Three months after the arrests of three men in Germany, little is known about the network involved or the reasons behind a plot to use “massive bomb attacks” against targets in Germany. Reports immediately after the arrests pointed toward a U.S. airbase, nightclubs and the airport at Frankfurt as targets the plotters had considered. More recently, reports have indicated that the men intended to strike at both the U.S. and Uzbek Embassies in Germany. Along with a statement by a group called the Islamic Jihad Union, the reports point to the re-emergence of a terror threat from post-Soviet Central Asia.
Of course, the list of potential targets implies that the cell aimed to kill and maim civilians in a series of spectacular attacks, which have the hallmark of an al-Qaeda-inspired campaign. Two subsidiary aims may have been to damage transatlantic relations between Germany and the United States, and to undermine the U.S.-led war on terror in Afghanistan and Iraq. Germany continues to run a military base in Termez, on the Uzbek-Afghan border, as part of its role in NATO operations in Afghanistan, while the U.S. Ramstein airbase in Germany is a major military hub, providing support for operations in both Afghanistan and Iraq while housing the largest U.S. military hospital outside of the United States.
Elsewhere, German newspapers have begun to unfold a U.S. intelligence operation code-named “Alberich,” which led to the arrests in Sauerland, some 60 miles east of Düsseldorf. The intelligence-led operation began last October, when U.S. security agencies began intercepting suspicious emails and telephone calls between individuals in Germany, Turkey and Pakistan. It ended with the arrest of two German men, Fritz Gelowicz and Daniel Martin Schneider, both converts to Islam, and a third man named Adem Yılmaz, also in his 20s but of Turkish origin (Der Spiegel, September 13). Moreover, statements made by German officials after the arrests indicated that the men had trained in Pakistan, focusing attention on al-Qaeda affiliates in Central Asia such as the Islamic Movement of Uzbekistan (IMU). Nonetheless, it was the little known Islamic Jihad Union (IJU), described as an offshoot of the IMU, which laid claim to the foiled plot.
Central Asia: The Rise of the Islamic Movement of Uzbekistan
In recent years the IMU, a radical Uzbek group generally thought to have formed around 1996, appears to have played an important role in the continuing violence in Central Asia. Since the end of the Cold War, the Uzbek government has been involved in countering internal dissent and a rising tide of religious extremism, as the civil war in Afghanistan led to a resurgent interest in Islam. Throughout this period, Uzbek authorities employed harsh measures to counter internal dissent, whether from radical Islamic groups like the IMU or pan-Islamic groups such as Hizb ut-Tahir (HT). Internal dissent and regional instability led fledgling radical groups to operate underground, locate themselves in neighboring countries or support regional movements. For instance, a number of Uzbek fighters participated in the Tajik civil war between 1992 and 1997, as well as the Afghan civil war. In 1999 a failed assassination attempt on Islam Karimov led to further accusations against Hizb ut-Tahrir, although Islamic radicals (including the IMU) were later accused of planning the failed attack.
In late 1999, a lack of support in Uzbekistan and the measures deployed by the Karimov government forced the IMU, then led by Juma Namangani, to re-locate to Taliban-controlled Afghanistan. The group gained some financial support from Osama bin Laden and the fledgling al-Qaeda network, leading the IMU to establish a training camp in the tribal region of Waziristan between 2000 and 2001. After 9/11 and the subsequent U.S. invasion of Afghanistan, the operational capability of the IMU was severely undermined. Although Juma Namangani was reportedly killed in a U.S. bombing raid, remnants of the IMU and its senior leadership under the command of Tahir Yuldashev appear to have moved to Pakistan’s tribal areas. Throughout 2002 surviving members of the IMU formed a loose alliance which led to the creation of the Islamic Movement of Turkistan (IMT), the Uzbekistan Islamic Jihad, and the Islamic Union Jihad. Even though none of these groups could coordinate a sustained terror campaign, they focused upon surviving as small clandestine groups.
The spread of Uzbek-led terrorism was not, however, focused solely on attacking the regime within Uzbekistan, nor were the popular demonstrations against the economic mismanagement of the country by the Karimov regime isolated. Instead, a series of events including bomb attacks in April 2004, the trial of 15 suspects following the bombings and a subsequent series of coordinated attacks in July 2004, including suicide bombings at the Israeli and U.S. Embassies, were part of a campaign against the Uzbek authorities, corrupt policing, and the Karimov government. Interestingly, the attacks on U.S. and Israeli targets occurred shortly after the death of the spiritual leader of Hamas, Sheikh Ahmed Yassin on March 22, 2004, leading some reports to suggest that the suicide bombings were attempts by radical Islamic groups affiliated to al-Qaeda to respond to Israeli policies in the Middle East. Meanwhile, popular dissent aimed at the Karimov regime manifested itself in a large-scale May 2005 demonstration in front of the U.S. embassy. The protest was forcibly dispersed.
