After months of ambiguity, the Islamic Movement of Uzbekistan (IMU) finally dispelled any misunderstanding about its current status by putting out a short video showing its leader `Uthman Ghazi along with his senior aides and followers at a night ceremony during which bay`a (oath) was given to Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi, the leader of the Islamic State.
This has been in the making for quite some time now, and for those who would like to refresh their memory, there has been a good overview by Damon Mehl for the CTC Sentinel. Given that the IMU has often been described as an “al-Qa`ida-linked group”, I would like to go back to this relationship to assess the significance of the IMU’s declaration for Ayman al-Zawahiri’s organization.
A Longstanding Antagonism
The first contacts between the IMU and al-Qa`ida are quite old since they stretch back to the early 1990s. At that time, Muhammad Tahir “Faruq”, the future founder of the IMU, traveled from Pakistan to Sudan where he visited Usama bin Ladin and his lieutenants. When recounting this meeting, Tahir lauded the Saudi for having “left it all behind for the sake of Allah” and depicted him as one of the “role models for the [Muslim] youth.”
What these words of praise conveniently omit to mention is that Bin Ladin showed no interest in investing in Tahir’s jihad in Central Asia with the Tajik Islamist party al-Nahda (Tahir was then one of its senior leaders). Instead, Tahir and his comrades had to rely primarily on Abu al-Walid al-Misri‘s assistance for training in Afghanistan. Owing that virtually all al-Qa`ida members had left Khurasan, no real nexus was forged during this period.
Under Taliban rule, both al-Qa`ida and the IMU were based in Afghanistan, but this did not result in friendly relations, far from it. Beyond their doctrinal differences (the IMU followed the Hanafi school of thought), the two organizations came to be relentless competitors for power and influence. As Abu al-Walid al-Misri pointed out, Bin Ladin could not bear the rise to prominence of the well-organized Uzbek-dominated force outside of his control and despite the Saudi’s lobbying, the Uzbeks always refused to rally him.
Tensions almost turned bloody in early 2001 after two Russians accused of spying by the IMU escaped its custody. The two found refuge in an al-Qa`ida-run guesthouse in Kabul, pretending to have been the victims of an anti-Salafi witch-hunt by the IMU. The Uzbeks thereafter deployed an armed detachment to retrieve the fugitives in Kabul, which infuriated the Arabs and Bin Ladin, who demanded that Tahir face an Islamic court for his offense.
The weeks-long crisis prompted Mullah `Umar to intervene so as to bring back some semblance of harmony. In April 2001, the Taliban leader summoned a meeting with the foreign jihadi factions in Kandahar where he entrusted the IMU’s military head with the leadership of the al-Ansar Brigade, made of the foreign volunteers fighting in Afghanistan. The decision generated much dismay within the Arab-Afghan community, firstly in al-Qa`ida since the organization was expected to assume this role.
Internal Dissent and Full-Scale Jihad in Pakistan
The post-2001 era did not smooth things over either. There was the famous “Shah-i-Kot battle” in March 2002, where a mix of Afghan, Uzbek and Arab fighters confronted U.S. forces. Yet, despite the popular narrative, only a few al-Qa`ida figures participated in the fight. The IMU and al-Qa`ida also joined together with the Taliban in a major raid against the U.S. air base at Bagram in May 2010. That said, I suspect that it had much more to do with the personal connections and situation of Abu Talha al-Almani, who led the assault on al-Qa`ida’s behalf, than with any robust interorganizational linkage. Finally, the IMU paid tribute to Bin Ladin after his killing in May 2011, but really, who did not back then?
Apart from these limited cases, evidence indicates that relations remained strained. Both groups were careful not to publicize these divisions, even though, at times, one could still read between the lines. For instance, during a sermon in 2011, the IMU’s mufti Abu Dhar al-Pakistani urged his audience to “leave dispute (…) and division between the [groups]”. He further added: “this person is from Tehrik-e-Taliban, and this person is from al-Qa`ida organization and that person is from Islamic Movement of Uzbekistan. No brothers, we are all brothers.”
In April 2015, a Gulf member of the IMU named Abu Hanifa al-Bahraini challenged the status quo by outlining the disunity on his group’s website. Explaining why the two groups were at odds with each other, al-Bahraini wrote that al-Qa`ida was accused to have been instrumental in the schism within the IMU which led to the creation of the Islamic Jihad Union (IJU) in 2002. The fact that al-Qa`ida and, more broadly, the Arab-Afghans would welcome, if not directly support, such a rift does not seem far-stretched. After all, they had attempted to hinder the group’s cohesion in Afghanistan by trying to bribe its members and foment an internal fracture.
It is also worth noticing that the Uzbeks took the issue of membership very seriously, as there was no turning back for a volunteer who had formally joined the group. This strict policy earned it much criticism from the Arab militant circles, with al-Qa`ida scolding it as “pure fascism and terrorism”.
Undermining yet again a longtime rival at this level would therefore not be surprizing for Bin Ladin’s group. Especially that, contrary to the IMU, the IJU enjoyed close ties to a range of Arab figures, including in al-Qa`ida. The revered commander Abu al-Layth al-Libi and his friends as well as the top bomb-maker Abu Khabab al-Misri proved valuable in assisting and training the group very early on. `Atiyyatullah al-Libi also appears to have maintained links with the IMU-splinter faction.
