Over the past three years, the Islamic Movement of Uzbekistan (IMU)–a group on the U.S. Department of State’s list of international terrorist organizations–has kept a very low profile. Twice, in the summers of 1999 and 2000, IMU militants attempted to overthrow the secular regime in Uzbekistan by armed force. However, after the United States launched its antiterrorist operation in Afghanistan, the IMU suspended virtually all its activities. Experts suggested that IMU bases located in the Taliban-controlled territory were wiped out by U.S. air strikes. On November 19, 2001, the RIA-Novosti news agency reported that the commander of IMU’s armed wing, Juma Namangani (real name Jumaboi Hojiev), was killed in an American bombing raid. But did these events truly destroy the organization?
The Islamic Movement of Uzbekistan emerged in 1991 in Namangan, a city in Uzbekistan, as a group called Adolat (Justice). It was conceived by its leaders, Tahir Yuldashev and Juma Namangani, as a force that would establish law and order in the city in accordance with the precepts of Shari’ah. During this author’s visit to Namangan at that time, young men wearing green armbands would regularly be seen throughout the city and would “punish” all those who, in their opinion, were violating the law. Punishments meted out to thieves and prostitutes, if viewed from the perspective of Western jurisprudence, were rather exotic: Some of the culprits were seated on donkeys, face to tail, and paraded all over the city; others were tied to poles for passers-by to spit in their faces or were flogged in mosques. Also subjected to “punishment” were women wearing clothes that the Islamists deemed too “frivolous.” Females (including ethnic Russians) who dared to appear in public in short skirts were dragged to mosques, where all of their hair was shaved off.
Adolat gradually emerged as the supreme power in the city, which so alarmed Uzbek authorities that, in late 1991, Tashkent ordered a crackdown. As a result, a number of Adolat activists received long prison terms. But most of its members, including leaders Tahir Yuldashev and Juma Namangani, fled to Tajikistan. During the civil war in that country (1992-1996), Uzbek Islamists fought in the units of the United Tajik Opposition. Juma Namangani, for example, was appointed aide to one of the most influential field commanders, Mirzo Ziev (who now serves as Tajikistan’s minister for emergency situations). In 1993, the Uzbek Islamists followed fleeing Tajik opposition elements into Afghanistan, where the IMU was officially formed. After a cease-fire was negotiated in Tajikistan and a coalition government established, some IMU and United Tajik Opposition members returned to Tajikistan. As these developments were unfolding, the Islamic Movement of Uzbekistan set up at least two bases in a mountainous area in Tajikistan called Karategin; one in Hait, a village near the town of Tajikobad, and the other in the vicinity of Tavildara.
This author traveled to the Karategin valley in 1999 and visited the training camp near Hait. A typical day for IMU militants was broken into two parts–in the morning, they were trained in subversive operations techniques, while the second half of the day was devoted to indoctrination. For instance, the trainees were shown footage featuring the struggles of Islamic militants with the “unfaithful” the world over. Kyrgyz military officers interviewed reported that arms, ammunition and food were airlifted to the Uzbek fighters by planes of the Tajik Ministry for Emergency Situations headed by Mirzo Ziev. In the summer of 1999, IMU militants launched an armed attack from Karategin in an attempt to break into Uzbekistan through the territory of Kyrgyzstan. The rebels’ declared goal was to “liberate” the Ferghana valley and establish an Islamic state. After long and heavy fighting with the armed forces of Uzbekistan and Tajikistan, the militants withdrew to Tajikistan. Next year, however, the militants returned, invading both Kyrgyzstan and the Surkhandarya administrative region of Uzbekistan. In the fall of 2000 most IMU fighters moved from Tajikistan to Afghanistan, where IMU set up bases in Taliban-controlled parts of the country.
