Recent developments among Central Asian jihadi groups demonstrate a likely shift in support away from the Taliban toward the Islamic State. In mid-September 2014, the Islamic Movement of Uzbekistan’s (IMU) emir, Usman Ghazi, issued a statement announcing that the IMU was now siding with the Islamic State.
The narrative of shifting support does have its wrinkles, however. Ghazi did not outright declare allegiance, or bay`a, as many other jihadi groups in the Maghreb, the Middle East, and Africa have done. Ghazi’s statement of support was clearly diplomatic and is a pragmatic reflection of the IMU’s political and tactical environment.
More recently however, in early April 2015, a branch of the IMU did declare its unconditional allegiance to the Islamic State. There is little evidence to indicate whether this statement represents a struggle for control of the IMU or just poor communication. Nonetheless, it does underline the shifting alliances among jihadi groups in Central Asia and highlights the need for continued observation given the operational implications for the Islamic State of increased support in Afghanistan and Pakistan.
Ghazi’s September 12, 2014 statement declared that, “on behalf of members of our Islamic Movement, I herewith announce to the world that we are siding with the Islamic Caliphate [ed: The Islamic State].” Ghazi did not use terms such as bay`a or pledge of allegiance, but the statement was intended to show its support for the Islamic State while not alienating its patrons in Afghanistan and Pakistan. Usman Ghazi’s announcement was pragmatic. The IMU logically justified its support for the Islamic State, while not turning away from the Taliban, who have a longstanding relationship with the IMU.
Nonetheless, the statement is a significant marker. No other Central Asian jihadi groups had previously pledged allegiance to the Islamic State, though there had been some earlier pledges from smaller groups in the Afghanistan-Pakistan region. In March 2014, a group of nine al-Qa`ida members from the region disassociated themselves from al-Qa`ida and pledged allegiance to the Islamic State. That was followed in late January 2015 with the official creation of the Islamic State in Khorasan (ISK). The ISK included some mid-rank leaders from the Afghan Taliban and the Tehrik-i-Taliban Pakistan (TTP) operating in Pakistan’s Federally Administered Tribal Areas (FATA), and Logar and Kunar provinces, Afghanistan. The role that Central Asian jihadist groups like the IMU will play in the ISK is uncertain. It is still unclear if the IMU is an ISK member group and Islamic State leaders in Iraq and Syria have not yet openly responded to Ghazi’s support.
The IMU Hedges Its Bets
The IMU’s decision to publicly support the Islamic State, while respecting the Taliban and Mullah Omar’s title of ameerul mumineen, is pragmatic. The decision opens the door to the IMU’s potential inclusion into the Islamic State, and could help reap a windfall of additional recruits, financing, and resources, but it also attempts to minimize any volatility with the Afghan Taliban by holding back from outright allegiance to the Islamic State. The IMU has operated in Afghanistan as guests of the Taliban since 1997. The two groups have had a mutually beneficial working relationship since then, which was formalized by the IMU pledge of bay`a to Mullah Omar, the leader of the Afghan Taliban. The early relationship between the Taliban and the IMU is documented in letters captured in Afghanistan, which detail the Taliban accepting and protecting IMU members crossing from Central Asia, and providing shelter to the group. In exchange for the IMU’s bay`a, the Afghan Taliban provided the IMU with an area in which to train, operate, and survive.
The Taliban has more recently benefited from the relationship by having the IMU fill leadership gaps among Uzbek enclaves in northern Afghanistan. This has allowed the Taliban to expand its operating area into non-Pashtun areas. Despite the support expressed for the Islamic State, Ghazi did not turn his back on the Taliban, and later in the same statement he expressed his hope that the Taliban and TTP would eventually support the Islamic State.
It also seems clear that Ghazi must have carefully calculated the risks inherent in such a statement and likely believed the IMU could withstand any subsequent pressure or criticism from the Taliban. The IMU has not been reliant on the Afghan Taliban’s provision of sanctuary or support recently, at least in the areas strongly controlled or influenced by the Taliban’s Quetta Shura.  The IMU found shelter in South Waziristan with support from the TTP’s Mehsud faction from at least 2009 until June 2014. IMU leaders likely assessed they would be able to maintain their operating areas in northern Afghanistan following their statement of support to the Islamic State and despite any potential backlash from the Afghan Taliban.
