At the time when the Uzbek authorities held an international conference on Afghanistan on March 26-27, 2018, and the Uzbek Foreign Minister Abdulaziz Kamilov hosted the Afghan Taliban delegation led by the Movement’s political chief Sher Mohammad Abbas Stanikzai on August 6-10, 2018, Taliban-backed Uzbek Salafi-jihadi groups continued their military operations against the Afghan government forces. Uzbekistan’s President Shavkat Mirziyoyev’s diplomatic efforts to establish a direct dialogue between the Afghan government and the Taliban have not yet produced the desired result. Moreover, these two important events in Tashkent city could not diminish the terrorist activity of jihadist groups from the Ferghana Valley, which are under the dual patronage of al Qaeda and the Taliban.
The dispute between the UN and the US about the al Qaeda’s and the Taliban’s strategic ties
Monitoring of the Central Asian Salafi-jihadi groups activities showed that since 2018 al Qaeda-linked Katibat Imam al Bukhari (KIB) has stepped up its participation in the terror attacks against the Afghan Armed Forces. This Uzbek terrorist group has a high level of trust among the leaders al Qaeda and Taliban and has become a link in their strategic ties. The ongoing strategic ties between al Qaeda and the Taliban were also noted in the United Nations’ twenty-second comprehensive report, which was published on July 27, 2018.The UN Security Council emphasized that “Al-Qaida and its affiliates remain stronger than ISIL, while its alliance with the Taliban and other terrorist groups in Afghanistan remains firm despite rivalry from the local ISIL affiliate” (page 3, section “Summary”).
In this regard, it should be noted that the Pentagon and some high-ranking generals maintained that the strategic ties between al Qaeda and the Taliban were terminated. The US Department of Defense in its biannual report “Enhancing Security and Stability in Afghanistan” in June 2018 wrote that “…there is no evidence of strategic ties between the two organizations and the Taliban likely seeks to maintain distance from al-Qa’ida” (page 26, section “Threats from Insurgent and Terrorist Groups”).
However, the UN report and the KIB activities show that the strategic ties between al Qaeda and the Taliban continue to function successfully. KIB is not the only group from Central Asia that is affiliated with al Qaeda and conducts terror operations under the Taliban’s leadership in Afghanistan. The authors of the UN’s report devoted a whole paragraph to jihadist organizations from Central Asia, which play a key role in strategic cooperation between al Qaeda and the Taliban. Citing information provided by its Member States, the UN its report claims: “The Islamic Movement of Uzbekistan still commands about 500 fighters in Afghanistan, concentrated in Faryab, Sari Pul, Jowzjan, Kunduz, Baghlan, Takhar and Badakhshan provinces. Around another 500 Central Asian fighters are distributed between Khatibat Imam Al-Bukhari, Katibat al Tawhid wal Jihad, Islamic Jihad Union… The Eastern Turkistan Islamic Movement commands 400 fighters in Badakhshan” (page 15-16, section “Central and South Asia”).
As an expert who is researching an ideological doctrine of the Central Asian Salafi-jihadi groups, I want to note that the above facts in the UN report may require some adjustment.First, of all the above-mentioned terrorist groups, only Katibat Imam al-Bukhari and the Eastern Turkistan Islamic Movement, more commonly known as the Turkistan Islamic Party (TIP) from northwest China, today jointly conduct attacks against the Afghan government forces.
Secondly, the presence of Katibat al Tawhid wal Jihad (KTJ) militants in Afghanistan raises serious questions for experts on Central Asia. This Salafi-jihadi group, which consists of Islamists from Kyrgyzstan and Uzbekistan, is fighting alongside other al Qaeda-linked groups in Syria and has not yet formed its branch in Afghanistan.Although KTJ is a strong mouthpiece of al Qaeda in the Central Asian region. The KTJ’s leader Abu Saloh became an effective mechanism in spreading the ideology of al Qaeda in the Ferghana Valley and the recruitment of new militants.
Thirdly, after the killing of the Islamic Movement of Uzbekistan’s (IMU) leader Usman Ghazi and his more than 100 militants by the Taliban for the betrayal to ISIS at a base in Zabul Province, the group was practically extinct.In June 2016, a new faction of the IMU announced itself, denouncing ISIS and expressing its loyalty to the Taliban and al Qaeda.But after this incident, al Qaeda and the Taliban leaders do not strongly trust the new IMU faction. Therefore, the IMU is unable to become an effective player in strengthening strategic ties between al Qaeda and the Taliban. Among the Central Asian jihadi groups who fight in Afghanistan, only KIB, TIP and Islamic Jihad Union (IJU) have the highest confidence among al Qaeda and the Taliban leaders.
