The IMU and IJU make a great deal of information about themselves easily available to the public. As organizations, they don’t hide their beliefs, their willingness to use violence to advance religio-political goals (or in some cases their clear preference for violence because they believe this will result in martyrdom) and their support for al Qaida. In spite of this, though, most analysts and much of the public (Uzbek and non-Uzbek alike) seem to see in the groups whatever they wish to see: a specter of terror hanging over Central Asia after 2014, the product of government oppression, or freedom fighters forced into an alliance of necessity with terrorist organizations and drug smugglers. A large part of the explanation for this mirror effect, in which each observer sees only what they want or expect to see, is the degree of extreme mistrust, paranoia and conspiracy in relation to media in the post-Soviet space and in the Uzbek opposition and independent media in particular.
This initial piece in the series will look at two of these issues. It will first highlight how the IMU portrays itself and describes its own goals and the contrast this reveals between the movement itself and the common assumption that they remain an Uzbekistani political actor and are a potential outlet for Uzbek political grievances in Uzbekistan or Southern Kyrgyzstan. (The next article will focus mostly on the IJU and their media outlet, Sodiqlar.info.)
Secondly, we will look at the connection between issues of religious freedom in Uzbekistan and Central Asia and their role as a “push” factor in recruitment for Uzbek VEOs. It is often assumed that excessive religious oppression can lead to violent resistance, and therefore that harsh restrictions on religious freedom can ultimately be counterproductive. The problem with this argument for many of us who write on these issues on a regular basis is we have very little evidence that religious believers of any type respond to persecution of their faith with organized violence. In Uzbekistan alone good estimates for the number of prisoners of conscience (including the one from the US Committee on International Religious Freedom) range up to 10,000 people at any given moment. As I will discuss below, a closer look at the IMU and IJU discourse gives some new evidence that the experience of religious persecution and discrimination is a factor for recruits from Central Asia
What, exactly, is the IMU really fighting for?
The lengthy recent interview the IMU says it gave to Ozodlik, their spokesman Yahyo Hikmatiy said that jihad is a “global” [olamiy] obligation that the IMU was prepared to engage in “anywhere on the face of the earth.” But in response to a direct question about whether they plan to get involved in the Syrian conflict, he also further reinforced that their main theater of operations is Pakistan and Afghanistan and characterized a shift in operations elsewhere as a betrayal of their true cause. The IMU has for years referred to the Taliban’s government as “our Emirate of Afghanistan, which was unjustly overthrown.” This serves as a reminder that one of the most important things overlooked in much of the Central Asian security-focused analysis is that aside from its own name, the Islamic Movement of Uzbekistan rarely mentions Uzbekistan, and never mentions the country at all in terms of operational plans and priorities.
It seems sometimes that in all the chatter about the supposedly imminent threat of an IMU invasion of Central Asia the only people not talking about it are the IMU themselves. In contrast, earlier this year the movement splintered for at least the second time to create a special unit in cooperation with the Tehrik-e Taliban’s (TTP) Adnan Rashid to focus on prison-break operations inside Pakistan. In the latest interview Hikmatiy claims, “our jihad is part of the completion of the Hind G’azasi [the (Holy) Conquest of Greater India] that our Prophet foretold and that was longed for by his honored companions [sahoba].” The reference to this particular obscure hadith, popular mostly with the Pakistani jihadi groups, is a sign of just how deeply the IMU has been pulled into the Af/Pak political labyrinth.
At talks that I’ve given this year at George Washington and at the Harvard/Carnegie Conference on Islam in Central Eurasia (and in a couple of papers that will come out shortly, for Harvard and USAID), I’ve sketched out the argument that the IMU were never really an Uzbekistani group in the first place. In spite of the fact that their experiences in Uzbekistan’s Ferghana Valley were central to the biographies of the Movement’s founders, their ideas, ideology, tactics and strategies were all formed in the Af/Pak region. Analysts focused on Central Asia usually dismiss or overlook or the fact that Tohir Yoldoshev (Muhammad Tohir Foruq, as the movement prefers to call him) swore an oath of allegiance to Muhammad Omar. The IMU doesn’t overlook it. In Jihod Bayrog’i [The Banner of Jihad], the extended hagiography of their leader who was killed in a suspected US drone strike in 2009, the IMU’s media studio spends only seconds on Uzbekistan and take a few more seconds to exaggerate Yoldashev’s role in the Tajik civil war and then hardly mention Central Asia again. Even in a clip included in the film from of one of Yoldashev’s sermons that outlines his conceptualization of victory in Afghanistan, his vision of the Emirate (interestingly enough) goes to the borders of Kyrgyzstan and Tajikistan and stops there.