The IMU’s Views on the Caliphate
The IMU’s statement of support for the Islamic State is less surprising when viewed in historical context. In 1999, the IMU founder and former leader Tohir Yuldashev described his thinking regarding the establishment of an Islamic state to the Voice of the Islamic Republic of Iran. Yuldashev stated the IMU’s highest goal was to “see the Holy Koran as the Constitution of Uzbekistan,” adding that Uzbekistan was “absolutely ready” to establish an Islamic state. Yuldashev also discussed his perception that NATO had focused efforts against Islam following the collapse of the Soviet Union, a narrative that is similar to the language used by Usman Ghazi in the IMU’s pledge of support to the Islamic State.
In August 2010, Yuldashev’s replacement and the new emir of the IMU, Usmon Odil, maintained the group’s long-term goal of establishing an Islamic state. Odil said the IMU would continue to build a single caliphate, broadening the IMU’s mission. In the IMU’s most recent statement to the Islamic State, Odil’s replacement Usman Ghazi cited the IMU’s happiness with the reestablishment of the caliphate in his September statement of support to the Islamic State.
“Our shaheed ameer, Muhammad Tohir Forum, gave us good news in many of his khutbas that the wind of the caliphate was blowing and that we should not miss the caravan. Upon realization of that dream all members of our jamaah unanimously became joyous.”
The IMU’s public support for the Islamic State’s caliphate is clear, but how and in what manner the IMU could or would support the Islamic State and its regional affiliate ISK remains difficult to identify. The IMU has only issued a few statements and provided no further insight into the group’s actions to justify or even solidify their statement of support for the Islamic State. The IMU’s media profile has declined since Pakistan’s military implemented Operation Zarb-e-Azb in North and South Waziristan agencies, which was the IMU’s primary sanctuary until June 2014.
What the IMU Can Offer the Islamic State
While the IMU might hope to secure increased recruiting from its pledge of support to the Islamic State, the benefits flow both ways. The IMU can also provide the Islamic State or their regional affiliate ISK with increased operating areas in northern Afghanistan, or provide an added offensive capability against strategic targets in South or Central Asia. The IMU has been responsible for and significantly contributed to several successful high-profile attacks in Pakistan’s settled areas in support of the TTP. These attacks have targeted hardened strategic locations in sensitive areas. One hallmark of these attacks has been the high casualty rate, with a majority of attackers dying during the operation. The IMU targeted the Jinnah International Airport in Karachi in June 2014, the Bacha Khan International Airport in Peshawar in December 2012, and Pakistan’s naval base at Shahrah-e-Faisal in Karachi in May 2011.
The June 9, 2014 attack on Karachi’s Jinnah International Airport is an example of the IMU’s operational capability to strike strategic targets for media gain. The Islamic State should be able to leverage the same capabilities. The attack, which was supported by the TTP and carried out by ten IMU attackers, was initiated at 11:15pm with the attackers equipped with small arms and grenades divided into two groups. The 15-hour assault resulted in 37 killed, including the attackers, and damage to several important aerial assets. At the time, Usman Ghazi indicated the attack was revenge for the death of women and children in Mir Ali, North Waziristan, after bombardment by Pakistan’s military on May 21, 2014. If that was in fact the trigger, it displays significant operational capability given there was only 19 days separating the two incidents.
The IMU could also provide the Islamic State with a platform to launch attacks in Central Asia and potentially establish another regional affiliate, which could be called the Islamic State of Mawarannahr, though these are less likely options. The two biggest challenges are the IMU’s patchy presence in Central Asia and the lack of a radicalized population from which to draw support. Nonetheless, the IMU could use the Islamic State’s prophesized return of the caliphate as a justification to ramp up their their capabilities in northern Afghanistan, where the IMU has a proven operational ability, and the potential to conduct targeted strikes in Central Asia.
Evidence of an IMU Fracture?
