Prominent al Qaeda figures were featured in a 2016 Katibat Imam al-Bukhari video.
After the US State Department designated the Uzbek jihadist faction Katibat Imam al Bukhari (KIB) as a global terrorist organization last week, several jihadi figures and groups, including KIB itself, released statements denouncing the move.
In its own statement, which was released on its Telegram channel, KIB states that it “was surprised by the American resolution to enlist [sic] the Imam al Bukhari brigade on the world terror list.” The group claims it “does not have ideological or intellectual ties with any faction internationally enlisted.” However, this claim is false.
Al Qaeda figures have been prominently featured in KIB videos, thereby demonstrating its “ideological” ties. Senior al Qaeda figures such as Osama bin Laden, Abu Musab al Zarqawi, and Abu Yahya al Libi were all included in one such video. KIB has also released speeches from Abu Saloh, an ethnic Uzbek figure based in Syria. Abu Saloh leads an Uzbek battalion, Katibat al Tawhid wal Jihad (KTJ), which pledged allegiance to Al Nusrah Front in Sept. 2015. Al Nusrah was an official branch of al Qaeda at the time.
According to RFE/RL, KIB’s first leader, Salahadin al Uzbeki, was a veteran of the jihad in Afghanistan. He reportedly “met with several leading Taliban figures, including Sirajuddin Haqqani,” before relocating to Syria. Haqqani is a US-designated terrorist who serves as one of the Taliban’s top deputies. The Haqqani Network, which is part of the Taliban, has been allied with al Qaeda since the 1980s.
KIB claims that it is “restricted to the fight abreast [sic] with the Free Syrian Army and the Syrian people in order to defend the civilians against the Syrian regime and ISIS.” But this isn’t true, either. The State Department noted that “the group has played a significant role in the fighting in northwestern Syria, fighting alongside groups including al Nusrah Front – al Qaeda’s affiliate in Syria.”
Indeed, the KIB has taken part in several offensives led by jihadists in Syria since 2015. Those operations include the spring 2015 offensive that captured large swaths of Idlib province and summer 2016 battles in Aleppo and Latakia. It has also fought alongside other al Qaeda-linked groups in Syria, including the Caucasus Emirate’s branch in the country and Ansar al Islam.
KIB’s statement makes no mention of its activities in Afghanistan or the fact that it has sworn bayah, or an oath of allegiance, to the Afghan Taliban’s leader. KIB recently began identifying itself on social media as the “Islamic Emirate of Afghanistan – Katibat Imam al Bukhari,” a nod to the official name used by the Taliban.
Other jihadists have joined KIB in denouncing the State Department’s designation as well.
For instance, the Syrian Liberation Front (SLF) — a joint venture formed by Ahrar al Sham and the Nur al-Din al-Zanki Movement in February — echoed KIB’s claims. 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. However, Ahrar al Sham, which leads SLF, has had al Qaeda operatives embedded in its own ranks. Both Ahrar and Zanki also fought alongside Al Nusrah Front in the past.
The SLF accuses the US and the “international community” of watching as the Assad regime and its Iranian-backed allies have committed “genocide” against the Syrian people. The group also points to the assassination of KIB leader Salahadin al Uzbeki last year, alleging that the Islamic State (ISIS) cooperated with “Russian intelligence” in the killing.
An al Qaeda-linked ideologue, Sheikh Abdullah al-Muhaysini, quickly reiterated the SLF’s defense of the KIB on his social media pages. Muhaysini praised the fact that native Syrians within SLF rose to the defense of their immigrant brothers. Muhaysini lauded KIB for not participating in the “infighting” between jihadist factions, saying its members are “Uzbek brothers who are helping the people of Sham against the transgressor Assad.” Like the SLF, Muhaysini accused the US of employing “double standards,” as foreign fighters have joined the Kurdistan Workers Party (PKK), even as the YPG (or People’s Defense Units) has received the US backing in its fight against ISIS. The YPG is affiliated with the PKK, which is a designated terrorist organization.
Other pro-al Qaeda jihadists have denounced the newly-minted terror designation as well. One of these men is Sirajeddine Zuraiqat, who has served as a senior figure in the Abdullah Azzam Brigades.