By Uran Botobekov*
The US State Department added Central Asian jihadist group Katibat Imam al Bukhari (KIB) to the US government’s list of specially designated global terrorist organizations on March 22, 2018.
As noted in the statement “the Department of State has designated KIB as a Specially Designated Global Terrorist (SDGT) under Section 1(b) of Executive Order (E.O.) 13224, which imposes strict sanctions on foreign persons determined to have committed, or pose a significant risk of committing, acts of terrorism that threaten the security of U.S. nationals or the national security, foreign policy, or economy of the United States. This designation seeks to deny KIB the resources it needs to plan and carry out further terrorist attacks. Among other consequences, all of the group’s property and interests in property subject to U.S. jurisdiction are blocked, and U.S. persons are generally prohibited from engaging in any transactions with the group.”
It is already common knowledge that,KIB is fighting in Syria as part of the al Qaeda-linked rebel coalition Hay’at Tahrir Al-Sham. The KIB detachment was created in Afghanistan on the basis of the Islamic Movement of Uzbekistan. KIB also operates in Afghanistan and has pledged loyalty to the Taliban, who are in turn tight allies with al-Qaeda and the Haqqani network. After the outbreak of the civil war in Syria in 2012, KIB, on the recommendation of Al-Qaeda, moved to the province of Idlib and distinguished itself as one of the major rebel groups fighting against the regime of Bashar Assad. A group of the jihadists of the KIB is also based in Afghanistan today and is fighting together with the Taliban. About 200 militants are known to fight in the KIB. The propaganda materials of the group are actively disseminated in Kyrgyzstan, Uzbekistan, Tajikistan, Russia and Kazakhstan.
Three days after the decision of the US State Department to include KIB in the list of global terrorist organizations, Shura of the KIB issued its own statementin response. In itsown statement, which was released via Telegram on March 25, 2018, KIB protested their designation as terrorists by the State Department. KIB states that it “was surprised by the American resolution to enlist the Imam al Bukhari Brigade on the world terror list notwithstanding that we do not have ideological or intellectual ties with any faction internationally enlisted.”
It is most interesting that Shura of the KIB, for its protection, used a lot of peaceful terms in their response such as «international law», «rights of freedom», “murderous Assad regime”, “struggle for а decent life of the Syrian people”, etc.
KIB claimed in their response, that their volunteers from many Central Asian countries, including Uzbekistan, formed their brigade “as a result of the war’s long duration in Syria and the increasing number of expats.”Shura of the KIB described his mission in the Middle East as protecting the simple and peaceful Syrian people from the bloody regime of Assad and his external sponsors, Hezbollah, Iranian Shiite militants and Russia.
KIB also claimed that they’ve been fighting with the Free Syrian Army to protect civilians against threats like ISIS, “which pushed ISIS to assassinate our previous leader (Sheikh Salahuddin).””The classification of Imam al-Bukhari Brigade by U.S., turns a blind eye on thousands of the Iranian-backed foreign Shiite militias that commit war crimes against the Syrians, and proves that the U.S. applies double standards and it is only concerned about its interests,” KIB continued.The Shura of group vowed to stay the course “in spite of pains and problems whether in our country or by the world order.”
In this regard, it should be noted that the “justifiable arguments” of the KIB that its fighters are fighting against the regime of Bashar al-Assad and precisely because of this fact they should not be included in the list of world terrorist groups does not make sense.Firstly, not only the numerous factions of armed revolutionaries and the fragmentary Syrian opposition are fighting against the regime of Bashar Assad, but also the world jihadist groups ISIS and Al-Qaeda.However, their goals are completely different. If the peaceful Syrian opposition wants to build a democratic state in Syria in the future, then ISIS and Al Qaeda are fighting for the establishment of the Islamic Caliphate in the Middle East.Al-Qaeda backed KIB that affiliated with Jabhat al Nusra, completely shares the position of his patrons.
Secondly, radical Salafism and militant Takfirism are the fundamental basis of the jihadi ideology of the KIB.In accordance with the ideological doctrine of KIB that was recently published on its Telegram channel, the group considers its goal the construction of an Islamic state in Central Asia, the overthrow of the regime of Bashar al-Assad, and the protection and spread of jihadi ideology around the world by force.
