UN: Islamic Jihad Union operates in Syria

Fighters of Ansar Jihad in Hama, Syria, in early 2017.

The Afghanistan-based Uzbek jihadist group Islamic Jihad Union (IJU) is also operating inside Syria, according to a new report released by the United Nations Security Council.

“The Islamic Jihad Group [another name for IJU] is now under the full control of Hay’at Tahrir al Sham,” the report stated. This is the first time the IJU has been officially linked to operations in Syria.

The IJU is an al Qaeda-affiliated jihadist group in Afghanistan and Pakistan, which is mainly comprised of Uzbeks and other Central Asians, and fights under the auspices of the Taliban in Afghanistan.

The UN’s monitoring team report also states that the “group comprises between 30 and 40 ethnic Uzbeks and and a smaller number of Turkish nationals.”

While the IJU has never formally announced a presence inside Syria, the group likely conducted its operations in the country through the group Ansar Jihad. The description of the IJU in Syria given by the UN matches with the known information of Ansar Jihad.

Ansar Jihad was ostensibly founded in late 2015 and led by an ethnic Uighur fighter, Abu Omar al Turkistani, until his death in early 2017.

At the time, Ansar Jihad made no mention of any ties to any other organization and claimed to be an independent jihadist group.

However, evidence suggested it was always tied to the IJU and operated as a sub-unit of Al Nusrah Front and later Jabhat Fateh al Sham (which became HTS).

They claimed to be a mainly ethnic Uzbek unit, joining the likes of Katibat al Tawhid wal Jihad (KTJ) and Katibat Imam al Bukhari (KIB) in northwestern Syria. KIB also maintains a branch inside Afghanistan, as does its ally the Turkistan Islamic Party (TIP).

It would not be a huge leap for the IJU to also send fighters to Syria, much like its allies in the TIP, KIB, and the former Islamic Movement of Uzbekistan. In fact, the UN notes that the IJU’s Uzbek fighters in Syria came from Afghanistan.

Additionally, while it only produced a few of its own videos, it routinely eulogized killed IJU fighters in Afghanistan and shared other IJU propaganda.

It also maintained a Turkish-language propaganda channel and showed Turkish fighters within its ranks, which is backed up by the UN’s reporting. This is unsurprising, as the IJU has a long history of recruiting Turkish fighters into its fold.

Shortly after the formation of HTS in late Jan. 2017, Ansar Jihad’s social media presence ceased to exist. It is likely that those within Ansar Jihad were put into HTS’ Russian-speaking unit, Liwa al Muhajireen wal Ansar, which maintains its own media arm.

Perhaps the most compelling evidence of the links between Ansar Jihad and IJU is that of its leader, Abu Omar al Turkistani.

Turkistani, who fought alongside al Qaeda and other jihadist groups in Tora Bora in 2001, became a senior commander of the IJU in Afghanistan after being released from Pakistani custody in 2011. He led IJU troops in northern Afghanistan before traveling to Syria in 2015.

Ansar Jihad fought alongside the Al Nusrah Front/Jabhat Fateh al Sham (JFS) and its allies in several battles, especially in October 2016’s “Battle of Abu Omar Saraqib.”

Then in early Jan. 2017, Turkistani was killed by a US drone strike alongside Abu Khattab al Qahtani, an al Qaeda veteran. But when the two were killed, Turkistani was also reported to be a dual-hatted senior leader of the then Jabhat Fatah al Sham.

As Turkistani was also a leader within JFS, his organization would have already been a sub-unit of the larger group. And when JFS became HTS in late Jan. 2017, Ansar Jihad would have joined with it.

So while Ansar Jihad portrayed itself an independent organization, it was actually the Islamic Jihad Union’s Syrian wing and was a sub-unit of al Qaeda’s then-branch inside the country.

And according to the UN, the IJU continues to operate inside Syria fully subsumed within HTS.

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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