BACKGROUND: The largest Central Asian militant group operating Pakistan and Afghanistan is the Islamic Movement of Uzbekistan (IMU). According to a Pakistani Taliban statement, the IMU played a key role in the attack on the Karachi airport in Pakistan that killed 36 people in June 2014. The IMU and Pakistani Taliban also coordinated the December 2012 attack at Peshawar airport and the Bannu Prison Break in April 2012.
The IMU is active in northern Afghanistan, especially in assassinations, but the IMU only occasionally expresses its plans to attack Central Asia from those northern Afghan provinces. For example, in one instance, after six IMU members, including two from Uzbekistan and one from Kyrgyzstan, carried out a suicide operation on the governor’s office in Panjshir, Afghanistan in May 2013, the IMU said, “we hope from Allah that future conquests are very near in Mawarounnahr [the ancient name for modern-day Uzbekistan, Tajikistan, Kyrgyzstan, and Kazakhstan].” In contrast to this statement, however, the rhetoric from the IMU’s spiritual leader, Abu Zar al-Burmi, gives no hint that these “conquests” in Central Asia are the priority for the IMU.
In most of his video-taped sermons since 2013, al-Burmi avoided discussing Central Asia and instead threatened that China is the “next number one enemy” after the U.S. withdraws from Afghanistan. He also promises revenge on his native Burma for its treatment of the country’s Muslim Rohingya people, which al-Burmi says is part of a Chinese plot to evict the Rohingya from lucrative oil-producing regions. Al-Burmi also often appears in videos of al-Qaeda’s as-Sahab media and with Uighur militants in videos of the Turkistan Islamic Party. In one video, al-Burmi said that the IMU plans to conquer lands in an operation called “Ghazwat-ul-Hind,” which translates to the “military expedition of the Indian subcontinent.”
Like al-Burmi, al-Qaeda is showing interest in South Asia. As-Sahab has in 2014 posted Urdu-language messages that are tailored to South Asian audiences under the brand of “As-Sahab Organization, Subcontinent.” In January 2014, al-Qaeda leader Ayman al-Zawahiri also highlighted the victimization and “weakening of the Muslim ummah in the subcontinent” and called on South Asian Muslims to “confront the alliance” of India and the West.
The only Central Asians who appear to be focused on overthrowing Central Asian governments are those currently in Syria and Iraq. In 2013, for example, the Kazakh Abu-Mu’adh al-Muhajir issued a video to “Muslims everywhere, not only in Kazakhstan, who are living under tyranny, to emigrate from Kazakhstan, Kyrgyzstan, or any other country” and come to Syria. In later videos, they declared an intention to “restore the Caliphate” system in Central Asia. Some Central Asians who were in Syria have also returned home to Kyrgyzstan and Xinjiang, but according to government sources they were arrested before they could carry out attacks, including one intended for the Shanghai Cooperation Summit in Bishkek in 2014.
IMPLICATIONS: The messaging and trajectory of Central Asian militant groups is confused, with the majority of militants not focused on their home region. One of the major reasons for this is that Central Asia remains impervious to militancy, with the region’s governments preserving political stability and cracking down on Salafist groups that are sympathetic to the militants, such as Tablighi Jamaat and Hizb al-Tahrir. Moreover, other regions of the world are more favorable environments for the militants to spread their propaganda and operations for the time being, especially Xinjiang and India, while Syria and Iraq continue to attract Central Asian recruits because of the Islamic State’s military successes and influential propaganda campaign online.
If the Taliban comes to power in parts of Afghanistan, it will also need some modicum of legitimacy and economic cooperation from neighboring Central Asian countries, which makes it likely that the Taliban will encourage the IMU and Central Asian militants to void operations that would disrupt potential relationships with Central Asian governments. In addition, attacking Central Asia involves difficulties for militants because the security forces in those countries speak the local languages, whereas in Xinjiang the majority Han Chinese security forces do not speak Uighur, and in both India and Xinjiang it is easier for Muslim militants to operate among their Muslims brethren.
Another reason why China and India face greater threats than Central Asian countries is that militant propaganda resonates more with Muslims when targeting Xinjiang and India. Although Central Asian governments are secular, they are still Muslim, while in China and India the militants call for the overthrow of the “Buddhist” or “Hindu” rulers, in addition to the fact that both countries are secular. Before 2001, China also had leverage over most Taliban factions through its “all-weather friendship” with Pakistan, but now that the Pakistani Taliban is a sworn enemy of the Pakistani government, it is unclear whether China can exercise leverage via Pakistan to contain them.
As a result, in it is unlikely in the short-term that Central Asian militants will pose a direct threat to their homelands while China and India may face more pressure from attacks. However, the pre-existing problems in Central Asia, including resource, ethnic and border conflicts, the lack of clear leadership succession plans, and the growing drugs and arms trafficking networks between Afghanistan and Central Asia are a vulnerability. If any crises emerge internally within Central Asia, it could allow for militants in Afghanistan and Pakistan to exploit the unrest and enter Central Asia and connect with violent extremists active in the region. In the absence of any sudden change in the situation in Central Asia, however, the militants will likely continue to issue propaganda about Xinjiang and India as well as Syria and Iraq and carry out operations outside of their Central Asian homelands until the situation in the region becomes more favorable.
CONCLUSIONS: Central Asian militants, particularly in the IMU, continue to carry out major attacks with the Taliban in Afghanistan and Pakistan – not in Central Asia. The rhetoric of Central Asian militants suggests they will focus on Xinjiang, China and South Asia in the years immediately following the U.S. withdrawal from Afghanistan. The Central Asian militants in Syria and Iraq, who focus on their homelands in their statements, may present a long-term threat to Central Asia if they return home. However, for the next several years they will mostly be occupied with the war in Syria and Iraq as part of the newly announced Islamic State and other factions. The key threat that Central Asian militants in Syria and Iraq pose to stability in Central Asia is therefore the ideology of “creating the Caliphate” that they are attempting to export and promote back home.
AUTHOR’S BIO: Jacob Zenn is an analyst of Eurasian and African Affairs for the Jamestown Foundation and non-resident research fellow of the Center of Shanghai Cooperation Studies (COSCOS) in Shanghai. He testified before the U.S. Congress on Islamist Militant Threats to Central Asia in February 2013.
(Image Attribution: SeHi, Flickr)