Thirdly, jihad is the main tool for KIB in achieving its goals, that is, in building the Islamic Caliphate.In their propaganda materials, KIB leaders urge Muslims to wage jihad against the godless regimes of Central Asia and the West.After President Trump decided the U.S. Embassy would move from Tel Aviv to Jerusalem, KIB leader Abu Yusuf Muhojir posted on his Telegram page a pledge to defend the Al-Aqsa Mosque and wage jihad on the West.
The Syrian Liberation Front (SLF) — a joint venture formed by Ahrar al-Sham and the Nur al-Din al-Zanki Movement in February — has joined KIB in denouncing the State Department’s designation as well.In its statement the SLF argues that the KIB is an “independent” faction comprised of Uzbeks who were “forced out of their country” and who now fight against the Assad regime and ISIS. It is known that Ahrar al-Sham is an al Qaeda backed Salafi-jihadi group who fought alongside Al Nusrah Front in the past.The SLF also points to the assassination of KIB leader Sheikh Salahuddinlast year, alleging that ISIS cooperated with “Russian intelligence” in the killing.
In this regard, it should be noted that the assassination of the leader of KIB Sheikh Salahuddin is related to the confrontation between ISIS and al-Qaida, which led to internal fighting among the Central Asian jihadists in Syria.His real name was Akmal Jurabaev and he was born and grew up in the Uzbek town of Namangan. He shared the religious views and Salafi ideology of the Taliban and al Qaeda. On April 27, 2017, during the evening prayer in the mosque of a Syrian city of Idlib, Sheikh Salahuddin was killed by an Uzbek militant who was a member of ISIS. The Islamic State distributed the following statement via Telegram messenger in this regard, “The emir of detachment of Katibat al-Imam Bukhari, Sheikh Salahuddin, was punished according to the Sharia law for all the betrayals he committed.”
The Uzbek militant from Tajikistan, known as Abu Yusuf Muhojir, was appointed the new leader of the group. The Uzbek social networks have characterized him as the distinguished military strategist who has implemented a series of successful operations against the army of Bashar Assad. After the comprehensive analysis of his public speeches in the audio format published on the Telegram, we can draw the following conclusions: Abu Yusuf Muhojirhas the deep religious knowledge, knew the nuances of the Islamic Fiqh (jurisprudence) and jihad.
It is no accident that in their statements, KIB and SLF appealed to the fact that the leader of the Uzbek jihadists, Sheikh Salahuddin,was assassinated by ISIS militants.Using this argument that Uzbek militants are fighting with ISIS and their leader has fallen by the hands of Abu Bakr al Baghdadi supporters, KIB is trying to justify its terrorist activities and to avoid international persecution in accordance with the US list of Specially Designated Global Terrorist.
This is not the first time that the United States has designateda Central Asian jihadist group on the Foreign Terrorist Organization (FTO) and Specially Designated Global Terrorist (SDGT) list.After designation of a terrorist group in the list of global terrorists, the US special services are allowed to carry out operations to eliminate the leaders of those terrorist groups, to take decisive measures to destroy financial schemes and to effectively put international pressure on them.
As is already known, the US State Department has designated the Islamic Movement of Uzbekistan(IMU) in the Foreign Terrorist Organizations list on September 25, 2000.As a result, the leader of the group Tahir Yuldash (2009) and the military commander of the group Juma Namangoni (2001) were killed as a result of US missile airstrike.
On June 17, 2005, the US State Department designated the Islamic Jihad Union (IJU) to the Foreign Terrorist Organizations list.The IJU is a splinter faction of the IMU, and a substantial number of its members are from Central Asia.The IJU has been waging jihad in the Afghan-Pakistan region for more than a decade. It maintains close ties with al Qaeda and Taliban leaders. The US has killed several top IJU leaders, including its emir, Najmuddin Jalolov, in drone strikes in North Waziristan 2009.
On December 29, 2004, the US State Department designated Uyghur Salafi-jihadi group the Eastern Turkistan Islamic Movement (the Turkestan Islamic Party) to the Terrorist Exclusion List (TEL).As a result, leaders of the Turkestan Islamic Party Hassan Mahsum (2003) and Abdul Shakur al-Turkistani (2012) were killed in US drone strike.
