#ixzz1FkI9EKK9 (accessed March 29, 2011).

[5] Abubakar Siddique, “IMU Takes Root In Increasingly Insecure Northern Afghan Provinces,” EurasiaNet (December 8, 2010), http://www.eurasianet.org/node/62531 (accessed March 22, 2011).

[6] Coalition forces in Afghanistan dealt a significant blow to the IMU in March 2011 when it killed two senior commanders in Samangan province and captured another in Balkh province. See: Bill Roggio, “ISAF Kills, captures IMU leaders in Afghan north,” Long War Journal (March 11, 2011), http://www.longwarjournal.org/archives/2011/03/isaf_kills_captures_1.php (accessed March 23, 2011).

[7] Deirdre Tynan, “US Special Forces’ Operations in Central Asia Keeping Islamic Militants in Check,” EurasiaNet (March 15, 2011), http://www.eurasianet.org/node/63080 (accessed March 22, 2011).

[8] David Witter, “Uzbek Militancy in Pakistan’s Tribal Region,” Institute for the Study of War (January 27, 2011), p. 12.

[9] Svante E. Cornell, “Narcotics, Radicalism, and Armed Conflict in Central Asia: The Islamic Movement of Uzbekistan,” Terrorism and Political Violence, vol. 17, no. 3 (2005): p. 631.

[10] Cornell, “Narcotics,” pp. 629-631.

[11] United Nations Office on Drugs and Crime, 2008 World Drug Report, p. 54.

[12] BBC WM, “More Russians die annually from heroin than in Afghan war – official,” (January 8, 2009).

[13] Zeyno Baran, S. Frederick Starr and Svante E. Cornell, “Islamic Radicalism in Central Asia and the Caucasus: Implications for the EU” (July 2006), p. 49.

[14] Baran, “Islamic Radicalism,” p. 18.

[15] Russia CIS General Newswire, “10 terrorist attacks averted in Tajikistan in nine months,” (October 16, 2006).

[16] Ahmed Rashid, Jihad: The Rise of Militant Islam in Central Asia (New Haven and London: Yale University Press, 2002): p. 133.

[17] The Tajik police have on several occasions arrested people accused of being members of both groups. Also, six of the people arrested for the Kyrgyzstan border incursion in 2006 were accused of belonging to both groups.

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

[19] Radio Free Europe, “Banned Islamic Group Hizb ut-Tahrir Continues To Gain Members,” (August 10, 2007).

[20] Baran, “Islamic Radicalism,” p. 20.

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5 comments to The Islamic Movement of Uzbekistan: Current capabilities, purpose and lessons

  • [...] 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 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 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, and part four is here. [...]

  • [...] IMU is active not so much in Uzbekistan, but Tajikistan and Kyrgyzstan, and there main business just happens to be – surprise – heroin smuggling from Afghanistan.  According to the U.N., by [...]

  • [...] IMU is active not so much in Uzbekistan, but Tajikistan and Kyrgyzstan, and there main business just happens to be – surprise – heroin smuggling from Afghanistan.  According to the U.N., by [...]

  • [...] organization that operated in Uzbekistan and Kyrgyzstan.  According to U.N. report, they were responsible for smuggling heroin north into Russia, through Kyrgyzstan and [...]