The South Asia Channel

The Islamic Movement of Uzbekistan: Down but not out

The Islamic Movement of Uzbekistan (IMU), a militant group based in Pakistan's tribal agencies, has suffered a series of major battlefield setbacks over the past year. But despite the loss of several senior leaders and a key media operative since 2011, the group remains one of the most militarily capable and media savvy militant outfits operating in the region.  It maintains working relationships with a number of other Sunni militant groups active in the region including al-Qaeda Central, Tehreek-e-Taliban Pakistan (TTP), and the Afghan Taliban.  The IMU has particularly close ties to the TTP, with whom it has launched joint military operations against Pakistani military targets inside Pakistan, as well ISAF and Afghan government targets in Afghanistan.  In April, an estimated 150 IMU and TTP fighters launched a successful attack on Bannu Prison in northwestern Pakistan, freeing nearly 400 prisoners, including Adnan Rashid, who was convicted in 2008 of involvement in an assassination plot against then-Pakistani president Pervez Musharraf. Rashid was subsequently featured in videos released by the IMU and TTP.

Tahir Yuldashev, the group's co-founder, took over as the IMU's leader in 2001 following the killing of fellow co-founder Jama Namangani during their retreat from Taliban-controlled Afghanistan to South Waziristan. Yuldashev used his charisma as a preacher to rebuild the IMU's cadre of fighters, which had been hit heavily in fighting with the Northern Alliance and U.S. military forces in the autumn of 2001. Under his leadership the IMU turned its attention toward targeting the Pakistani and Afghan governments, as well as U.S. and NATO forces in Afghanistan. The group also continued to issue statements about events in Central Asia such as brutal attacks on Uzbeks living in Kyrgyzstan by gangs of Kyrgyz youth in 2010.

Yuldashev forged close relations with Baitullah Mehsud, the founder of the TTP, and his successor, Hakimullah Mehsud, who took over the position of the TTP's amir in 2009 after his predecessor was killed in a U.S. drone strike. Yuldashev also oversaw the expansion of the IMU's membership base from Uzbeks, Tajiks, and Kyrgyz to multiple other nationalities and ethnicities, including Uyghurs, Turkmen, Turks, Afghans, Pashtun and non-Pashtun Pakistanis, Arabs, Chinese, Chechens, Germans, Norwegians, and Russians. A number of the IMU's senior leaders and ideologues have been non-Uzbeks, including its former Kyrgyz military commander, Abbas Mansur, and its Pakistani guiding religious authority (mufti), Abu Zarr Azzam.  A number of the IMU's senior media operatives in its Jundullah (God's Soldiers) Studio, including the German brothers Yassin and Mounir Chouka, are also non-Uzbeks. 

Wounded in an August 2009 U.S. drone missile strike, Yuldashev later died of his wounds.  His death was formally announced by the IMU in August 2010 when it released a eulogy video for him, Banner of Jihad.  In the video, Yuldashev's successor, Abu Usman Adil, was named.  Adil maintained the IMU's close relations with the TTP, meeting with senior TTP leaders, including Hakimullah Mehsud, and local Pashtun tribal supporters, such as tribal chief Noor al-Islam, on numerous occasions.  Hakimullah and other TTP leaders and members are featured frequently in IMU videos including the 3-part series Glad Tidings from Pakistan.  Qari Hussein Mehsud, the TTP's feared ideological trainer of "martyrdom seekers" (fida‘iyin), was first shown in extensive video footage in the second installment of this series.  In early August, an IMU statement reported that Adil was killed in a U.S. drone strike.  He was succeeded by Usman Ghazi, another senior IMU leader. 

The IMU's talented military commander, Abbas Mansur, was killed last year alongside Abdul Aziz Ukasha, a key IMU media operative and insurgent "journalist," in a U.S. drone strike.  Their killings were announced in a December 2011 statement from the group along with the deaths of 85 other IMU fighters that year. And during 2010, the IMU reported that 52 of its members were killed. High battlefield losses have taken a toll on the IMU's membership, which is believed to have once numbered several thousand.  Some estimates put the group's remaining fighting force at only a few hundred. 

