Daniyar Koznazarov: The Islamic Movement of Uzbekistan (IMU) chooses the greater of two evils

This material is adopted from Central Asian Analytical Network (CAAN) of the George Washington University under the cooperation agreement between CAAN and The PULS.


What considerations were behind the Islamic Movement of Uzbekistan’s pledging allegiance to the Islamic State? How did the death of the Taliban leader Mullah Omar affect the IMU? Does IMU still associate itself with Afghanistan and Pakistan? What is the role of Central Asia in the future strategy of the IMU?

The Islamic Movement of Uzbekistan (IMU) chooses the greater of two evils. Between Taliban and ISIL, the IMU sided with the latter. The IMU is in the struggle for survival, and this movement would not want to sink into oblivion having spent so many years on achieving legitimacy in the Afghan-Pakistani jihadist landscape. This field begins rapid fragmentation after the news that the leader of the Taliban, Mullah Omar, turns out to be long dead. The struggle for power within the Taliban breeds the “offended” for which there is nothing left except for joining ISIL.

During the war in Afghanistan, many commanders who dropped out of Taliban for one reason or another, concealed their resentment to the movement. Until the DAISH (ISIL in Arabic) came along, in Afghanistan it was impossible to “operate” without informing the Taliban. And the oath of some former supporters of the Taliban to the  leader of IS – Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi –  is a sign of hope to have the same resources and military power as the Taliban on the Afghan front. The Taliban itself, of course, viewed such actions as a challenge to its dominance.

The recent IMU oath to Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi indicates that the group of Usmon Ghazi clearly knows the risks and realistically assesses how its actions will be regarded by the Taliban. IMU is working on further fragmentation of the Afghan jihadist front, probably realizing that within the Taliban there can be a tightened struggle for power in the coming years.

This struggle can lead to weakening of the group, waste of energy and resources on internal squabbles, the flow of resources and personnel into the ranks of the very ISIL. ISIL can gain a critical mass of supporters in the ranks of which are experienced fighters, commanders, religious leaders only when the split occurs within the Taliban. Before the death of Mullah Omar and Mullah Mansour’s appointment as the new leader of the Taliban it was impossible to imagine that many members of the movement will become inveterate enemies of each other, and now, with on the refusal to recognize Mansour as a legitimate leader, the ranks of DAISH can dramatically replenish.

Hopping on a train to DAISH

The IMU tries to take advantage of such favorable prospects for itself, which will enhance its resource base and fill the entity with new recruits. The IMU itself is afraid that its members would prefer to fight in Syria, rather than stay in the AfPak area, the war in which has long seemed pointless to many fighters. With this in mind there is a need to re-state the importance of Afghanistan, and taking into account the fact that DAISH has an eye on the so-called “Khurasan”, the IMU wants to outsource the IS in South and Central Asia. The IMU relies on its advantage, that it is not a foreign element, but consists of militants from local regional countries. Without this advantage, it will be difficult to move in the AfPak area due to the lack of knowledge about the area, lack of necessary skills to communicate with the population, and lack of expertise in fighting the counter-terrorism activities of local state in general.

Given that the Taliban does not recognize the IS, the DAISH place in South and Central Asia remains vacant. Why not fill for the IMU the existing niche, especially when it promises great benefits for the movement.

The IMU itself has been in need of a “re-branding” for a while now, and the emergence of such a powerful player like IS on jihadist market has an even stronger effect on the interests of those groups who are not able to adapt to today’s terms. As a small organization, the IMU decides to join the “great cause” of DAISH by trying to ride the wave and ripe the dividends. Most importantly, the movement wants to again become an attractive organization, whose ranks are attractive to the new combatants.

The more combatants, the more opportunities there are to attract funding. The more money, the more opportunities to recruit experienced commanders, equipped with good weapons and army to provide themselves with the support of local community leaders and the public. The IMU longs for this and is drawing, in its point of view, a win-win business strategy.

Back to basics?

It is not clear how the IMU wants to come back to Central Asia. Especially because in the last ten years or more, it was getting further and further away from its Central Asian roots and started to associate itself more with Afghanistan and Pakistan, including the ethnic composition of their followers. This factor is one of the obvious drawbacks for the IMU, but there is a feeling that it is ready to regain the status of a Central Asian group.

During all these years, it was convenient for the Central Asian countries that the IMU is focused on war in the AfPak area, not “engaging” with them. Yet the very existence of the IMU was used by regional states as a threat, a “horror story” not only for the internal but the external audiences as well. And if suddenly DAISH decides to bet on the IMU, it is not known what it portends for the countries of Central Asia.

At the same time, it is unclear what strategy in Central Asian direction the IMU is ready to use. Perhaps there are expectations that those Central Asian militants who are now in Syria, having returned home or moved to Afghanistan, will become members of the IMU and its cells.

But it is clear what the IMU will not dare doing. The movement does not want to be in Syria and/or completely dissolve in DAISH. Its goal is not just to outsource the IS in Khurasan, but to be its “right hand” to maintain itself as an independent organization with a separate identity. Such an alignment, of course, would be ideal for the IMU, but there is a feeling that it is willing to be flexible enough to please the DAISH leadership.

In any case, much will depend on the IS itself and on the extent, to which DAISH is really ready to take root in the South and Central Asia.