A Monthly Journal of the IDSA
Islamic Movement of Uzbekistan: Will it Strike Back?
Poonam Mann * , Researcher, IDSA
The basic argument in this paper is that the revival of Islam in the post-Soviet disintegration period, increased contacts with the foreign radical Muslim organisations and suppression of religion on the part of government authorities, led to the creation of the Islamic Movement of Uzbekistan in Central Asia. Declining socio-economic conditions gave further impetus to the movement. Post-September 11, 2001, the movement appears to have lost steam due to the US led war against terrorism. This paper examines whether it will bounce back or fade into oblivion.
The Islamic Movement of Uzbekistan (IMU) is a coalition of Islamic militants from Uzbekistan and other Central Asian states who oppose the current Uzbek regime. They seek to overthrow the existing government of Uzbekistan by force and establish an Islamic state there. Since the Tashkent bombings of February 1999, the movement has been regarded as the key terrorist organisation operational in Central Asia and has posed the biggest threat to the regions security. The movement was not only involved in the Tashkent bombings in 1999, which were targetted against Uzbek President Islam Karimov, but also in armed raids in Kyrgyzstans southern Batken region, taking hostages and other violent activities. 1 In 2000, the US government included the IMU in its list of terrorist organisations. 2 Moreover, in his national address on September 20, 2001, the US President George W. Bush linked the IMU to Osama bin Laden, suggesting the IMU may be a target of US counter- terrorism efforts in the wake of the September 11 attacks. 3
During the American-led war against terrorism, IMU suffered heavy losses as it fought with the Taliban against American forces. Unconfirmed media reports say that the military leader of the IMU, Juma Namangani, is dead and reports also suggest that he died from injuries sustained while fighting alongside the Taliban during the US bombing in the Mazar-i-Sharif region of Afghanistan. 4 If the reports are true, then his death could create a vacuum in the IMU leadership as he was the only well-known IMU leader in the region. Further, the Bush Administrations Executive Order on Terrorist Financing, which seeks to freeze terrorist assets abroad, 5 is another blow to the IMU. The IMU was mainly getting money from three sources: donations from Al-Qaeda, the narcotics trade 6 and the Uzbek diaspora. Consequently, IMU can face a serious financial squeeze with funding sources drying up. It is unlikely that the extensive US bombing has left any IMU bases and other infrastructure intact in Afghanistan. These developments show that the IMUs activities have been suppressed for the moment. But for how long? In the present study, an attempt has been made to analyse the possibility of the IMU bouncing back in the context of its background, ideology and support structure.
Origins of the IMU
The IMU was created by Tahir Yuldashev and Dzhumbai Hojjayev (also known as Juma Namangani) in 1998, calling for a Jehad to topple Karimov, 7 the Uzbek President. But its roots go back to the early 1990s, when the collapse of the USSR brought relative freedom of religion to Central Asia. As a result, a number of religious groups and parties emerged on the scene. Tahir Yuldashev, who was then the leader of Uzbekistans Adolat (Justice) Party, wanted to establish law and order on the basis of the Shariat. 8 During the first mass meeting of the party, certain demands were put forth to the Uzbek Government. These demands included declaration of Islam as the state religion, transfer of several government buildings in Namangan for the movements offices and recognition of all opposition organisations. This situation rang alarm bells in government circles. 9 This was the beginning of the confrontation between the Uzbek leadership and the countrys religious groups, which the former saw as posing a direct challenge to their authority. 10 As a consequence, repression followed. The party was banned. Many leaders were arrested but the main leader Tahir Yuldashev and some of his supporters escaped to Tajikistan and joined the Islamic opposition during the civil war there. 11
On the other hand, Juma Namangani, who belongs to the Namangan region of Uzbekistan, served in a Soviet paratroop regiment during the campaign in Afghanistan. When he returned home, he became involved in religious activity and was one of the organisers of the Toyba (Repentance) movement, which was engaged in studying and propagating Islam. In his work, he was helped by Muhammad Sharif, one of the leaders of the Party of Islamic Revival of Tajikistan. Later on, he was sent to Afghanistan to be trained in a camp meant for the Tajik opposition. 12 He continued his training at a base of the Islamic organisation Dzhamaat-e-Islami in Tahar province. His abilities drew the attention of Pakistani Intelligence officers and on their initiative he was transferred to the Badar-2 camp near Peshawar. While there, he was approached by one of the deputies of the head of the Saudi Arabian intelligence who sent him to the Miram Shah Centre for training terrorists. 13 In 1993, after his return to Tajikistan, he set up a network of training camps there financed by Pakistani intelligence and various Islamic organisations. He took active part in the civil war in Tajikistan on the side of the United Tajik Opposition. In 1996, he again went to Saudi Arabia, where he studied at one of the religious centres supervised by Saudi intelligence. 14 In 1998, along with Tahir Yuldashev and others, he formed the IMU. Tahir Yuldashev is described as the political mentor of Juma Namangani, while Namangani was the military leader of the IMU.
