What Will Come of Uzbek and Central Asian Militant Groups Fighting Alongside the Taliban?
Brian M. Perkins
As the United States has worked to finalize the peace deal with the Taliban in Afghanistan, persistent questions have lingered as to the degree to which the insurgency as a whole will adhere to the terms agreed upon by the pro-peace contingent of the organization that has been involved in the talks. Concerns have also arisen as to whether or not the Taliban will cut ties with its al-Qaeda counterparts, as well as Pakistani fighters belonging to the Tehrik-e-Taliban Pakistan and other Pakistani militant groups that have sought refuge in Afghanistan to escape Pakistani military operations. Another key question, however, is what will become of the Uzbek and Tajik groups that have fought under the Taliban banner for years, some of which have redirected fighters from Syria to Afghanistan in recent years.
The three primary militant groups that are comprised predominantly of Uzbeks and Tajiks operating in Afghanistan are the Islamic Movement of Uzbekistan (IMU), Islamic Jihad Union (IJU), and Khatiba Imam al-Bukhari (KIB). The IJU and KIB split from the IMU in the early 2000s and 2011, respectively. The IMU was one of the longest standing Central Asian terrorist groups, but has become all but defunct due to the breaking away of IJU and KIB. Many IMU members also aligned with Islamic State-Khorasan (IS-K), a move that drew quick hostility from its long time Taliban partners.
IJU and KIB have primarily fought under the auspices of the Taliban since their respective founding, but also have active contingents in Syria that have fought alongside the various permutations of al-Qaeda-linked groups there, including al-Nusrah Front and, more recently, Hayat Tahrir al-Sham (HTS) (UN, July 15, 2019). KIB played a prominent role in the takeover of Idlib in 2015. KIB and IJU still have active fighters in Syria, but many others have reportedly returned to Afghanistan since 2018. Both groups’ Afghan branches have allegedly conducted joint operations with the Taliban during this time, though the KIB’s most recent alleged joint operation has been denied by the Taliban (Tolo News, July 9).
While the IMU is largely defunct and the relationship with the Taliban has been severely damaged by defections to IS-K, both IJU and KIB remain within the larger Taliban umbrella. The Taliban, for its part of the peace deal, has agreed to severe ties with foreign terrorist groups. Although it is unclear if the group will follow through, KIB and IJU may view the peace deal as a major hinderance to their overall objectives in the region. In the event that the Taliban breaks support or IJU and KIB determine Afghanistan is no longer their best haven, it is likely that more fighters will attempt to link up with the Uzbek and Central Asian contingents fighting in Syria or that others will attempt to infiltrate their countries of origin, a task that has so far proven particularly challenging. The contingents left in Afghanistan are unlikely large enough to drastically alter the tide in Syria, but they would provide a force multiplier and could redirect aspiring Uzbek fighters who might otherwise have travelled to Afghanistan.
Challenges of Egypt’s Military Strategy in Sinai
Brian M. Perkins
Egyptian security forces have largely managed to eradicate terrorist groups that once plagued the country and have mostly prevented Islamic State (IS) affiliated fighters from infiltrating the country’s mainland from the Sinai Peninsula. However, Islamic State-Sinai Province (IS-SP) remains active and the Egyptian military’s strategy of containment will continue to prove costly from multiple perspectives.
IS-SP has only managed to launch attacks on the country’s mainland intermittently over the past several years, but the group remains significantly active across a large portion of territory stretching from close to the Suez Canal in the west to near the Gaza border to the east. This year, however, has seen a notable increase in attacks near Bir al-Abd, along the peninsula’s northern coast routes to the Suez Canal.
The nearly 100 attacks claimed by IS-SP since the beginning of 2020 have highlighted the group’s continued capabilities and the challenges faced by the Egyptian armed forces, despite the Egyptian forces’ regular claims of successful operations against the militants.
Among the most significant and costly challenges are the disconnect between the military command in Cairo and the field commanders from the 2nd and 3rd Field Armies responsible for the operations on the ground in Sinai, and the largely reactive nature of military operations. Most recently, on July 21, the government claimed to have killed 18 IS-SP fighters and destroyed several explosive devices after the group launched an attack on a military outpost in Bir al-Abd that killed two Egyptian soldiers. IS-SP, however, claimed the operation killed 100 Egyptian military personnel. Many similar claims of operational successes and the death of IS-SP fighters follow the same pattern in which IS-SP conducts an attack that prompts retaliatory operations by Egyptian forces, with significant disparities between casualty claims.
