A senior leader of the Taliban and al Qaeda-linked Islamic Movement of Uzbekistan (IMU) who was captured by Coalition forces in the spring of 2011 is now leading more than 300 jihadists in the northern Afghan province of Kunduz. The IMU leader once served as the top commander of the jihadist group’s network in Afghanistan.
Qari Bilal, the IMU leader, was freed by the Afghan government at the direction of President Hamid Karzai, Afghan officials in Kunduz have told TOLONews, which identified Bilal as “a senior al-Qaeda leader who was released from prison on two separate occasions.” He leads more than 300 fighters in Kunduz province and “has masterminded numerous suicide attacks and overseen the planting of roadside bombs throughout the province. ”
The Afghan news service reports that Bilal “fled to Pakistan after the collapse of the Taliban regime in 2001 but was then invited to return to Kunduz by the Peace Council chaired by Sibghatullah Mojaddedi, the former Afghan President.” Since his return to Afghanistan, Bilal has been detained two times, and both times was freed after President Hamid Karzai issued orders for his release.
Bilal has also been captured at least once by the International Security Assistance Force. Three years ago, ISAF announced the capture of a senior IMU leader and “two of his associates” during a special operations raid in the Khanabad district in Kunduz on April 20, 2011 after “multiple weeks of intelligence gathering and coordination with Afghan security forces.” [See LWJ report, ISAF captures Islamic Movement of Uzbekistan’s top commander for Afghanistan.]
Although Bilal was not directly named by ISAF, Afghan officials later identified him to the press. [See Pajhwok Afghan News report, Senior IMU leader captured in Kunduz.]
In its April 2011 statement announcing his capture, ISAF said Bilal had escaped from a jail in Pakistan sometime in 2010, “and also assisted others in escaping from incarceration, including paying bribes for their release.” He entered Afghanistan shortly after escaping from the Pakistani prison and, along with another IMU leader, took overall command of the IMU’s network.
According to ISAF, Bilal served as “a key conduit between the senior IMU leadership in Pakistan and senior Taliban leadership in Afghanistan.” ISAF also said that Bilal “assisted both groups by directing insurgent movement for training and operations between the two countries, coordinating suicide, explosive device, and mortar attacks against Afghan and coalition forces throughout northern Afghanistan.”
Bilal is from Uzbekistan and was seized at the home of another IMU leader known as Qari Sibghatullah, Kunduz’s police chief told Pajhwok Afghan News in 2011. Bilal was previously based in Quetta, the capital of Pakistan’s Balochistan province.
Bilal “was given special treatment at Taliban’s meetings in the Chahar Darah district, where the militants had a training centre in the Ainul Majar,” the Afghan news agency reported at the time.
The Islamic Movement of Uzbekistan is a key ally of al Qaeda and the Taliban, and has been involved in supporting their operations in Afghanistan and Pakistan and plotting attacks in Europe. The IMU is known to fight alongside the Taliban in Afghanistan and has integrated into the Taliban’s shadow government in the north. [For more information on the Islamic Movement of Uzbekistan, see LWJ report, IMU cleric urges Pakistanis to continue sheltering jihadis in Waziristan.]
The IMU has been heavily targeted by ISAF in its raids against al Qaeda and allied groups. In the 338 raids publicized by ISAF from 2007 until the summer of 2013, when ISAF ended it reporting, the IMU was targeted 139 times. Some of the IMU’s top leaders in Afghanistan were killed or captured during those operations. [See LWJ report, ISAF raids against al Qaeda and allies in Afghanistan 2007-2013.]
It is unclear when Bilal was released from Afghan custody. Given that he was captured by ISAF, he was very likely held at the Parwan Detention Facility. The US transferred control of the Parwan Detention Facility to Afghanistan in March 2013. Shortly afterward, the Afghan government began releasing Taliban commanders and fighters from prison. Thousands of detainees are said to have been freed from Parwan.
The release of Taliban and other jihadist commanders and fighters has not been without controversy. In February of this year, the US government and the military strongly protested the release of “65 dangerous individuals from a group of 88 detainees.” Seven of those freed may have been involved in the green-on-blue, or insider attacks that have resulted in the deaths of Coalition personnel. It is not known if Bilal was one of the “65 dangerous individuals” freed by the Afghan government.
Other jihadist leaders who have been freed by the US and the Afghan government have returned to command forces for the Taliban and other groups. Some have been involved in the Taliban’s recent offensive to retake control of remote districts in Afghanistan. [See Threat Matrix report, Taliban commander behind Ghor executions was freed from prison 3 months ago.]