I’ve had every intention of writing an IMU article this week after they claimed the Karachi airport attack and articles began to pop up questioning what this means for Central Asia. I still haven’t managed to write it, but was grateful to Kathy Gilsinan at World Politics Review for giving me a chance to talk about the increasingly brutal cycle of violence and reprisals the IMU has worked itself into in Pakistan.
One of the points from the interview that didn’t make it into the article was a question about whether or not the IMU now sees itself as fighting on a different geographic front, or in a different campaign, than they did when they were founded. Kathy thoughtfully said that she didn’t want to assume the IMU cares about Western geographic models, that for them she assumed fighting in Central Asia or fighting on Pakistan — even as far south as Karachi — might be seen as part of the same effort.
I mentioned that although the IMU sees itself as part of a global jihad, as we pointed out here at Registan last fall, the IMU has itself made a distinction in at least one of its statements in the past year that their priority is now a different campaign in that “global effort,” the Hind G’azasi–a conquest of the greater subcontinent jihadists claim is foreshadowed in the the sayings of the Prophet. While they continue to have some members fighting in Afghanistan in partnership with the Taliban and recently claimed — for the first time — to have members fighting in Syria as well, IMU senior leadership statements and official media have made it abundantly clear that Pakistan is their first priority. As the Pakistani military continues to escalate strikes against their safe havens, they probably have no choice in the matter.
From the article:
The group is now believed to be based in the Pakistani tribal agency of North Waziristan, where the presence of the Pakistani Taliban affords them some protection and the absence of central government authority has left space for what they advertise as a community governed by Shariah law.
As guests of the TTP, the IMU takes pains to advertise its own importance to the fight against the Pakistani military. Though the IMU touted its own role in the Karachi attacks without mentioning the TTP, for example, a Pakistani Taliban spokesman clarified to an AFP reporter that it was a joint operation. “I think they leave out talking about TTP and the other people who are really in charge . . . in order to kind of embellish their own role and just make a better sales pitch” to potential recruits, says Tucker.
But the TTP remains the much stronger group. Whereas the IMU counts only a few hundred fighters, the TTP, says Tucker, is bigger, better funded and better integrated into local institutions and tribal governance. The IMU’s relatively high profile is a product less of its actual strength than of the Pakistani military’s incentive to de-emphasize the local casualties of its operations, combined with the IMU’s own efforts to attract recruits.
Outside of such recruitment efforts, the IMU now barely mentions the country it is named for, notwithstanding its early vows to take over Uzbekistan. Under assault from Pakistani security forces and losing potential recruits to the Syrian war, however, the group now appears more defensive than expeditionary. Tucker says their communications have reflected this shift. The IMU has stopped telling Muslims in Central Asia that it will return to overthrow oppressive governments and institute Shariah law. “Now they’re saying. . . ‘come and help us.’” But with the Pakistani military staging its largest operation in years against militants in the tribal areas, that call seems likely to go unheeded.