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

Kyrgyzstan: IMU Insight

Captured senior IMU official talks to IWPR about his experiences in the guerrilla movement.
By Sultan Jumagulov

Sherali Akbotoev, captured senior official of Islamic Movement of Uzbekistan.
Photo by Sultan Jumagulov.

At the end of May, Sherali Akbotoev, a former leading member of the Islamic Movement of Uzbekistan, IMU, was captured by Kyrgyz special forces at unknown location outside the country and returned to Bishkek.


The Muslim militants made a number of armed incursions into Kyrgyzstan and Uzbekistan during 1999 and 2000, with heavy losses on both sides. The attacks were concentrated on the Batken region, where Akbotoev grew up. Several local residents are known to have joined the IMU.


Officials said Akbotoev was arrested following a complex operation, then brought - with his family - through an unidentified third country. He is currently in custody at the National Security Service, where he is giving evidence.


Several days ago, the authorities invited a number of journalists to meet Akbotoev. Readers should of course be mindful that the following interview took place in the presence of security officials. I believe these conditions did influence the prisoner, who was sometimes evasive or seemingly reluctant to answer questions fully.


IWPR: Tell us briefly how you became a member of the Islamic Movement of Uzbekistan?


Akbotoev: It happened in 1999 in my native Batken region, which IMU troops had recently infiltrated. My three brothers and I were encouraged to join up for two reasons. The first is that Batken is the most backward region of Kyrgyzstan and also has a very harsh climate. People endure unbearable conditions here and I would like to see their lives change for the better. Secondly, I am a profoundly religious person. I always believed that the most just society in the world could be built in this region, based on Islam. As IMU leader (Juma) Namangani and his followers advocated the building of such a society, we became convinced that only the Islamic caliphate could drag people out of their economic and spiritual crisis.


IWPR: But didn't you receive secular education, like everyone in Kyrgyzstan?


Akbotoev: Yes, I graduated from middle school. Then for five years I studied the foundations of Islam in Uzbekistan. It was there that I first heard the idea of creating an Islamic caliphate in our region. I consider myself to be the spiritual instructor of Muslims in the region, so in 1999, when the IMU suddenly appeared in the mountain villages of Batken and said that they were trying to build a just society in Uzbekistan, I joined their ranks along with my family and three brothers. We were obsessed by this idea. But as subsequent events showed, a lot of our dreams were destined not to happen. We simply became the puppets of people who were pursuing their own agendas.


IWPR: What was your role within the IMU? Did you really belong to the leading council - the Shuru - which is based in Afghanistan? Were you a close ally of Namangani? You have been accused of recruiting Kyrgyz to the IMU. Is this true?


Akbotoev: For a while, I was responsible for the dissemination of Islamic teachings in the IMU and when necessary, I served as Namangani's press secretary. I deny recruiting many Kyrgyz to the IMU. I mainly taught mojaheds (Islamic fighters) in Afghanistan.


IWPR: Were you also close to the ideological leader of the IMU, Takhir Yuldash? Have you met Osama bin Laden?


Akbotoev: I can't claim that I was close to Yuldash, I rarely saw him in Afghanistan. As for Bin Laden, I never saw him. He holds an exalted position and not everyone gets to meet him. What's more, he was in Kandagar the entire time I worked in Kabul.


IWPR: How did IMU members react to the September 11 tragedy in the US?


Akbotoev: There were different reactions. Most people were perplexed by it. Quite honestly, our supporters did not expect a tragedy of this scale. Personally, my allies and I were outraged by these attacks.


IWPR: After American planes bombed places where terrorists were suspected of hiding in Afghanistan, there was a report that Namangani was dead. Many people still doubt this is true, could you clarify this issue?


Akbotoev: Namangani really was killed. I was present at the prayer ceremony before his body was interred. But I wasn't present at the actual funeral.


IWPR: In Islamic tradition, after the body of the dead person is washed, the closest to him are allowed to say farewell. Weren't you allowed to do this? I'm asking because the doubts about the death of Namangani still linger.


Akbotoev: According to Islamic shariat, people who die in battle are not washed. The rules require them to be buried in their clothes. Also the dead were so disfigured as a result of shell-fire that it was decided to cover them in fabric.


