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

Militant Islamic Force Signals Return to Central Asia

Islamic Movement of Uzbekistan says it has new leader and can attack targets in Central Asia.
By IWPR Central Asia

Recent statements by the Islamic Movement of Uzbekistan, IMU, announcing a new leader and taking responsibility for an attack in which 25 government troops were killed in Tajikistan have raised questions about whether the guerrilla group plans to revive its presence in Central Asia. 

Central Asia’s most feared Islamic group, which launched raids into Kyrgyzstan and Uzbekistan in 1999 and 2000, relocated to South Waziristan in Pakistan’s tribal area after the fall of the Taleban government in Afghanistan in late 2001.

However, over the last year or so, many IMU members are reported to have seeped into the northeast of Afghanistan, adjacent to Tajikistan. In part this was due to pressure exerted by Pakistani army ground offensives and drone attacks by the United States military. But their relocation to northern Afghanistan was seen by some analysts as a possible Taleban ploy to disrupt NATO supplies coming through Central Asia, at a time when convoys on the southern route from Pakistan faces rising threats from militant attacks. (IWPR reported on this issue in Is Uzbek Guerrilla Force Planning Homecoming?)

In mid-August, a website linked to the IMU carried news that it had selected a new leader, Usmon Odil.

According to the statement, Odil replaces Tohir Yoldash, who it said died last year. Yoldash was a well-known activist in Uzbekistan’s Fergana Valley in the early 1990s, where he was part of an Islamic group that emerged in the city of Namangan. Members of the group moved to Tajikistan to and fought alongside Islamist guerrillas 1992-97 civil war, and then emerged as the IMU, dedicated to toppling the governments of Uzbekistan and other Central Asian states, later shifting to Afghanistan and then Pakistan.

Yoldash was reported to have been injured or killed by a rocket fired by a US drone plane in South Waziristan August 2009, but this had not been confirmed conclusively until the IMU admitted the fact, showing him on his deathbed in a video dated August 2010. (See our report from the time  Could IMU Chief's Death Curb Rebel Force in Afghanistan?.)

The IMU said it held off publicising his death “so that Muslims would not feel dispirited and the infidels could not rejoice”.

Little is known about the new leader, Odil, except that he apparently comes from Namangan and is married to Yoldash’s eldest daughter.

On September 23, a video recording was sent to RFE/RL radio’s Tajik service showing a man who identified himself as IMU spokesman Abdufattoh Ahmadi, and claimed responsibility for an attack on an army convoy in eastern Tajikistan four days earlier in which 25 soldiers were killed. The troops had been sent into the areas to track down 25 prisoners who escaped from a prison in the capital Dushanbe in August.

The Tajik authorities were concerned at the reappearance of armed groups in the eastern mountains, 13 years after the end of the Tajik civil war. Since civil war-era guerrilla leaders had been allied with the force that would later become the IMU, the prospect of a link-up with battle-hardened Uzbek militants based on the Afghan side of a porous border was especially alarming. (See Tajik Authorities Struggle to Quell Militants.)

In the recording, Ahmadi said the attack was in retaliation for Tajik government policies such as closing mosques, jailing Muslims and banning Islamic forms of dress.

However, he also hinted at a wider, geopolitical dimension to the IMU’s ambitions, saying it opposed the Tajik authorities’ cooperation with the international military presence in Afghanistan.

The current risk posed by the IMU to the Central Asian states – in particular Tajikistan, Uzbekistan and Kyrgyzstan – remains uncertain, but is likely to differ in nature in each of these three states.

Tajikistan’s proximity to Afghanistan and the apparent resurgence of armed groups either sympathetic to the IMU, or possibly in contact with it, is an obvious concern. The 1999-2000 raids into Uzbekistan and Kyrgyzstan were conducted from mountainous parts of Tajikistan where the IMU had local allies.

Southern Kyrgyzstan is only just recovering from a wave of clashes between the ethnic Kyrgyz and Uzbek communities in June, which left 400 dead.

Andrei Medvedev, director of the Centre for Political Technologies in Moscow, argues that instability in Kyrgyzstan and Tajikistan offers the IMU a chance to gain a foothold.

“The situation in the region has reached a peak of intensity, and the situation is ripe for a range of terrorist activities,” he said. “I don’t think the IMU’s situation has changed [for the worse]; on the contrary it has become stronger.”

Of the three countries that could become targets for IMU activities, Uzbekistan is probably best placed to contain any outbreak of fighting.

Farhod Tolipov, an analyst based in Tashkent, said violent extremist groups like the IMU could only ever present localised threats.

“They are always a danger, in the sense that they can carry out localised subversive acts. But all the experience of counter-terrorism to date shows that when radical groups emerge, government forces in the [Central Asian] region can take them on and deal with them,” Tolipov said.

He said there was little popular appetite for Islamic radicalism, and groups like the IMU had few supporters. “If their ideas were popular among the population we would have already seen large-scale disturbances.”

While the south of Kyrgyzstan has long been a hotbed of Islamist sentiment, religion did not appear to play much of a role in the conflict, but some experts warn that the IMU could try to exploit the residual resentments to try to reinsert itself into the area and win support among local Uzbeks.

Tashpulat Yoldashev, an analyst from Uzbekistan now living in the United States, said there was a risk of the IMU gaining ground in southern Kyrgyzstan.

“There are people who’ve lost everything – all their relatives, homes and properties. I am worried that they might join the IMU and end up fighting in Kyrgyzstan,” he said.

Yoldashev said the IMU’s latest statements and threats were designed to “show the world it is becoming more active”.

This article was produced jointly under two IWPR projects: Building Central Asian Human Rights Protection & Education Through the Media, funded by the European Commission; and the Human Rights Reporting, Confidence Building and Conflict Information Programme, funded by the Foreign Ministry of Norway.

The contents of this article are the sole responsibility of IWPR and can in no way be taken to reflect the views of either the European Union or the Foreign Ministry of Norway.

More IWPR's Global Voices

Why Did Cuba Jail This Journalist?
Rights defenders say that unusually harsh punishment reflects wider troubles for Havana regime.
Under A Watchful Eye: Cyber Surveillance in Cuba
Cuba's Less Than Beautiful Game