The Islamic Movement of Uzbekistan (IMU) and the Islamic Jihad Union (IJU), two Central Asian groups that have been allied with al Qaeda in the past, have taken different sides in the ongoing struggle between the Islamic State and al Qaeda for the leadership of the global jihad.
Earlier this month, the IMU officially swore allegiance to the Islamic State’s emir, Abu Bakr al Baghdadi. Last week, the IJU followed in al Qaeda’s footsteps and pledged loyalty to Mullah Akhtar Mohammad Mansour, the newly appointed leader of the Taliban. Neither move was surprising as both the IMU’s and IJU’s loyalties have long been known.
Islamic Jihad Union reaffirms allegiance to the Taliban
On Aug. 20, the Islamic Jihad Union released a statement on Sodiqlar, its official propaganda website, saying its fighters in Kunduz province in northern Afghanistan have pledged fealty to the Taliban’s new emir. While the statement wasn’t attributed to the IJU’s shura, its fighters in Kunduz are a major branch of the group, and the pledge was promoted by Sodiqlar.
“Representatives of all the jihadist groups in the region of Kunduz … renewed the oath of allegiance to the Islamic Emirate Amirul Mu’mineen Mullah Akhtar Mohammad Mansuor,” the IJU said. “Amirul Mu’mineen” means the “Leader of the Faithful,” a title that is usually reserved for the ruling caliph.
“The commanders of the Islamic Jihad’s warriors promote unity [in] Kunduz province. God has united the hearts of believers to unite their ranks!” the IJU concluded.
The statement was accompanied by five images purporting to show IJU fighters meeting in the open to swear allegiance to the Taliban leader. Scores of heavily armed IJU fighters are seen in the photographs.
The IJU (also known as the Islamic Jihad Group) is a splinter faction of the Islamic Movement of Uzbekistan, and a substantial number of its members are from Central Asia. German and Turkish Muslims also make up a significant portion of the jihadist group. Some of its fighters have been referred to as “German Taliban,” and the group released a video in 2009 of “German Taliban villages” in Waziristan. Its fighters were seen training at camps and conducting military operations. Prior to the Pakistani Army’s offensive in North Waziristan that began in June 2014, the IJU was based in Mir Ali.
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 government listed the IJU as a specially designated global terrorist organization in May 2005. Detained members of the group “have testified to the close ties between the [IJU] leaders and Osama bin Laden and Mullah Omar,” the US State department said in its designation.
The IJU has been active in the Taliban’s offensive in Kunduz province and other Afghan provinces. At the end of July, the group trumpeted its role in the current Taliban-led Azm offensive in Kunduz, Badakhshan, Paktika, Paktia, and Nangarhar provinces, as well as its involvement in battling Pakistani troops in North Waziristan.
Islamic Movement of Uzbekistan pledges to Baghdadi
The IMU, which was previously allied with the Taliban and al Qaeda, has officially joined Abu Bakr al Baghdadi’s Islamic State. On Aug. 6, the IMU released a video that featured the group’s leader, Uthman Ghazi, and numerous IMU fighters swearing allegiance to Baghdadi.
Ghazi’s decision to switch camps from the Taliban-al Qaeda axis is potentially one of the Islamic State’s most important gains in the jihadist rivalry inside Afghanistan and Pakistan thus far. The IMU maintains a significant footprint throughout Afghanistan, where it is heavily involved in the insurgency against the Afghan government and its foreign allies. In the past, the IMU has fought alongside the Taliban in northern Afghanistan and been integrated into the Taliban’s political and military command structure.
It is not clear if the entire IMU has joined the Islamic State’s international network, or if a faction will now breakaway.
The IMU’s defection is not surprising, as it was likely in the works since last year.
Statements attributed to Ghazi have repeatedly praised the Islamic State and criticized Mullah Omar for his absentee leadership. And Ghazi questioned Mullah Omar’s status just weeks before the Taliban confirmed that Omar had passed away under dubious circumstances. The IMU’s leaders likely view the Taliban’s admission as confirmation that they were right to be skeptical all along.
While the IMU has signed on to the Islamic State’s program, it doesn’t appear to be involved in the current infighting between the Taliban and the Islamic State at this time. But that could change as the latter two groups have clashed in Nangarhar and several other provinces.
Uzbek groups in Syria fight alongside Al Nusrah
It is not clear what effect, if any, the differences between the IMU and IJU will have on the Uzbek and other Central Asian jihadists fighting in Syria. The Islamic State has released a video of an Uzbek in Iraq congratulating the IMU on its decision to join the “caliphate’s” international network. This was likely a prelude to a more formal recognition of the IMU’s defection to Baghdadi’s camp.
But other Uzbek organizations fight alongside Al Nusrah Front, which is al Qaeda’s official branch in Syria and the Islamic State’s bitter rival. Two such groups are Imam Bukhari Jamaat and Katibat al Tawhid wal Jihad, neither of which has joined the Islamic State.
In November 2014, Imam Bukhari Jamaat released a video showing its members swearing allegiance to Mullah Omar, who was presumed alive at the time. The video was significant because the IMU had already voiced its growing disaffection with Omar’s leadership and support for Baghdadi by that point.
Images from the Islamic Jihad Union’s Kunduz branch swearing bayat to the Taliban:
Bill Roggio is a Senior Fellow at the Foundation for Defense of Democracies and the Editor of FDD’s Long War Journal. Thomas Joscelyn is a Senior Fellow at the Foundation for Defense of Democracies and the Senior Editor for FDD’s Long War Journal.