2012-07-14 by Richard Weitz
Bombing in Northern Afghanistan Confirms The IMU’s Return
The suicide bomber who today killed a prominent Afghan MP, a former warlord, and some two dozen other people at his daughter’s wedding party in northern Afghanistan probably belonged to the Islamic Movement of Uzbekistan (IMU), a key ally of Al Qaeda.
The attack occurred in Aybak, the capital of Samangan province, whose inhabitants are primarily ethnic Uzbeks. The Taliban has little presence in the area and has denied any responsibility for the attack. In March 2012, Afghan and foreign forces killed Makhdum Nusrat, a senior IMU leader in Afghanistan, in Faryab province, to the west of Samangan.
Today’s bombing in Afghanistan reminds makes clear that Islamist terrorist movements remain active throughout Central Asia thanks to support from Al-Qaeda and extremists operating along the Afghan-Pakistan border.
It is important that terrorist groups commonly labeled as “Central Asian” often have many Turkish, European, and other extra-regional members and conduct operations outside Central Asia, especially in Afghanistan and Europe.
Major setbacks to Al-Qaeda during the past few years may encourage the group to seek refuge in Central Asia and other regions.
Central Asian terrorist groups remain viable and active, due in large part to the safe haven they receive from Al-Qaeda, the Afghan and Pakistani Taliban, and the Haqqani Network, which is associated with Pakistani extremists. From their operational base in North Waziristan in the tribal region of Pakistan, these groups have primarily engaged in launching cross-border attacks targeting the International Security Assistance Force (ISAF) in Afghanistan, as well as operations targeting Pakistani security forces.
The Islamic Movement of Uzbekistan (IMU), was most likely responsible for today’s bombing in Aybak. The IMU was formally established in 1998. From its base in Tajikistan, the IMU launched a sustained campaign against the government of Uzbekistan – involving cross-border infiltration, hostage-taking and bombings.
Under increasing pressure from the Tajik government in mid-1999 and into 2000, the IMU was forced to relocate to Taliban-controlled areas of northern Afghanistan. The IMU was defeated along with Al-Qaeda and the Taliban during the post-9/11 U.S.-led invasion of Afghanistan.
With its Afghan safe haven lost, the IMU was forced to retreat into Pakistan’s Federally Administered Tribal Area (FATA), establishing a base in South Waziristan.
The Islamic Jihad Union (IJU) split from the IMU due to differences over personalities and regarding the extent to which Uzbekistan should remain the focus of the group’s operations. These differences have narrowed over time. Both groups continue to attack Uzbek officials and security forces. In July 2004, the IMU or IJU simultaneously attacked the U.S. and Israeli consulates and the Uzbek prosecutor-general’s office in Tashkent, the first successful attack against Western targets in Uzbekistan.
Over time the IMU and IJU have shifted their objectives and targeting priorities to align more closely with Al-Qaeda’s pan-Islamist Salafist ideology, broadening their goals to include the establishment of an Islamist Caliphate in Turkestan (roughly Central Asia plus Afghanistan and Xinjiang).
Both the IMU and IJU retain their original objective of overthrowing the regime of President Islam Karimov in Uzbekistan, but they have broadened their objectives to replace all Central Asian governments and establish an Islamic caliphate throughout the region and beyond.
As this agenda has expanded, so too has the ability of these groups to appeal to and recruit from among various ethnic groups.
Membership of Central Asian jihadist groups has gradually taken on a more international flavor to include Turks, Arabs, Uighurs, and Pakistanis. From 1999 onwards, the IMU and IJU have attracted recruits from a variety of ethnic backgrounds, principally Uzbeks, Kyrgyz, Tajiks, Kazakhs, and Uighurs from western China. The IMU has also begun to attract recruits from Chechnya and the North Caucasus.
This transformation in personnel make-up has altered their underlying ideologies, aligning priorities far more closely with those of other jihadist groups. The two groups share the same ideology as Al-Qaeda and have aligned with its more expansive transnational agenda. In a declaration following the July 2004 attacks, the IMU claimed they “were an answer to the injustice of the apostate government and an expression of support for the jihad of our Muslim brothers in Iraq, Palestine, Afghanistan, Hijaz [Saudi Arabia] and other Muslim lands.” They have the same Western, Afghan, and Pakistani as well as Central Asian targets as well as the same financial backers.
Improved telecommunications and ethnic ties between many Central Asian and Caucasian Muslims, facilitated by lax border controls between the former Soviet republics, are reported to have strengthened bonds between extremist groups in the two regions.
The IJU has similarly launched an intensive recruitment campaign among German nationals, leading to an influx of German jihadists into Pakistan. The success of these efforts became clear in August 2007, when German authorities uncovered an IJU plot to bomb the U.S. and Uzbek consulates in Germany and the U.S. military base in Ramstein. The members of the so-called Sauerland Cell, which comprised two German converts to Islam and a German-Turk, were arrested in September 2007. They were found to be part of a wider 30-person group, consisting of mainly Turkish nationals, which had travelled to North Waziristan for training with the IJU.
The extent to which the IMU/IJU have been able to connect with and integrate members of the German jihadist community is reflective of their broader attempt to more closely align ideologically and operationally with Al-Qaeda’s transnational agenda.
IMU and IJU recruitment efforts have increasingly targeted disaffected European Muslims, particularly Germans of Turkish descent, and there now appear to be two distinct groupings of German nationals in Waziristan aligned with these groups.
A resurgence of jihadist activity in Afghanistan’s northern provinces in 2010 and 2011 indicate that these groups have expanded their core area of operations beyond southern Afghanistan and northwestern Pakistan.
Many IMU fighters have headed to northeastern Afghanistan, where they work closely with local Taliban networks, according to ISAF. IMU operatives have been involved in a series of suicide bombings in the north. This enlargement raises concerns that northern Afghanistan may evolve into a staging post from which the IMU/IJU and their allies will launch more extensive attacks against Central Asian regimes in coming years, especially after US forces withdraw from Afghanistan.
Central Asian jihadists may aspire to disrupt NATO’s Northern Distribution Network, which has taken on new importance following the closure of the Afghan-Pakistan border to NATO supply convoys.
Although the Afghan Taliban, eager to engage in peace talks with NATO, has indicated it has no intent to spread Islamist views to other countries, the IMU and Al-Qaeda continue to affirm their goal of overthrowing Central Asia’s secular authoritarian regimes and replacing them with an Islamic Caliphate.
Major setbacks to Al-Qaeda during the past few years – including the death of several of its key leaders, declining financial resources, disruption to its Afghan and Pakistani safe havens, and declining support among Muslims for its jihadist agenda – may encourage the group to seek refuge in other regions in Central Asia, especially in Fergana Valley and in Tajikistan.
Reactions by Central Asia’s rulers to recent terrorist incidents across the region – including the introduction of laws intended to curb the spread of extremist views –may be worsening the problem by bolstering the jihadist arguments that they are fighting oppressive and un-Islamic regimes.
Nevertheless, it seems unlikely in the near-term that the IMU, Al-Qaeda, or any of their Central Asian affiliate groups will emerge as significant existential threats to the Central Asia regimes, despite signs that the region is becoming less stable and is experiencing an upsurge in terrorist attacks.