The ideology adopted by the IMU is militant pan-Islamism. 15 The group called itself IMU because it was a mainly ethnic Uzbek organisation bent on ousting the Uzbek President and creating an Islamic state in Uzbekistan. In an interview in 2000, Tahir Yuldashev explained that, the IMU has declared a Jehad in order to create an Islamic religious system based on the pure Sharia laws stemming directly from the Prophet-a system he did not think had existed either in Afghanistan or any present-day country 16
Recently, the change of its name from IMU to Islamic Party of Turkestan (IPT) implies that the group has expanded its objectives. Turkestan is an area stretching from Chinas western Xinjiang province to the Caspian Sea. 17 Ahmed Rashid, an expert on the region, said this was obvious. The amount of recruitment that was being carried out by Juma Namangani amongst all the ethnic groups in Central Asia, as well as the Uighur Muslims from Xinjiang province in China, (showed) that it was not going to be long before Namangani expressed the view of liberating the whole of Central Asia, rather than just Uzbekistan. The fact is that amongst the IMU there are Kazakhs, Kyrgyz, Tajiks, Uighurs, even some Chechens and of course Uzbeks. 18 He adds that although some may be truly fighting for the groups stated goal of establishing an Islamic state in the region, the overthrow of the Uzbek government remains a priority for the movement. In his words, His (Namanganis) principal aim is still the Fergana Valley (which runs through Uzbekistan, Kyrgyzstan and Tajikistan) and toppling Uzbek President Islam Karimov because he is seeing a kind of domino effect. If Karimov is toppled and parts of Fergana are occupied by the Islamic movement then that will create a domino effect in Central Asia, given that all the other regimes are probably in a much weaker position than Uzbekistans regime. 19
The IMU had a very wide support base. They received critical support and training from the Taliban. They kept their main bases in Mazar-i-Sharif and Kunduz in northern Afghanistan. 20 They also have close links with Osama bin-Ladens Arab Brigade and have been financed by Osama bin Laden. He also played a key role in persuading the Taliban to give sanctuary to the IMU in 1999. 21 Besides, Namangani also received recruits and finances from Pakistani Islamic parties such as the anti- Shia Sipha-e-Sahaba and the Harkat-Ul-Mujaheddin. 22 In the past, Namangani also travelled to Pakistan, Saudi Arabia, Iran, Turkey and Chechnya to forge links with Islamicists. When we were in the civil war we took help from anyone who gave it to us, now Namangani will take help from anyone who is against Uzbekistan, says IRP deputy Sharif Himmatzade. 23 The IMU also gets funds from the Uzbek émigré community in Saudi Arabia. These Uzbek Saudis are very rich, they hate Karimov and they have enlisted Arabs across the Gulf States to help Namangani, says a Tajik politician and friend of Namangani. 24
Estimates of IMU Funds Received from Various Sources
(US Million $)
|Uzbek Disapora and others
As the above Table shows, another important source of funding for the IMU is the lucrative drug trade in Afghanistan, as the IMUs network helps in the smuggling of Afghan heroin to Russia and Europe. According to the Kyrgyz secret services, channels for trafficking drugs from Afghanistan to Central Asian countries are controlled by the IMU. Apart from being drug-traffickers, they also sell drugs in Kyrgyzstan, Uzbekistan and Tajikistan. 25 Russia and Uzbekistan had said that IMU rebels are trying to set up a courier system across the region for the direct transportation of Afghan opium to Russia and the West. The linkages between warlord groups and the drug mafia are long established in Central Asia as opium provides a major source of financing for the Taliban, IMU and the Al-Qaeda network. 26 Besides, it also attempted to make money from taking hostages during its incursions into Kyrgyzstan in 1999 27 but failed to repeat its hostage-taking success in 2000.
