Evaluating Sierra Leone’s Military Mission in Somalia

Andrew McGregor

From Tips and Trends: The AIS African Security Report, March 2015

As part of an effort to modernize the Republic of Sierra Leone Armed Forces (RSLAF), 850 Sierra Leonese soldiers were sent to join African Union Mission in Somalia (AMISOM) peacekeeping forces in April 2013. The force was reported to have received extensive training from British and American troops before their deployment to Somalia (Standard Times Press [Freetown], May 20, 2012). The RSLAF had some prior peacekeeping experience, deploying a reconnaissance unit to Darfur in 2009 as part of the United Nations-African Union Mission in Darfur (UNAMID). Sierra Leone continues to contribute roughly 100 police and a few military specialists to the Darfur mission.

The RSLAF contingent in Somalia, consisting of Sierra Leone Battalion 1 (LEOBAT 1) was under the overall command of Colonel Mamadi Mohamed Keita, a veteran of the ECOMOG deployment in Liberia in 1990, [1] followed by service in the long fight against Foday Sankoh’s Revolutionary United Front (RUF) in Sierra Leone (1991-2002) (Sierra Express Media, September 20, 2012).

S-L Troops in SomaliaBrigadier General Mamadi M. Keita with RSLAF Troops in Kismayo

The first contingent of the RSLAF arrived in Kismayo via Kenya on April 2, 2013 and were greeted with al-Shabaab land-mines on the road into Somalia. According to battalion commander Colonel Abubakr Conteh, “Somalia as a nation is a gossip society and information relating to the war spreads around quickly and al-Shabaab was fully aware of our arrival in Somalia” (Awoko [Freetown], April 2, 2013). After their arrival in Kismayo, the men of LEOBAT 1 began working in tandem with Kenyan forces already deployed in the region. Uganda, Burundi, Djibouti and Ethiopia also contribute forces to AMISOM, which is heavily financed by the United States and the European Union.

Al-Shabaab returned to the attack on June 21, 2013, with an attempted ambush of an RSLAF supply convoy near Tabda in the Kismayo region. The ambush was disrupted without casualties from the RSLAF but al-Shabaab struck again on June 23 in a night-attack on the RSLAF base using RPGs before being again repulsed with heavy Shabaab losses but no casualties reported in the RSLAF detachment (Shabelle Media Network, June 23, 2013; Sierra Express Media, June 26, 2013). An immediate operation to secure the area resulted in the capture of two al-Shabaab fighters.

Kismayo MapIn March 2014, Sierra Leone took command of AMISOM forces in Sector 5 (Kismayo) in relief of the former Kenyan commander. LEOBAT 1 constituted the bulk of the force, with additional companies of Kenyan and Burundian troops and a unit of Nigerian police (Sierra Express Media, January 15, 2014).

The first troop rotation was scheduled for June 2014 at the latest, but this, like several other deadlines, came and went without troop movement, leaving the troops of LEOBAT 1 on an unexpected extended mission after fully expecting to serve no more than a year in Somalia. Troops reported receiving threats of disciplinary action from their superiors if they continued to ask for a timely rotation, adding that they were depressed and missing their families to the point that one lance-corporal had passed away in hospital from “frustration and depression” (Politico [Freetown], May 8, 2014).

Morale was also affected by persistent rumors of misappropriation of the soldiers’ pay back in Freetown (Politico [Freetown], May 8, 2014). The first group of peacekeepers to return were assured by Deputy Chief of Defence Staff (DCDS) Brigadier John Milton that their back-pay was safe and would be distributed as promised: “All of you have your individual accounts that only you will access; all the instructions you left us, is what we did and now that you are back, the public will know the truth” (Awoko [Freetown], January 15, 2015). In any case, there were already reports that the glimmer of extra pay to be obtained by serving in peacekeeping missions abroad had begun to pale in light of the unexpected and determined resistance put up by al-Shabaab forces in the Kismayo region (AfricaReview, May 11, 2014).

Those RSLAF troops remaining in Sierra Leone played an important part in containing the Ebola outbreak, most notably through Operation Octopus, the deployment of 750 soldiers to enforce quarantines in the hard-hit eastern part of the country (Reuters, August 4, 2014). LEOBAT 2 was isolated at a pre-deployment camp in preparation for the planned rotation, but an individual soldier who tested positive for Ebola had taken an unauthorized leave and returned infected (Reuters, October 14). Rather than leaving for Somalia, 800 men entered a 21-day quarantine.

In October 2014, the Somali government wrote in an official capacity to the African Union and the Sierra Leone government demanding a halt to further deployments from Sierra Leone and a halt to any possible visits to LEOBAT 1 by officials or other individuals from that country (Raxanreeb Broadcasting Corporation, October 23, 2014; Horseed Media, October 23, 2014). On December 20, 2014, chief of defense staff Major General Samuel Omar Williams announced that the RSLAF force in Somalia would be withdrawn and not replaced.

In his welcome address to returning RSLAF peacekeepers, President Dr. Ernest Bai Koroma promised he would do “everything possible” to ensure that LEOBAT 2 would go on peacekeeping operations abroad after the disappointment of the cancelled Somalia mission (Patriotic Vanguard, January 30, 2015).

According to battalion commander Colonel Abubakr Conteh, his troops faced a difficult challenge in operating in a battle-zone with no defined area in which nearly any Somali encountered by RSLAF personnel could be a member of al-Shabaab. Nonetheless, Conteh maintained that it was “a worthwhile experience every commander will like to experience. I’m glad to have been part of the peacekeeping and [it] made me have more confidence in the army” (Awoko [Freetown], February 10, 2015). Total losses for the force during the Somali deployment amounted to one combat death and five others from “natural causes” (Awoko [Freetown], January 15, 2015; February 10, 2015).

Ethiopia quickly pledged to replace the Sierra Leonese troops with its own forces. Ethiopia operated unilaterally in Somalia for several years before formally joining AMISOM in January 2014. The new Ethiopian deployment will join 4400 Ethiopian troops already operating in Somalia. Ethiopia’s deployment to Kismayo is part of a larger expansion of its peacekeeping role in Africa that includes a deployment to the disputed Abyei border region between Sudan and South Sudan and the new deployment of three helicopter gunships to South Sudan (Sudan Tribune, February 6, 2015). Ethiopia has roughly 12,000 peacekeepers active in Somalia, South Sudan, Abyei and Darfur.

Note

1. ECOMOG (the Economic Community of West Africa States Monitoring Group) was a Nigerian dominated multilateral military force drawn from the nations of the Economic Community of West African States (ECOWAS).

Chad’s Military Takes the Lead in Campaign against Boko Haram: Can Nigeria’s Embarrassment Equal Multinational Military Success?

Andrew McGregor
From Tips and Trends: The AIS African Security Report, March 2015

Chad Troops in MaliChadian Troops in the Field in Mali

In a six-week campaign, Chad’s military has mounted an air-supported ground offensive against Nigeria’s Boko Haram militants that has crossed into both Nigeria and Cameroon. In the process, Chad has shattered Boko Haram strength in the Lake Chad border region but now finds further progress stalled as Abuja denies permission to pursue the fleeing gunmen further into Nigeria. With Chadian operations having scored major successes against Boko Haram, there is now a danger the still inefficient Nigerian military will attempt to take over operations on its own territory to bolster the electoral chances of Nigerian president Goodluck Jonathan, who faces an election on March 28.

Chad’s Military Intervention in Nigeria

A brigade size group (1500 to 2000 men) was sent with some 400 military vehicles to the Lake Chad border region on January 16, 2015. The legal framework for Chadian intervention in the region was already established by the 1998 agreement between Chad, Nigeria and Niger to form a Multinational Joint Task Force (MJTF) to combat cross-border crime and militancy. Since their arrival in January, Chad’s military has reported a series of spectacular, if numerically unverifiable victories, including a battle at Gambaru in which the army reported the death of 207 Boko Haram militants to a loss of one Chadian soldier killed and nine wounded (Reuters, February 25, 2015) [1]. Nonetheless, the poorly coordinated offensive is still taking a toll on Boko Haram, reducing its strength and expelling it from towns (and economic support bases) taken in recent months. Boko Haram counter-attacks persist, but most are driven back without great loss.

  • On January 29-30, Chadian forces crossed into Nigeria for the first time, using jet fighters and ground forces to drive Boko Haram fighters from the village of Malam Fatori in Borno State after a two-day battle (ThisDay [Lagos], February 1, 2015; Daily Trust [Lagos], January 30, 2015; al-Jazeera, January 30, 2015).
  • On January 31, 2015, Chadian forces reported killing 120 Boko Haram fighters in a battle in northern Cameroon centered around the town of Fatakol and used two fighter jets (most likely Sukhoi Su-25 recently obtained from Ukraine) to bomb the Nigerian town of Gambaru (Reuters, January 31, 2015; AFP, January 31, 2015).
  • On February 3, Chadian troops backed by armored vehicles took Gambaru after a fight of several hours (Independent, February 4, 2015). One Chadian battalion commander who took part in the attack on Gambaru had little praise for the Boko Haram fighters that had resisted months of Nigerian operations in the area, saying “yesterday’s offensive made us realize that the fighters of the sect, mainly composed of minors, are only cowards” (Alwhihda [N’Djamena], January 30).

The rapid success of Chadian forces against Boko Haram fighters in the border region revealed the sham war that Nigeria’s military has mounted against the Islamists – Malum Fatori, for example, had been held by the militants since October, even though it fell to the Chadians in one day. Chad has succeeded by using aerial bombardments on Boko Haram targets prior to massive assaults with ground troops and armor. These tactics stand in contrast to those of the Nigerian military, which has become notorious for poor ground-air coordination and failing to press attacks, often citing inferior arms or ammunition shortages. Nigerian warplanes were blamed for the death of 36 civilians when two fighter-jets attacked a funeral party in the Niger border town of Abadam on February 17 (Reuters, February 18). [2]

Nigeria – No Longer a Regional Military Power

Nigeria’s foreign minister, Aminu Wali, has tried to explain why Nigeria requires international assistance in combatting Boko Haram:

It is not that the Nigeria army isn’t fighting, it actually is. But in the context of an unconventional war, that is something else. The same thing applies to the war on terror. So the conventional armed forces aren’t adapted to this kind of conflict. We have to retrain them so that they will be capable to fight this particular conflict that they’ve never known before (RFI, January 30, 2015).

In October 2014, Chad, Nigeria, Niger, and Cameroon agreed to coordinate their military efforts against Boko Haram, though follow-up was slow. Nigerian relations with Cameron have been historically strained by rival claims to the Bakassi Peninsula in the resource-rich Gulf of Guinea, which was eventually awarded to Cameroon through international arbitration in 2009. Since then, Cameroonian oil infrastructure in the region has been subject to attacks by a hybrid criminal/separatist movement seeking unification with Nigeria.[3]

Since the joint offensive began, Nigerian military performance has improved, which the government chalks up to newly purchased arms and Special Forces reinforcements being sent to help the ill-equipped, poorly-led and occasionally mutinous Nigerian 7th Division, which took over responsibility for the sector from the Nigerian Joint Task Force (JTF) in August 2013 (at one point troops of the 7th Division’s 101st Battalion fired at former division commander Major-General Ahmadu Mohammed, who only narrowly survived – see ThisDay [Lagos], May 16, 2014). The retaking of Baga by Nigerian troops on February 21 deprived Boko Haram of a major base and gave a boost to the political fortunes of President Goodluck Jonathan, but the town could have been taken weeks earlier if the Nigerian Army had not rebuffed Chad’s offer of a joint offensive, according to Chadian Army spokesman Colonel Azem Bermandoa (Reuters, March 3, 2015). Baga was the scene of a firefight in April 2013 in which the JTF and Boko Haram displayed a callous disregard for the lives of civilians in the town, killing over 185 people. The town was taken by Boko Haram in January 2015 when fleeing Nigerian troops allowed the militants to massacre hundreds of civilians (BBC, February 2, 2015).