In terms of the support the IMU received from various political forces in Afghanistan, the assistance provided by the Taliban was by far the greatest and most effective. In an interview with the Kyrgyz newspaper Slovo Kyrgyzstana, the Afghan field commander Ahmadshah Masud revealed that Tahir Yuldashev had worked on his plan–for establishing the Ferghana emirate–together with Mullah Mohamad Omar, one of the top Taliban leaders. According to Masud, of all the parties in Afghanistan, only the Taliban provided assistance to the IMU (“Ahmadshah Masud: Afghanistan Does Not Need Peacekeepers from Outside. What It Needs Is Real Help.” Slovo Kyrgyzstana, May 14, 1999). Bahtier Uzakov, Juma Namangani’s nephew and a former IMU fighter who returned from Afghanistan a year ago, after he was granted amnesty, told the author: “Even though officially we were independent of the Talibs, in reality we maintained quite close contacts and always took their opinion into account. For instance, Juma Namangani was elected the leader of the Islamic Movement of Uzbekistan on Mohammad Omar’s recommendation.”
After the United States launched its operation into Afghanistan, it appeared that the IMU halted its activities. In reality, however, there exist strong doubts that the armed units of the Islamic Movement of Uzbekistan were indeed totally wiped out. Erkin Ersenaliev, deputy chief of police of Kyrgyzstan’s Osh region, told the author that in late September Kyrgyz authorities were contacted by two teenage shepherd girls from a remote mountainous area. They reported an encounter with a group of armed, bearded men wearing camouflage uniforms and speaking a language that the girls did not understand. Acting on a hunch that the men might have been IMU fighters, Kyrgyz military authorities ordered the area searched, but found no one.
Nevertheless, military officials still believe that the men the girls saw may have been IMU militants. “Maybe the shepherd girls just saw things, or maybe they did see gunmen who just went into hiding and for the time being do not want to fight with us,” Ersenaliev said. Even if that recent incident was a false alarm, Kyrgyz security officials continue to believe that not all IMU fighters have been eliminated, and that they still cross into Kyrgyzstan. Ersenaliev stated: “In the Osh region alone, there are over 500 people who, we suspect, have ties with the Islamic Movement of Uzbekistan. What is more, several thousand Uzbeks still remain in Afghanistan, and they have no choice but to try and force their way home by arms.”
Also worth mentioning is a recent incident involving Sadykjan Rakhmonov, a mullah in the town of Uzgen in southern Kyrgyzstan (the Osh administrative region) who was reportedly abducted from a bus station on September 7, 2003. The local police say that the evidence they have gathered indicates the kidnappers were security officers from the nearby Namangan region of Uzbekistan. According to the Uzgen police, the car in which Rakhmonov was abducted had been purchased six months prior to the abduction by a Namangan security officer (see kyrgyzinfo.kg and akipress.com, September 24). The deputy chief of the Uzgen police, Mamatali Turgunbaev, believes it is most likely that Sadykjan Rakhmonov was abducted because Tashkent suspects he has links to the Islamic Movement of Uzbekistan. The Kyrgyz Committee of National Security (successor to the KGB) also kept Sadykjan Rakhmonov under surveillance because, in Namangan, Rakhmonov had attended a clandestine madrassah together with IMU leader Tahir Yuldashev. It was rumored that during his annual haj pilgrimages, Rakhmonov met with leaders of the IMU and even that Tahir Yuldashev appointed him the amir (spiritual and secular leader) of southern Kyrgyzstan, according to Turgunbaev.
Alleged encounters with militants have also been reported in mountainous areas of Uzbekistan’s Surkhandarya administrative region (see Esmer Islamov, “Militants Spotted in Remote Uzbek Areas,” eurasianet.org, July 9, 2003). Bahtier Uzakov, Juma Namangani’s nephew and a former IMU fighter who returned from Afghanistan a year ago, after he was granted amnesty, insisted to the author: “All these assertions that the Americans succeeded in wiping out IMU forces in Afghanistan are sheer stupidity. The only thing which is true is that my uncle Juma Namangani, the leader of the Islamic Movement of Uzbekistan, was killed in an air raid. I personally buried him in November of 2001. However, the movement itself remains a well-organized force. In reality, the Americans control only Kabul, all other regions of the country are still in chaos. The IMU armed wing is around 2,000 fighters strong. After U.S. forces arrived, the fighters withdrew into the territory of northern tribes in Pakistan that in reality neither Islamabad, nor the Americans, control. Gradually, the fighters began moving to the Afghan Pamir and on to Tajikistan.”