Uzbek jihadists in a double embrace
It is known that KIB has two branches. The group’s main fighting force of more than 500 militants, led by leader Abu Yusuf Muhojir today is based in the Syrian province Idlib. Despite the fact that KIB positions itself as an “independent” faction it is closely connected with Ahrar al Sham who has had al Qaeda operatives embedded in its own ranks. The KIB’s second branch is concentrated in Afghanistan, which positions itself as an integral part of the Taliban.Even the emblem and the name of the KIB branch are closely associated with the Taliban. It is known that the Taliban refers to itself as “the Islamic Emirate of Afghanistan” and has the website under the same name. With the Taliban’s consent KIB leaders gave their branch the name “Katibat Imam al Bukhari of the Islamic Emirate of Afghanistan”.After pledging an oath of allegiance to Taliban leader Mullah Omar, KIB became a reinforcing factor of the strategic ties of the Taliban and al Qaeda.It should be noted that the US State Department designated KIB to the list of global terrorist organizations on March 22, 2018.
KIB’s Media Center is located in Idlib, which promotes the activities of both branches in the social media. In his propaganda materials and public speaking during Jumu’ah (congregational prayer on Friday), KIB leader Abu Yusuf Muhojr regularly makes reference to the religious preaching of the founder al Qaeda Osama bin Laden and the group’s current amir Ayman al-Zawahiri. Radical Salafism and militant Takfirism are the fundamental basis of the jihadi ideology of the KIB.In accordance with the ideological doctrine of KIB, the group considers its goal the construction of an Islamic state in Central Asia, the overthrow of the regime of Bashar al-Assad, and the protection and spread of Salafi-jihadi ideology around the world by force. Also, Abu Yusuf Muhojir describes with admiration the military successes of the Taliban Mujahideen and calls them “the faithful warriors of Allah.”
Since the spring of 2018, Uzbek jihadists, together with the Taliban, have conducted more than ten terror operations called Khandak and Mansuri.After each terrorist attack, the KIB’s Media Center published video and photo materials on the captured military equipment, weapons, and cited the data of the killed soldiers of the Afghan Army on the Telegram channel.For example, on July 18, 2018, the Media Center reported that “in the framework of the joint Operation Khandak, the Mujahideen of Kathibat Imam Bukhori neutralized four military personnel who had undergone military training NATO and destroyed one infantry fighting vehicle and 3 Hummer.”At the end information, the KIB confirmed its loyalty to the Taliban according to the Bay’ah (oath of allegiance in the world of jihadism). This indicates that the KIB continue its historical fealty to the Taliban and alQaeda.
As the recent battles for the city of Ghazni have shown, the Taliban has been able to significantly increase its combat readiness and expand its presence to the borders of Uzbekistan, Turkmenistan and Tajikistan.This means that Uzbek jihadists are closer and closer to their homes, where they intend to create an Islamic Caliphate.The KIB, IJU and TIP continue to attract followers, gain battlefield experience and make international connections.
The Central Asian countries seriously fear that the Taliban’s dominant role in the intra-Afghan war can inspire the jihadists from the Fergana Valley into terrorist attacks in their homeland.But the “Stans” governments do not have military, political and economic levers to pressure the Taliban so that it refuses patronage over Uzbek and Uyghur Salafi-jihadi groups. The Afghan peace conference in Tashkent and the ongoing talks between Uzbekistan and the Taliban do not give much optimism that the terrorist threat KIB, IJU and TIP will decrease in the future.
Since 2001, there have been many attempts to organize a negotiation process with the “moderate” wing of the Taliban in various formats.International conferences were held under the aegis of the UN, like the Tashkent one.Al Qaeda leader Ayman al Zawahiri has sworn allegiance to the Taliban’s new amir, Mullah Haibatullah Akhundzada in June 2016.Therefore, it can be expected that the strategic ties between the Taliban and al Qaeda will continue in the future, and their patronage over the Central Asian Salafi-jihadi terror groups will not interfere.
Causes and consequences of jihadism
In conclusion, it should be noted that the UN statistics on the number of Central Asian jihadists is very conditional. Counting al Qaeda backed Sunni radical group’s membership in Central Asia and the Middle East is a difficult task.In practice, their number is several times higher. In my opinion, the controversy over the continuation or termination of al Qaeda’s and Taliban’s strategic ties in Afghanistan, as well as the allegation of a quarrel between al Qaeda and Hayat Tahrir al-Sham in Syria is of secondary importance.Despite internal contradictions and temporary conflicts for leadership in the jihadist world, al Qaeda, the Taliban and ISIS united by the common extremist Salafist-takfiri ideology. The purpose of this ideology is the construction of the Caliphate in the world and the struggle with the crusaders of the West.
