Jihad In Post-Soviet Central Asia

Recently on the Free Fire blog, there was a report on the defection of Colonel Gulmurod Halimov, the head of Tajikistan’s elite OMON counter-terrorist unit, trained by both American Special Forces and Russian Specnaz, to Islamic State. Shortly after the news broke of Halimov’s defection, Tajikistan declared Islamic State a terrorist organization by means of a suit from the Prosecutor-General’s Office. Halimov’s change of allegiance also coincided with a meeting of CIS nations to discuss counter-terrorism starting on May 26th. Of particular importance was the discussion of “color revolutions” and the threat posed by Islamic State; reports on the meeting note that a goal of the meeting was to “prevent spread of religious extremism and terrorist ideology.”

Central Asian countries have good reason to be concerned about Islamic State moving in to the region. Tajikistan in particular fought a brutal civil war in the 1990s between the post-Soviet communist strongmen and a strange alliance between Islamists and democratic reformers. Since then, the Tajik government has engaged in a campaign of countering growing Middle Eastern cultural influence in the heavily Muslim country, fearing a resurgence of jihadist activity. With Islamic State making an appearance in Afghanistan, the Tajik government has good reason to fear jihadist infiltration of the country.

As of January, Islamic State has formed the Khorasan province, which includes Afghanistan, Pakistan, Iran, and several other states in Central Asia. In the letter announcing the creation of the Khorasan province, Islamic State spokesman Sheikh Abu Muhammad al-Adnani urged jihadists in Central Asia to abandon factionalism and join with the new Caliphate.

Before discussing the more militant jihadist organizations, we must first bring attention to Hizb ut-Tahrir. Like the Muslim Brotherhood, Hizb ut-Tahrir prefers to use “pre-violent jihad” to achieve their goals of creating a unified Islamic state. Hizb ut-Tahrir spread widely throughout post-Soviet Central Asia, despite being made illegal by all of the nations in the region. One reason for Hizb ut-Tahrir’s successful spread among disaffected Central Asian Muslims is its resemblance to Soviet Communism in economic issues. The economic policies of Hizb ut-Tahrir include guaranteed employment, nationalization of industries, free health care, and criminalization of usury. It is from Hizb ut-Tahrir from which the more militant groups in the area sprung, albeit Hizb ut-Tahrir tends to oppose such groups due to their use of violent jihad against fellow Muslims.

In addition to the Hizb ut-Tahrir, the Islamic Movement of Uzbekistan and the East Turkestan Islamic Movement have been the other major Central Asian jihadist organizations. Though Islamist politics in post-Soviet Central Asia has been less popular than in the Middle East, the lack of political freedoms and corruption in the former Soviet republics have created fertile ground for jihadist organizations. Central Asian leaders such as Uzbekistan’s Islam Karimov have repeatedly cited “jihadism” as the greatest threat to stability and security to their nations, and as a result secularism has been aggressively pursued throughout the region.

Currently based in northern Pakistan, the Islamic Movement of Uzbekistan was created by Tahir Yuldash and Juman Namangani during the conflict in the early 1990s between Islamist clerics and the Islam Karimov government, backed by Uzbekistan’s quietist Hanafi clerics and scholars. The Islamist clerics, referred to as mujadidiya(reformers), demanded a rollback of the Soviet-era secularism, adherence to the salafist view (thus rejecting the Hanafi school which is popular in Central Asia), and the establishment of “Muslimonabad” an Islamic state ruled by Sharia law in Central Asia. The mujadidiya were made more confident by success of the Iranian revolution and the efforts and success of the mujahideen in Afghanistan, but ironically enough, were aided in their conflict against the Hanafis by the Soviet government. Both the atheistic Soviets and the mujadidiya saw the Hanafists as common enemies; the Soviets feared the Hanafists, being more numerous and influential in Uzbekistan, undermining their authority and saw the mujadidiya as an effective tool to turn religious Uzbeks against mainstream Islam. Thus, the USSR allowed for Wahhabist and Muslim Brotherhood texts to be distributed in Central Asia. However, the end of the USSR saw pro-mujadidiya scholars become politically active, and Islamist militias became more prominent in the hinterlands where the Soviet retreat left a power vacuum.