Recent developments, however, indicate that there may be an ongoing power struggle within the IMU, though there are alternate explanations. In January 2015, the author interviewed a France-based jihadist sympathizer who closely tracks Central Asian jihadist groups. The individual indicated that the IMU had fractured following the April 29, 2012 death of then IMU emir Usman Odil. The split was rooted in disagreement over Usman Ghazi’s emphasis on operations in Pakistan instead of Central Asia or Afghanistan. The sympathizer stated the IMU had split into two elements: Usman Ghazi’s faction, which supported the TTP and which had issued the September 2014 statement offering support to the Islamic State; and an Afghanistan-focused group headquartered in Faryab, Afghanistan.
The evidence of a split is thin, given the limited statements from the IMU since June 2014. However, someone or some group claiming to be an IMU affiliate openly pledged allegiance to the Islamic State in a video that circulated on Dari language Facebook accounts in early February 2015. The video was likely produced and uploaded by the Faryab-based faction that the jihadist sympathizer indicated had split with Usman Ghazi.
In the video, a Faryab-based IMU member, Sadullah Urgenchi, named the Islamic State’s leader Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi as their new leader instead of the Taliban’s Mullah Omar. Urgenchi stated that according to Sharia, IMU militants believed Mullah Omar could no longer be their leader because he had not been seen publicly for 13 years. Urgenchi’s proclamation of allegiance to the Islamic State in the video is overshadowed by the brutal beheading of an Afghan National Army soldier who was kidnapped with approximately 30 other Hazara men in Zabul province, Afghanistan in late February 2015. In the video, Urgenchi claims that the kidnapping was in retaliation for the Afghan government’s arrest of female IMU supporters and threatened additional beheadings if the females were not released. The video is emblazoned with the seal for the IMU’s media wing, Jundallah, which is found on all official IMU videos.
Urgenchi is likely a member of the IMU, though his name, or a version of it (Asadullah Urganchiy), appears only once in more than 20 years of media releases and statements from the IMU. Urganchiy is listed as the author of a book published in 2013 called “What’s Happening in the Tribal Areas” via the Pakistan-based jihadist media outlet Jamia Hafsa Urdu Forum.
The absence of a notable or identifiable IMU leader in the video is interesting. The claim of allegiance is a bold statement and in more normal circumstances would likely have been reserved for Usman Ghazi. There is one reference to a similar message coming from Usman Ghazi as IMU leader. An Uzbekistani law enforcement official reported in October 2014 that Usman Ghazi indeed pledged allegiance to al-Baghdadi, amplifying his September statement of support. 
The video supports evidence from the jihadist sympathizer regarding a split within the IMU, but there are alternate explanations. Usman Ghazi’s silence on the IMU’s support or allegiance to the Islamic State since his September statement may simply be due to Pakistani military operations and subsequent relocation of the IMU’s network to more hospitable areas of Afghanistan. Nonetheless, it is clear though that both Usman Ghazi and the Faryab-based Sadullah Urgenchi have expressed support for the Islamic State.
The IMU’s support for the Islamic State is an important development, notwithstanding the possibility of a split within the group. It has a proven track record of conducting high-profile attacks against strategic targets in Afghanistan and Pakistan, and the possibility exists that it could expand its operations into Central Asia. The IMU could also provide the Islamic State with a significant force multiplier in the region, similar to the way the IMU has been able to support the TTP’s attacks in Pakistan. The recent reestablishment of IMU sanctuaries in northern Afghanistan, particularly in the Uzbek enclaves of Faryab and Kunduz, could also lead to the establishment of a sanctuary that would rival or replace Pakistan’s tribal areas. If the IMU is able to do so, it could use the area to launch operations into Central Asia that would further their own strategic interests or those of the Islamic State.
Damon Mehl is a senior analyst with the 75th Ranger Regiment and previously the Joint Special Operations Command and the US Central Command. He has over five years of combat experience since 2001, primarily in Afghanistan. Over the past ten years, Mr. Mehl’s professional research experience has focused on Islamist groups and security issues in Central and South Asia.
The views expressed here are those of the author and do not reflect the official policy or position of the Department of the Army, Department of Defense, or the U.S. Government.
1 IMU statement dated September 12, 2014, “From the Islamic Movement of Uzbekistan to the Islamic State: Word of Support and Advice,” posted to the IMU’s primary website www.jundurrahmon.com.
2 Bay`a is an Islamic oath of allegiance.
3 In his September 2014 statement, Usman Ghazi justified the IMU’s statement of support for the Islamic State with multiple scriptures from the Koran.