The narrative of his life quickly goes from the Tajik Civil War to Yo’ldashev’s oath of allegiance to Mullah Omar and the Islamic Emirate of Afghanistan, and then to life in Pakistan, where the IMU has been based for over a decade. IMU propaganda claims Yoldashev played a key role in turning the Afghan jihad against its Pakistani funders and even in founding the TTP. (It’s interesting to note that statements in Uzbek are much more direct about these claims than material in other languages for other audiences: the Uzbek voiceover in Jihod Bayrog’i says “Yo’ldashev is the reason the TTP was founded” while the English subtitles added for multilingual Pakistani audiences say only “Yo’ldashev was a factor…”).
Further, the movement is separated from Central Asia not just because its strategy and circumstances have evolved, but also because its membership has changed. Like Yoldashev, most of the original members and all of the original leadership are now dead; killed not in battles with Uzbek security services, but with US and NATO troops and Pakistan’s federal authorities. Their statements over the past decade have railed against the “Pharaoh of our Age, the cursed Bush and the traitor Musharraf,” “the slave Karzai and his master Obama” or more recently even the “dammed Terry Jones” who publicly desecrated the Qur’an far more often than they remember Islam Karimov, whom Yo’ldashev so famously forced to silently fume during their 1991 confrontation in Namangan .
The Tragic Confluence of “Global Jihad” and Religious Persecution
But in spite of their lack of operational capability (or perhaps interest) in Central Asia, the IMU and its splinter group the Islamic Jihad Union remain—with some emerging competition from Uzbeks fighting in Syria—the Uzbek language voice for global jihad and armed opposition. When asked if they continue to receive recruits from Uzbekistan, Hikmatiy says:
Bu savolingizning javobini o’zingingiz ham bilasiz… bizga nafaqat O’zbekistondan, balki, O’rta Osiyoning va boshqa MDH davlatlarning ko’p joylaridan, hatto Evropa, Osiyo va Afrikadan ham musulmanlar muqaddas jihod uchun kelib qo’shilmoqdalar… Avvallari “hijrat qilamiz va jihodga boramiz” degan muqlis birodarlarimiz bizni www.furqon.com orqali kuzatib kelgan bo’lsalar, xozirda ushbu www.jundurrahmon.com sayti orqali topib kelmokdalar. Bizdan asosan qanday qilib jihodga borish yo’llarini so’raydilar. Agar bu “ozod” hukumatlar barcha yo’llarni zo’ravonlarcha yopib tashlamaganlarida safimizga juda ko’p musulmonlar hijrat qilib kelgan bo’lishi mumkin edi. Ularning aksariyati din erkinligi yo’qligi sababli kelmoqdalar.
You already know the answer that that question… Muslims come to us to join the sacred jihad from not only Uzbekistan, but from Central Asia and many other parts of the CIS, even from Europe, Asia, and Africa… In the past our brothers wrote to our site Furqon.com to say, “we want to leave our homelands and join the jihad,” and now they find us through our [new] site Jundurrahmon.com. The primary reason they contact us is to learn how to join the jihad. If these “free” governments didn’t so cruelly prevent them, many more Muslims would have left their homelands and joined our ranks. The majority of those who are coming do so because of the complete lack of religious freedom.
The last sentence is especially significant. The vast majority of Central Asians who are persecuted for their religious beliefs show no inclination to react with violence, even when they or their family members suffer violence from the state. But particularly in Uzbekistan and Tajikistan–and increasingly in Kazakhstan and Kyrgyzstan as these countries tighten their religious restrictions or selectively enforce them against ethnic minorities–the lack of religious freedom is a serious grievance that drives many to leave the country and a few into the arms of the IMU and IJU. Although only a tiny number of these are drawn into the orbit of violent jihadi organizations, the threat the organizations present to the refugee community should be taken seriously.