The Islamic Movement of Uzbekistan was one of those militias, the organization initially referred to as “Adolat.” Adolat became known as the Islamic Movement of Uzbekistan by 1998, and would attempt to assassinate President Islam Karimov in 1999 and conduct bombings of the US and Israeli embassies in 2004. IMU was initially prevalent in the Ferghana Valley of eastern Uzbekistan, but would later flee for northern Afghanistan where they were protected by the Taliban while they continued activity against the Uzbek government. During the US invasion of Afghanistan in October 2001, the IMU would retreat to northern Pakistan, where the group would grow, becoming integrated with Al-Qaeda and the Pakistani Taliban, and would incorporate jihadists from around the world.

IMU would become a significant threat in the tribal areas of Pakistan, launching several attacks against Pakistani government officials, pro-government tribal leaders, and Pakistani military forces since 2007. With Yuldash’s death in a drone strike in 2009, the IMU’s new leaders had little, if any, connection to Uzbekistan. The IMU’s new mufti, Abu Zar al-Burmi, a Pakistani of Burmese Rohingya ancestry, has moved the IMU towards closer affiliation with the Pakistani Taliban and incorporated anti-Chinese and anti-Burmese government grievances into the IMU’s propaganda; prior to al-Burmi’s rise to power the IMU had never been interested in South Asian issues. Al-Burmi has also urged jihadists to target China, a major power with a history of oppressing Muslims and a major backer of the Pakistani government. Other major figures in the IMU include Moroccan German national Abu Ibrahim al-Almani, Abdul Hakim, a Russian national, and Adnan Rashid, a Pakistani and former commander of the Taliban.

Lately, the IMU have begun targeting NATO and Afghan troops in northern Afghanistan, moving the focus of its operation to the northern part of Afghanistan where their Taliban allies have little control over. With northern Afghanistan’s ethnic makeup of Hazara, Tajiks, Uzbeks, and Turkmen, the IMU has a closer background to northern Afghanistan than does the heavily Pashtun Taliban, and the IMU is once more close to Uzbekistan’s borders. As of March 2015, IMU has officially pledged allegiance to Islamic State, stating in a beheading video that they were no longer allied with Mullah Omar and the Taliban.

The other domestic jihadist organization of note in Central Asia is the East Turkestan Islamic Movement (ETIM), also known as the Turkestan Islamic Party. Just like in Central Asia, the government of the People’s Republic of China is aggressively secular and politically repressive; China’s hostile stance towards religion is especially an element unpopular among the Muslim population in western China. There is also the added component of ethnic chauvinism from China’s Han majority towards the Turkic Uighurs and Kazakhs of the westernmost Xinjiang Autonomous Region.

Politically marginalized Uighurs have attempted to foster separatism and defend their rights by means of forming (explicitly Islamic) organizations such as Hizbul Islam Li-Turkistan since the 1940s. After the Sino-Soviet split, the USSR deliberately fomented Uighur nationalism to weaken the Chinese hold on the Xinjiang Autonomous Region. In turn, China felt threatened by the Soviet invasion of Afghanistan and began to support the Afghan mujahideen, opening training camps for the mujahideen in Pakistan and western China and supplying them with weapons. The Chinese also began to broadcast anti-Soviet messages in Russian and local Turkic languages into Soviet Central Asia.

The ETIM was reportedly founded by Hasan Mahsum and Memetuhut Memetrozi in 1997; Memetrozi was allegedly educated at a madrassa in Pakistan, according to reports from Chinese media. If true, this would be a clear case of the dog biting the hand that feeds it. The Chinese have long considered ETIM as a terrorist group, fearing further regional separatist movements should ETIM become successful, and warned the United States that ETIM had ties to bin Laden and Al-Qaeda after September 11.