Based on this, we can assume what fate awaits the leaders and militants of the KIB in the near future. The designation of the KIB in the Specially Designated Global Terrorist list testifies to the US Government’s determination to combat the jihadist ideology of Salafism worldwide.This is a tangible support to the governments of Uzbekistan, Kyrgyzstan, Tajikistan and Kazakhstan, which are facing a real threat of transnational terrorism.After all, the backbone of the KIB is made up of people from the Ferghana Valley of Central Asia, mainly of Uzbek nationality.
According to the Soufan Group, out of 5,000 people who left Central Asia for Syria and Iraq, about 500 jihadists in the ISIS ranks went back to their homes. But among the returnees, there are almost no militants KIB, Katibat al-Tawhidwal Jihad (KTJ), IJU and TIP, which are affiliated with al Qaeda. After the fall of ISIS, it is the militants linked with the al Qaeda that pose a big threat to the countries of Central Asia. Therefore, the emergence of two theatres of war for al Qaeda backed Central Asian militants in Syria and Afghanistan and the relative ease of transit between these two theatres via Turkey increases the threat that jihadists can return to Central Asia at an opportune moment, such as at a time of political, social or economic crises.This would be dangerous for the regimes of Central Asia.
Therefore, the designation of the KIB by the US government into the list of global terrorist organizations gives a positive impetus to the efforts of the Central Asian countries in respect to counterterrorism.But so far the Central Asian governments have not openly reacted to the initiative of the US State Department. Perhaps such a reaction followed through diplomatic channels, which are closed to the public.
The war in Afghanistan and in the Middle East over the past 17 years has shown that the United States is in the forefront of the fight against transnational terrorism and religious extremism. Therefore, it would be difficult for the Governments of Central Asia to do without US assistance in combating the radical ideology of Salafism and world jihadism.
The Central Asian states are in a bind insofar as there is little they can do to stymie the growth of the KIB, KTJ, IJU and TIP in Syria given their lack of influenceand likely also their lack of intelligence.As a result, the Central Asian governments will likely need to develop comprehensive national security strategies with allies both within the region and abroad to manage the complexities of emerging threats.To achieve results in the fight against jihadism, the Central Asian countries need to solve three main tasks.
First, to intensify cooperation with the United States and the exchange of intelligence data.Successful coordination between law enforcement agencies will help to block the channels of financial, material and military assistance to the jihadist groups from Central Asia, affiliated with al Qaeda.Joint cooperation will contribute to the dismantling of bases, camps and training centers for Central Asian jihadist groups in Syria and Afghanistan, neutralizing prominent leaders and identifying commercial organizations and foundations that subsidize them. The fight against Al Qaeda is a more difficult than with ISIS, as it does not have its own territory, which can be hit. In the fight against Al-Qaeda, the United States has significant anti-terrorist experience, effective intelligence tools and advanced technical capabilities.
Secondly, given the increased role of another Uzbek group Katibat al-Tawhidwal Jihad in the global jihad and their successful terrorist acts in Russia (the explosion of the metro in St. Petersburg) and in Kyrgyzstan (the explosion of the Chinese embassy in Bishkek), the governments of Uzbekistan and Kyrgyzstan should lobby the US to include the KTJ in the list of global terrorist organizations.
Thirdly, for successful international coordination of anti-terrorist efforts, security agencies and special services of the countries of Central Asia need to get rid of block thinking and anti-American sentiment, which is a legacy of the Soviet empire and which is being initiated by Russia.Kremlinis known to consider Central Asia as an area of its influence. Putin is imposing its anti-American ideology on the countries of the region, which impedes the joint struggle against world jihadism. The confrontation between Russia and the West on the activities of the Taliban and the future regime of Bashar al-Assad enable jihadist groups from Central Asia to successfully assimilate into a global jihad. Therefore, the governments of Central Asia must work out their own self-position, which allows them to actively cooperate with the US in the fight against the global jihadist threat in the world and stop being a Putin’s “whipping boy”.
About the author:
*Uran Botobekov, Doctor of Political Science (PhD), expert on Political Islam
This article was published by Modern Diplomacy.