BACKGROUND: In their statements, Central Asian militants have repeated the need to protect the Muslim sanctuary of Jerusalem from the “Jews and Crusaders,” previously stated by al Qaeda, ISIS and the Taliban. Thus, following the international jihadist groups, their affiliated subsidiaries from Central Asia have sought to portray themselves as defenders of Islamic values.
In particular, the leader of the Uzbek group Katibat al-Imam Bukhari, Abu Yusuf Muhojir, posted on his Telegram page a call for the protection of the Palestinians and jihad against the godless regimes of Western countries, and for the Muslims of Central Asia to join the jihad as the only way to resist the aggression of the U.S. and its Zionist allies.
He cited one of the ideologists of the Salafi movement, Abdul Aziz at Tarifi, who said that “the doors of the Al-Aqsa Mosque (the mosque is located on the Temple Mount in the Old City of Jerusalem and is considered one of the three holy places of Islam after Kaaba in Mecca and the Prophet’s Mosque in Medina) can only be opened by jihad. Those who are looking for the keys to the doors will never open it since it is only war that can break through the blockade of Israel and get inside the mosque.” Muhojir was elected leader of the Katibat al-Imam Bukhari group after the assassination of the previous leader, Sheikh Salahuddin, in April 2017.
Another terrorist group from Central Asia, Katibat al Tawhid wal Jihad, has urged the Muslims of the world to free the Al-Aqsa mosque in Jerusalem from the Jewish occupation. The leader of the group, Abu Saloh, has distributed videos and photographs via Telegram on the “suppressed Palestinian nation, which must be supported by jihad.”
Telegram also contains statements by other branches of al Qaeda, including the affiliated Uighur militants of the Turkestan Islamic Party and Hayat Tahrir al-Sham, on the support of Palestinian Muslims. The two groups are today fighting in close alliance in Idlib province against the regime of Bashar al-Assad. The jihadists claim that the true face of the U.S. has now been revealed, and that Trump has ignored the feelings of millions of Muslims. The Uighur jihadists state that the Muslim world sheds tears because of the Al-Quds Al-Sharif problem (as the Islamic world calls Jerusalem), since this problem affects the honor and dignity of every Muslim. The terrorists have suggested that Al-Quds Al-Sharif must be returned by force to the Palestinians, as the U.S. has buried the illusions and visions of peace. In the end, they have called the entire Muslim world to jihad against the Jews and their transatlantic ally.
Also, a media moderator of the Kyrgyz militants in Syria named Hamza Shami has distributed an edited video on Telegram, where Trump’s decree on recognizing Jerusalem as the capital of Israel burns in his hands. There are also photos of Palestinian clashes with Israeli police, which are accompanied by a slogan in the Kyrgyz language: “Palestine, we are with you!”
IMPLICATIONS: Terrorist groups from Central Asia have taken up an acute anti-U.S. position and are seeking to portray themselves as defenders of Islam. Therefore, militant leaders have willingly expressed their positions on the status of Jerusalem, thus trying to use the discontent of local Muslims in their favor. The social media of Central Asian Islamists are full of appeals to join Jihad and protect Al-Quds. They utilize the Palestinian cause in order to appeal to like-minded people in Central Asia and to fill their ranks with new members.
As for the ideological doctrine of these statements, it should be noted that they have become an integral part of the al Qaeda and ISIS jihadist platform. It is a reminder that both groups immediately expressed their reaction to Trump’s decision to recognize Jerusalem as the capital of Israel and to transfer the U.S. embassy from Tel Aviv to Jerusalem. In particular, al Qaeda terrorists called on their supporters to attack the U.S. and its allies, terming the U.S. “a new pharaoh suppressing the Muslims.” The militants of ISIS also threatened the U.S. with terrorist attacks: “We will conduct even more operations in your country until the last hour, and we will burn you down with the fire of war that you have started in Iraq, Yemen, Libya, Syria and Afghanistan.” The Taliban called on Muslims around the world to support the suppressed Palestinian nation with jihad. The Chief of Staff of the Iranian Armed Forces, Major General Mohammad Bagheri, said the U.S. “plot” will further unite Islamic “resistance” forces around the world to confront the U.S. and annihilate “the cancerous tumor [Israel].” Statements by Katibat al Tawhid wal Jihad, Katibat al-Imam Bukhari and the Turkestan Islamic Party on the Palestinian problem clearly revealed that they have successfully assimilated into the global jihadist movement.
Trump’s decision to recognize Jerusalem as the capital of Israel has been a catalyst for the development of four distinct trends. First, this move by the White House has brought together the positions of various terrorist groups in the Middle East and Central Asia, who are competing for leadership in the global jihadist movement, on the problem of Jerusalem. al Qaeda and ISIS, and their affiliates in various regions of the world simultaneously declared jihad against the U.S. and Israel, which could expand the geography of the conflict around Jerusalem.
Second, jihadist groups are seeking to use the Palestinian problem to build their capacity and increase their number of supporters. They challenge the governments of Muslim states and offer their alternative to the solution of the Palestinian conflict through jihad, which appeals to radical Muslims. The resolution of the Organization of Islamic Cooperation (OIC) to recognize Palestine as a state with its capital in East Jerusalem is not only a response of the governments of Muslim countries to the U.S. and Israel, but also an attempt to keep the initiative in their hands.
Third, the declaration of jihad by the Salafi-jihadist terrorist groups, including Islamists from Central Asia, increases the risk of terrorist attacks against U.S. and Israeli missions, military personnel and citizens, domestically and abroad. The recognition of Jerusalem as Israel’s capital has already contributed to an increased number of attacks in Israel. The number of security incidents in Israel and the West Bank have tripled in the aftermath, according to Israel’s Shin Bet security service. U.S. intelligence services should more closely monitor the actions of possible “lone wolves” of Al Qaeda and ISIS inside the country and abroad.
Fourth, Iran will likely use Trump’s decision to step up the recruitment of Shia Muslims from Afghanistan, Pakistan and other places in Central Asia with significant Shia populations. Iran’s Quds Force currently controls over fifteen Shia militias and proxy terrorist groups in the Middle East. Tehran could well exploit the situation to incite violence against the U.S. and Israel.
CONCLUSIONS: Due to the high sensitivity and sacredness of the Jerusalem problem, which is a holy city for Christians, Muslims and Jews, the leaders of Islamic countries and the West should avoid steps allowing Salafi-jihadist terrorist groups to take the initiative in the conflict.
It remains unclear whether the reactions on the Jerusalem decision will translate into action - despite the rhetoric of some Islamist terrorist groups from Central Asia and the Middle East, no serious escalation of jihadist attacks against U.S. interests has yet taken place. In the current situation, the main task for the U.S. Administration is to overcome attempts of the leaders of Muslim countries, Palestinian nationalists and Islamist jihadists to present Trump’s declaration as an encroachment on the sanctity of Jerusalem for Muslims and a declaration of war against Islam.
AUTHOR’S BIO: Uran Botobekov, PhD, expert on Political Islam, has served as a diplomat of the Kyrgyz Embassies in Ukraine and Turkey. He has worked in the Ministry of Foreign Affairs and in the Presidential Administration of the Kyrgyz Republic, and as the Secretary of Science at the Kyrgyz National Academy of Sciences. He is the author of more than 100 scientific articles on radical Islamist organizations in Central Asia and the Middle East.
Image source: By Berthold Werner (Own work) [Public domain], via Wikimedia Commons, accessed on 2.16. 2018