Northeast Nigeria MapNortheast Nigeria – Zone of Chadian Operations

Colonel Bermandoa has likewise complained that Chadian forces took the ancient Nigerian town of Dikwa in mid-February but were ordered by the Nigerians to evacuate it so the Nigerians could launch an airstrike on the community. Chadian forces were compelled to retake the town on March 2 at a cost of one dead and 34 wounded (AFP, February 19, 2015; Reuters, March 2, March 3, 2015; Premium Times [Lagos], March 2, 2015; RFI, February 3, 2015).

Cameroon and Niger have played secondary but important roles in the offensive, pouring their forces into their border regions where they have repulsed attacks, cut supply routes and prevented Boko Haram fighters from slipping away across the borders.

Why Chad is Fighting in Nigeria

Landlocked Chad’s main trade routes cross through areas of Nigeria and northern Cameroon that have been blocked by Boko Haram occupation and operations, leading to shortages of goods (including food from Nigeria), interruption in the important export trade in Chadian cattle and rapidly rising prices for most goods (Wall Street Journal, February 26, 2015).

Economic effects have also been felt in northeastern Nigeria, where the important supply of smoked fish from Lake Chad has been disturbed as a consequence of trade routes being cut by the militants and the fear of fishermen on the Nigerian side of the lake that they will be conscripted into Boko Haram, resulting in shortages and soaring prices for fish in Nigeria (AFP, February 25, 2015).

Boko Haram leader Abubakr Shekau threatened to launch a war against Chad, Cameroon and Niger in a January 2015 video in retaliation for their alleged pro-French sympathies. The Boko Haram leader also took the opportunity to mock the Nigerian military, which has long complained a lack of equipment and arms is preventing them from properly engaging Boko Haram:

All this war equipment that you see being displayed in the screen are gotten from [the captured Nigerian towns of] Baga and Doro. Your army kept deceiving the world that you can’t fight us because you have no arms. Liars! You have all that it takes; you are just coward soldiers (Premium Times [Abuja], January 21, 2015).

In late January, Boko Haram spokesman Abu Musab al-Barnawi used a video to issue new threats to Chad and its MJTF partners:

We say to Niger and Chad that if they stop their assault on us and we will stop our assault on them; otherwise, just as you fight us we will fight you. We will inflame a war of which you have not before tasted its bitterness. Withdraw your soldiers before you regret what will come soon and you have no time to regret. (Premium Times [Lagos], January 28, 2015).

Boko Haram made its first attack on Chadian soil on February 13, using motorized canoes to set a fishing village on fire before being repulsed by Chadian soldiers in what the local Chadian governor described as a “publicity stunt” (Reuters, February 13, 2015).

Most Boko Haram members, including its leaders, belong to the once powerful Kanuri community whose former Bornu Empire straddled the modern borderland between Nigeria, Chad, Cameroon and Niger. Though most of Boko Haram, including its leadership, are Kanuris, most of the militant group’s victims have also been Kanuri, dispelling any notion that the Islamist movement somehow represents the Kanuri community. Nonetheless, it is clear that Boko Haram members have been able to utilize family ties and other types of kinship to facilitate the cross-border movement of arms, supplies and personnel across local borders. Given this cross-border movement, it seems likely that Chadian security forces will have a close look at the local Kanuri community in southern Chad during their deployment in the region.

Keeping the military busy in the south may also appeal to the Déby regime; the last attempt by factions of the military to mount a coup was less than two years ago, while Déby himself came to power in a 1990 coup. However, continuous deployment to various theatres runs the risk of internal military breakdown and Chad is already committed to maintaining 1,000 men of its small army in Mali as part of UN peacekeeping operations.
Aware of the danger of reciprocal attacks from Boko Haram, Chad’s security forces have stepped up security, mounting roadblocks, securing the entrances to the capital, N’Djamena, guarding assembly points such as schools, markets and places of worship and rounding up suspected Boko Haram sympathizers in N’Djamena. Many of those arrested belong to the Kanuri community, though Interior Minister Abderahim Bireme Hamid insists that “The arrests are not targeted at a particular social group or community, but those suspected of being close to Boko Haram” (Xinhua, January 28, 2015).

Prior Performance in Military Interventions

Chad’s expeditionary force in Mali performed well in 2013 and did much of the fighting to expel the various armed Islamist groups that had seized northern Mali. However, heavy losses from ambushes and suicide bombings compelled President Déby to announce he was withdrawing the Chadian contingent because “The Chadian army does not have the skills to fight a shadowy, guerrilla-style war that is taking place in northern Mali” (Reuters, April 14, 2013).

Some observers have contrasted the Chadian military’s performance in Mali with their more controversial intervention in the Central African Republic from 2013-2014, where they were accused of political manipulation, arming the Séléka [4] rebels and brutality towards the non-Muslim population that culminated in the massacre of 30 unarmed civilians and the wounding of 300 others when they opened fire on a crowded Bangui market without apparent provocation. [5]

While there was much that was questionable and even indefensible in the performance of Chad’s army in the CAR, it must be recognized that the troops were carrying out N’Djamena’s own agenda in the country, which both modern Chad and pre-colonial sultanates in that region have always regarded as a political and economic hinterland (and prime source of slaves for Chad’s pre-colonial Islamic sultanates) whose rulers were determined by their northern neighbors. In this case, Déby pursued an agenda that involved installing a pliant, Muslim-dominated government in the CAR that would secure the oilfields of southern Chad and prevent opposition forces from using the CAR as a staging-post. Ultimately, pursuit of this policy led to large-scale protests against the Chadians in Bangui and the withdrawal of the Chadian mission.

Chad – A Growing Military Favorite of France and the United States

Chad’s more serious approach to military development and reform has attracted the support of the United States, which now finds serious flaws in its former Nigerian security partner. U.S. training programs and arms sales have broken down in recent years as a result of American concerns with human rights abuses, corruption in the officer corps, infiltration of the Nigerian security forces by Boko Haram and the failure of Nigerian forces to act on U.S.-supplied intelligence (New York Times, January 24, 2015). American concerns with infiltration are not unjustified; a number of senior Nigerian officers have been charged with divulging intelligence to Boko Haram.

Chad is currently host to Flintlock 2015, this year’s version of Flintock, a U.S.-led multinational military exercise conducted by Special Operations Command Forward – West Africa in the interests of improving cooperation and capacity in Saharan counter-terrorism operations. The three-week exercise, which began on February 16, involves more than 100 soldiers from the U.S. 10th Special Forces Group (Airborne) as well as trainers from a number of Western nations.

Though President Déby was publicly musing about expelling all French troops from Chad only a few years ago, there has since been an about face on this policy, with Chad welcoming a boost in French forces as part of France’s major redeployment of its military forces in Africa, a shift in focus to mobile counter-terrorism and counter-insurgency units and bases known as Operation Barkhane. As part of this redeployment, French forces in Chad were boosted from 950 to 1250 men, with N’Djamena providing the overall command center at Kossei airbase, with two smaller bases in northern Chad at Faya Largeau and Abéché, both close to the Libyan border. Chadian opposition parties and human rights organizations were dismayed by the new agreement, which appears to legitimize and even guarantee the continued rule of President Idris Déby, who has held power since 1990 (RFI, July 19).

France is currently mounting reconnaissance missions in the Lake Chad border area and is supplying intelligence, fuel and munitions to the military coalition as well as providing ten military specialists to help coordinate military operations from Diffa in Niger (Reuters, February 5, 2015).

Despite the presence of roughly 200 ethnic groups in Chad, the military continues to be dominated by members of President Déby’s northern Zaghawa group despite being only somewhere between 2 to 4% of the population. This situation, however, seems to trouble President Déby more than it does his French and American allies.

The MJTF is slated to be replaced by an expanded and African Union-mandated version of 8750 men that will include troops from Benin as well as Chad, Nigeria, Niger and Cameroon. Logistical and intelligence support will be supplied by France and the United States. Command of the new force will rotate amongst member nations, beginning with Nigeria. The force is proposed to include the following contributions of troops: Nigeria 3500; Chad 3500; Cameroon 750; Niger 750; Benin 250 (BBC, February 25, 2015). A mandate for the mission from the UN Security Council is being sought with French support; this would provide greater funding and access to equipment and training.

Conclusion

If Chad succeeds where Nigeria failed, the result might be a collapse in confidence in Nigeria’s federal government leading to a further break-up of the country as various regions and ethnic groups seek to provide for their own security. The trick will be how to integrate Nigerian forces into the multinational group’s operations despite a well-deserved lack of confidence in the Nigerian military’s ability to mount operations or safeguard intelligence, especially in the midst of a Nigerian presidential campaign pitting a northern Muslim against the southern Christian incumbent. At the moment, there is little cooperation between the various militaries in the Lake Chad region as each continues to operate largely independently – a state of affairs Abuja appears to favor. This appears to be a Nigerian vote in favor of continuing the regional status quo, in which multilateral cooperation is lacking, trade minimal and effective transportation networks so absent that it is impeding the struggle against Boko Haram. As one recent report noted, “it is still easier to fly to Europe from Nigeria than to any of Chad, Niger and Cameroon.” [6]

Given the resilient nature of Boko Haram, its appeal to local religious extremists and its growing connections to the international jihadi community, it is worth asking whether the Chadian deployment will have to be open-ended in order to prevent a Boko Haram revival even in the event current operations destroy existing militant formations. Nigeria’s military will not become reliable or capable overnight regardless of what types of weapons the government obtains during its current buying campaign from international illegal arms markets. An extended stay will be expensive for N’Djamena, which is suffering from a sharp decline in oil prices, but if the costs are covered by the West and compensation is offered in terms of French and American advanced training and arms for the elite corps of the Chadian military, the prospect might take on a greater appeal for Déby and his Zaghawa-dominated regime. However, Chad’s army remains small, and the current tempo of operations cannot be maintained for long. There is a window of opportunity now for the destruction of Boko Haram, but it is slowly being shut by political considerations in the Nigerian capital.

Notes

1. Boko Haram spokesman Abu Musab al-Barnawi recently described the Hausa-language term “Boko Haram” (loosely translated as “Western education is forbidden”) as a media invention designed to denigrate the Islamist movement, which he insisted be described in future using its full and official name: “We say that we did not name ourselves “Boko Haram. “Our call is not limited to prohibiting foreign schools and democracy. We are Jama’at Ahl al-Sunnah Lil Dawa wal Jihad. Therefore, this name [Boko Haram] is an attempt to bury the truth. We carry out the support for the Sunnah and establish governance of Allah in the land” (Premium Times [Abuja], January 21, 2015).

