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Ten Years On: The IMU Question

11/08/2009

Ten years ago this month, the Islamic Movement of Uzbekistan burst onto the international scene with its armed incursions into Kyrgyzstan. Initial IMU aims – bringing down the Karimov regime and establishing an Islamic state in Central Asia – diversified with the group’s removal to Afghanistan and alliance with the Taliban; their subsequent near-extermination and regrouping in Pakistan following the Taliban’s collapse; and their reputed involvement in Central Asian narco-trafficking in the years since.

There is increasing evidence of renewed militancy across Central Asia in recent months. We havealready noted here the attacks on Uzbek border posts and Kyrgyz security operations against militants. In Tajikistan, significant military operations have been waged around Tavildara against armed forces who have been variously described as former Islamist opposition fighters, drug traffickers, and militants trickling in from Afghanistan and Pakistan. Dushanbe, the Tajik capital, saw several small bombings recently – an extremely rare and worrying occurrence.

The Central Asian regimes have been quick to attribute violence to IMU militants. But is it really accurate, in any meaningful way, to describe them as IMU? Does the IMU still exist as a coherent group? There is not a lot of consensus in this area.

Ahmed Rashid tells RFE/RL that IMU militants in Afghanistan and Pakistan number ‘four or five thousand’ and comprise a number of different factions, some of which act as mercenaries for Pakistani militant groups. Jihadica recently published an article on the Islamic Jihad Union, a purported offshoot of the IMU; Joshua Foust, however, offered a lengthy critique of the evidence available thus far that the IJU exists and is indeed responsible for the acts attributed to it.

As noted, Central Asian regimes like to label militants as IMU – due to their previous, proven record of violence and unpopularity among the general population – but there is scant independent verification of their claims. While IMU founder Tahir Yuldash apparently remains alive and in Pakistan, some long-time observers there believe the IMU as a group is no longer an operational threat; instead it has evolved into a catchall brand, used to refer to a disparate universe of Central Asian fighters. UN officials and NGO experts I spoke with in Central Asia last summer also downplayed the security threat posed by the IMU and emphasised instead the involvement of militants in drug trafficking and organised crime. The only thing people tend to agree on is the overall murkiness of the militant scene in Central Asia.

The IMU brand is, for the most part, a negative one, wielded with alacrity by Central Asian regimes to delegitimise violent attacks and attract Western support for their own ‘war on terror’ (and along the way, discourage Western pressure to democratise). The effectiveness of this negative association can be seen in the numerous rebranding efforts of groups associated with the original IMU (such as the IJU).

So we wonder: what’s in a name? Does it matter if Central Asian and Western governments counter militant groups they call IMU when they are really IJU or some other offshoot? Probably, yes. First, effective countermeasures rely on solid network analysis and tracking the evolution of militant groups into different factions, as well as the emergence of autonomous cells with few links beyond aims and motivations. Second, there are political repercussions to going along with the IMU claims of Central Asian regimes (at the very least, it implies that resistance to Central Asian dictators is limited to one disgruntled group and there is little need for reform). Third, the quest for more accurate information on militants will also help reveal the true nature of the violence currently occurring – is it really terrorism and ideological violence, or is it linked more closely to organised crime or the settling of scores? It seems sometimes that the discussion of Central Asian militancy and the discussion of regional narco-trafficking exist in two separate spheres, despite the significant overlap in personnel, logistics, long-term networks, geography, etc.

In short, one hopes to see the emergence of more authoritative and verifiable evidence of who is behind the upswing of violence in the region – especially as it does not appear to be abating.