Only days after the death of Taliban leader Mullah Omar was announced, the Islamic Movement of Uzbekistan terrorist group has reportedly sworn allegiance to the Islamic State. In a video posted by the IMU-controlled Furqon TV on July 31, a figure identified as the group’s spiritual leader, Sheikh Muhammad Ali, stands in front of the black flag of IS and pledges loyalty to the organization.
The rest of the 16-minute video shows IMU militants carrying out attacks on Afghan army posts in Zabul province, which borders Pakistan. Usman Ghazi, the IMU’s leader since 2012, features in the clip.
This is the first time the IMU’s central leadership has formally sworn allegiance to ISIS. But it is not the first report of IMU-linked militants allying themselves with ISIS.
In September 2014, Ghazi pledged support to Islamic State leader Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi, criticising Mullah Omar, who had not been seen in public since 2001. “On behalf of members of our Islamic Movement, I herewith announce to the world that we are siding with the Islamic Caliphate,” the statement read. Ghazi stopped short of pledging bay’a [the oath of allegiance] to ISIS. A few months later, in March 2015, a group of Uzbeks in northern Afghanistan claiming to be from the IMU, went a step further, pledging fealty to the Islamic State. Ghazi did not officially endorse the move.
The move comes during a tumultuous period for the movement.
Since the US-led invasion of Afghanistan in 2001, the IMU has been on the back foot. Many of their militants fled to Pakistan’s Swat Valley. The group claimed responsibility for the attack on Karachi airport in June 2014 which left 39 dead. But, following Pakistani army offensives in late 2014, many have now returned to Afghanistan according to Radio Free Europe.
Hekmatullah Azamy, a researcher at the Kabul-based Centre for Conflict and Peace Studies, told RFE/RL’s Gandhara news service in June that the IMU has approximately 5,000 fighters under its command. His figure was based on conversations with Afghan officials.
Although Central Asian leaders like to present the IMU as a threat to the region, the organization has not led a successful attack north of the Amu Darya since claiming responsibility for two attacks in the Ferghana Valley in 2009. The focus of its efforts remains in Afghanistan and Pakistan. Whilst allying with the Islamic State may boost the IMU’s image, it remains to be seen whether it will result in the fledgling organization becoming a greater menace to Central Asia.