Uighurs and Chechens
Last May, Uzbek security services arrested several terrorists who planted and detonated bombs in a marketplace in Bishkek and in a bank in Osh. One of the arrested, Azizbek Karimov, a former chief of the IMU’s security service, testified that he had been ordered to commit the terrorist acts by the leaders of the Islamic Movement of Uzbekistan; they also provided him money (see Deutsche Welle, September 5, 2003). Significantly, while Kyrgyz security services managed to arrest only three terrorists, the entire group was more than ten members strong.
A particularly alarming development is that today Islamic terrorists from different countries are trying to unite. As Azizbek Karimov admitted to investigators, in 1998-1999 he received terrorist training in camps in Chechnya. According to Karimov, he was instructed along with some sixty citizens of Uzbekistan who were also receiving “on the job training” during the same period. Recruits from Central Asia were supervised by none other than the Jordanian-born al Qaeda operative, Hattab himself. After the terrorist attacks in Tashkent in February of 1999, Hattab ordered all Uzbek militants to return to Uzbekistan because, as he put it, “big things were underway” in their country.
Contacts between IMU militants and Chechen rebels date back to the early 1990s, when young men from Chechnya and Dagestan were arriving in Namangan by the hundreds to attend clandestine madrassahs that the government did not control. One of these Islamic religious schools trained Salman Raduev, who later became known as one of the most notorious Chechen militants (see Igor Rotar, Under the Green Banner of Islam: Islamist Radicals in Russia and the CIS, Moscow, AIRO-XX, p. 81). Members of the IMU also maintained close contacts with Uighur separatists in China. Karimov’s terrorist group, for example, included three Uighurs, who were citizens of the People’s Republic of China and were responsible for supplying arms. Interestingly, these Uighur terrorists were never apprehended.
Uighur separatists had been quite active in Central Asia even before the terrorist acts executed by Karimov’s group. On May 1, 1998, a bomb that went off in a taxi van in the city of Osh in southern Kyrgyzstan killed two and injured twelve people. A year and a half later Kyrgyz security services arrested five individuals in connection with the attack. According to official information, three of them were Chinese Uighurs who had been trained in Chechnya. In 2000, Kazakh security services raided an apartment in Almaty that was used as a safe-house by Uighur separatists from China’s Xinjiang Uighur Autonomous Region. The occupants of the apartment resisted arrest and were killed in a shootout that ensued. In the same year, the chairman of the Ittipak Uighur cultural association in Kyrgyzstan, Negmat Bazakov, was assassinated in Bishkek after he refused to contribute money to the separatist underground in Xinjiang (see Igor Rotar, Under the Green Banner of Islam: Islamist Radicals in Russia and the CIS, Moscow, AIRO-XX, p. 87).
According to Kalyk Imankulov, chief of Kyrgyzstan’s National Security Service, Uighur separatists joined forces with the Islamic Movement of Uzbekistan and formed the Islamic Movement of Central Asia (see eurasianet.org, October 31, 2002). Bahtier Uzakov commented on similar cooperation to the author: “In Afghanistan, all foreigners were organized into a single armed unit divided into detachments: The Uzbek detachment, Tajik, Uighur, Arab detachments. Chechens also used to come in groups of twenty people, but they were quartered separately and hardly ever spoke with other fighters. Their training completed, in a few months they would go back to Chechnya.” It appears clear then that the Taliban’s legacy in Central Asia has survived that regime’s tenure in Afghanistan.