Areas of Operation
The IMU is active throughout Kyrgyzstan, Uzbekistan and Tajikistan. The group operates largely in the Fergana Valley on the Uzbek/Kyrgyz border where it receives support from local inhabitants. The IMU reportedly has military bases in Afghanistan, Tajikistan and a forward base of operations in Batken, Kyrgyzstan. 28
IMU has its fortified camp in Tavildera and Karategin valleys which are situated deep in the heart of the Pamir mountains, northeast of Tajikistans capital, Dushanbe. Namangani and his followers have used this region in order to launch raids into the Fergana Valley. There is also a network of unarmed underground supporters, in and around Fergana Valley, who have helped the IMU in creating safe-houses and bases and stocking up supplies for the IMU guerillas when they launch their summer raids. Namangani reportedly held strategic meetings with such sleepers during his stay in the Tavildara Valley. 29
Further, in an effort to strengthen his ties with the local Tajik population, Namangani reportedly married for a second time. His new bride is a Tajik widow from the civil war with two sons. By doing so, he increased his local prestige and implemented the Islamic precept of marrying the widows of Jehad. 30 His home also served as a refuge for Uzbek Islamic radicals (and their families) who fought with him during the civil war, and the one who fled the crackdown in the Fergana Valley. When he left for Afghanistan in 1998, there were six bus loads of just women and children-the families of the fighters who left first, said one Garm resident. 31
The IMU includes people from different backgrounds, who joined the movement for different reasons:
A significant contingent of this organisation are people who joined as early as the beginning of the 1990s. These people fled Uzbekistan as the crackdown on unofficial Islam intensified over the course of the decade. 32
Some are those who had fought on the side of the Islamists during Tajikistans 1992-97 civil war and lost. 33
Some are disgruntled youth. The demographic explosion in the region, specifically in the Fergana Valley, combined with a very high unemployment rate has made the region conducive to the rapid spread of religious fundamentalism specially among the youth, making it a fertile ground for recruitment into the IMU. As former British Ambassador to Uzbekistan Paul Bergne has rightly said, Young people are idealistic and always looking for a cause. And if they are unemployed and have an unpromising future without work and without career, then clearly they will turn to idealistic solutions. And just at the moment, the only opposition to regimes like the regimes in Central Asia is the Islamic opposition because all the secular opposition parties have been banned. 34
Some joined because of economic incentives. According to some sources, Juma Namangami paid his members between $100-$500 per month. Even if this were not true, the mere prospect of being paid would attract many followers from a region suffering rapidly deteriorating living standards. 35
Others joined because of the continuing harsh policies of Karimov against unofficial Islam.
The members are mostly Uzbeks, Tajiks and Kyrgyz. Besides, IMU had also recruited some new members from Chechnya and Dagestan in the Russian Federation as well as some Uighurs from the Xinjiang province in China. 36
IMU after September 11
As discussed earlier, IMU received critical support and training from the Taliban. Therefore, it offered its full support to the Taliban, 37 during its fight against US forces. It was reported that IMU fighters were among the foreign mercenaries that provided the most serious resistance to the US forces and the forces of General Abdul Rashid Dostum during the battle to take Kunduz and Mazar-i-Sharif. 38 IMU members were also among the Taliban prisoners who launched an uprising in the fortress of Qalai-Jiangi, near Mazar at the end of November 2001. About 11 men were captured in the quashing of the rebellion. They were transferred to Shibargon prison, 120 kilometres east of Mazar-i-Sharif, and then handed over to the Uzbek authorities. 39
However, what the broader military impact of the U.S. campaign in Afghanistan is on the IMU forces as a whole, is not clear as yet. As mentioned earlier, unconfirmed media reports say that Juma Namangani, the military leader of the IMU, was killed during the US operations in Afghanistan. Also, IMU has suffered enormous casualties in the fighting. The events in Afghanistan have also interrupted its financial support from the Taliban and Al-Qaeda. If one presumes all these reports to be true, then certainly it signals the decline of the IMU. But this is far from the truth. Consider the following:
Though the presumed death of Juma Namangani can bring about a leadership crisis in the IMU, this crisis can easily be overcome by Tahir Yuldashev-the political leader of the IMU, who is still alive. Unlike Namangani, Yuldashev is primarily driven by Islamic ideology, and he was the one who introduced the IMU to the Taliban and the international network of Islamic militants- including Al-Qaeda. 40 It is believed that he is currently hiding in Iran or in Pakistan. 41 May be he is biding his time and waiting for the right moment to reorganise the IMU and restart his campaign. The moment he succeeds in reorganising the movement, he may strike back more forcefully.