2. An amateur video purporting to show a hot firefight between Chadian troops and Boko Haram fighters can be seen at a pro-Chadian government news-site: http://www.alwihdainfo.com/L-armee-tchadienne-enchaine-d-ecrasantes-victoires-le-Nigeria-predit-la-fin-de-Boko-Haram_a15031.html Though there is the continual sound of gunfire it is difficult to tell whether any of the rounds are actually incoming. There are no apparent Chadian casualties despite the failure of many of the soldiers to seek any kind of cover; at one point a soldier crosses in front of the Chadian firing line without suffering harm. More credible video of Chadian operations in Nigeria can be seen at: http://www.france24.com/en/20150219-video-chadian-army-clashes-with-boko-haram-nigeria/

3. For the Bakassi dispute, see: Andrew McGregor, “Cameroon Rebels Threaten Security in Oil-Rich Gulf of Guinea,” Jamestown Foundation Terrorism Monitor 8(43), November 24, 2013, http://www.jamestown.org/single/?tx_ttnews%5Btt_news%5D=37208&no_cache=1#.VPDWei5cvfY

4. Séléka was a coalition led by the now-exiled Michel Djotodia and composed of the following groups: Front démocratique du peuple centrafricain (FDPC – led by General Abdoulaye Miskine [real name Martin Koumtamadji], a career rebel/freebooter in the Chad/CAR border region); Convention des patriotes pour la justice et la paix (CPJP); Union des Forces Démocratiques pour le Rassemblement, UFDR; Convention Patriotique pour le Salut du Kodro (CPSK); and the Alliance pour la renaissance et la refondation (A2R).

5. United Nations Office of the High Commissioner of Human Rights, Press briefing notes on Central African Republic and Somalia, Geneva, April 4, 2014, http://www.ohchr.org/EN/NewsEvents/Pages/DisplayNews.aspx?NewsID=14471&LangID=E

6. Onyedimmakachukwu, “It’s Time for Lake Chad Countries to Move from War Comrades to Business Partners,” February 24, 2015, http://www.ventures-africa.com/2015/02/its-time-for-lake-chad-countries-to-move-from-war-comrades-to-business-partners/

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RADICAL ISLAMIC GROUPS IN CENTRAL ASIA AND THEIR EXTERNAL CONTACTS

Andrew McGregor

Citation:

“Radical Islamic Groups in Central Asia and their External Contacts,” in: Central Asia and the Northern Caucasus: Salafis, Shi’ites, and Jihadists, al-Mesbar Studies and Research Center, Dubai, 2014, pp. 105-126 (Arabic language).

Introduction; Modern Origins of Islamic Militancy in Central Asia

The Islamist movement in Central Asia has its modern origins in the post-Soviet environment of Central Asia’s Ferghana Valley, a traditional cultural and economic meeting point now divided by the national borders of Uzbekistan, Kyrgyzstan and Tajikistan. A growing youth population, high unemployment rates and stagnant economic conditions have created conditions in the Ferghana usually associated with the growth of Islamist militancy, but effective (though heavy-handed) security measures and a general lack of resonance for the Islamist project means the region has avoided the massive sectarian clashes predicted after the emergence of the Islamic Movement of Uzbekistan (IMU) [1] and its predecessors in the 1990s.

Central Asia Map

The Salafist approach to Islam favored by most Islamist militant groups in the region is mixed in Central Asia to a large degree with Deobandism, a pan-Islamic revival movement developed in India as a reaction to 19th century British imperialism. Deobandism became politically radicalized in modern Pakistan and came to be the basis of the Taliban system in Afghanistan

Salafist Islam and Islamist militancy initially made inroads in Central Asia in the dying days of the Soviet empire as residents of the region began to explore their Islamic heritage in the interests of reasserting local identities in a post-Soviet and possibly post-secular world. Scholarships to Salafist religious/educational institutions helped introduce reformist Islam to Central Asia through the medium of its own young scholars. However, conditions have changed since the days when Central Asia emerged from seven decades of official atheism and the militants’ message does not seem to have the same penetration it once did, even in the face of continued drivers of radicalism such as poverty, lack of access to education and authoritarian repression.

Adolat, the predecessor to the IMU, established Shari’a law under the direction of the late Tahir Yuldash (formerly Yuldashev; a.k.a. Muhammad Tahir Faruq; 1967 – 2009) in the town of Namangan in the Uzbek part of the Ferghana Valley in 1991. [2] Adolat was eventually repressed by the Uzbekistan government, but Yuldash and several other prominent members escaped to Taliban-ruled Afghanistan, where they formed the Islamic Movement of Uzbekistan as a means of expelling the regime of Islam Karimov and founding an Islamic Caliphate that would eventually spread throughout the ex-Soviet republics of Central Asia. [3] There are reports that Yuldash travelled throughout the Gulf region in the 1990s, establishing funding conduits with sympathetic groups and individuals, including the Uzbek diaspora in Saudi Arabia, formed from survivors of the 1918-1928 anti-Soviet Basmachi Rebellion in Central Asia. [4] Yuldash also travelled to Turkey and Pakistan, attempting to gain the financial and material support of the intelligence services of those nations. Pakistan’s Inter-Services Intelligence (ISI) is believed to have responded favorably to the IMU commander’s overtures. [5] The strong Saudi influence on the IMU appears to have had its origins in Tahir Yuldashev’s religious training and fundraising activities in the Kingdom.

A unit of roughly 100 to 200 IMU fighters under the leadership of commander Juma Namangani (a.k.a. Jumaboy Ahmadjonovich Hojiyev, a reputed former Soviet paratrooper in the Soviet war in Afghanistan) gained military experience fighting alongside Islamist factions in the Tajikistan civil war (1992-97) but found no place for the movement in the negotiated settlement of 1997, leading the movement to shift to bases in Afghanistan under the sponsorship of the Taliban. From there, the IMU launched its 1999-2000 campaign in Tajikistan and Kyrgyzstan which ultimately failed to achieve its goal of entering Uzbekistan and deposing President Karimov (the movement was also targeting the rulers of Kyrgyzstan at this point). Though the campaign was largely restricted to small-scale attacks and hostage-taking (including the commander of Kyrgyzstan’s Interior Ministry), the militants’ apparent better training and equipment reduced national security forces to chasing the group around the mountains and briefly caused alarm in regional capitals.

IMU Escape to FATA – A problem of relevance

The movement proclaimed its allegiance to Mullah Omar and the Taliban when the U.S.-led alliance invaded Afghanistan in late 2001. The IMU suffered a severe blow when Juma Namangani, its military leader and the architect of its surprising if ultimately multi-nation Central Asian campaign, was killed during an American bombing of pro-Taliban positions in Kunduz.

In an operational sense, the IMU never recovered from the death of Namangani, their unchallenged military commander. With his death passed the time when the movement could mount large operations that created serious concern in the capitals of the Central Asian republics. Under military pressure from the U.S. and its allies, the IMU left for the Federally Administered Tribal Areas (FATA) of Afghanistan in 2001, establishing themselves in the Wana region of South Waziristan.

Having escaped the U.S.-Northern Alliance offensive in Afghanistan, the movement took refuge in the Wana regin of South Waziristan, where they enjoyed the protection of local warlord Maulvi Nazir and the Ahmadzai Wazir until 2007, when they were expelled for offending local customs and behaving like “occupiers.” [6] The movement then intensified its alliance with a new patron from the Mahsudi rivals of the Ahmadzai Wazir, Tehrik-e-Taliban Pakistan (TTP) leader Baitullah Mehsud, though some fighters appear to have joined the Taliban in Afghanistan or to have joined previous waves of disillusioned fighters in making a stealthy return home. During their residency in north-western Pakistan, many of the original members of the movement established successful farms and businesses as well as integrating into the local community through intermarriage. The IMU’s last confirmed operations of any significance in Central Asia occurred in 2004. The movement has claimed responsibility for attacks in Uzbekistan and Kyrgyzstan in 2009-2010, but these claims seem more likely to have been an attempt to reassert some relevance for the movement in Central Asia.

The IMU’s gradual loss of purpose in its long exile from Central Asia is often reflected in reports that members of the movement frequently act as bodyguards for Tehrik-e-Taliban Pakistan (TTP) leaders or as enforcers-for-hire in the FATA region. In December 2012, Federal Minister Shaykh Waqas Akram (Pakistan Muslim League-Q) told Pakistan’s National Assembly that Uzbek militants of the IMU were acting in league with various banned organizations in Punjab Province and were ready to carry out terrorist acts for a payment of $40,000. [7] The minister’s claims came only days after a devastating suicide attack by a squad of militants on Peshawar’s Bach Khan Airport on December 15. Though the attack was claimed by the TTP, authorities blamed Uzbek militants based on an examination of the remains of the attackers, the usual method used to generate body counts of alleged Chechens, Daghestanis, Uzbeks, Tajiks, Uyghurs and other Muslim ethnic groups useful in framing local conflicts as internationally-generated threats to the state. [8]

A glimpse of the indigenization process experienced by the IMU in their Afghan/Pakistani exile can be obtained from a list of 87 IMU “martyrs” in 2011. 64 of the individuals hailed from Afghanistan, while only four came from Uzbekistan. The remainder originated in Kyrgyzstan, Tajikistan, Germany, Pakistan and Tatarstan (Russian Federation). [9] Analyst Jacob Zenn has pointed out that even “the IMU’s current ‘mufti’ (expert in Islamic law), Abu Zar al-Burmi, is an Urdu and Arabic-speaking Pakistani national of Burmese Rohingya descent with neither a trace of Uzbek blood nor proficiency in the Uzbek language.” [10]
While based in FATA, the IMU developed strong ties with TTP leader Baitullah Mehsud (killed by a U.S. drone strike on August 5, 2009) and his successor Hakimullah Mehsud (killed by a U.S. drone strike on November 1, 2013), for whom members of the group often acted as local enforcers. Tahir Yuldash was himself killed by an American drone strike in Pakistan in 2009. His successor, Abu Usman Adil, developed a relationship with Hakimullah Mehsud and his TTP deputy Waliur Rahman before he was also killed by a U.S. drone strike in April, 2012. The IMU is currently led by Adil’s former deputy, Usman Ghazi.

The Threat to Tajikistan

Soon after obtaining its independence from the collapsing Soviet Union in 1991, Tajikistan experienced a devastating civil war from 1992 to 1997 that killed roughly 100,000 people, displaced over a million more and provoked the loss of most of Tajikistan’s ethnic Russian and European population, which formed much of the country’s professional and administrative classes. The war pitted ethnic groups from the Garm and Gorno-Badakhshan regions who felt they were underrepresented in the regime of President Rahmon Nabiyev against groups from the Leninabad and Kulyab regions that had formed most of the ruling elite under Soviet rule. The disparate opposition eventually united under the banner of the United Tajik Opposition (UTO), an awkward coalition of liberal democrats and Islamists. By 1993 the Garmi and allied Pamiri Isma’ili Shi’a opposition forces were suffering from serious reverses on the battlefield and a violent campaign by government forces determined to drive Garmi and Pamiri civilians from Tajikistan. Both Garmi and Pamiri civilians and Islamist fighters took refuge across the border in Afghanistan, where the Islamist fighters received arms and assistance from ethnic Tajik Ahmad Shah Massoud, leader of the Northern Alliance military forces. The fighters also received religious training in Pakistan and Afghanistan.

A peace and reconciliation agreement in 1997 promised a new era, but in recent years the regime expelled most of the former armed Islamist opposition from their posts in the reconciliation government, adding to a wave of unrest fueled by corruption, economic failure and the revival of Islam after decades of Soviet repression. [11]

The Tajik Civil War has often been characterized as an Islamist-led rebellion against the central government, though there were other elements behind the violence that had more to do with tribal and regional rivalries than with religious observance. According to journalist Igor Rotar, who covered the struggle for Nezavisimaya Gazeta, “even the combatants themselves admit that the civil war was not so much a political struggle as a fight for power between different regional groups of Tajiks, who had not developed into a single nation at the time.” [12] Since then, however, there has been significant growth in Islamic extremism in northern Tajikistan, but few signs of involvement by external groups such as the IMU or the Afghan Taliban.