Divergences over targeting strategies came to further set the groups apart. After the Afghan emirate collapsed, the bulk of the foreign militant diaspora relocated to certain areas in South Waziristan, where they first adopted a low-profile. The IMU narrative holds that it was the sustained campaign of raids by the Pakistani army in the tribal areas that forced its hand, with the killing of Abu Muhammad al-Turkistani and Abu `Abd al-Rahman al-Kanadi in October 2003 acting as the trigger. In December 2003, the IMU thus announced its “bay`a for jihad in Pakistan” which was followed by its first major confrontation with Pakistani security forces in Wana, South Waziristan, in March 2004.
The all-out war against the Pakistani state advocated by the IMU did not make consensus among the Waziristan-based jihadi landscape (not to mention their local hosts). As al-Bahraini related, al-Qa`ida “initially opposed jihad against the Pakistani army announced by (…) Muhammad Tahir Faruq”, which fuelled further controversy.
To be sure, al-Qa`ida was no bigger fan of Pervez Musharaf than the IMU, as illustrated by the Pakistan-focused audio which Ayman al-Zawahiri recorded during the first Wana battle in March 2004. In it, he evoked the same grievances which served as the IMU’s rationale for its Pakistani jihad, including al-Kanadi’s demise. The difference is that al-Qa`ida chose a less frontal approach vis-à-vis Pakistan, trying to avoid confrontation whenever possible to preserve stability in its geographical areas.
Wars in Waziristan
Local alliances were another contentious issue between al-Qa`ida and Central Asian militants. After months of clashes in South Waziristan, by early 2005, Musharaf’s regime began resorting to a “massive undercover espionage war”, according to the IMU. The spies disptached by Islamabad were, in Tahir’s words, “under the leadership of the traitor Mullah Nazir”, a senior Waziri militant figure who sheltered immigrant fighters. The feud between the Central Asian jihadis on the one hand, and regime-friendly tribal leaders, including Nazir, on the other hand, led to yet another full-on military conflict in South Waziristan in March 2007.
The IMU’s behavior spurred an additional dispute with al-Qa`ida. A Jordanian jihadi maintains that “a major rift” occured when al-Qa`ida refused to side with the IMU in its war against Nazir and its tribal allies on account that “the Uzbeks were takfiri, Khawarij and extremists”. In the same vein, al-Bahraini said that “the last straw that broke the camel’s back [for the IMU]” was the interview al-Qa`ida’s media arm granted to its sworn enemy Nazir in March 2009, in which he was portrayed as a prominent Taliban official with impeccable jihadi credentials.
Despite this, according to al-Bahraini, the IMU subsequently attempted to reach out to its Arab counterpart, but to no avail. `Uthman `Adil, who succeeded to Tahir in August 2009, sent a message to Mustafa Abu al-Yazid, the then head of al-Qa`ida in Khurasan, offering him to cooperate in an expected Pakistani military offensive to root out militant presence in North Waziristan, where both groups had their bases. Al-Bahraini explained that al-Qa`ida rebuffed the suggestion, notably because of its poor view of the IMU’s rigid implementation of Shari`a rulings.
The peregrinations of Rami Makanesi and Naamen Meziche, two fellows of the “Hamburg travel group”, in Waziristan confirm this tumultuous relationship at that time. After traveling from Germany to Pakistan in March 2009, they ended up in Mir Ali, North Waziristan, where they voiced their desire to join al-Qa`ida. However, the Germans were told that, since they had arrived to Waziristan via an IMU’s facilitation network, al-Qa`ida could not afford to take them as it would only exacerbate the tensions with the Uzbeks. Also telling was a meeting between Makanesi, who by then had managed to join al-Qa`ida, and Abu Yahya al-Libi in 2010. When Makanesi told al-Libi that he had previously been with the IMU, the Libyan ideologue “covered his ears with his hands”, making his distate for the rival group very clear.
More recently, al-Qa`ida’s attitude in the face of Islamabad’s large-scale offensive in North Waziristan in 2014 was met with the admonishment of the IMU and others. Indeed, al-Bahraini claimed that the organization “chose not to confront the Pakistani army”. Prior to the military intervention, the Waziristan-based foreign jihadi groups held a council at which an al-Qa`ida’s delegate declared that they should fight under the command of their local protectors. Yet, al-Bahraini stated that the said-delegate was nowehere to be found when the fight began, just as al-Qa`ida which, before fleeing, had apparently hidden scores of weapons which would have been much needed by the militants who had stayed. Appalled by this exit, the previously-mentioned Jordanian angrily wrote: “I hold the amir of [al-Qa`ida] and everyone who beautifies and supports his deeds responsible for the evacuation of the arena.”
With that in mind, the IMU’s inclusion into the Islamic State should not be viewed as particularly damaging for al-Qa`ida’s network of partners in Afghanistan and Pakistan. Indeed, the IMU and al-Qa`ida never succeeded in overcoming their divergences to build up working relationships. The fact that they did so with other militant actors highlights how irreconcilable the two had become over the years. Hence, the IMU’s latest move was just the last nail in the coffin.
More than anything, it illustrates the definitive departure of the IMU from its historical standing in the region. Originally establishing itself as one of the most faithful and powerful ally of Mullah `Umar’s emirate, the last decade saw it growing much closer to the Pakistani hardliners and espousing agressive methods in the tribal areas. In light of the ongoing infighting between the Taliban and the Islamic State in eastern Afghanistan, the IMU’s bay`a may portend further violent unrest within the already polarized jihadi milieu in the Afghanistan-Pakistan region.