The number of IMU fighters killed during the campaign is not known. In fact, the US military leaders themselves have commented that they will continue to track down IMU elements. 42 This shows that they are still believed to be around. Therefore, the question is, where they are. Wherever they are, they may possibly be awaiting future opportunities to revive their campaign.
The death of Namangani is itself not yet confirmed. There are some reports which say he is still alive. According to some sources, the report of his death is a misinformation he has invented himself. 43 Reports also say that he is well, in an Arab country and is preparing for next summers campaign. 44 If any of these reports are true, then Namangani has the charisma and authority to regroup the remnants of the movement and launch another offensive. Reportedly, some of the IMU fighters were in action at the Tajik border, firing on border posts. 45
Until the IMU recovers from the losses it has suffered after September 11, it may coordinate its actions with other extremist organisations active in Central Asia like the Hizb-ut-Tahrir 46 and others. According to some unconfirmed reports a new Islamic Movement of Tajikistan is being setup in Tajikistan. It is presumed that this is connected with the fact that the members and armed detachments of the IMU currently staying in Tajikistan are not popular among Tajiks. However, among Tajiks there are many who back the idea of the Islamisation of the Fergana Valley. Therefore, in future, IMUs coordination with the Islamic Movement of Tajikistan can pose a serious challenge to the leaders of the Central Asian region.
Even if there is no doubt that IMU has lost its financial support from the Taliban and Al-Qaeda after September 11, 2001, the leaders of IMU have extensive contacts with extremist organisations in the Middle East, Pakistan, etc. who can readily provide them the finances they require. Also, it can focus on profiting from the illicit narcotics trade.
On the basis of the above factors, it is not easy to write off the IMUs threat to the security of the region. For the moment they may be lying low but over a period of time the possibility of their re-appearance cannot be ruled out. In fact, there are reports that the IMU has shifted its loyalties to the West to gain more acceptability in the polity of the Central Asian republics. It can now be used as a pressure point against the existing authoritarian regimes to democratise the polity. 47
Moreover, the conditions that helped create and sustain the IMU remain unchanged. These include the harsh policies of the Central Asian regimes against unofficial Islam, repression of any kind of political opposition, failure of democratic reforms, increasing level of unemployment, poverty, perennial government corruption and decreasing economic opportunities. The situation is more complicated in Uzbekistan. As Mikhail Ardzinov, the Chairman of the Independent Human Rights Society of Uzbekistan, said:
Smashing the Hizb-ut-Tahrir and the IMU does not make Uzbekistan safer as the real problems have not been solved . . . the authoritarian strategy of preserving stability is impossible, and in a year, we will see increased number of arrests, trials, terrorist acts and the deterioration of the political situation in the country in conditions of economic decline and absence of political rights . . . we have not felt an increased interest on the behalf of the international community in providing support for human rights organisation as its primary focus is the fight against terrorism. 48
Therefore, by merely supporting the US war against terrorism in Afghanistan and getting military and financial aid in return will not solve the problem of terrorism in Central Asia. The solution lies in solving the domestic problems of the region and meeting the needs of the local people. A well-fed, well-housed and fully employed population will not provide recruits for the IMU. Now, here lies an opportunity. Whatever economic assistance these republics are getting from the US for their support to US action in Afghanistan should be properly utilised for development. However, if we go by the aid utilisation of developing countries in the past, this is unlikely to happen in a country like Uzbekistan or other Central Asian Republics.
The author thanks Shri T. Sreedhara Rao, Senior Research Associate at the IDSA for his guidance and suggestions while preparing this paper.
Note *: Dr. Poonam Mann has a Ph.D. from the Department of Political Science, Kurukeshtra University. She specialises in Central Asian Studies and has written various articles on the region. She has also published a book, Indias Foreign Policy in the Post Cold War Era (2000. Harman Publications; New Delhi). Back.