In 2009, Tajikistan launched Operation Kuknor (“Poppy,” loosely disguised as an anti-narcotics operation) against an armed group led by Lieutenant General Mirzo Ziyoev, a military commander of the Tajik Islamists in the civil war who was given a high military rank and his own paramilitary in the reconciliation that followed. Ziyoev was dismissed in 2006 and accused of having joined a unit of the Islamic Movement of Uzbekistan (IMU) led by Shaykh

Nemat Azizov in June 2009, an assertion that was quickly denied by late IMU leader Tahir Yuldash, who suggested instead that Ziyoev had “fallen victim to intrigues of the government.” [13] Ziyoev was captured by security forces on July 11, 2009 and died later that day in crossfire between security forces and a group of militants that some Tajik authorities claimed were IMU gunmen, an assertion similarly denied by Tahir Yuldash. [14] A well-known guerrilla leader in the Tajik civil war, Shaykh Nemat Azizov was made leader of the Tavil-Dara division of Tajikistan’s Emergency Situations Ministry as part of the post-war reconciliation before he allegedly returned to armed opposition to the Tajik state, allegedly as an IMU commander, according to security services. [15] In July, 2009 a Daghestani individual made a televised confession that he and two other Daghestanis had joined Shaykh Nemat’s group. [16]

Some of the militants seized in 2009’s Operation Kuknor were part of a mass escape of 46 prisoners from a Tajik State Committee for National Security (SCNS) prison on August 25, 2010. A number of these militants were believed to have participated in an attack on a military convoy by an unidentified militant group in the Kamarob gorge of eastern Tajikistan, about 260 kilometers from Dushanbe, on September 19, 2010. The well-executed attack killed at least 28 soldiers (and possibly as many as 40) and left many more wounded. Though Tajik security officials identified Abdullo Rakhimov (better known as “Mullo Abdullo”) as the main suspect, the Tajik Defense Ministry insisted fighters from Afghanistan, Pakistan and Chechnya were part of the ambush force, but, as usual, failed to provide any details on these identifications. [17] Despite a lack of evidence that the IMU, which has had little presence outside the northwest frontier region of Pakistan since 2001, was operating in large numbers in the remote Kamarob Gorge, the attack was claimed in a statement purported to have originated with IMU spokesman, Abdufattoh Ahmadi, who said the ambush was in response to a government crackdown on Islam (rather than the more likely struggle between Dushanbe and dissident former commanders who had been excluded from government): “This is our response to Tajikistan’s government, which has lately shut down a thousand mosques, which arrests Muslims without any reason and prohibits women from wearing Muslim clothes. We demand a stop to this policy. Otherwise, terrorist attacks will continue.” [18] The high death toll in the attack was at least partly explained by the poor training and inadequate equipment of the mostly young and inexperienced Tajik troops, leading to calls for the resignation of the Tajik defense minister. [19]

On September 10, 2010 a Tajik border patrol encountered what they described as a large group of Islamist fighters, including Afghan Taliban, trying to cross the border from Afghanistan. A firefight lasting nearly 24 hours ensued, with the border police eventually driving off the alleged Taliban incursion. Authorities claimed one officer and 20 Taliban were killed, though only seven Taliban bodies were recovered. The battle took place roughly 210 kilometers south of Dushanbe on the banks of the Pyandzh River in the remote autonomous Gorno-Badakhshan region and on a number of islands in the river occupied by Taliban fighters. The Taliban appear to have been using the islands as a local base and the clash did not seem to be part of any effort by the Afghan Taliban to mount a campaign within Tajikistan, but was more likely an attempt to evade an ongoing U.S./ISAF (International Security Assistance Force) military operation in the area. The mountainous border along the Pyandzh River was again closed in July 2012 as Tajik authorities claimed Afghan Taliban were infiltrating Tajikistan to support former warlord Tolib Ayombekov, who was accused of murdering Major General Abdullo Nazarov, the regional security service chief. Tajik officials claimed to have captured eight Afghans who were fighting in support of Ayombekov. [20]

Tajik authorities have consistently asserted a leading role for the IMU in Tajikistan’s internal armed opposition, despite strong indications that the 2009-2011 fighting had far more to do with that nation’s tribal rivalries and internal political competition than with a Central Asian jihad. Dushanbe clearly prefers to suggest that its political violence is solely the result of the machinations of international jihadists rather than admit to continuing difficulties in creating a stable state while failing to establish a national purpose or identity that would subsume deep-set political and tribal rivalries.

Rasht ValleyRasht Valley, Tajikistan

Before and following his death during a military sweep in the Rasht Valley in April 2011, Mullo Abdullo (a.k.a. Abdullo Rahimov) was described by Tajik authorities as not only an IMU field commander, but the leader of al-Qaeda in Tajikistan, though evidence in support of these claims was never presented. [21] There is little evidence to suggest that Mullo Abdullo had ties of any significance to the IMU and it is common for Tajik courts to identify local militants as IMU members, identifications confirmed by forced confessions. [22] It is informative that most of the major charges brought against former Islamist commanders in recent years relate to crimes allegedly committed in the 1990s rather than current militant activity, a sign that the government’s offensives are directed at eliminating the former Islamist commanders from the Tajik power structure. The international “War on Terrorism” has allowed the Dushanbe regime to follow Karimov’s example in Uzbekistan and frame its struggle with opposition forces as counterterrorism operations against Islamist extremists pursuing a global jihad. This process has also been used in other Central Asian nations, as described by Tajik historian Kamoludin Abdullaev:

On the pretext of fighting Islamic terrorists, Kazakhstan and Kyrgyzstan have also rashly strengthened their defense and security bodies. Not capable to resolve problems arising from Islamist mobilization and driven by Soviet-time authoritarian impulses Central Asian governments call for external support receiving millions of dollars from the US to suppress Islamic dissent. Sadly, in the aftermath of September 11, Central Asian governments have begun to apply the rhetoric of the “war on terror” to justify their pressure on opposition. Tajikistan is another source of instability, because the military elite is comprised of former adversaries—hardened militias from pro-Communist Popular Front and United Tajik Opposition—and most gunmen are independent from the state, remaining loyal to regional political entrepreneurs and field commanders who control the remote regions, “protect” the Tajik-Afghan border and are heavily involved in illegal trafficking. [23]

Instability continues on a low scale in the Rasht Valley, in the western part of the Gorno-Badakhshan Autonomous Oblast (GBAO), the last region of Tajikistan to be brought under the control of the regime of President Imam Ali Rahmon. The GBAO, located in the Pamir Mountains, occupies 45% of the territory of Tajikistan but has only 3% of the total population. The Garm district of the Rasht Valley has a long history as a center for Islamist militancy, dating back to its days as an important center for the anti-Soviet Bashmachi rebellion of the 1920’s. By now, however, most of the leading UTO Islamists are dead, indluding Abdullo, Ziyoev, Ali Bedaki and Mirzokhuja Ahmadov. Nonetheless, analyst Thomas Ruttig has noted a trend to internationalization of Islamist militancy as reported by official sources that is difficult to support with hard evidence:

If one listens to ISAF and to Central Asian governments, there are overlapping networks of jihadist terrorists subverting Afghanistan and Tajikistan, if not the whole region. Those networks, it is said, link the Taleban and the Islamic Movement of Uzbekistan (IMU) with al-Qaeda and other Pakistan-based groups. Few of these reports are substantiated by details that can be independently scrutinised. But they are often picked up by media and other outlets, presented as proven facts and amplified by repetition. [24]

Ruttig goes on to point out that much of the activity described as IMU/Taliban penetrations along Tajikistan’s borders is actually related to smuggling rather than jihad. Any IMU effort to insert itself operationally into Tajikistan will be countered by the presence of the Russian 201st Motorized Rifle Division, permanently based in Tajikistan where it has been responsible for guarding the border with Afghanistan against militant incursions since 2001.

In recent years there is greater evidence for the out movement of Tajik extremists taking refuge in Afghanistan than for an inflow of Taliban militants. Nonetheless, Tajik authorities continue to cite an al-Qaeda-assisted IMU revival in Tajikistan in league with Tajik dissidents who would otherwise seem to present only a minimal threat to the Tajik state. Presenting its troubles in the framework of the “war on terrorism” allows the Dushanbe government to avoid discussions of official nepotism, corruption and inefficiency as factors causing unrest in the country.

The European Connection – IMU and IJU

The IMU has attempted to draw on European sources for financial contributions and recruitment, particularly amongst the Turkish diaspora community. In May 2008, Dutch, French and German police announced the break-up of a financial support network run by ethnic-Turks. [25] The IMU has also produced German-language recruitment videos, which have had some limited success. The IMU has successfully recruited a number of German nationals, including Bekkay Harrach, a cell leader born in Morocco and the brothers Mounir and Yasin Chowka.

Another important connection between the Central Asian jihad and Europe was established by the Islamic Jihad Union (IJU). [26] The IJU split from the IMU in 2002, led by two ethnic Uzbeks, Najmiddin Jalolov and Suhail Buranov. While sharing the IMU’s goal of deposing the Karimov regime in Uzbekistan, the movement quickly displayed a more global approach to its jihad, growing close to core al-Qaeda and focusing its activities on attacks against U.S. and ISAF forces in Afghanistan from bases in the north-west frontier region of Afghanistan and recruiting members from the West, especially Germany. Using the name Jama’at al-Jihad al-Islami, the group claimed responsibility for a series of attacks in Uzbekistan in 2004, though the Tashkent government claimed the attacks were the work of Hizb ut-Tahri and the IMU.

The IJU was central to the 2007 “Sauerland Group” plot to use car-bombs against Germany’s Ramstein Air Base (used by U.S. forces) and Frankfurt International Airport. Of the three principal suspects, one was an ethnic Turk raised in Germany and two were German converts to Islam. All three had been trained at IJU camps in South Waziristan. [27] In April 2009, Turkish police arrested members of an IMU cell operating in Turkey. Like the IMU, the IJU now seems to have adapted to a long-term presence in north-western Pakistan but appears to rely on strong support from ethnic-Turkish sources. [28]

Hizb ut-Tahrir and the Tabligh Jama’at

Despite its Palestinian/Jordanian origins and London headquarters, the Central Asian branch of the Hizb ut-Tahrir (HuT) movement appears to be a largely localized phenomenon, with affiliates operating with various degrees of success in most of the Central Asian nations. The movement’s international resources are well-deployed in the production of videos and internet communications, but within Central Asia, where technological resources are still in short supply, the movement relies on locally photo-copied leaflets (shabnama – “night letters”) and posters. [29] Though HuT advocates the establishment of a Central Asian caliphate (as the precursor to a global caliphate) and the full implementation of Shari’a through solely peaceful means, it is consistently treated as a militant group by authorities who regard its radical political message as being at least as dangerous as any armed group. Central Asian rulers are mindful of the example of the Askar Akayev regime in Kyrgyzstan, which was overthrown by political protests in the 2005 “Tulip Revolution” rather than by militant groups like the IMU, who have criticized the HuT’s passive approach to political change. [30] The outlawed movement’s cell structure and attention to security makes it particularly difficult to infiltrate, adding another layer of concern for authorities. [31] The harshness with which local authoritarian regimes have dealt with suspected HuT members has in turn helped convince these regimes that the movement will eventually respond with violence. While HuT’s activities do not bear the enormous costs associated with mounting an armed rebellion, the sources of its financing remain obscure, though the existing literature on the movement contains the usual but vague references to Islamic charities and private donors in the Gulf States (which include a substantial Uzbek diaspora population). After dismantling an “HuT network,” Kazakh authorities claimed the operation had “helped dismantle routes that were used to deliver books promoting extremism and money from abroad.” [32] Despite repression, the group has managed to survive, though its activities remain largely limited to the distribution of Islamist and pro-Caliphate literature.

