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Terrorism

Central Asian Jihadists under Al Qaeda’s & Taliban’s Strategic Ties

Uran Botobekov

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Snipers of Katibat Imam al Bukhari in Afghanistan

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.

Militant of Katibat Imam al Bukhari in the joint terror operation Khandak with the Taliban

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.

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Terrorism

Afghanistan bloodshed mars 100 years of independence

MD Staff

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The scene at the Shahr-e-Dubai Wedding Hall in West Kabul on 18 August 2019, where approximately 1,000 people were gathered the night before for a wedding ceremony, when a suicide attacker detonated explosives, killing and injuring scores of civilians. UNAMA/Fardin Waezi

Afghanistan is at a “crucial moment” in its history as it marks 100 years of independence, the head of the UN Mission there said on Monday, following a series of terror attacks in recent days.

In a statement on Monday, Tadamichi Yamamoto, who heads the United Nations Assistance Mission in Afghanistan (UNAMA), said that despite decades of conflict, Afghans remain committed to a nation that is stable, peaceful and prosperous, and that upholds the human rights of women and men alike. 

Mr. Yamamoto also expressed hope that elections due to take place next month would give voice to the people, while also maintaining that there was “a real possibility for breakthroughs in peace” after so many years of war – a reference to on-going negotiations between Taliban leaders and the United States, that it is hoped will lead to a lasting ceasefire and talks involving the Afghan Government.

The UNAMA chief’s comments come amid numerous recent terror attacks on civilians, including a suicide bombing towards the end of a large wedding party on Saturday, that claimed the lives of 63 people and injured over 180.

In a statement released on Sunday, UN Secretary-General António Guterres “strongly condemned” the “horrific” attack, and expressed his “deepest sympathies to the families of the victims, and the Government and people of Afghanistan.”

The attack took place in the Shahr-e-Dubai Wedding Hall in West Kabul where approximately 1,000 people were gathered for a Shia wedding ceremony, said UNAMA in a statement, adding that the mission’s human rights team would investigate the incident.

According to news reports, a local affiliate of the ISIL terrorist group claimed responsibility for the suicide attack.

“An attack deliberately targeting civilians is an outrage, and deeply troubling, as it can only be described as a cowardly act of terror,” said Mr. Yamamoto. “I condemn these deliberate attacks on civilians that signal a deliberate intent to spread fear among the population, which has already suffered too much.”

The wedding hall where the attack took place is situated in an area of the city heavily populated by Afghanistan’s Shia Muslim minority. UNAMA has documented several previous attacks deliberately carried out against this community.

“The pace of such atrocious attacks indicates that current measures in place to protect must be strengthened, and that those who have organized and enabled such attacks must be brought to justice and held to account,” said the UNAMA chief. “The United Nations stands with all Afghans in solidarity and remains committed to an Afghan-led peace process that will end the war and bring about a lasting peace.”

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Does Kenya Really Want To End Terrorism?

Abukar Arman

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New dangerous dynamics are emerging at the Horn of Africa. Political tension emanating from maritime territory that Somalia and Kenya, both claim it as part of their legitimate border is getting more volatile. As the International Court of Justice gets ready to hold public hearings on “Maritime Delimitation in the Indian Ocean (Somalia v. Kenya)” September 9-13, Kenya continues to intensify its efforts to lobby the U.N, and key allies to help add al-Shabab to UNSC Resolution 1267.

If you are wondering what does al-Shabab have to do with this matter, you apparently are not part of the Kenyan political pundits, law-makers, and credulous Somalis who have been cheerleading for this unjustifiable initiative.

It Is What It Is

Let us imagine that it is late September, the time when leaders representing 195 member states would be attending the 74th UN General Assembly. Let us imagine during one of the debate sessions, this multiple choice question was raised: 

What is al-Shabab?

  • A law-abiding neighborhood watch group
  • A self-less patriots fighting for self-determination
  • A ruthless terrorist group

How many do you think will stutter with the answer, or not know that al-Shabab is a terrorist organization? By all legal and moral standards, al-Shabab is a terrorist organization.

If al-Shabab was not already considered a terrorist organization by the UN, why would the Security Council mandate AMISOM to fight them along the Somali National Army and periodically capture territories from them? So, since al-Shabab is already considered a terrorist organization, why spend such energy and political capital on redundancy?  Or rather bluntly: who is Kenya’s real target? 

Widening The Net

While fingers were frantically pointing at o all directions as to who was behind the Kismayo terrorist attack that killed 26 people including a beloved Somali-Canadian journalist, HodanNalayeh, Kenya’s top diplomat—Monica Juma—went on politicking on twitter. Before offering any condolences, she wrote:  “This attack is another reminder to the international community of the imperative to list the al-Shabaab, like all other terrorist groups, under the UNSC resolution 1267.” 

On the surface this may seem ordinary attempt to tighten the screws on al-Shabab, but it is far from that.

Said resolution, also known as the ISIS/al-Qaida resolution, mandates the harshest international sanctions on assets freeze and travel ban measures on individuals, entities and groups who are suspected of being remotely associated with those terrorist groups. And that blanket condemnation increases the chance of innocents in the periphery getting caught in the net or communities suffering as a result.  

Though this could get some Kenya Defense Force officials who operate an illicit business with al-Shabab that the Kenyatta government has been turning a blind eye in serious trouble, Kenya is eager to advance the initiative in order to use it as an insurance against any unfavorable decision from ICJ.

If Kenya’s endeavor succeeds, it will give Kenya the freehand to pressure and coerce top politicians and influential business leaders who have various investments and retain residential statuses in Kenya to assist her in achieving its objective of annexing the maritime territory- blocks that it already marketed for oil exploration. It is also an insurance policy against some of her Somali allies such as Ahmed Islam (Madobe)—president of Jubbaland federal state—who is currently much closer to Kenya than to the Federal Government of Somalia. Kenya is not oblivious to the fluidity of clan politics and the unpredictability of how Madobe, with his shady past, may act once it becomes clear to him that he was exploited as the game-changing pawn.

Feeling The Weight

A few months back as Kenya’s hostile diplomacy grew more aggressive, Somalia’s diplomacy grew more diffident and passive. As Kenya suspended diplomatic ties with Somalia, invited a delegation from Somaliland, humiliated Somali Ministers by denying them to transit through Kenya, FGS opted to respond passively.

This was consistent with FGS’ ill-advised decision to turn a blind eye to Kenya’s unilateral decision to build a border wall that would divide Somali families, undermine businesses, and deprive them essential services such as health care, and allow Kenya to establish new facts of the ground that will in due course make a case for annexation of territories that belong to Somalia.

Lately, Kenya has been under intense U.S. diplomatic pressure to drop its bid and not make the Horn of Africa more volatile than it already is. This pressure is likely to increase now that 16 senior national security and humanitarian officials have written an open letter urging the U.S. to stop Kenya from creating a grave humanitarian disaster as the resolution at hand does not allow any type of exemption for humanitarian delivery. Against that backdrop, Kenya resorted to strengthen its Plan B- legislative support to annex the maritime territory by any means necessary.

In attempt to lend Kenyatta’s government the legislative support to declare war against Somalia should ICJ rules its favor, the Kenya National Assembly, led by Hon. Aden Duale, is set to pass a perfectly tailored bill that makes the disputed maritime territory as part and parcel of Kenya’s territorial integrity. The impetus motion cites Article 241 (3) of the country’s constitution that the Kenya Defense Forces are responsible for protecting Kenya’s ‘territorial integrity’. “Unless the People of Kenya resolve by way of referendum to alter the territory of Kenya,” said Duale.

Make no mistake, terrorism poses a threat to international peace and security and Kenya did suffer its share of terrorist attacks, therefore it is in our best interest to collectively address that threat. However, that would be extremely difficult now that we know that Kenya’s real objective is not “to annihilate the extremist group (al-Shabab).”

Political rhetoric aside,   Kenya, like a number of other foreign actors in Somalia, would’ve been eager to invent al-Shabab had it not already existed. To some, al-Shabab as a manageable threat is strategically convenient. After all, it was Kenya’s pretext for 2011 invasion of today’s Jubbaland, also for the 2012 integration of KDF into AMISOM, also for the 2017 unilaterally initiated border-altering wall.

Five years after Somalia filed the boundary delimitation dispute with the ICJ and millions of dollars were spent by both sides, no one is sure how the end result might be. The only sure thing is that any attempt to solve this matter militarily will only make the current crisis a catastrophe.       

If Kenya decides to go with the military option as some intellectuals have openly been advocating, it is likely to prove both positive and negative:

Positive as it is likely to unite the now divided Somalis to rally against a single common threat. Negative as it would ignite domestic disharmony and, in due course, make Nairobi the epicenter of terrorism and compel foreign investors such as China flee with their fat wallets.  

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Women Jihadists: Dupes of Emotional Trap

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As the prime focus while understanding global extremism is usually on the perpetrators and leaders of these extremist groups, women’s facilitative and supportive contributions are often poorly assessed and understood, owing to their underrepresentation in strategic positions within such radicalized movements.

Research suggests that hundreds of women and teenaged girls from all over the world travelled or attempted to travel to Syria and Iraq to join the self-styled Islamic State (IS) since the proclamation of the so-called ‘Caliphate’ by Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi in June 2014. These women were not only from Muslim countries but from westernized world and even non-Muslims also. It is estimated that more than80 women have travelled to IS-controlled territory from the Netherlands since 2012. From the United Kingdom and France, these numbers are even higher, respectively around 1452 and 2003 women and teenaged girls.

This phenomenon has prompted a renewed interest in women’s role in jihad. Studies focusing on predominantly Western women in IS so far show that these women mostly played supportive or facilitative roles as mothers, wives, propagandists or recruiters. Some women have been involved in educative, administrative, logistical, social, and medical positions also. Where only on a smaller scale, women in IS have been involved in operational positions. Otherwise, women have been mostly learnt to maintain and propagate jihadist ideology, or support their jihadist husbands, raising their children according to jihadist ideology, or aiding in recruiting for the cause, or helping create alliances through strategic marriages, raising funds or transporting messages, weapons and goods at the average.

Though all women in terror groups are sometimes not actual terrorists as many of them are kidnapped and used as suicide bomber against their will usually under the influence of drugs. But some young women do join these groups voluntarily, raising questions about the role of personal relationships and social networks. For most individuals travelling to the ISIS/Daesh territory, the internet and particularly social media played some part in their radicalization and they appear especially relevant in female terrorist recruitment. The extending role of cyber domain helps terror groups to project their ideologies garnering the attention and sympathies through romanticizing the idea of violence and jihad.

There seem a high level support within Al-Qaeda for a more active role for women over the years. Apart from the supportive roles, it is easier for women to transport weapons than men as they are less likely to be searched or suspected. They are often seen as less of a security threat. And even if they are caught, it provides jihadist movements with the advantage of increased media attention underscoring the seriousness of the cause when ‘even women’ are prepared to engage in violence.

There could be many reasons why women join radical groups like not fitting in a social thread, a lack of integration or inclusion, foreign policy grievances or may be a history of violence where either one or all of these reasons can amplify making an individual want to go and join a violent group. Surprisingly, the research suggests that the root cause for majority of such cases was the same, where the entrapped women blames the secular way of life not providing justice and support in their social or legal suits. Where, apparently, to go and work for a visionary state (IS) meant to most of them a way to get justice believing they would make the world a better place by implementing this superior way of life system. These terror groups have produced a highly-gendered narrative in which women are offered alternative concepts of freedom and empowerment thus tapping into the emotions that these young women and then enticing them saying you will have agency here that will turn you in a leader, a successful and inspirational figure. The approach for luring in females generally focuses on emotional trap, telling fake stories of Muslims sufferings and oppression by infidels in a generations old conflict. It is done through an intense Jihad literature starred with the stories of radicalization and indoctrination.

The large number of women lured in to join these radicalized groups actually show the important role women play in transmitting terrorist ideology. Women are deemed crucial in maintaining the morale of the fighters besides being used as a pull to enhance terror groups’ recruitment. Use of specific terms such as brides and wives actually entice men belonging to a specific mindset of gender stereotype at the same time creating the feeling of subordination among those subjugated women.

A former a recruiter for notorious radical Islamist group, who later turned her back on extremism Yasmin Mulbocus threw light on the deep psychology of young girls and women while describing what compels them to join these radicalized groups. She feels frustrated the way global media represents women that sign up to violent extremist group and she has a reason. The media seems to cherry pick the details of such women. These women are not merely the pictures you see on television nor the words upon a newspaper page, they are mindful, alive human beings. By using such provoking rather rousing titles like ‘Jihadis’ the media is actually empowering these young girls and Yasmin suggests that this is what they want, to feel empowered. By empowering these girls through relating them to such metaphoric titles, the media as a matter of fact pushing them more towards the extremist cause and of course they would want to fit this title because they want to foster fear in their erroneous melodramatic minds. One way to cater this problem is to take these rousing titles away and of course the governments’ will to empower these young minds socially and financially both.

Not only revoking such empowering titles but the world also needs to come up with some reworked referral names for these extremist groups which should not be relating to any religion. For instance, “Islamic State”, by itself, is such an empowering title that it must have radicalized many regular Muslims by convincing them that they were fighting for Islam. To curb the growth of terrorism in today’s world we must make an effort to take away the religious identity of these terrorist groups as it the gives the erroneous feeling of being a part of something bigger and divine. No religion teaches to annihilate the rest of the world and let alone Islam which is the religion of peace. While these terrorists don’t represent peace, they represent evil and war.

Women’s increasingly diverse roles within radical groups call for a more sophisticated approach to the problem with a better understanding of the factors driving the radicalization of these young women from around the globe. The women from a traditional, patriarchal society where their voices are not even heard get allured by the idea of having a lot of decision-making power and authority. They believe it to be a much better life than the other women of their community. Given the restrictions that they face in some highly conservative societies, this jihadi appeal may be very strong, not just for ideology reasons but to gain a sense of empowerment and virtual emancipation. While it is essential not to overplay the threat, still women across the world needs to be aware of the changing nature of threat. At the same time, some steps to empower them must be taken at global level to minimize the gender misconceptions and gender stereotypes that more so often affect their growth and space to contribute positively in their surroundings.

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