The UN in its report was unable to name the exact number of Sunni Muslims who share the Salafi-jihadi ideology. While the ideology of Salafism and Wahhabism is alive, the number of Islamist terrorists in the world can only grow, and jihad cannot be stopped.After analyzing the UN’s and the Pentagon’s reports it can be concluded that world powers are struggling not with causes, but with the consequences of jihadism.But the fight against the ideology of radical Islamism is primarily a responsibility of the Islamic world.
Post-Pulwama False Flag Operation: Prediction and Reality
Since the nuclearization of South Asia in 1998, the region has become a major component of international security and stability. The recent military escalation and de-escalation of February-March 2019 between the nuclear armed rivals of South Asia i.e. Pakistan and India, more than a month has passed but the world is still concerned about the situation in this volatile region. There is an ongoing debate in Pakistan about the Pulwama attack of 14th February 2019 as a ‘False Flag Operation’ in the realm of hybrid warfare which India has launched against Pakistan. The false flag operations are based on deception with pre-determined outcomes to achieve some political or strategic objective.
India has a history of such false flag operations starting from 1971 till now for achieving the predetermined strategic and political goals (whether successful or unsuccessful). The 2016 Uri attack, the PathanKot Air Base attack, the Mumbai attacks 2008are candid examples of the false flag operations which India has carried out. These operations which are now part of history were aimed to divert international attention from Kashmir issue while blaming Pakistan without any evidence. These operations have remained focused of achieving political goals in elections. The most recent example is the Pulwama suicide attack of February 2019, in which 44personnel of Indian Central Police Reserve Force (CPRF) were killed. The BJP election campaign based on hatred against Pakistan to get popular support whereas the timing of attacks i.e. just two months before the elections make it one of the most controversial false flag operations. Within few minutes after the attack India claimed that about 350 kilograms Improvised Explosive Device (IED) was used. There are above 700,000 Indian troops present in Indian Occupied Kashmir (IOK) and most of the times curfew is applicable which makes it impossible for any group to navigate carrying such a huge volume of explosives. As an election stunt the Indian leaders and media blamed Pakistan for backing the attacks without any investigation and evidence.
Pakistan’s ‘appropriate response’ in the after math of February 2019 events is part of history now. On 7th April 2019 Pakistan’s Foreign Minister has predicted that another ‘Pulwama like attack’ in IOK may happen in coming days between 16th to 20th April. India could stage another Pulwama like attack in IOK to justify its military escalation and to increase diplomatic pressure on Pakistan. He further said that Pakistan has authentic intelligence regarding Indian preparations for such attack. In this regard Pakistan has conveyed formally to the diplomatic representatives of the permanent members of UNSC in Islamabad. A meeting of India’s ‘Cabinet Committee on Defence’ was held recently in which Modi gave free hand to the services chiefs to act against Pakistan in upcoming days. The chiefs responded that they have already selected military targets that go beyond Line of Control (LoC).
India under Modi’s leadership is intentionally increasing the war hysteria against Pakistan without realizing the reality that any escalation beyond a certain point a may lead to a first ever nuclear exchange between the two countries. The Pulwama attack was no doubt a false flag operation carried out by India with two politico-military objectives. First, to project the freedom fighting movement in Kashmir as ‘terrorism’ which is at its peak since Modi is in power and second is to gain maximum popular support in context of 2019 elections by spreading hatred against Pakistan. The aftermath of Pulwama has re-assured Pakistan’s Nuclear Deterrence at conventional level and proved it a dominant factor over escalation ladder.
In case of a ‘new false flag operation’ or any February 2019 like escalation from India, Pakistan though lacking in number of conventional forces and weapons will remain with no choice but to respond un-conventionally by using the tactical nuclear weapons i.e. ‘NASR’ and subsequently short and medium range missiles capable of delivering nuclear war heads. The recent military standoff has proved to be a matter of failure for India vis-à-vis the credibility of the claims. The international media as well as the Indian media and opposition parties have questioned Modi’s government for the evidence of targeting militant training camp (killing 350 militants) and proof of Pakistan’s jet plane crashed during 27th February dogfight (claimed by India).According to Foreign Policy Magazine US officials have verified that Pakistan’s F-16 fleet is complete in numbers and not a single jet is missing.