In more recent years, the deployment of considerable numbers of Uzbek volunteers, their involvement in a series of confrontations with Pakistani troops and indigenous tribal groups throughout 2006 and the establishment of Tahir Yuldashev as a key figure in the Taliban-al-Qaeda nexus, provide evidence of a resurgent IMU.
Jamoat: From the IMU to the IJU
In the trials that followed the events and arrests of 2004, the Karimov authorities indicated that a radical Jamoat group (jamoat is the Uzbek version of the Arabic jama’at, or “community”) had been operating in Tashkent, Bukhara and Samarkand since 2000 (Tass, April 9, 2004). Indeed, trial proceedings indicate many of the arrestees were charged with membership in a group called “Jamoa,” or the Jamoati Tablig organization (Novoye Pokoliniye, January 28, 2005). By 2002 it appears that remnants of the IMU had split, creating a series of factions affiliated to, but not controlled by, the IMU. Trial proceedings indicate that the underground group was led by Farkhad Kazabkhayev, and although it did not formerly have a name, the group operated with a radical Islamic agenda, seeking to establish a system of Islamic caliphates under the banner of the IJU.
In April 2004, the Islamic Jihad Union accepted responsibility for the attacks in Tashkent and central Bukhara, while in June 2004 a second statement promised to undertake further attacks against the Karimov regime. Although the group remained distinct from al-Qaeda and may have remained a splinter group with different aims from those of the IMU, some of the group’s members had been trained by Arab instructors in a camp in Pakistan’s Waziristan region, creating a shared experience and shared belief in the continuation of jihad. The trial proceeding from the events of 2004 also pointed to a number of other figures like Najmideen Jalolov, who may have played a role linking the Jamoat with the network which facilitated the movement of small amounts of weapons and men to training camps in Pakistan (AP, July 27, 2004). Other sources, including Uzbek officials, mention a “Great Emir” based outside of Uzbekistan who, along with a series of lesser “emirs,” was in charge of the Jamoat operations.
It is not clear whether the “Great Emir” refers to Yuldashev, but the 2004 trial proceedings indicate that the group had met members of the East Turkistan Islamic Movement, a Uyghur separatist movement active in the Xingjiang region of China. Other meetings were attended by Uyghur fighters loyal to Abu Muhammad and alleged Uzbek Jamoat leader Ahmad Bekmirzayev. Subsequent trial proceedings in Kazakhstan against militants involved in the April and July 2004 attacks in Uzbekistan also charged the defendants with membership in the Jamoat Mudahideen, otherwise known as the Community of Holy Warriors. The proceedings thus indicate that the network comprised members from Kyrgyzstan, Uzbekistan and Kazakhstan who sought to use violence to challenge the Karimov regime and promote radical Islam in the region.
In effect, this culminated in the events in Andijan in which a peaceful demonstration against the arrest of 23 businessmen quickly escalated. On May 13, the Uzbek secret police arrested demonstrators and relatives of the 23 arrested men, which sparked further opposition, the storming of a local police station by the protesters, the seizure of weapons from local government offices and an attempt to storm the prison, all of which left scores dead. Again, reports indicated the involvement of small numbers of radicals, including fighters from Kyrgyzstan who were operating under the banner of the IJU (Tass, September 15, 2005).
Thus, it appears that the IJU is an umbrella term used to link a network of affiliated Jamoat groups from Central Asia, comprised of Kyrgyz, Uzbek and Kazakh radicals, linked to, but not formerly associated with, the IMU. The key themes linking the network with regional radical organizations include a shared interest in jihad, common channels of funding, violence directed against anti-Islamic Central Asian authorities, links to criminal networks and a broadly conceived goal of establishing an Islamic caliphate, although the network draws on informal indigenous groups, clan and familial associations and a more specific agenda targeting the Karimov regime.
First and foremost, it appears that a loose affiliation of indigenous Jamoat groups with a shared anti-Karimov agenda formed in 2000, which has since linked itself to regional groups and affiliates, especially after the U.S. invasion of Afghanistan. Secondly, the group comprises some former IMU members and may have gained financial support from al-Qaeda. Although the group remains distinct from al-Qaeda, it is part of the broader Salafi-jihadi movement. Thirdly, over the last three years, on each occasion when the IJU has announced forthcoming operations, bombings or foiled attacks have followed, demonstrating an attempt to operate as a functioning terror network. In April this year the IJU announced that it would step up operations abroad, leading German officials to issue a warning and increase security around its embassies. Finally, and indeed more generally, it appears that Tahir Yuldashev and the Central Asian groups have re-organized following the U.S. invasion of Afghanistan and now play an important role in the emerging generation of Salafi-jihadi networks willing to operate in Europe.