IWPR: We know that the IMU was made up mainly of Uzbeks and Tajiks, but how many Kyrgyz were there? Did they join the IMU for ideological reasons?


Akbotoev: In 2000, I counted 12 Kyrgyz in the ranks of the IMU. They mainly came from regions where there was fighting between the mojaheds and the government forces. You need to approach this issue mindful of the fact that it is a mountainous area, with a backward infrastructure. People rarely joined the IMU in the name of an ideal - it was a step they took mainly because of their poor living conditions.


Interviewer's note: Kyrgyz special forces say they have intelligence that all members of the IMU were given material assistance. Rebels were also paid large sums for participating in battles, according to a 1999 statement by Bolot Januzakov, then head of the president's law enforcement bodies. Aktoboev appeared unwilling to talk about this.


IWPR: During those two years, varying estimates were made of the IMU membership. How many were there?


Akbotoev: In my opinion, between 700 and 1000 people fought for the IMU.


IWPR: Didn't Namangani have way of reaching Uzbekistan without passing through Kyrgyzstan?


Akbotoev: In my view, Namangani was mainly concerned with getting into Uzbekistan and the only way was through the Kyrgyz border. Attacking Kyrgyzstan was not part of the IMU leadership's overall plan, in my opinion. Battles could not be avoided, however, and without the heroism of Kyrgyz soldiers, the mojaheds would have reached Uzbekistan.


IWPR: During the two years of war, Kyrgyzstan lost around 50 of its best soldiers and officers, but we know nothing of losses among the mojaheds. Do you have any information about this?


Akbotoev: Actually, I was a long way away from the battles and participated in the burial of only one fallen mojahed. Plus, the mojahed rules of engagement prohibit talking about the number of losses. As the battles took place in mountainous areas, with a buffer zone of around 1,000 kilometres, it was impossible to keep track of what was going on.


IWPR: What impression did you have of the fighting spirit and military training of Kyrgyz state troops?


Aktoboev: First of all, I would like to repeat again that the mojaheds did not harbour hostile intentions towards Kyrgyzstan. But what happened, happened. From the discussions I heard, my impression was that the Kyrgyz army had bad equipment and wasn't prepared for a sudden war. But, as the events of the following year showed, the Kyrgyz army collected itself within a short period of time and successfully defended its border. It has to be said that Kyrgyz have always had a strong fighting spirit and the ability to fight in mountainous conditions. Incidentally, the dozen Kyrgyz who joined the IMU also earned respect for their dignified behaviour and military skill. But as far as I know, they were never sent to fight in Batken.


IWPR: Everyone knows that the make-up of IMU was multi-national. Along with the Uzbeks and Tajiks, there were Chechens, ethnic Afghans, Arabs and others in their ranks. How were these different ethnic groups, controlled?


Akbotoev: Namangani was very important for this. He had unparalleled authority. He combined army discipline with the mojahed spirit. He never allowed any inter-ethnic or other disagreements of any kind. Also, everything was controlled by the Taleban.


IWPR: Can you confirm that all IMU activity in the region was financed and supplied by the Taleban?


Akbotoev: This is an indisputable fact. The main IMU base was also located in Afghanistan.


IWPR: How do members of the IMU view drugs and the drug trade? There are reports that mojaheds were involved in selling drugs, and even used them.


Akbotoev: You need to remember that Afghanistan is going through the most difficult period it has ever experienced. The 20-year civil war left deep scars. The people have become extremely poor, they couldn't be any worse off. So Afghans are forced to produce opium, which is in great demand. But to be fair, it should be said that the Taleban regime severely punished anyone involved in the drug trade, not to mention the use of narcotics. This was also the case in the IMU.


IWPR: The main forces of the IMU have been destroyed in air attacks by coalition forces. Meanwhile, small groups of mojaheds have recently been seen on the border of Kyrgyzstan and Tajikistan. Do you think the remnants of the IMU could become a serious threat to the region?


Akbotoev: It cannot be denied that the main forces of the IMU really have been destroyed, and their remaining ranks are scattered. In the absence of a powerful state taking steps to restore the ranks of the IMU, it is unlikely the movement will ever regain the strength it had from 1999 until last year.


Sultan Jumagulov is a BBC stringer in Bishkek


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