4 Among the Central Asian jihadist groups fighting in the Afghanistan-Pakistan region, only the IMU has pledged support for the Islamic State. The predominantly Uzbek Islamic Jihad Union and the Tajik group Jamaat Ansarullah have remained silent on the issue. There are three prominent Central Asian jihadist groups fighting in Syria: the Imam Bukhari Battalion, Jannat Oshiqlari AKA the Tavid va Jihod Battalion, and the Central Asian/Dagestani Sabiri Jamaat. The first two groups fight with Jabhat al-Nusra and the latter is loyal to the Islamic State. The IMU also indicated they had also fought in Syria in a June 2, 2014 statement available at http://justpaste.it/messagefromIMU.
5 Don Rassler, “Situating the Emergence of the Islamic State of Khorasan,” CTC Sentinel, 3:8, Combating Terrorism Center at West Point.
6 Khorasan is a historical geographical region dating to pre-Islamic Sasanian dynasty during the 3rd Century of the Christian Era that covered northeastern Iran, southern Turkmenistan, and Afghanistan. The Islamic State’s apparent definition is somewhat broader, stretching into Pakistan as well.
7 “Die in Your Rage” by Islamic State spokesman Abu Muhammad al-‘Adani as-Shami was translated by Pieter Van Ostaeyen and can be found on his website at https://pietervanostaeyen.files.Abu Muhammad al-‘Adani as-Shamiwordpress.com/2015/01/al-adnani-say-die-in-your-rage.pdf
8 The Long War Journal provided an excellent graphic on ISK’s leadership available at http://www.longwarjournal.org/archives/2015/01/islamic_state_appoin.php.
9 Ameerul Mumineen is an Islamic title meaning “Commander of the Faithful” or “Leader of the Faithful.” This title has historically been reserved for the caliph, the leader of the Islamic Caliphate. Usman Ghazi’s association of the title with Mullah Omar in a statement of support for the Islamic State is problematic. The position of “Commander of the Faithful” would technically be given to Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi, as the leader of the Islamic State and self-declared leader of the “caliphate.”
10 The IMU’s relationship with the Afghan Taliban is longstanding and documented multiple times in IMU documents captured in Afghanistan by ISAF and in IMU media and statements. In this instance, Usman Ghazi specified the IMU pledged bay`a to Mullah Omar in 1997 in his September 2014 statement of support for the Islamic State.
11 “Harmony Document AFGP-2002-60112523,” Combating Terrorism Center, West Point. This document is a compilation of four personal accounts of IMU members’ migration to Afghanistan from Central Asia. One specific account details a group of IMU members who crossed via the Turkmenistan-Afghanistan border under fire from Turkmenistan border guards. The Taliban provided the IMU members protection and refused the border guard’s demands to return the IMU members to their custody.
12 “Harmony Document AFGP-2002-000489,” Combating Terrorism Center, West Point. This document is an internal IMU letter signed by Tohir Yuldashev detailing the establishment of the IMU’s Bukhari Camp in Afghanistan due to the growth of the IMU in Afghanistan because of the influx of members arriving from Central Asia. Yuldashev indicated the IMU needed an independent camp because the Taliban provided shelter to the group when their numbers were small. As the IMU grew, the group rented houses from Taliban, and now required their own camp.
13 Footnotes 11 and 12 provide historical context to the Taliban and IMU relationship. More recent examples of the Taliban’s use of IMU commanders to fill Taliban leadership positions in Uzbek enclaves of northern Afghanistan are seen in ISAF press releases from 2008-2012 detailing ISAF operations targeting Taliban and IMU commanders.
14 Evidence of IMU leaders acting in leadership positions on behalf of the Taliban is noted in multiple ISAF press releases from 2008-2012. See also Abubakar Siddique, “In Afghanistan, IMU-Taliban Alliance Chips Away At The Stone,” June 9, 2011, Radio Free Europe/Radio Liberty.
15 Ibid. IMU statement dated September 12, 2014, “From the Islamic Movement of Uzbekistan to the Islamic State: Word of Support and Advice,” posted to the IMU’s primary website www.jundurrahmon.com: “We hope that the Islamic Emirate of Afghanistan and the Pakistan Taliban Movement will establish a brotherly relationship with the Islamic State in the near future and cooperate in the sacred jihad against the kufr forces of the world, insh’Allah.”