A similar, but less political organization, the Tablighi Jama’at, has also faced repressive measures in Central Asia. The Deobandi-influenced movement was founded in India in 1926 with the aim of bringing about a spiritual revival in the Muslim community through missionary work. The movement has gradually become a well-funded, global mechanism for promoting spiritual reform while avoiding political confrontations with authorities wherever possible. Unlike Hizb ut-Tahrir, the Jama’at considers the establishment of a caliphate as a long-term goal possible only after significant reforms have been achieved in the Islamic community. Despite this, the movement’s call for a return to conservative Islamic principles has alarmed the secular post-Soviet governments of Central Asia. In Tajikistan, the Jama’at was banned in March 2006 after authorities determined the movement aimed to subvert constitutional order in Tajikistan in order to establish an Islamic Caliphate. [33] The movement has made inroads in the Kyrgyz community in the Ferghana Valley and has begun spreading into the Russian Federation republics of Tatarstan and Bashkortostan, where they have attracted the attention of Russian authorities. [34]

In 2012, Kazakhstan attempted to disrupt the movement’s activities by expelling or fining 205 Jama’at missionaries on the grounds that religious activities by unregistered organizations were prohibited. [35] The movement is also banned in Uzbekistan and Turkmenistan, partly because of the theory that the organization acts as a “gateway” to radicalization and eventual militant activity, based on the examples of a number of militants killed or captured worldwide who were former members of the Jama’at, which has at least 100 million members in 213 countries. Despite significant global resources, the movement’s non-political stance makes it difficult to mobilize against government repression. There are no signs at the moment that the Tablighi Jama’at intends to engage in militant activities in Central Asia.

According to Thomas Ruttig:

Statements by Central Asian governments contain high doses of self-serving alarmism, seem to exaggerate and misrepresent relatively small incidents, and describe scenarios that could only become true if different groups significantly increased the intensity, scope and coordination of their activities… Labelling all domestic dissent as ‘Islamist’ or ‘terrorist’ is a long-established pattern. [36]

The ISAF/U.S. withdrawal from Afghanistan and the future of Central Asia’s militants

Uzbekistan’s President Karimov has warned of “an increased threat of the expansion of terrorist and extremist activities” in his nation following the 2014 withdrawal of U.S. and ISAF forces, while Tajik President Rahmon has warned of growing threats from Afghanistan due to Tajikistan’s “weak military situation” and need for modern military equipment. [37] Various Russian sources have similarly predicted that Russian troops in Tajikistan might come under fire from the Afghan Taliban after the US withdrawal from Afghanistan in 2014.

Attacks by Islamist militants in Uzbekistan have become rare in recent years, partly as the result of a relentless government campaign against any activity that remotely resembles any form of religious extremism. Security services have cast a wide net in their search for militants and there are numerous reports from human-rights organizations that detention can mean severe treatment and even death. Uzbekistan’s national security service, the Milliy Havfsizlik Hizmati (MHH), has even gone so far as to issue a warning in November 2011 to Uzbekistan’s writers, artists, dramatists and filmmakers to avoid the use of any kind of religious theme in their works.

At this point, the IMU has clearly shifted its focus from Uzbekistan and the other nations of Central Asia to a new role, created through a decade of effective integration, as a largely locally-recruited militia deeply engaged in the tribal politics of the Afghan-FATA frontier region. Despite numerous external claims that the IMU will head back to Central Asia to carry out new, state-threatening operations, the IMU itself has of yet given no indication of such intentions. Since relatively little is known about the discussions taking place within the IMU’s increasingly reclusive leadership, the possibility of an IMU incursion must still be regarded as a possibility, if an unlikely one. The IMU has shown itself incapable of even resisting tribal militias in South Waziristan, which does not hold promise for any IMU effort to vanquish state security forces in Uzbekistan or elsewhere in Central Asia.

A Taliban offensive into Central Asia following the withdrawal of Western forces (or an IMU offensive backed by the Taliban) would not only jeopardize the gains made by the movement in over a decade of bitter fighting, but would also bring it into almost immediate conflict with China and Russia, nations that have prepared for such an eventuality and that do not rely on the long and vulnerable supply lines of U.S. and ISAF forces in Afghanistan.
Predictions of a Taliban overspill into Central Asia from a post-occupation Afghanistan depend greatly upon assumptions that Afghanistan’s Pashtun community harbors a previously unexpressed desire to expand into its northern neighbors or that the Taliban leadership learned nothing from its 2011 experience and is set on repeating behavior that will lead quickly to its annihilation.

The Afghan Taliban have taken little action to disrupt the northern distribution network through extra-territorial strikes, preferring to focus instead on disrupting the Karachi to Khyber Pass supply line in league with their TTP allies. If the Afghan Taliban has been reluctant to strike its Central Asian neighbors when it mattered most, this would seem to argue against Taliban aggression after the 2014 withdrawal. Linguistic, ethnic and cultural differences with the Central Asian communities would also complicate an incursion by the largely Pashtun Taliban.

Conclusion

All of Central Asia’s militant movements share one element in common: their political ambitions exceed their operational capacity. Syria and, to a lesser extent, Iraq, both provide more favorable grounds for financial contributions from jihad supporters in the Gulf States than Central Asia, with the added enticement to Gulf donors of being similarly Arab in nature.

Jihadists are not the only armed groups operating in Central Asia; they may even be smaller in number than trans-national narcotics trafficking groups and smuggling outfits working in the porous and difficult border regions of Central Asia. Many of the reported encounters with “foreign militants” may in reality be clashes with well-armed and highly organized trafficking groups who do not fear small detachments of border guards posted in remote places. The smugglers have at times shown a vicious intent to combat government attempts to interfere with their lucrative activities – in July 2012, suspected tobacco smugglers dragged General Abdullo Nazarov from his car outside the town of Khorog and stabbed him to death, wounding his three bodyguards and driver in the process. General Nazarov was the head of the Tajik State National Security Committee forces in the Gorno-Badakhshan Autonomous Oblast and was directing operations against tobacco smugglers at the time. [38] The region is frequently cited by authorities as a center of Islamist militant activities.

Corruption within Central Asia’s anti-narcotics agencies has only contributed to the success of the traffickers and encouraged the identification of gangs of armed gunmen as “foreign militants” rather than local smuggling rings operating with the clandestine cooperation of elements of the regional security forces. In the latest such example, on September 19, 2013, the Kyrgyz general prosecutor’s office announced it was opening a criminal case against members of the Southern Region office of the Chief Administration for Fighting Drug Trafficking for their role in trying to smuggle more than 25 kilograms of drugs to Bishkek disguised as an official shipment. [39] In another example, police in the Kazakh city of Petropavlovsk intending to incinerate more than 100 kilograms of marijuana discovered the drugs had been replaced by bags filled with tobacco and bricks despite being stored in a secured police warehouse. [40]

The IMU’s long absence from its Central Asian homeland has inhibited its ability to recruit locally and diminished the resonance of its message in the Ferghana Valley and elsewhere. [41] The kind of political and/or religious disturbances that might indicate a welcome return to Central Asia from some elements of the population at large have not materialized. Attrition and desertion have weakened the IMU, which now likely numbers only in the hundreds of fighters rather than thousands, with many of these being locally recruited replacements for more experienced IMU veterans. In the event of an IMU reinsertion into Central Asia, many of these fighters would find themselves on unfamiliar geographical and linguistic terrain. Even surviving Uzbeks of the original IMU have experienced a high degree of social integration in their 13 year stay in Afghanistan and north-west Pakistan and might show some reluctance to leave defenseless families and homes behind to engage in somewhat improbable “invasion” of Central Asia, with or without external support.

Notes

1. Uzbek – O’zbekiston Islomiy Harakati; Arabic – Harakat al-Islamiya Uzbekistai
2. Igor Rotar, “Under the Green Banner: Islamic Radicals in Russia and the Former Soviet Union,” Religion, State & Society 30(2), June 2002, pp. 89-153.
3. See Ahmed Rashid, Jihad: The Rise of Militant Islam in Central Asia, New Haven: Yale University Press, 2002, pp. 137-40; Bakhtiar Babadzhanov, “Islam in Uzbekistan: From the Struggle for Religious Purity to Political Activism,” Boris Rumer (ed), Central Asia: A Gathering Storm? London: M. E. Sharpe, 2002, pp. 299-330.

4. Kamoludin Abdullaev, “Integrating Political Islam in Central Asia: the Tajik Experience,” November 3, 2010, http://kamolkhon.com/integrating-political-islam-in-central-asia-the-tajik-experience/
5. Michael Feldholm, “From the Ferghana Valley to Waziristan and Beyond: The Role of Uzbek Islamic Extremists in the Civil Wars of Tajikistan, Afghanistan and Pakistan,” Islam, Islamism and Politics in Eurasia Report no. 22, Monterey Terrorism Research and Education Program/Monterey Institute for International Studies, August 25, 2010, http://csis.org/files/publication/100825_Hahn_IIPER_22.pdf
6. Andrew McGregor, “South Waziri Tribesmen Organize Counterinsurgency Lashkar,” Terrorism Monitor, January 14, 2008, http://www.jamestown.org/programs/tm/single/?tx_ttnews[tt_news]=4649&tx_ttnews[backPid]=167&no_cache=1#.Unf3JhAljoY
7. “Punjab banned outfits in contact with Uzbek militants, NA told,” Dawn [Karachi], December 18, 2012, http://dawn.com/news/772230/punjab-banned-outfits-in-contact-with-uzbek-militants-na-told
8. Amir Mir, “TTP using Uzbeks to conduct terrorist attacks,” The News [Islamabad], December 18, 2012, http://www.thenews.com.pk/Todays-News-2-149025-TTP-using-Uzbeks-to-conduct-terrorist-attacks; “Uzbek militants behind Peshawar Airport attack,” The Nation [Islamabad], December 17, 2012, http://www.nation.com.pk/pakistan-news-newspaper-daily-english-online/national/17-Dec-2012/uzbek-militants-behind-peshawar-airport-attack; See also Christian Bleuer, “Instability in Tajikistan? The Islamic Movement of Uzbekistan and the Afghanistan Factor,” OSCE Academy, 2012, http://www.osceacademy.net/upload/file/bleuer_policy_brief7.pdf .
Twelve years of claims by various terrorism “experts” regarding a Chechen military presence in Central Asia, whether as part of IMU, Taliban or al-Qaeda formations, have yet to yield any proof of the existence of these phantom legions of fanatical Chechen extremists. See Brian Glyn Williams, “On the Trail of the ‘Lions of Islam’: Foreign Fighters in Afghanistan and Pakistan, 1980-2010,” Orbis 55(2), 2011, pp. 216-39.
9. See http://furqon.com/index.php?option=com_content&view=article&id=195:-1432-2011-&catid=1:2011-08-26-10-42-51.
10. Jacob Zenn, “The Indigenization of the Islamic Movement of Uzbekistan,” Terrorism Monitor, January 26, 2012, http://www.jamestown.org/single/?no_cache=1&tx_ttnews[swords]=8fd5893941d69d0be3f378576261ae3e&tx_ttnews[any_of_the_words]=uzbekistan&tx_ttnews[pointer]=11&tx_ttnews[tt_news]=38931&tx_ttnews[backPid]=7&cHash=abba18744b7d716ca4d2c38bcecd7340#.UmaT5hAliRN
11. Michael Taarnby, Islamist Radicalization in Tajikistan: An Assessment of Current Trends, Korshinos Center for Socio-Political Studies/OSCE Tajikistan, Dushanbe, 2012.
12. Igor Rotar, “Will Tajikistan’s Karategin Valley Again Become a Militant Stronghold?” Eurasia Daily Monitor, September 13, 2012, http://www.jamestown.org/programs/edm/single/?tx_ttnews[tt_news]=39842&tx_ttnews[backPid]=587&no_cache=1#.Unf2axAljoY \