The February 2019 military crisis and its aftermath didn’t prove to be a politico-military success for BJP. Pakistan has proved that it can respond to any Indian aggression appropriately and thus gained a moral and psychological edge over India in the crisis. Pakistan’s nuclear deterrence has served as a dominating factor against the Indian conventional maneuvers. Pakistan needs to be well prepared against a new false flag Pulwama like operation in coming days realizing the political hype in India. In case of breach of Pakistan’s sovereignty by India in the name of a limited conflict or a surgical strike, this time the response might be a ‘nuclear’ staying below the nuclear threshold.
Is Designating IRGC a Terrorist Organization a Right Decision?
Iranian Revolutionary Guard Corps (IRGC), otherwise known in Iran as the so-called ‘Islamic’ Revolutionary Guard Corps, is designated as a terrorist organization on Monday (April 8, 2019). What followed is a heated-up debate on broadcast-media across the world as well as on various social-media platforms.
Whether the decision was right and whether it is a sensible one — needs no further consideration. Yet the debate that followed on mainstream broadcast-media and various social-media platforms need to be addressed. For this, a bunch of incidents and happenings that have been taking place in Middle East have to consider along with their connection to IRGC. Syria seems the appropriate conflict zone to start with.
In Syria, a 13-year-old boy’s penis was cut off by the brutal mukhabarat (which is the secret police of Syrian dictator Bashar-al-Assad) in 2011. The boy, named Hamza Al-Khateeb, was returned to his family with his body mutilated. His head was swollen, purple and disfigured, body was a mess of welts, cigarette burns and wounds from bullets fired to injure, not kill. Kneecaps smashed, neck broken, jaw shattered. The most brutal part of the torture was that, as mentioned earlier, his penis was cut off. After a video of his tortured-body was posted on YouTube, thousands of Syrians rallied and chanted “We Are All Hamza!”.
The boy was among hundreds of children and teenagers who faced the same fate in the hands of Assad’s police and army, though it was the boy’s story that attracted more coverage during the time from the mainstream media.
As Iran’s leaders always try to portray themselves as the symbol of moral values against, what the Iranian leaders call, ‘imperialism’, many in Iran and elsewhere expected them to act — or at least speak — for the splayed victims and against the heinous activities of Bashar-al-Assad and his loyalists. Iranian leadership instead chose to side with the longtime ally Assad, who was already named — by the people from his own country, the region and world — as the “Butcher”.
What followed was horror, terror and death. First, Iranian leadership’s military arm, the IRGC, had led the campaign of killing the Sunnis and non-twelver Shias in thousands to depopulate many areas from Sunnis and non-twelver Shias — something which is no less than a genocide.
This fear of being killed for their sectarian identities had compelled a portion of the remaining Sunni and non-twelver Shia population to leave their homeland and seek refuge in other countries (particularly neighbouring countries and Europe) so that they could escape the genocide — something which is no less than an ethnic cleansing.
In Syria, the IRGC had carried out the campaign with the help from Assad’s army and Iran-backed Lebanese militant group named Hezbollah. In Iraq, the IRGC had carried out the campaign with the help of sectarian elements in Iraqi army, Iran-backed twelver-militias in Iraq and Hezbollah.
Everyone with the slightest interest in Middle East affairs is well-informed about the sectarian cleasing that happened in Iraq’s Fallujah with the backing of the Iranian leadership and IRGC. The Iraqi forces and Iran-backed militias killed thousands of innocent Sunnis and non-twelver-Shias in the cover of “liberating” the area from ISIS.
All of the above said killing campaigns had been monitored, aided and managed in the ground-zero by the Iranian Revolutionary Guard Corps (IRGC), which is designated as a ‘terrorist’ organization just the other day.
The IRGC-members themselves had engaged in the killings of innocent Sunnis in these two countries, particularly in Syria. For years, the IRGC has been training the terrorist proxies inside both Iraq and Syria as well as in other regional countries.
IRGC had also helped Bashar-al-Assad to carryout gas/chemical-bomb attacks on innocent civilians in rebel-held areas in Syria. Every mainstream global media had either published articles or broadcasted the footages of the aftermath of these repeated gas/chemical attacks on civilians. The broadcasted-footages clearly show how civilians, especially the children, died from these attacks. The worst part is that these children had to go through enormous sufferings and pain before ultimately losing their lives.
All the atrocities committed directly or indirectly by the IRGC suggests that if it is wrong to designate the IRGC as ‘terrorist’ organization, it would also be wrong to designate any other atrocious group as ‘terrorist’. If it is right to designate any atrocious group (including ISIS) as ‘terrorist’, it should equally be right to designate IRGC as ‘terrorist’.
If one poses the question “What we should call a terrorist?”, the obvious answer would be “a terrorist”, and so is the Iranian Revolutionary Guard Corps (IRGC) and its leadership.