16 Press reports and some IMU statements since June 2014 suggest the group fled South Waziristan, due to Pakistan military operations. The IMU may have taken refuge in remote areas of Zabul and Faryab provinces of Afghanistan. This will be discussed further in this article.
17 “Harmony Document SOCOM-2012-0000015-HT.” Although Zabul may fall within the traditional area of control and influence for the Quetta Shura, the province has long been a refuge for foreign fighters including from the IMU and al-Qa`ida. The IMU fled to Zabul following their 2007 ouster from South Waziristan by militants loyal to Wana-based Commander Nazir, according to a report by Pakistani’s Dawn on 5 April 2007. Al-Qa`ida has also used Zabul as a refuge according to a declassified letter seized during the May 2011 Usama Bin Laden raid in Abbottabad, Pakistan.
18 The first identifiable joint statement or media release by the IMU and TTP was a November 2009 video produced by the IMU’s Jundallah Media Production Studio titled ”Al-Ansar and Al-Mujahirun.” The video was distributed by the IMU through their www.furqon.com website.
19 In June 2014, Pakistan’s military commenced Operation Zarb-e-Azb in Waziristan, which was the IMU’s primary sanctuary. Multiple press reports and a few statements from IMU elements indicate the IMU has recently operated in Zabul, Faryab, and Kunduz provinces, Afghanistan.
20 In Afghanistan, the IMU has found refuge in the northern Afghanistan provinces of Faryab, Badghis, Kunduz, Baghlan, and Takhar, according to ISAF press releases from 2008-2012 and IMU attack claims from 2007-2014. The author collected multiple IMU statements and claims of attack from 1999–2015 from IMU statements available on their websites, social media, and other jihadist forums.
21 “Uzbek Opposition Head on Establishing Islamic State,” Mashhad Voice of the Islamic Republic of Iran in Persian, May 18, 1999.
22 It is interesting that Yuldashev declared NATO as a threat to Islam prior to NATO’s establishment of the International Security Assistance Force (ISAF) in Afghanistan after the September 11, 2001 attacks. This view likely strengthened the IMU’s resolve to fight in Afghanistan.
23 Ibid, “Uzbek Opposition Head on Establishing Islamic State.”
24 In mid-August 2010, the IMU’s website carried Usmon Odil’s statement in Uzbek on the group’s website furqon.com. In this statement, Usman Odil breaks the IMU’s one-year long silence to officially announce the August 2009 death of Tohir Yuldashev and his new position as the group’s emir.
25 Bill Roggio, “Tahir Yuldashev Confirmed Killed In US Strike In South Waziristan,” October 4, 2009, The Long War Journal. Shaheed translates into English as martyr. Muhammad Tohir Foruq is the IMU’s founder Tohir Yuldashev.
26 A khutba is an Islamic preaching or sermon.
27 Jamaah or jamaat translates into English as group.
28 The IMU’s website and social media accounts were the primary outlet to distribute their statements and have nearly fallen silent since June 2014, likely a consequence of Pakistan’s military operations in Waziristan and the IMU’s departure from the area. The IMU’s primary website, jundurrahman.com, went offline sometime in early 2015, and their primary Twitter feed @KhorasanArmy tweeted details of their June 2014 attack on the Karachi airport and has been silent since with the exception of a December 10, 2014 tweet which stated, “We are back insha Allah!”
29 Ibid., IMU website
30 IMU statement signed by Usman Ghazi titled “Statement Regarding the Martyrdom Operation in Karachi” posted to the Jamia Hafsa Urdu Forum (jhuf.net) in English on June 10, 2014. The attack killed 37 people and ten jihadis.
31 The IMU is believed to have supported the TTP’s December 15, 2012 attack on the Bacha Khan International Airport in Peshawar, Pakistan. See, “TTP Using Uzbeks to Conduct Terrorist Attacks” The News, December 18, 2012. Ten militants allegedly first fired rockets at the airport followed by deployment of a Vehicle Borne Improvised Explosive Device.
