State adds Uzbek jihadist group to terror list

Children holding Katibat Imam al Bukhari’s flag at a training camp in northern Syria in late 2015. 

The State Department added Uzbek jihadist group Katibat Imam al Bukhari (KIB) to the US government’s list of specially designated global terrorist organizations today. State labeled KIB is the “largest Uzbek fighting force in Syria.”

State’s designation 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.” KIB has joined several al Qaeda-led offensives in Syria since 2015. Those include the spring 2015 offensive that captured large swaths of Idlib province and summer offensives in Aleppo and Latakia in 2016. 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 has been particularly close with Nusrah’s (now Hay’at Tahrir al Sham’s) largely Uzbek battalion, Katibat al Tawhid wal Jihad. Fighters and leaders of both group’s have been featured in each other’s respective propaganda videos. Al Qaeda figures have also played prominently in other KIB videos.

State also noted that KIB “posted a video of a training camp for children, where children are taught to handle and fire weapons,” in Dec. 2015. That video showed dozens of children receiving schooling and military training in northern Syria. Most of the children appeared to be Central Asian in origin, indicating they are the children of Uzbek fighters. However, some children were native Syrians. Another video was released early last year showing the training of more children.

KIB was led by Salahadin al Uzbeki before his assassination last year. According to RFE/RL, Salahadin is a veteran of the jihad in Afghanistan who was sent to Syria by the Taliban and Sirajuddin Haqqani, one of the Taliban’s top deputies and leader of the powerful al Qaeda-linked Haqqani Network. KIB is now led by another ethnic Uzbek, who is only known as Abu Yusuf al Muhajir.

While not mentioned in State’s designation, KIB also maintains a branch inside Afghanistan. In 2016, the group released two videos from the northern part of the country, highlighting training camps for both general indoctrination and lessons on the manufacturing of IEDs, along with combat footage. It has since released sporadic videos from Afghanistan, including one from earlier this year. KIB appears to mainly operate in northern Afghanistan, specifically Faryab, or other ethnically Uzbek areas.

Both of KIB’s Syrian and Afghanistan branches swear allegiance to Mullah Akhundzada and the Afghan Taliban. More recently, KIB 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.

KIB has also been linked to other Uzbek jihadist groups in Afghanistan, namely the al Qaeda-linked Islamic Jihad Union and the Islamic Movement of Uzbekistan (IMU). KIB, like the Islamic Jihad Union, is likely also a splinter of the IMU.

Spelling from State’s designation has been changed for consistency. 

Caleb Weiss is an editor of FDD's Long War Journal and a senior analyst at the Bridgeway Foundation, where he focuses on the spread of the Islamic State in Central Africa.

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