13. RFE/RL Uzbek Service, July 16, 2009; Ferghana.ru, July 16, 2009.
14. Radio Free Europe/Radio Liberty, “IMU Leader Says Group Did Not Kill Former Tajik Minister,” July 16, 2009, http://www.rferl.org/content/IMU_Leader_Says_Group_Did_Not_Kill_Former_Tajik_Minister/1778214.html ; see also Millat [Dushanbe], July 23; al-Jazeera, July 16, 2009; IWPR, July 23, 2009.
15. See Interfax, August 5, 2009; Asia Plus [Dushanbe], July 29, 2009.
16. See Asia-Plus [Dushanbe], July 28, 2009.
17. See RIA Novosti, September 20, 2010; Itar-Tass, September 26, 2010.
18. Roman Kozhevnikov, “Al-Qaeda ally claims Tajik attack, threatens more,” Reuters, September 23, 2010, http://www.reuters.com/article/2010/09/23/us-tajikistan-security-idUSTRE68M28M20100923; See also Radio Liberty Tajik Service, September 23, 2010; Ferghana.ru, September 24, 2010.
19. See Farazh [Dushanbe], September 22, 2010; Chark-i Gardun [Dushanbe], September 22, 2010.

20. Moign Khawaja, “Tajik security forces clash with Taliban along border,” Foreign Policy Journal, September 13, 2010, http://www.foreignpolicyjournal.com/2010/09/13/tajik-security-forces-clash-with-taliban-along-border/; Reuters, “Tajikistan seals Afghan border, NATO trucks can pass,” July 27, 2012, http://tribune.com.pk/story/413786/tajikistan-seals-afghan-border-nato-trucks-can-pass/
21. Lola Olimova, “Few tears shed for ‘Tajik Bin Laden’,” IWPR, May 5, 2011, http://iwpr.net/report-news/few-tears-shed-tajik-bin-laden
22. Alexander Sodiqov and Payam Foroughi, “Tajik Security Agencies Face Allegations of Detainee Abuse and Extrajudicial Killings,” Eurasia Daily Monitor, December 7, 2011, http://www.jamestown.org/programs/edm/single/?tx_ttnews[tt_news]=38753&tx_ttnews[backPid]=512&no_cache=1#.Unf2JRAljoY
23. Kamoludin Abdullaev, “Integrating Political Islam in Central Asia: the Tajik Experience,” November 3, 2010, http://kamolkhon.com/integrating-political-islam-in-central-asia-the-tajik-experience/
24. Thomas Ruttig, “Talebs in Tajikistan? The ‘terrorist spill-over’ hype,” Afghan Analysts Network, October 10, 2013, http://www.afghanistan-analysts.org/talebs-in-tajikistan-the-terrorist-spill-over-hype
25. Einar Wigen, Islamic Jihad Union: Al-Qaeda’s Key to the Turkic World? Norwegian Defence Research Establishment, 2009.
26. Uzbek – Islomiy Jihod Ittihodi; Arabic – Itiha’ad al-Jihad al-Islami.
27. “Terroralarm in Deutschland: Die Bombenbauer aus der Provinz,” Spiegel Online, September 7, 2009, http://www.spiegel.de/politik/deutschland/terroralarm-in-deutschland-die-bombenbauer-aus-der-provinz-a-504464-3.html
28. Guido Steinberg, “A Turkish al-Qaeda: The Islamic Jihad Union and the Internationalization of Uzbek Jihadism,” Strategic Insights, Center for Contemporary Conflict. December 30, 2007, http://www.swp-berlin.org/fileadmin/contents/products/fachpublikationen/sbg_IJU_Strategic_Insights_ks.pdf
29. Ehsan Ahrari, “Countering the Ideological Support for HT and the IMU: The Case of the Ferghana Valley,” CSRC discussion paper 05/44, September 2005, p.5, http://www.marshallcenter.org/mcpublicweb/de/component/content/article/628-art-pubs-occ-papers-03.html?directory=19
30. “Tahir Yuldash, ‘US fiasco is nearing. Look us up in Washington’” Ferghana.Ru News Agency, October 15, 2007, http://enews.fergananews.com/article.php?id=2167
31. Dilafruz Nabiyeva, “Hizb ut-Tahrir grows more active in Tajikistan: Government takes anti-terrorist measures,” Central Asia Online, September 6, 2011, http://centralasiaonline.com/en_GB/articles/caii/features/main/2011/07/06/feature-01; “Tajikistan detains influential member of Hizb ut-Tahrir,” Interfax [Dushanbe], June 15, 2011, http://www.interfax-religion.com/?act=news&div=8517
32. “Hizb ut-Tahrir network dismantled in Kazakhstan,” Interfax-Religion.com, December 22, 2006, http://www.interfax-religion.com/?act=news&div=2412
33. See Central Asia Online, July 21, 2009; Interfax, August 11, 2009.
34. Igor Rotar, “Tablighi Jamaat: Islamization from Ferghana Valley to Russian regions?” Eurasia Daily Monitor, January 23, 2013, http://www.jamestown.org/programs/edm/single/?tx_ttnews[tt_news]=40356&tx_ttnews[backPid]=685&no_cache=1#.Unf15xAljoY
35. Ibid
36. Thomas Ruttig, “Talebs in Tajikistan? Part 2 on the alleged IMU-Taleban nexus,” October 11, 2013, http://www.afghanistan-analysts.org/talebs-in-tajikistan-part-2-on-the-alleged-imu-taleban-nexus
37. See Trend.az [Tashkent], January 14, 2013; “President of Tajikistan informs about increasing threats from Afghanistan at CSTO summit,” AKI Press [Bishkek], September 24, 2013, http://www.akipress.com/_en_news.php?id=137484.
38. “Tajik GKNB general killed by smugglers,” Central Asia Online, July 23, 2012, http://centralasiaonline.com/en_GB/articles/caii/newsbriefs/2012/07/23/newsbrief-03
39. “Kyrgyz accuse suspected drug smugglers,” Central Asia Online/RIA Novosti, September 20, 2013, http://centralasiaonline.com/en_GB/articles/caii/newsbriefs/2013/09/20/newsbrief-01
40. “Kazakh police warehouse loses more than 100kg marijuana,” Tengri News [Astana], April 15, 2011.
41. Maksim Yeniseyev, “IMU lacks popular support: Uzbeks urge terrorist group members to lay down arms,” Central Asia Online, July 15, 2011, http://centralasiaonline.com/en_GB/articles/caii/features/main/2011/07/15/feature-01

JAMAAT UL-AHRAR: THE NEW FACE OF PAKISTAN’S TEHRIK-E-TALIBAN PAKISTAN

Farhan Zahid

The number of terrorist acts in settled districts of Pakistan has taken a nose dive in the last few months. It appears that an ongoing military operation (Operation Zarb-e-Azb) has taken its toll on terrorists based primarily in North Waziristan and more generally in the whole of the tribal areas of Pakistan. The operation may have an impact on the diminishing number of terrorist acts, but the real reason seems to be the split of Tehrik-e-Taliban Pakistan (TTP) into two major factions.

The emergence of Jamaat ul-Ahrar is the latest development in the factional infighting inside the TTP. Key TTP commanders who have joined hands with Jamaat ul-Ahrar and become part of its shura (consultative council) are Qari Shakil Haqqani from Charsadda, Maulana Yasin from Swat, Mufti Mishbah from Peshawar districts of Khyber-Pakhtunkhawa province, Qari Ismail from Khyber district, Maulana Abdullah from Bajaur district, and Maulana Haider and Mansoor Nazim from the Orakzai district of the Federally Administered Tribal Areas (FATA) (Dawn [Karachi], August 26, 2014).

 

FATA

A Battle for Leadership

The split was overdue as key commanders had developed major differences over getting control of the tribal districts. Fierce clashes erupted between militants loyal to Khalid Mehsud (a.k.a. Sajna) and Sheryar Mehsud over control of South Waziristan. TTP Amir Maulana Fazlullah was impatient to prove his iron grip over the TTP and immediately sacked Khalid Mehsud before appointing Khalid Haqqani as the new commander of South Waziristan district. The TTP shura refused to endorse Fazlullah’s decision, leading to fragmentation (The News [Islamabad], May 29, 2014).

In fact, the TTP started to fragment right after the death of its former Emir, Hakimullah Mehsud, in a drone attack in South Waziristan last December. The TTP’s supreme shura council met several times to decide on a new Emir. Shura members reluctantly agreed on the name of Fazlullah, the notorious head of the TTP-affiliated Tehrik-e-Nizam Shariat-e-Mohammadi. Supreme leader of the Afghan Taliban Mullah Omar is believed to have put his weight behind Fazlullah, leading to his selection as the new Emir of the TTP. Unlike previous TTP Emirs (namely Baitullah Mehsud and Hakimullah Mehsud), Fazlullah belongs to the Mingora district of Pakistan’s Khyber-Pakhtunkhawa province.

Since the TTP is an agglomerate of 27 to 40 Taliban groups based in the tribal areas of Pakistan and the Emir is traditionally from the tribal areas, the selection of Fazlullah became a bone of contention from the very beginning among other group leaders vying for the slot. The TTP was founded by Mehsudi tribesmen in August 2007 with Baitullah Mehsud as its first Emir. As the TTP is still Mehsud and Wazir dominated, it was difficult for both Mehsud and Wazir tribesmen to appoint a non-Mehsud and non-Wazir Emir who is not even from the tribal areas. It was more or less like a non-Arab commanding al-Qaeda Central.

In this image taken from a video recording, Pakistan Taliban commander, gives an interview in Pakistan's Mohmand tribal regionOmar Khalid Khorasani

Another important issue surfaced with the formation of Jamaat ul-Ahrar by the TTP commander of Mohmand district, Omar Khalid Khorasani (a.k.a. Abdul Wali). Khorasani belongs to the Safi tribe of Mohmand district. During his long tenure as TTP commander of the district and in the absence of a strong TTP Emir in Waziristan, Khorasani announced his own faction, Jamaat ul-Ahrar, in September 2014. Khorasani accused Fazlullah and his allied commanders of deviating from the TTP ideology. Fazlullah, who was in Afghanistan and missed the shura council’s meetings, slammed Khorasani’s decision and called him a traitor and deviator. He said Khorasani was “conspiring against the Emirates of Afghanistan Emir Mullah Muhammad Omar, and [had] links to shadowy militant organizations.” All Taliban groups in Pakistan and Afghanistan regard Mullah Omar as the ceremonial head of the Taliban and pledge allegiance to his authority, though virtually all act independently (Dawn [Karachi], September 7, 2014). Khorasani managed to lure both the newly emerged Punjabi Taliban branch Ahara ul-Hind, involved in the Islamabad Court Complex attack in June 2014 and led by Qasim Khorasani, and Junad-e-Hafza, another shadowy organization based in Punjab. Ahrar ul-Hind has now merged with Jamaat ul-Ahrar (Newsweek Pakistan, September 2014).