Mansur, who joined Namangani to fight in Tajikistan's civil war in the 1990s when he was either 16 or 19 years old (IMU sources have given both ages), rose through the IMU's ranks to become its chief military commander, a position to which he was appointed by Yuldashev shortly before the latter was mortally wounded.  Mansur exhibited great courage on the battlefield and was chosen to undergo special training for bodyguards, eventually becoming a bodyguard to Namangani in Afghanistan.  After Namangani was killed, Mansur became a bodyguard and then a close aid to Yuldashev.  Known for his battlefield prowess, Mansur participated in hundreds of military operations according to IMU media, in which he was frequently shown leading military operations against Pakistani army and Frontier Corps bases and convoys.

Ukasha, a young Uzbek from Tashkent, was a member of the IMU for six years and fought in both Afghanistan and Pakistan.  He was an active member of Jundullah Studio and hosted and narrated the video series What's Happening in the Tribal Areas, which is currently in its tenth installment.  In the series, he took viewers around Pakistan's tribal regions, from the gun markets of Pashtun towns to the inside of teaching circles by Yuldashev and the ‘Abdullah ibn al-Zubayr "jihad school" for the children of IMU members.  In addition, Ukasha also worked as a video editor.  He was replaced by another young IMU media operative, Isamudeen, who eulogized both Mansur and Ukasha in the ninth installment of What's Happening in the Tribal Areas and said that he was tasked with continuing the series and the media role of Ukasha by Adil.

The IMU has been survived its many losses in part through the charisma of its chief juridical voice, Abu Zarr Azzam, a Pakistani of Burmese descent who is also known as Abu Zarr al-Burmi (the Burmese) and Abu Zarr al-Pakistani. Claiming to be a former teacher at Jami‘at Faruqiya, an Islamic university in Karachi, where he taught the TTP's Qari Hussein, Abu Zarr has been featured frequently in IMU video and audio productions. Close to both the IMU and TTP leaderships, Abu Zarr speaks fluent Urdu, Arabic, Burmese, Pashto, and Uzbek. He has stated that the goal of the IMU and other "mujahideen" in the region is to eventually retake all of the region's lands that were previously ruled by Muslims, which are currently the countries of India, Pakistan, Bangladesh, Burma, Sri Lanka, the Maldives, and Bhutan in a military expedition called "Ghazwat-ul-Hind," roughly translating to the "military expedition of the Indian subcontinent."  Abu Zarr has also declared the Pakistani government and members of the military and police who attack the "mujahideen" in the service of the U.S. to be apostates who may be killed. 

Despite suffering significant battlefield losses in its leadership, media department, and rank-and-file fighting force, the IMU has proven itself resilient.  It continues to work alongside other regional militant movements, particularly the TTP, which has allowed it to continue to project significant military force in both Afghanistan and Pakistan. It continues to also be actively engaged in targeting the Pakistani military with the TTP. Jundullah Studio consistently produces high-quality videos that play an integral role in the IMU's multi-layered media operations, which also include the publication of audio and written statements, and newsletters in Uzbek, Russian, Persian, Arabic, German, Burmese, Urdu, and Pashto. With an eye on ensuring its survival beyond the current generation of members, the group has also invested significant time and material resources in raising the next generation of IMU fighters, particularly the children of current members, who are taught military tactics, how to use firearms and other weaponry, and to value self-sacrifice and martyrdom. In spite of its losses, the IMU remains active both inside Afghanistan and Pakistan's tribal agencies.  

Christopher Anzalone is a doctoral student in the Institute of Islamic Studies at McGill University where he studies modern Muslim socio-political movements, contemporary jihadi movements, Shi'ite Islam, and Islamist visual cultures. He blogs at Views from the Occident and Al-Wasat.