This reactive containment strategy has allowed the group significant freedom of movement and has contributed to the frequent loss of Egyptian soldiers, including senior military officers such as Lieutenant Colonel Ahmad Shahata Abd al-Maqsoud and Brigadier General Mostafa Abido, who were killed by bombings in February near Sheikh Zuweid and Bir al-Abd, respectively (al-Araby, February 25).
Meanwhile, the Egyptian armed forces’ lack of a full-scale military operation since Comprehensive Operation Sinai in 2018 and failure to engage in a more holistic approach has led them to increasingly rely on the Sinai Tribal Union—which includes the Tarabin and Sawarka tribes, among others—to provide some of the more proactive measures to combat IS-SP. These measures include a deal that incentivizes tribal elders to turn in tribal members who are fighting alongside IS-SP in exchange for those members’ amnesty upon interrogation by Egyptian officials (Al-Monitor, June 16). This reliance on the Sinai Tribal Union has increasingly led to kidnappings and violent attacks on tribal members and civilians, including an attack on the Abou Tawila village just east of the town of Sheikh Zuwayed that killed three Tarabin tribe members on July 6 (Mada Masr, July 15).
The strategy of containment, the reactive nature of military operations, and a lack of flexibility for field commanders will continue to provide IS-SP with the operational space needed to wage a prolonged insurgency, despite more concerted attempts to cut off its supply, finance, and recruitment lines. The reliance on local tribes—while important to stem recruitment, gain vital intelligence and provide more persistent armed resistance—will increasingly lead to attacks on civilians and could disincentivize future cooperation if the government does not fulfill its role in providing more effective security.
Pakistan Confronts Resurgent Baluch Ethno-separatist Militancy
Pakistan has recently faced a renewed ethno-separatist militant surge targeting its financial and energy infrastructure. Four recent attacks indicate a resurgence within the multiple secessionist groups fighting for Baluchistan independence.
On June 29, the Baluchistan Liberation Army (BLA), a banned ethno-separatist militant group, claimed a fidayeen (suicide) attack on the Pakistan Stock Exchange (PSX), in the port city of Karachi. Eleven people died, including four heavily armed BLA militants who attempted to storm the PSX building. Subsequently, the BLA’s suicide squad, the Majeed Brigade—named after the deceased, would-be assassin of former Prime Minister Zulfiqar Bhutto, Abdul Majeed Baloch—claimed responsibility for the attack through its media unit ‘Hakkal’ (Telegram, June 30; see TM, January 25, 2019). Images of slain militants and threats of future operations surfaced on social media platforms, including through Hakkal’s dedicated Telegram and Twitter handles.
A week later, on July 5, the BLA again staged multiple attacks targeting security checkpoints belonging to the Levies Force and Frontier Corps, along with a coal mine in Zard Aloo and Chappar Lat area of Hernai in the restive Baluchistan province. BLA claimed responsibility for all three attacks through its spokesman Jeeyand Baloch (Telegram, July 5). On July 14, another Baluch militant organization, the Baluchistan Liberation Front (BLF) claimed responsibility for an ambush on a military convoy in the Kahan area of Panjgur district in Baluchistan, killing three soldiers and injuring several others (Dawn, July 14). BLF spokesman Gwahram Baloch, however, exaggerated the damage, stating that more than 20 security personnel were killed in that assault in a statement later released by the group.
The U.S. Department of State designated the Baluchistan Liberation Army (BLA) as a Specially Designated Global Terrorists (SDGTs) under Executive Order (E.O.) 13224, in July 2019.  Pakistan, which imposed a ban on the BLA in 2006, hailed the U.S. designation, as the move limits the groups’ funding lifelines.