32 “Who are the Uzbeks Launching Terror Strikes in Pakistan,” The News Online in English (Islamabad), May 22, 2011. According to the report, four Uzbeki members of the IMU attacked the PNS Mehran at Shahrah-e-Faisal resulting in the destruction of two P3C Orion surveillance aircraft and damage to a third.
33 The TTP first claimed credit for the attack, a claim that was quickly overshadowed by the IMU’s own statement. Following the attack, Pakistan implicated and issued arrest warrants for TTP Emir Maulawi Fazlullah and other TTP leaders. See “#KarachiAirportAttack: Arrest warrant of TTP chief Fazlullah, others issued,” December 21, 2014, gtms Pakistan.
34 “Karachi airport attack: How it happened,” June 10, 2014, Dawn.com
35 Mid-June 2014, according to photos the IMU circulated and retweeted from other Twitter users on their @Khorasanarmy account. Pakistani media was largely quiet over the damage caused by the attack.
36 Abu Ibrahim, “Pakistan Wars Just Began.” This IMU publication details Pakistan military operations in Mir Ali and the IMU’s claim that their homes and families had been targeted. The statement included links to pictures on their websites.
37 Despite its name, the IMU does not maintain a foothold in Central Asia. Instead the group primarily operates in the Afghanistan-Pakistan region, supporting the TTP in their jihad against the Government of Pakistan and in northern Afghanistan.
38 Also known as Transoxiana, or in Arabic as Bilad ma-Wara’ al-Nahar (land beyond the [Oxus] river). This is the ancient name used for the portion of Central Asia corresponding approximately with modern-day Uzbekistan, Tajikistan, southern Kyrgyzstan, and southwest Kazakhstan. The predominantly Uzbek Imam Bukhari Battalion in Syria also calls themselves Mawarannahr Mujohidlari.
39 Reid Standish “Shadow Boxing with the Islamic State in Central Asia,” Foreign Policy, February 6, 2015.
40 The IMU has not maintained a continuous presence in Central Asia over the past decade, despite multiple claims of arrests by Central Asian countries. The IMU has primarily documented their presence in their statements and media in Pakistan’s tribal areas and in Afghanistan.
41 Author interview, January 2015.
42 Bill Roggio, “IMU announces death of emir, names new leader,” Long War Journal, August 4, 2012.
43 IMU Leader Pledges Allegiance to Islamic State in Beheading Video of Afghan Soldier. The video can be viewed via the author’s YouTube account at this link: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=ZMtcerbfySU [Caution: The video contains graphic footage of a beheading]
44 Urgench is a city in Uzbekistan, which is the capital of Khorezm province, located on the banks of the River Amu, and situated approximately 450 kilometers northwest of Bukhara and near the Turkmenistan border.
45 Speaking in native-level Dari fluency.
46 Ibid, “IMU Leader Pledges Allegiance to Islamic State in Beheading Video of Afghan Soldier.”
47 Mirwais Adeel, “Uzbek Militants in Afghanistan Pledge Allegiance to ISIS in Beheading Video,” March 31, 2015, Khaama Press. The English-language Hazara.net website also carried a report about the kidnapping on February 25, 2015.
48 The author has compiled a comprehensive database of media statements produced by the IMU and Central Asian jihadists dating back to the mid-1990s.
49 Asadullah Urganchiy, “What’s Happening in the Tribal Areas” IMU. 2012. This book is translated into English by Jamia Hafsa’s translation department and details the life of the IMU and its members in Pakistan’s tribal areas.
50 Thomas Ruttig, “ANSF Wrong-Footed: The Taleban offensive in Kunduz,” Afghanistan Analysts Network, May 3, 2015.
51 Jane’s Country Risk Daily Reports, “IMU hopes alignment with Islamic State will improve its finances, increasing risks to government targets in Uzbekistan,” October 7, 2014.
52 An increase in Uzbek, Tajik, Pakistani, and Caucasian fighters has been reported in multiple press reports. See, Fazul Rahim, and Alexander Smith, “ISIS-Linked Fighters Tighten Grip in Afghanistan, Outmatch Taliban Brutality” NBC News, May 1, 2015.
53 Ibid, Thomas Ruttig, “ANSF Wrong-Footed: The Taleban offensive in Kunduz.”