Tahir Yuldashev may not have the name recognition of Mullah Omar or Baitullah Mehsud, but his reported death represents a quite significant milestone nonetheless.
Yuldashev was the co-founder of the Islamic Movement of Uzbekistan and, after relocating to Waziristan following the near-elimination of the IMU in Afghanistan, reputedly enjoyed close links with Mehsud over the past few years.
His death comes at a time when the future of Central Asian militancy is in flux and hotly debated amongst experts.
Yuldashev first came to the attention of Uzbek authorities in the early 1990s, when he and Jumaboi Khojaev (later better known as Juma Namangani) led a group of disillusioned Islamist activists in the Ferghana Valley.
Their movement, called Adolat, rejected the political gradualism of the local Islamic Renaissance Party organisation and instead called for the overthrow of the Karimov regime and the establishment of an Islamic state in Central Asia. Banned by the regime in 1992, Adolat members fled to Tajikistan just as that country’s civil war was kicking off. Namangani became an effective, respected and charismatic paramilitary leader, fighting on behalf of Islamist opposition forces, while Yuldashev travelled around South Asia and the Middle East to raise funds and network.
Several events in 1996-97 prompted Yuldashev and Namangani to move to Afghanistan: the winding down of the Tajik civil war; fresh crackdowns in Uzbekistan; and proffers of support from the Taliban and bin Laden.
In 1998, they announced the formation of the Islamic Movement of Uzbekistan. Over the next three years, they launched a series of attacks and raids in Uzbekistan and Kyrgyzstan, quickly becoming the most capable and dangerous Central Asian militant group (while also becoming a major player in regional narco-trafficking).
By early 2002, however, the IMU had more or less ceased to exist: in fighting alongside the Taliban against Coalition forces in Afghanistan, most of their fighters had been killed (including Namangani) while the rest scattered. Yuldashev managed to find sanctuary in Waziristan, and since then the Uzbek militant contingent has reportedly regrouped, running training camps and working with Pakistani Taliban forces, while maintaining links to Al Qaeda.
The scope of their activities, however, has been fiercely debated, with some analysts claiming they have a minimal presence while others attribute to them more significant numbers and influence.
There can be little doubt that the apparent death of Yuldashev by drone strike – after so many years of successfully evading death at the hands of various regimes and military forces – will strike a serious blow to morale among both Uzbek militants and Pakistani Taliban (especially so soon after the similar fate of Mehsud).
It is also a welcome propaganda boost for, in particular, the Uzbek regime. However, it is not clear that there will be any lingering operational effects, and no one is predicting that Uzbek militants will suddenly fade into obscurity. The increasing presence of IMU-linked militants in northern Afghanistan, particularly around Kunduz, as well as recent incursions into Tajikistan and attacks in Uzbekistan, suggest that Uzbek and other Central Asian militants sense new opportunities for reviving their campaign in the region.
The death of an important leader will necessarily create disruption, but the networks, aims and tactics he helped to inculcate amongst his followers remain.
I would not like to make any firm predictions on what will happen next, but militant activity in Central Asia does appear to be trending steadily upward, and it is unlikely that even the loss of Yuldashev will do much to arrest this.
So far, there does not appear to be much coverage or analysis on Yuldashev’s death, perhaps because his death has been previously reported only to be proven erroneous (usually the debunking occurs much more quickly, however). For now, more details can be found at: