What Are The IMU's Designs In Central Asia?
When looking at the future security situation of Central Asia, discussion invariably leads to the Islamic Movement of Uzbekistan. As its name suggests, it has roots in Central Asia, but since the U.S.-led war in Afghanistan and Pakistan began in 2001, the IMU has turned its focus to those battlefields. And the group's Central Asian founders, Tahir Yuldashev and Juma Namangani, have both died. But there is much speculation that, after the U.S. starts to leave Afghanistan in 2014, that an emboldened IMU may again return to Central Asia. Those discussions, unfortunately, are usually short on knowledge about what the IMU is actually doing now.
A recent piece in Foreign Policy, "The Islamic Movement of Uzbekistan: Down but not out," looked at the current state of the group and its strategy. And what was most striking, from the perspective of a Central Asia watcher, was how little discussion there was of that region. The piece devotes one sentence to the IMU's activities in Central Asia: "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."
The piece notes that the group has been revitalized by the charisma of its "chief juridical voice," Abu Zarr Azzam, whose strategic focus is on South Asia:
[Abu Zarr] 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."
The piece was written by Christopher Anzalone, a doctoral student in the Institute of Islamic Studies at McGill University who tracks the IMU. I got in touch to ask him for more details about the IMU's plans for Central Asia. And he confirmed that while "they still talk about Central Asia ... their main focus is now South and West Asia":
[I]ts messaging on Central Asia. is mostly reactive, such as when they released a statement about inter-communal violence in Kyrgyzstan. Given that so much of its focus is on South Asia and that the movement has largely been based in Pakistan and Afghanistan for so long, I think that it will likely remain a much larger player in the militant landscape of these regions rather than Central Asia. The IMU has focused on educating the next generation of militants in "jihad schools" (its term) in which young boys are socialized into the IMU's guerilla lifestyle. From its media we know that some of these boys have grown up and been killed fighting as young men in the IMU's ranks. The messaging from the movement's European members, such as the German brothers Yassin and Mounir Chouka, is also Pakistan-centric.
Of course strategies can change, and perhaps in the future the IMU will see a fertile environment in Central Asia. But for now, they don't seem to think much about it.