The split has had a major impact on the conduct of terrorist operations in settled districts of Pakistan. TTP commanders in Khyber-Pakhtunkhawa province, Punjab province and the southern port city of Karachi have had to decide whether to side with the TTP Fazlullah faction or with the Khorasani-led Jamaat ul-Ahrar.

Khorasani has strong links with al-Qaeda and is believed to have sheltered hundreds of Arab, Uzbeks and Chinese Uyghurs in areas under his control. There is a strong possibility that al-Qaeda may favor Khorasani with his local franchise rather than Fazalullah, who may already be weighing his option to pledge allegiance to Caliph of the Islamic State Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi. Jamaatul Ahrar spokesman Ehsanullah Ehsan has already welcomed the creation of al-Qaeda in Indian Subcontinent by Ayman al-Zawahiri (Dawn, September 5, 2014). On the other hand, TTP-Fazalullah spokesman Shahidullah Shahid appeared to have leaning towards the Islamic State:

From the very beginning, when the Islamic State did not exist, we are helping and supporting the Mujahideen of Iraq and Syria. Our group [TTP] had sent between 1,000 and 1,500 fighters to the (Middle Eastern) region so far. We are with you in these hard times and will help you as much as possible. We advise you to be patient and determined at such a hard time and stay united, as your enemies stand united against you (The News, October 6, 2014).

Apart from this development, the TTP has distributed pamphlets and did wall chalking in Peshawar, the capital of Khyber-Pakhtunkhawa province, leaving messages encouraging Muslims to join hands with Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi and the Islamic State. The wall chalking and pamphlets are clear efforts to gear up support for the Islamic State in Pakistan, where an on-going Islamist insurgency could provide thousands of potential recruits for Islamic State’s endeavors in Syria and Iraq. According to Pakistani terrorism analyst Amir Mir: “The rise and success of the Islamic State could play an inspirational role in Pakistan where 100-plus al-Qaeda and Taliban-linked Jihadi groups are currently operating” (The News, October 6, 2014).

Ideology and Links

The Khorasani faction of the TTP is known to have hard-core Islamist beliefs. Khorasani has always opposed peace talks with government. The group staunchly believes in creating an Islamic Caliphate in Pakistan governed in a Wahhabi/Salafist style. Khorasani has shown his hatred for the present constitution and has at times vowed to replace it with Shari’a (The News, September 27, 2013). Jamaat ul-Ahrar’s spokesman Ehsanullah Ehsan condemned the Nobel Award committee for choosing Malala Yousafzai for the 2014 Nobel Peace Prize, calling her “an agent of non-believers” (Indian Express, October 11, 2014). The Khorasani group also condemned democracy and all parties inclined towards establishing strong democratic institutions in Pakistan (Dawn [Karachi], August 26, 2014)
The Mohmand TTP, which has traditionally been headed by Omar Khalid Khorasani, is one of the strongest of the TTP-affiliated groups based in tribal areas. During his rise to power in Mohmand district, Khorasani had to face the Shah Khalid group, a formidable enemy whom he successfully defeated after fierce battles in 2008. Afterwards Khorasani became the undisputed warlord of Mohmand district.

Khorasani managed to hold back successive military operations against his group in 2010. Operation Brekhna (Thunder) was launched by the Pakistani Army and Frontier Corp to flush out Khorasni’s group in Mohmand. Khorasani, aided by his right hand Qari Shakeel, successfully held back the military onslaught and at a later stage took refuge in Afghanistan, salvaging his forces. The Khorsani forces regained all control after the withdrawal of the military from tactical strongholds. In one brutal assault, the Khorasani-led militants kidnapped and beheaded 23 personnel of the Frontier Corps in 2010. Khorasani was also the first of Pakistan’s jihadists to denounce the Lal Masjid operation (Red Mosque military operation in 2007, a.k.a. Operation Silence) and vowed to take revenge.

The Khorasani faction has spread tentacles in settled districts as far as Karachi. The most recent terrorist attack launched in January by Khorasani-affiliated militants in Karachi was the assassination of Superintendent of Police Mohammad Aslam Khan in a suicide bombing. Several earlier attempts on the life of Khan by other Taliban factions were unsuccessful, including one that completely destroyed his house and resulted in the death of six police officers. Khan was known for his anti-TTP stance and conducted scores of operations against TTP strongholds in peripheral areas of Karachi in the last five years. At least 40 TTP leaders and rank and file were killed in Khan-led operations in Karachi.
Now heading his own faction, Khorasani will attempt to appeal to more TTP factions based in Karachi’s Pashtun-dominated suburbs, as the cosmopolitan city offers more opportunities for extortion from traders and businessmen than the tribal areas and other parts of Pakistan. Khorasani also has a base in Islamabad’s slums, where many of the militants relocated during military operations in 2010. The Khan-koh suburb of Islamabad is now home to hundreds of TTP militants involved in extortion and kidnappings in Islamabad and the neighboring Rawalpindi district.

Conclusion

With the announcement of the Islamic State in areas the militant Islamist group has carved out of the war-torn Iraq and Syrian states, the jihadi global perspective is about to shift to a new paradigm. The surfacing of Jamaat ul-Ahrar from the TTP’s wings showcases the change of course by Pakistani Islamist militants. Al-Qaeda, which used to define the course of action for Pakistani militant groups, now appears to be losing ground to the Islamic State. Al-Qaeda ideologues now have to compete with their own splinter group (IS, formerly al-Qaeda in Iraq) in obtaining the confidence of Islamist groups in Pakistan. It seems that al-Qaeda is already on course to accept the Islamic State’s challenge. The establishment of a new al-Qaeda branch, al-Qaeda in the Indian Subcontinent, is one step in reasserting the group’s desire to dominate the Pakistani jihad scene. Jamaat ul-Ahrar, composed of seasoned jihadis like Omar Khalid Khorasani, would definitely weigh their options before joining hands with al-Qaeda or the Islamic State. At the moment, the possibility of joining the Islamic State appears to be less significant as al-Qaeda already has a developed network in Pakistan. Joining the Islamic State would provide more coverage in terms of media attention; on the other hand al-Qaeda will have to reinvigorate itself for staying on course.

The Author

Farhan Zahid earned his Ph.D. in Counter Terrorism Studies from the University of Brussels, Belgium. Dr. Zahid has authored more than 20 research papers and articles. He writes on counter-terrorism, al-Qaeda, Pakistani al- Qaeda-linked groups, Islamist violent non-state actors in Pakistan, jihadi Ideologies and the Afghan Taliban.

The preceding is a guest contribution to Aberfoyle International Security (AIS) and does not necessarily reflect the views or opinions of AIS.

An Islamist View of Somalia’s Political Crisis: An Interview with Abdurahman Abdullahi Baadiyow, Leader of Somalia’s National Unity Party

Andrew McGregor
October 13, 2013

In recent weeks, Somali security forces working in unison with troops of the African Union Mission in Somalia (AMISOM) have made significant steps in its battle against al-Shabaab extremists, retaking the coastal towns of Barawe and Adale. Shabaab has responded to the military campaign by mounting assassinations and terrorist strikes within the Somali capital of Mogadishu, including an October 12 car bombing of a Mogadishu café that killed 15 people and wounded another 18. Amidst the ongoing violence and security concerns, Somalia’s Federal Government continues to struggle with issues of regional rights, development, foreign investment, corruption, federalism and national reconciliation. In the following AIS exclusive interview, an insider’s perspective of the political struggle in Somalia is provided by Abdurahman Abdullahi Baadiyow, a candidate in the 2012 presidential elections and the current leader of Somalia’s broad-based National Unity Party (NUP). [1]

Abdurahman 1Abdurahman Abdullahi Baadiyow

1. Can you describe the political approach of the National Unity Party and its relationship (if any) with the Somali Islah Movement?
After the collapse of the Somali state, the first national government was formed in 2000 through a traditional power sharing formula based on clan quotas that empowered traditional elders to nominate members of the parliament. The current political trend is to move away from a clan-based system to a citizen-centered approach in which political parties are formed and elections are held. Along those lines, we have initiated the National Unity Party (NUP), which was officially announced on February 26, 2014. According to its principles, the party stands for the restoration and preservation of national unity and social solidarity, espouses individual liberty, democracy, institutionalism, federalism, protection of human rights, socio-economic development, empowering women and youth and striving for the realisation of the regional integration of the peoples and states of the Horn of Africa. The NUP is independent from the Islah movement and its members belong to different social and religious affiliations. All citizens have equal opportunity to join the party and internal democracy is exercised to elect its leadership.

2. Two years after its establishment, has the Somali Federal Government made progress in restoring security in Somalia? Have attacks on members of parliament affected the ability of the government to move forward on essential issues?
The Somali government has been trying to rebuild the Somali national security system. However, progress is very limited for many objective reasons and due to low performance. The continuous assassinations of MPs, attacks on the symbols of the state sovereignty such as the parliament building, the state house and the regional court, are clear evidence of the fragility of Somalia’s security institutions. Al-Shabaab militants are still very dangerous even though efforts were made to fight against them with the support of international partners.
With respect to achieving major milestones towards “Vision 2016,” which includes completing the constitution, conducting a countrywide census and holding free and fair elections, the government unfortunately lags behind. [2] The main reason is not security alone, as the overall performance of the government is far from satisfactory.

Somali government troops fight along side AMISOM peacekeepers against Islamic rebel groups in the north of the capital MogadishuSomali government troops in action alongside AMISOM armor.

3. In recent weeks there have been a number of cases of undisciplined behavior by soldiers operating under the African Union Mission in Somalia (AMISOM) banner. Do you view the continued presence of AMISOM troops in Somalia as a positive or necessary contribution to the restoration of security in the region?
AMISOM’s presence is essential for restoring peace in Somalia and undisciplined soldiers should be held accountable for their alleged crimes. On the other hand, Somali society is very sensitive and suspicious of foreign troops and their presence is used by al-Shabaab as the main reason for their sinister activities. Moreover, for Somalia to stand on its own feet, building its security institutions should be given priority and a clear exit strategy for AMISOM must be developed. Such a strategy is not yet known to the Somali public.

4. The trend towards establishing new federal administrations in Somalia appears to be a continuing process. Is federalism the answer to creating political unity in Somalia, and do you see sufficient popular support to make it work?
The National Unity Party supports federalism. Without the adoption of a federal system, the national unity that our party stands for will be endangered. Opposition to federalism is narrowing and the majority of Somalis are now very busy establishing a federal state in various regions. More established federal entities such as Puntland are adamant in their support for federalism and will not compromise on it. The case for federalism also strengthens the position of Somaliland unionists who can advocate among their constituencies that the era of a strong central and oppressive state in Somalia is over and the new federal but unified Somalia will be a win-win scenario for all Somalis. However, the process of establishing these federal regions should be improved to include all those living in each federal state’s territory while the monopoly of power by certain clans over others should be avoided.

5. Resource-sharing has been one of the main issues to emerge during the debate over Somali federalism, particularly in light of Puntland’s insistence that it has the right to negotiate its own deals for offshore gas and oil exploration. Should regions have the power to make their own agreements regarding resource development, or should this responsibility lie with a centralized government in Mogadishu?
The issue between the national government and Puntland concerns not only resource-sharing and oil exploration, which was a hot issue even during President Abdullahi Yusuf’s tenure (2004-2008), even though Puntland was his constituency. It is about different perceptions regarding how the national state should relate with the federal states. Puntland considers itself an established federal state and demands more autonomous federalism; it expects better engagement and a consultative role with the national state. Besides the grievances and scars of the unresolved civil war that continually nags and instigates clan sentiment, there are many failed agreements between the two sides. However, resource sharing laws and procedures are still to be completed so that there is a collective responsibility by the national and federal states. Such laws are still in the making and hopefully will be finalised when other federal entities are established. Finally, I hope the recent agreement during the official visit of the Prime Minister Abdiwelli in Puntland will contain various grievances.