Note 16: Emma Sandstrom, Central Asia- a New Afghanistan? - The Consequence of the Socio-economic Environment for Religious and Ethnic strife. In Ingolf Kiesow (Ed.) From Taiwan to Taliban: Two Danger Zones in Asia. February 2002. Scientific Report, Swedish Defence Research Agency, Stockholm. p. 299. Back.
Note 33: Reuven Paz, The Global Jihad Brotherhood: Egyptian Islamic Jihad and the Islamic Movement of Uzbekistan at http://www.washingtoninstitute.org/watch/policywatch/policywatch2001/561.hm. Back.
Note 42: US commander pledges to mop up Uzbek Islamic opposition in Afghanistan, Uzbek Radio First Programme, Tashkent, January 25, 2002 (quoted from BBC Monitoring Global Newsline- Central Asia). Back.
The Call to Jihad by the Islamic Movement of Uzbekistan
The following document was issued in August 1999 by the Islamic Movement of Uzbekistan as a declaration of jihad against the government of Uzbekistan. Originally written in Uzbek, it has appeared on the Internet in English.
In the name of Allah the Most Compassionate the Most Merciful
A Message from the General Command of the Islamic Movement Uzbekistan
And fight them until there is no more fitnah and the religion is all for Allah
Al Anfaala: 39
The Amir (commander) of the Harakatul Islamiyyah (Islamic Movement) of Uzbekistan, Muhammad Tahir Farooq, has announced the start of the Jihad against the tyrannical government of Uzbekistan and the puppet Islam Karimov and his henchmen. The leadership of the Islamic Movement confirm the following points in the declaration:
This declaration comes after agreement by the major ulema and the leadership of the Islamic Movement.
This agreement comes based on clear evidence on the obligation of Jihad against the tawagheet as well as to liberate the land and the people.
The primary objective for this declaration of Jihad is the establishment of an Islamic state with the application of the Sharia, founded upon the Koran and the Noble Prophetic sunnah.
Also from amongst the goals of the declaration of Jihad is:
The defense of our religion of Islam in our land against those who oppose Islam.
The defense of the Muslims in our land from those who humiliate them and spill their blood.
The defense of the scholars and Muslim youth who are being assassinated, imprisoned and tortured in extreme manners-with no rights given them at all.
And the Almighty says:
And they had no fault except that they believed in Allah, the Almighty, Worthy of all praise! Al Buruj: 8
Also to secure the release of the weak and oppressed who number some 5,000 in prison, held by the transgressors. The Almighty says:
And what is the matter with you that you do not fight in the way of Allah and the weak and oppressed amongst men, women and children An Nisaa:75.
And to reopen the thousands of mosques and Islamic schools that have been closed by the evil government.
The Mujahedeen of the Islamic Movement, after their experience in warfare, have completed their training and are ready to establish the blessed Jihad.
The Islamic Movement warns the Uzbek government in Tashkent from propping up or supporting the fight against the Muslims.
The Islamic Movement warns tourists coming to this land that they should keep away, lest they be struck down by the Mujahedeen.
The reason for the start of the Jihad in Kyrgyzstan is due to the stance of the ruler Askar Akayev Bishkek, in arresting thousands of Muslim Uzbeks who had migrated as refugees to Kyrgyzstan and were handed over to Karimovs henchmen (i.e., Uzbek regime).
The Most High says:
Verily the oppressors are friends and protectors to one another.
The Islamic Movement shall, by the will of Allah, make Jihad in the cause of Allah to reach all its aims and objectives.
It is with regret that Foreign Mujahedeen (Al Ansaar) as of yet have not entered our ranks.
The Islamic Movement invites the ruling government and Karimov leadership in Tashkent to remove itself from office- unconditionally, before the country enters into a state of war and destruction of the land and the people. The responsibility for this will lie totally on the shoulders of the government, for which it shall be punished.
Allah is Great and the Honor is for Islam.
Head of the Religious Leadership of the Islamic Movement of Uzbekistan
Az Zubayr Ibn Abdur Raheem
4th Jumadi Al Awwal (ah)
25 August 1999
Source: Rashid Ahmed, Jihad: The Rise of Militant Islam in Central Asia, 2002, Orient Longman; India, pp. 247-249.