China’s crackdown on ETIM has led it to flee to Pakistan, where like the IMU, it became internationalized, albeit retaining its primary goal of freeing Xinjiang from Chinese control. Recently, around 300 Uighurs have travelled to Iraq and Syria to fight for Islamic State. Chinese intelligence blames elements in the Turkish government, as the Uighurs generally enter Islamic State territory through Turkey by means of Turkish passports. Turkey’s complicity in aiding Islamic State has been covered by Center for Security Policy before. Turkey’s support for Uighur rights is well known, President Erdogan having described ethnic violence in Xinjiang as “genocide.”

Whatever the case, the East Turkestan Islamic Movement is a growing threat to China. Chinese Muslims have paid close attention to the Arab Spring and the rise of Islamic State, feeling wronged due to China’s anti-religious policies and ethnic chauvinism. Over the past few years, jihadist terrorism has been on a severe upswing in China, including bombings and ethnic violence and rioting in Xinjiang. The most prominent attacks so far was an car attack (suspected to be a failed bombing) in Beijing on October 2013, and a car bombing in Urumqi last May.

As mentioned earlier, several Uighur terrorists have gone west to fight with Islamic State, and even before then the ETIM was closely affiliated with al-Qaeda. The former leader of ETIM, Abdul Haq al-Turkistani, was appointed a member of al-Qaeda’s Shura Majlis in 2005. Just like the Islamic Movement of Uzbekistan, ETIM has been “internationalized” due to its ties to al-Qaeda and IMU, and has joined with IMU in its struggle against the Chinese and their Pakistani allies. Haq also was able to raise funds and purchase weaponry and explosive materials throughout the Middle East in order to facilitate attacks against Chinese targets outside of China. Though China’s size and lack of significant Muslim populations in the wealthy east make it a difficult target for ETIM, Chinese assets and personnel in Central and South Asia are open targets for the jihadist organization.

Chinese security officials are greatly concerned about Uighur jihadists returning from Syria with experience and further training in how to carry out terrorist attacks. Certainly, leaders such as the Turkestan Islamic Party’s Abdullah Mansour have explicitly requested aid from Muslims worldwide to help in defeating the Chinese infidels. In response, Chinese security forces have enacted a dramatic crackdown on Uighur nationalists over the past year. Last year, in the wake of the Xinjiang attacks, Chinese police conducted 27,164 criminal arrests in Xinjiang, nearly double that of last year.

Russia has also been concerned over Islamic State operating so closely to their own borders. One of the major reasons for the USSR’s entrance into the Afghan war back in the 1980s was to prevent the establishment of a Islamist state on the USSR’s backyard, and to prevent Afghan heroin from flooding into the USSR. Since then, the Russians have attempted to keep the Taliban busy and away from instigating jihad in Russia, from supplying the Northern Alliance with weaponry to tacitly approving of US bases in Central Asia, at least until recently.

Lately, Russian Foreign Minister Sergej Lavrov has stated that Islamic State is Russia’s most dangerous enemy. Lavrov noted that Russia was concerned over jihadists from the Caucasus or elsewhere returning home and establishing their own terror cells affiliated with Islamic State within Russia. He also stressed the claim that Russia was aiding the Assad regime in Syria to prevent Islamic State from getting a foothold in the Middle East. However, Russia has lately decided to greatly reduce their aid for the troubled Syrian dictator.

To counteract Islamic State influence in Central Asia, Russia has donated $1.2 billion worth of surplus arms to Tajikistan and Kyrgyzstan, not only the two poorest former Soviet Central Asian states, but also the two former subject states that still have Russian military bases in their borders. Russia continues to sell arms to the relatively wealthier states such as Kazakhstan, Turkmenistan, and Uzbekistan. A secondary condition on the donation was that Tajikistan and Kyrgyzstan cease their attempts to purchase arms from the United States, doubtlessly to keep the poor nations reliant on Russian aid. Doubtless these arms are intended to help keep the local strongmen dictators in power and deter jihadists.

With the threat of Islamic State spreading to Central Asia, China and Russia are finding themselves forced to improve their counter-terrorist strategies and bolster their allies in the region. In this troubling time, the United States should not abandon Afghanistan as it has Iraq, especially as reports of Islamic State militants operating in the country have appeared.