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

IMU in Retreat

Uzbekistan's Islamic militants badly beaten in Afghanistan are trying to retreat to their former stronghold in the Tajik mountains.
By Marcus Bensmann

There are growing reports that members of the rebel Islamic Movement of Uzbekistan, IMU, are trying to cross the Afghan-Tajik border to regroup in their former stronghold in eastern Tajikistan.

These rebels are the remnants of the Islamic insurgency movement routed in the course of anti-terrorist operations in Afghanistan after the September 11 attacks on America.

They might be trying to reach their usual hideout in the Garm valley in mountainous eastern Tajikistan. Local villagers told IWPR that they have seen armed men arriving in their area since as far back as November and December 2001.

The Garm valley is an ideal base. In the decade since civil war erupted in Tajikistan, the impassable ravines provided perfect shelter first for the Tajik opposition and then for the IMU.

While the conflict ended with a peace deal in 1997, the Tajik authorities have never been able to re-establish control of the area and the IMU was able to set up its own infrastructure there as a result.

However, the movement suffered a major setback during anti-terrorist operations led by the United States in Afghanistan, when the destruction of the Taleban robbed the IMU of its most important foreign ally. Around 240 IMU fighters were reported to have been killed in a joint assault by the US army and the Northern Alliance's General Dostum on the fortress of Qalai-Jangi in Mazari-e-Sharif in December last year.

As the total strength of the IMU - led by Juma Namangani, an Uzbek from the city of Namangan in Fergana valley - was estimated to lie somewhere between 500 and 1,500 men, this loss must have dealt a bitter blow to the organisation.

Namangani himself was reported to have been killed during a US strike in northern Afghanistan, although contradictory reports about his death have been circulating since the end of last year.

One former Tajik army officer claimed to have heard an intercepted telephone call from Namangani in June. This conflicted with reports from a former senior IMU official detained by Kyrgyz special services, who assured IWPR that his leader was dead. Another prisoner alleged that Namangani had died trying to escape from Mazari-e-Sharif.

Although it had sought Taleban backing and was believed to have enjoyed support from al-Qaeda, the IMU was not created as part of the international terrorist network.

The roots of this group go back to the early Nineties, when some residents of Namangan, led by fellow citizens Takhir Yuldash and Juma Namangani, appealed to President Karimov to create an Islamic state in the country.

When their demands were not met, Yuldash and Namangani decided to take more decisive action, which led to the confrontation with authorities. They were forced to flee to neighbouring Tajikistan and joined Islamic Tajik opposition in their struggle with government forces.

The Uzbek government accused the leaders of the group of organising the February 1999 car bombings in Tashkent, in which 16 people died.

The world's attention was captured in August 1999 when the group declared itself the Islamic Movement of Uzbekistan and launched an incursion into southern Kyrgyzstan.

Their first target was the Uzbek enclave of Sokh, which is largely surrounded by Kyrgyz territory. IMU fighters captured four Japanese geologists after crossing from southern Kyrgyzstan into eastern Tajikistan, only releasing them after Japan paid a ransom of four million US dollars.

They are then believed to have returned to eastern Tajikistan, emerging to make several forays into Uzbekistan and Kyrgyzstan the following year, clashing with government forces of both states.

Under the patronage of the Taleban, the IMU built up several training camps and bases in northern Afghanistan, in Kunduz and Mazari-e-Sharif, and in the mountains east of Talukan. It also set up an information office in Mashhad, Iran, in the building formerly used by the United Tajik Opposition. In 2000, the Uzbek government, through its embassy in Pakistan, tried to persuade the Taleban to cease its support for the IMU.

In Kunduz on December 13, 2001, this reporter discovered IMU papers at one of its several centres in Afghanistan. They shed light on the structure of the movement and its plans.

The documents indicate that the IMU's main priority was not international terrorism but the achievement of its political aims in Central Asia.

The fact that the papers were found at all shows the chaos in which the IMU retreated from Kunduz. Other documents include the names of 143 Uzbeks responsible for distributing weapons and ammunition among fighters, and the conduct of military operations in mountainous conditions throughout Central Asia. There was no reference to terrorist acts in Europe or America.

One ordinary 96-page exercise book contained lessons, neatly written in Russian, on the use of weapons and ways to run military operations. There were instructions on how to traverse rivers while engaging in combat, rules for occupying mountain peaks to take control of valleys, and lessons on effective fighting with heavy equipment.

The IMU outlined its motives in a publicity brochure published in 2001. This contained a collection of stories of people who had fled Uzbekistan, such as a man who felt great anger after the collapse of the USSR and resented both people's "godlessness" and their primitive understanding of Islam. In his search for truth he met a mullah in a mosque who opened his eyes to "true Islam" but when he tried to show other people "the right path", the Uzbek government "persecuted" him. To avoid imprisonment he fled to eastern Tajikistan and joined the IMU.

All the stories feature miracles that had saved the refugees from harm on their journeys. For example, an unknown woman might appear to starving people and give them bread, or read the prayer of fatihah - the first short surah in the Koran - and disappear, after which they found new strength to continue. Or they might take refuge for the night in a mosque and find food for everyone there.

Despite the stylistic embellishments, all these stories contained fairly precise details, suggesting such events had really happened. References to names of people and places and descriptions of actions are also given in considerable detail.

The narrative coincides with the history of one fighter this reporter met in 1999 in the Garm valley. He was 28, well-armed and in excellent physical condition, and called himself Ali Tashkentli.

He had lived in an old district of Tashkent and had fled after special services arrested his father and elder brother, eventually joining the IMU in the Garm valley. He had returned with five other fighters from bases in Afghanistan and was awaiting orders. He said they had no trouble moving to and from Tajikistan as they knew all the back paths and could reach deals with the Russian border guards if necessary.

IMU soldiers were able to move round eastern Tajikistan with ease because Namangani was a close friend of the former field commander of the United Tajik Opposition, Mirzo Ziyoev. Namangani's fighters fought on their side until the peace agreement in 1997.

After peace was reached, Ziyoev became the emergency situations minister in Dushanbe and allowed Namangani's fighters and their families to stay in the Garm valley.

According to German special services in 2000, the IMU got most of their income from transporting drugs from Afghanistan into Central Asia. Namangani's forces moved between their bases in Afghanistan and Tajikistan easily, crossing the border river of Pyanj that was guarded by 10,000 border guards under Russian command. They merely radioed the latter to reach an agreement on the time and cost of a safe crossing. According to a Tajik special services officer, Namangani crossed the frontier by helicopter several times in 2000.

The international community put considerable pressure on the Tajik government over the presence of the IMU, at which point Ziyoev persuaded Namangani to move his forces into Afghanistan in May 2001.

While the media covered the move with great interest, the furore eventually died down. Namangani was effectively free to return by way of secret mountain paths.

Marcus Bensmann is a German journalist who covers Central Asian events for a number of publications in Europe and Japan.

As coronavirus sweeps the globe, IWPR’s network of local reporters, activists and analysts are examining the economic, social and political impact of this era-defining pandemic.


More IWPR's Global Voices