The BLA and BLF are the oldest and most violent Baluch militant organizations active in the country. However, there are several new armed splinter groups such as the United Baluch Army (UBA), Baluch Republican Guard (BRG), Lashkar-e-Baluchistan, and Baluch Republican Army (BRA) have emerged and joined the insurgency. Baluch Raji Aajoi Sangar (BRAS), a militant conglomeration, was established in late 2018 with a purpose to consolidate the factionalized Baluch separatist movement and to orchestrate concerted attacks against Pakistani security forces and Chinese targets, especially on infrastructure projects associated with the China–Pakistan Economic Corridor (CPEC). BRAS registered its first major attack on April 18, 2019, when its militants killed 14 people in the remote Ormara area of Baluchistan (Al Jazeera, April 18, 2019). Like BLA and BRAS, the UBA was also in the limelight this year when its militants targeted a security convoy of an oil and gas exploration company at Peer-Ghaib in Bolan on May 18, killing six Frontier Corps personnel (The News, May 19; Dawn, May 20).
Pakistan often accuses Indian and Iranian intelligence agencies of supporting Baluch militants. Following the PSX violence, Pakistani Prime Minister Imran Khan, named India as a co-conspirator behind the Karachi terrorist attack. Pakistan often perceives Indian or Iranian involvement when the indigenous militant groups unleash violence against state infrastructure and challenge Pakistan’s authority. However, investigations into the PSX attack case traced the alleged facilitators and located their handler’s location to Kandahar city in Afghanistan (The News, July 1).
These unverifiable accusations against India and/or Iran notwithstanding, Pakistan has successfully diluted and subdued the Baluch independence movement over the years through extrajudicial means and exploited the ideological and operational cleavages between self-exiled Baluch separatist (often termed as nationalist) leaders abroad, such as Hyrbyair Marri and Brahamdagh Bugti, and militant commanders on the ground. However, broader aims and objectives to carve out an independent Baluchistan remain intact among the resurgent armed formations. Influential militant leaders such as Bashir Zaib Baloch, Gulzar Imam, and Mureed Baloch have led the violent strategy against Pakistani security forces and Chinese infrastructures for the last several years.
While Baluch militant groups have intermittently carried out armed assaults in and around Baluchistan province, they have also often ventured into attacking Pakistan’s major financial hubs such as Karachi, the provincial capital of Sindh province. However, the latest PSX violence that targeted the backbone of the Pakistani economy and Chinese investments were reminiscent of a similar campaign by Baluch militants when the BLA’s Majeed Brigade targeted the Pearl Continental Hotel in the port city of Gwadar on May 11, 2019 (Dawn, December 23, 2016; The Business, May 12, 2019). The hotel was hosting around 40 Chinese nationals at the time of the siege. No Chinese citizens were hurt, but nine people, including four militants, were killed and several injured in that prolonged besiegement. Like PSX in Karachi, the Pearl Continental is known as a hub for Chinese engineers and business travelers and a symbol of Chinese investments in the Gwadar (Express Tribune, May 13, 2019).
The BLA foreshadowed its anti-Chinese intentions by targeting the Chinese consulate in Karachi’s Clifton area in November 2018. The consulate attack, though partially foiled, still resulted in seven deaths, including two police officials and three attackers (Dawn, November 23, 2018). The attack was intended to target Chinese officials inside the consulate, directly assaulting the multi-billion-dollar China-Pakistan Economic Corridor project. CPEC, a part of China’s massive Belt and Road Initiative, is considered to be a symbol of the exploitation of the Baluch people and Baluchistan’s natural resources and has been opposed by separatists since the beginning of the project. Under CPEC, an approximately 2,000 kilometer-long road and rail infrastructure project worth billions aims to connect Xinjiang, China with Gwadar port in Baluchistan. This is the motivating force behind Baluch resentment against Pakistan and the reasoning behind the perception of Chinese exploitation of natural resources. The other reason for anti-Pakistani sentiment among Baluch separatists is the demographic changes in the region due to CPEC and associated developments in the region. This change is mostly due to the exodus of Punjabis and Pashtuns to the province that have made ethnic Baluch people into a minority group.
Now, with the renewed violent campaigns across Baluchistan and beyond, Pakistan is seemingly facing resurgent Baluch ethno-separatism. If groups such as BLA or conglomerations like BRAS remain active and successful in targeting security and infrastructure, Pakistan will likely find it difficult to maintain a robust grip on a matured and motivated Baluch movement.
 “Terrorist Designations of Balochistan Liberation Army and Husain Ali Hazzima and Amendments to the Terrorist Designations of Jundallah”, July 2, 2019, https://www.state.gov/terrorist-designations-of-balochistan-liberation-army-and-husain-ali-hazzima-and-amendments-to-the-terrorist-designations-of-jundallah/