Last month the IJU published a different interview [Sodiqlar.info, Uzbek, follow link at your own discretion] with a militant named Abu Abdul Ahad who self-identified as a recent recruit from Uzbekistan. He described his path to jihad beginning when he became interested in religion and grew disillusioned first by the shallow, generic sermons in his Ferghana Valley mosque [“only prayers for a bigger cotton harvest and instructions for how to go to the bathroom properly”] and then by the lack of freedom for expressing his newfound belief once he discovered charismatic clerics like Abduvali Qori Morzoev, whose poplar revivalist writing and sermons are banned by the government. Abduvali Qori, who did not support Islamist politics or violence, disappeared in 1995; his followers and many international observers believe he was kidnapped and later died in the custody of the Uzbek Security Services. Abu Abdul Ahad says that he discovered the IJU through their website, contacted them for instructions about how to travel to Pakistan to join them, and left his homeland behind because he couldn’t practice his religion there, just the IMU claims most of their Central Asian recruits do.
The problem of religious freedom in Central Asia is real, and states like Uzbekistan have possibly exacerbated the appeal of the IMU and IJU most by steadily eliminating—through coercion, imprisonment, or assassination—Muslim voices who don’t adequately adhere to government talking points, from revivalist reformers like Abduvali qori and Obidxon qori Nazarov to mainstream religious celebrities like Hayrullo Hamidov, whose only threat to the government was his popularity and public appeal. The IMU and IJU still are only able to occupy the margins in debates about the role of religion in society or in politics, but government’s attempts to steadily remove alternative, independent voices are in the long run likely counter-productive if their true goal is to decrease the influence of extremist groups.
Lastly, the few Uzbeks who are drawn into the orbit of VEOs in response to legitimate grievances about religious and civic freedom or the extreme isolation and search for belonging that some experience while living in exile are in many ways also victims, caught between an oppressive state and manipulative extremist organizations. The IMU in particular does not offer an alternative way of life: it offers only death. And it makes no effort to hide this. The IMU’s propaganda machine is a cult of death. Yo’ldashev, whose claim to martyrdom is celebrated in all the material mentioned above, loved to emphasize that “Islam is a religion of sacrifice,” and that this meant the sacrifice not just of effort and property, but of human lives.
The IMU’s media is dominated by the cold, lifeless faces of their “martyrs,” so many of them young Afghan Uzbeks that make up the majority of their ranks and who are hardly old enough to be called men. The movement even has its own theme song, a simple campfire chorus that repeats over and over “we wage jihad, and we will be martyrs.” In a March video that advertises a horrific suicide bombing in a crowded city center in Pakistan, a young woman from Russia named Maryam explains that she chooses to die and to kill as many others as possible because she believes this “will please God.” Her last words play over video that shows her three or four year old son happily firing a handgun and then later playing with it by himself as if it were a toy, then she drives an SUV fully loaded with explosives away from the camp to die in a foreign country’s sectarian war and kill complete strangers. She says she hopes that her son will grow up to die the same way, and that on the day of judgment those who appear before God covered in their own blood will be admitted directly into heaven and that this is better than living. In the IMU’s version of the world, the enemy is everywhere, and murdering Shia in Pakistan or turning recruits into human bombs is an appropriate response to an attention-crazed Florida hillbilly who burns Qur’ans so he can be interviewed on CNN.
The worst and perhaps the most dangerous thing about the Uzbek VEOs is that they prey on victims of persecution, of isolation; they send out a siren call to their oppressed Uzbek brothers and sisters and those who answer are turned into cannon fodder in Pakistan’s tribal areas, assured with hollow promises that the whole world is grateful for their sacrifice. And in the end, that is why the IMU and IJU are most worth our attention from a Central Asian perspective, not only for the negligible threat they pose to stability in Central Asia or the more realistic threat their cult of violence and death poses to public safety in the region and elsewhere, but also for the threat they represent to Uzbeks all over the world made vulnerable to victimization because they were already victims.