The Christchurch Shooting and Definitional Problem of Terrorism
On Friday, March 15, 2019, the world was shocked by the news of shooting attack in two different mosques in Christchurch, New Zealand. Fifty people were killed, while thirty-nine others were injured in the shooting and are currently receiving care in hospitals. The attack was unpredicted since it occurred in a relatively peaceful and stable country. After the incident, the suspect, a 28-year-old Australian, Brenton Tarrant, appeared in court with a charge of murder. A debate arises on whether the Christchurch shooting should be categorized as terrorism.
Indeed, defining whether an attack can be categorized as “terrorism” remains a complex task for scholars and counterterrorism agencies. The definition of terrorism is critical since our perception is heavily influenced by how the concept is elaborated. It also affects our communication and responses to the issue which potentially affects states’ politics and social dynamics.
One reason for the lack of clarity is because terrorism is difficult to measure. Unlike conventional war between states, terrorism always shows inconsistent metrics because it exploits the position of weaknesses. Some questions that are frequently asked to define terrorism include: when can violence be justified as an act of terror? How does terrorism distinguish itself from regular assault and other violent or criminal act? Also, how can we differentiate morally culpable terrorists from legitimate insurgents and freedom fighters?
Currently, scholars on terrorism studies have written several definitions of terrorism that emphasize the use of violence, politics, sociology, and psychology. There are common traits that are found in every definition. First, terrorism is defined as an act of “extranormal” violence that generates widespread disproportionate emotional reactions from its audiences such as fear and anxiety that influence their attitude and behavior. Second, the violence is systematic, unpredictable, and usually directed on a symbolic target. Third, the violence conveys political messages and threats to communicate their demands and gain social control.
Based on the definitions above, we can categorize the Christchurch shooting as an act of terror as it adheres to most of the criteria. Some prominent actors even have adopted this term to describe the incident. The Prime Minister of New Zealand, Jacinda Arden, for example, called the shooting as “the worst case of terrorism in the Pacific Islands”, followed by her refusal to mention the perpetrator’s name and proposal to ban semi-automatic weapon in New Zealand. However, this label is not yet adopted by the wider public, since many government officials and media still regard the Christchurch shooting as a mere hate crime.
The semantical difference of the Christchurch shooting perhaps can be traced from two main arguments: First; because there are differences in how terrorism is securitized in every state, what terrorizes a particular population may vary depending on their historical and cultural values. In most societies, the definition of terrorism is still associated with the US’s “War on Terror” after the 9/11, which resulted in affiliation between terrorism and Islamic Extremism. The term “terrorism” was suddenly over-generalized as a product of extreme Islamic ideology; the opposition against the West; and a global multi-faceted threat that should be contained. That is why the idea of “right-wing terrorism” feels strange to most society since it does not fit the description of modern day terrorism.
Second, labeling the Christchurch shooting as terrorism might contradict governments’ effort in securitizing terrorism. The term “terrorism” is generally pejorative and implies a moral judgment which indirectly persuaded others to perceive the labeled party as the common enemy.
For some governments, it is difficult to admit that some of the right-wing terrorism occurred from the backlash of states’ counterterrorism narratives. Individuals might have different interpretations on the subject, and some might understand it as dissension against one particular community—such as what happened in the case of the Christchurch shooting. Expanding the image of terrorism to the very own part of states’ main audience in securitization process, can hurt states’ further efforts in defining the adversaries.
It is apparent that the decision to address the Christchurch shooting as terrorism is very complex, especially because the concept itself is highly subjective, emotionally, and politically driven term where it has a relative meaning to different actors. Nevertheless, looking at recent developments, it is important for us to change how we define terrorism beyond the image of Islamist extremism.
For governments and law enforcers, the outdated understanding leaves them hampered by an inability to define terror acts and criminalize terrorists from outside the Islamist extremist groups. Meanwhile, for the public, redefining the concept of terrorism will help them build a stronger resilience against terrorism narratives and give a more proportional response aftermath a violent attack.
Jacinda Arden’s remarkable response to the Christchurch shooting has shown us that it is possible to label the incident as terrorism. Her actions had created a sense that the Christchurch shooting—and other similar right-wing terrorism—pose an existential threat that requires an emergency measure. By the public’s reaction, it is clear that her response is well received and it could be the first step to redefine the public’s understanding of terrorism.
In the future, we would require more agent of change like Arden, who is able to convey strong narrations and gather a significant number of audiences that accept the designation. Redefining terrorism will not be an easy process, and it should be done with social cohesion, tolerance, and mutual respect. Only after we share the same sense of peril and the need for extraordinary measures, then we can challenge the subjective nature of terrorism.
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