Institute for War and Peace Reporting | Giving Voice, Driving Change

IMU Likely to Survive Juma Blow

The Islamic Movement of Uzbekistan is unlikely to be seriously affected by the apparent death of one of its leaders.
By Agam Shah

The reported death of the military leader of the Islamic Movement of Uzbekistan, IMU, Jumabai Khojiev, better known as Juma Namangani, does not signal the end of the radical Muslim group, regional experts warn.


Although his death, if confirmed, could severely weaken the IMU in the short-term, it won't stop Uzbeks disillusioned with Tashkent's crackdown on dissent and those living under extreme hardship from joining extremist groups promising change.


Namangani apparently died from injuries sustained while fighting alongside Taleban during the US bombing of Afghanistan.


He was a military commander of the IMU, set up four years ago with the expressed aim of creating an Islamic state in the Fergana valley - a densely populated region straddling the republics of Uzbekistan, Tajikistan and Kyrgyzstan.


Although reports about his deaths have circulated since November, there has so far been no official confirmation.


Uzbekistan's president Islam Karimov refuses to believe reports of Namangani's death. "There has been no documentary or visual evidence," he said in Tashkent, on December 6.


Karimov has long considered Namangani public enemy number one and the IMU the biggest threat to the country's security.


Along with other IMU members, Namangani was accused of masterminding bombings in Tashkent in 1999. He was also convicted in absentia for the attempted assassination of Karimov, for which he was sentenced to death.


"It was Karimov's wish to get rid of the IMU which was the main reason for Uzbekistan's willingness to support the US in its war on terrorism and to provide a military base on Uzbek soil," said well-known Uzbek opposition leader Mohammad Solikh.


The roots of the IMU go back to the early Nineties, when the collapse of the Soviet Union brought relative freedom of religion to Uzbekistan, which was banned during Soviet days.


It has been ten years since members of religious groups in Namangan, the biggest city in Fergana valley, staged a demonstration and took over the former Communist Party headquarters, demanding the creation of an Islamic state in Uzbekistan. Namangani and Takhir Yuldash, the current head of the IMU, were among the most vocal members of these Islamic factions.


This was beginning of the confrontation between the Uzbek leadership and the country's religious groups - which the former saw as posing a direct challenge to their authority.


Repression followed. According to Human Rights Watch, under Karimov's orders thousands of devout Muslims in Uzbekistan have been arrested, killed or persecuted after being accused of links to illegal religious groups.


Namangani, like other Muslim activists, fled to neighbouring Tajikistan and fought on the side of the United Tajik Opposition during five-year civil war.


In 1993, he together with the members of the Tajik opposition sought shelter in Taleban-controlled areas of Afghanistan and received funding from Osama bin Laden.


According to official Uzbek sources, Namangani began to build up a unit comprising Uzbeks from Fergana to send back to the region for armed robberies and attacks aimed at destabilising the region.


In the mid-Nineties, Namangani and his associates launched recruiting activities throughout Central Asia. And in 1998, they transformed themselves into the IMU, with Yuldash as amir, or leader, and Namangani as the chief military commander.


The first test for the IMU came in 1999, when Namangani led several hundred of his men into the mountains of southern Kyrgyzstan and demanded free passage to Uzbekistan. The next year, the group renewed its incursions, expanding them into Uzbek territory.


Following the September attacks in New York and Washington, President Bush identified the IMU as a terrorist organisation and linked it to Bin Laden's al-Qaeda network.


The continued US crackdown on the Taleban and al-Qaeda will adversely affect the IMU's funding and activities. But this, along with the reported death of Namangani, is not going to eradicate the problem of Islamic militancy in Central Asia.


The Uzbek authorities' policy of squashing dissent and their failure to alleviate economic hardship are the main reasons why some Uzbeks turn to radical religious groups. As long as Karimov's authoritarian regime continues its current policies, a long-term insurgency by guerrillas based in Central Asia is likely to continue as well.


Agam Shah is an independent journalist who covers Central Asia