6. You have played a prominent role in the national reconciliation process. Do you see this effort as making progress at this time? What are some of the obstacles to national reconciliation?
True, I played important role in reconciliation since 1994 when I was elected as the Chairman of the Somali Reconciliation Council, an NGO based in Mogadishu. I was a member of the Somali technical committee in the Djibouti Reconciliation Conference of 2000 where the first Somali government was established since the collapse of the state in 1991. Recently, I visited Puntland and the Juba administration to diffuse growing clan sentiments and pave the way for reconciliation. Also, it is worth mentioning that armed conflicts between Somali clans have to a certain extent faded away and conflict is now mainly between the national government and al-Shabaab. There are also fracases between emerging federal states. There is continuous wrangling within the national state institutions such as the President and the Prime Minister’s offices while the government is frequently changed and parliament is busy with motions to topple the government. However, genuine reconciliation is not taking place. What is happening is mostly power sharing conferences without true reconciliation. I believe reconciliation that addresses past grievances and a legitimate power sharing approach is what Somalia needs to recover and prosper. The main obstacle is the vision of the national leaders who do not see national reconciliation as a priority for state-building.

7. Alleged corruption in the Somali Federal Government has inhibited development and even led to a temporary suspension of development aid from Turkey (one of the largest promoters of Somali reconstruction) in February 2014. What steps would you recommend to create greater transparency to assure foreign donors that funds will be used in a transparent and responsible way?
Corruption is rampant in Somalia because various state institutions are yet to be established. In reaction to alleged high profile corruption scandals, a donor-backed committee that includes the Governor of the National Bank, the Minister of Finance and officials from the World Bank, African Development Bank and International Monetary Fund was formed. As a result, eight contracts, such as the agreements with Schulman Rogers, Soma Oil and Gas, Favori and others are under scrutiny, since none of them went through a competitive tender process, according to the World Bank. In Somalia, corruption and commercialization of politics is openly exercised by the state institutions and sometimes by the highest authorities. Somalia does not need to reinvent the wheel in fighting corruption; it has to follow the internationally proven procedures of transparency and those responsible must be prosecuted.

8. The southern region of Jubaland has developed its own administration with the support of Kenya, which appears to desire the establishment of a buffer region along its northern border under the influence of Nairobi. Is this an inevitable process, or is there still room for Jubaland to return to greater integration with the rest of Somalia?
Jubaland is part of Somalia and one of the emerging federal states of Somalia. There is no tendency of breaking away and their leaders are hard-core unionists. Kenyan involvement was motivated initially by the threat of al-Shabaab, which was endangering the national security of Kenya. As a result, Kenya dispatched its armed forces to Somalia, where along with the Somali army and militias they liberated the important port city of Kismayo from al-Shabaab. Kenyan troops later joined AMISOM forces. We hope that Somalia will be able to establish its own security institutions capable of maintaining its security and that the foreign forces that helped Somalia will be offered an honourable exit and appreciation.

9. What role do you see for Islamist political formations in the reconstruction of the Somali state?
According to the Somali constitution, Islam is the ultimate reference of laws. The constitution says: “The Constitution of the Federal Republic of Somalia is based on the foundations of the Holy Quran and the Sunna of our Prophet Muhammad (PBUH) and protects the higher objectives of Shari’a and social justice” (Article 3:1). Therefore, the era of dividing the Somali people into secularists and Islamists is over since the constitution resolved that issue forever. Thus, no particular group or political party should claim a monopoly on religion and its interpretation. Political parties should be established on political vision, principles and performances. This is a turning point in which Somalia needs to move away from parochial politics based on clans and affiliation to particular Islamic persuasions to a new political culture founded on the choices of individual citizens without discriminating between any group or clan.

10. There is talk of impeachment for first-term president Hassan Sheikh Mohamud. Is this a realistic possibility? Are Somali political institutions strong enough to endure such a development without experiencing a general collapse?
Impeaching President Hassan is a very difficult task and is not the right way to solve our difficulties, besides the fragility of state institutions and the judiciary branch of the state. I believe Somalia requires stability in which differences and conflicts between the presidency, government and parliament are contained. Such conflicts always weaken emerging national state institutions and harm the national leadership. This culture of conflict between the president and the prime minister on one hand and the government and parliament on the other has continued since 2000, when every president appointed three prime ministers within 3-4 years. However, I hope, we can overcome such a culture.

11. You are touring Europe to establish chapters of your National Unity Party. What is the importance of the Somali Diaspora for the party?
It is estimated that more than 20% of Somalis live in the Diaspora. A large number live in Europe, North America, Middle East and the greater Horn of Africa region. They are very influential in Somali politics and many of them have become members of the parliament, prime ministers and cabinet ministers. The political program of the NUP advocates for the improved political engagement of the Somali Diaspora, such as their right to vote in the Somali elections while they are in their Diaspora constituencies. Therefore, tapping their human and financial resources is very crucial for the party. So far, we have formed chapters in Alberta (Canada) and Finland and are in the process of forming other chapters in other countries.

12. You were a prominent candidate in the 2012 presidential elections. Will you stand as a candidate for the 2016 elections?
In 2012, I was independent candidate in the presidential race. I was not a member of a party. Now, we have established a party and our decision will a collective party decision. If the party leadership decides to assign me such a position, I will not hesitate. I will also accept and support the decision if the party decides otherwise.

Notes
1. See the NUP website: http://midnimoqaran.so/eng/index.php/en/ . For an earlier interview with Abdurahman Abdullahi, see Andrew McGregor, “The Muslim Brotherhood in Somalia: An Interview with the Islah Movement’s Abdurahman M. Abdullahi (Baadiyow),” Terrorism Monitor 9(30), July 29, 2011, http://www.jamestown.org/single/?no_cache=1&tx_ttnews[tt_news]=38256#.VDwa7hZ0a3M
2. “Vision 2016” was a five-day national conference held in Mogadishu in September, 2013 to focus on key political process issues in the run-up to 2016 elections. For the conference resolutions, see: “Vision 2016: Principles and Recommendations,” Mogadishu, September 26, 2013, http://hiiraan.com/Pdf_files/2013/VISION2016%20_Final_COMMUNIQUE.pdf

A PROFILE OF ASIM UMAR: AMIR OF AL-QAEDA IN THE INDIAN SUBCONTINENT

Dr. Farhan Zahid

Special Contribution to the AIS Website, October 1, 2014

The rise of the Islamic State (former ISIS) and its establishment of a self-proclaimed Caliphate) not only shocked terrorism and security analysts but also the Islamic State’s parent organization – al-Qaeda. Dr. Ayman al- Zawahiri, the current Amir of al-Qaeda, must have serious concerns about the arrival of a new competitor in the arena of global jihad, once considered synonymous with al-Qaeda. There is no doubt that with experience, global reach, affiliated groups and associated movements in more than 60 countries, al-Qaeda is going to be in the jihadi business for a long time, whereas the Islamic State may not survive long. Whatever the course of events, al- Zawahiri is currently in a fix. Thousands of al-Qaeda sympathizers across the globe have expectations that their Amir will compete with the so-called Islamic State with new strategies and tactics. Al-Zawahiri would obviously not like to be seen as meek. It appears that in this dog-eat-dog situation, al-Zawahiri is set to compete with the Islamic State to preserve al-Qaeda’s status in the world of jihad.

The establishment of al-Qaeda in the Indian Subcontinent (AQIS) is one such step in this regard. Though al-Qaeda already has two associated groups in India and six in Pakistan, it seems that al-Zawahiri intends to reinvigorate the current set up. The al-Qaeda associated groups in the region are:

India

1. Student Islamic Movement of India (SIMI)
2. Indian Mujahideen (IM)

Pakistan

1. Harkat ul-Jihad-e-Islami(HuJI)
2. Harkat ul-Mujahideen (HuM)
3. Lashkar-e-Taiba (LeT)
4. Jaysh-e-Mohammad (JeM)
5. Lashkar-e-Jhangvi (LeJ)
6. Tehrik-e-Taliban Pakistan (TTP)

Al-Zawahiri selected Maulana Asim Umar as the Amir of AQIS. Umar is a known jihadi ideologue and propagandist as well as an active figure amongst jihadi forces in Pakistan. His selection by al- Zawahiri from the available lot of senior jihadi is by no means a coincidence. Umar has worked with almost all jihadi organizations of Pakistan and he may help al-Qaeda Core to strengthen ties and possibly merge with these organizations. The immense number of jihadis in Pakistan and the number of attacks over the last 12 years prove the point that Pakistan’s huge youth bulge may provide a pool of new recruits to al-Qaeda. Umar’s connections with Pakistani sectarian outfits and Islamist Kashmiri jihadi organizations would be an asset for al-Qaeda’s expansion in Pakistan and India.
According to unconfirmed sources, Umar hails from the southern Pakistani metropolis of Karachi, a city distinguished by its relatively secular and modern atmosphere in comparison with other Pakistani urban centers.

Umar studied at the Jamia Uloom-ul-Islamia madrassa in Karachi, a seminary notorious for producing jihadis. Mufti Nizam Uddin Shamzai, the slain former principal of the seminary, had been a staunch supporter and mentor of the Afghan Taliban regime. Shamzai also patronized Pakistani jihadi organizations Harkat ul-Jihad-e-Islami (HuJI), Hakat-ul-Mujahideen (HuM), Jaysh-e-Mohammad (JeM), and sectarian jihadi organizations like Sipha-e-Sahaba (SeS) and Lashkar-e-Jhangvi (LeJ) (Express Tribune [ Karachi], February 12, 2011). Shamzai was shot dead in front of his own madrassa in May 2004 by unknown assailants.

Shamzai declared jihad against the United States and its allies in Afghanistan in 2001. Upon proclamation of his fatwa, thousands rushed to Afghanistan to fight alongside the Taliban and al-Qaeda during the U.S. invasion in October 2001. When the Pakistani military regime sided with the United States at the beginning of Global War on Terrorism (GWOT), Shamzai issued another fatwa, this time against the Pakistan Army (Daily Times [Lahore], May 31, 2004).

Shamzai’s two most prominent students were Qari Saifullah Akhter and Fazal ur-Rehman Khalil. After graduating from Shamzai’s madrassa in Karachi, Akhter and Khalil laid the foundations of Harkat ul-Jihad-e-Islami (HuJI), the oldest Pakistani Islamist terror group, in 1983. A few years later Khalil parted ways and established his own terrorist outfit, Harkat ul-Mujahideen (HuM) in 1987. In February 1998, HuM organized Osama bin Laden’s press conference in Khost, Afghanistan, where he proclaimed his fatwa against the U.S. and its allies and also announced the formation of the Islamic Front against Jews and Crusaders. [1]

Both terrorist groups remain involved in the Indian Kashmir insurgency. Masood Azahar, another of Shamzai’s students and a high-ranking member of HuM, founded Jaysh-e-Mohammad (JeM) after being released from an Indian jail in exchange for the release of Indian airline passengers hijacked by HuM militants in 1999. HuJI and HuM turned against the state of Pakistan as the military regime of General Pervez Musharraf decided to side with the United States. A HuM splinter group, HuM al-Alami, twice attempted to assassinate General Musharraf in 2002 in Karachi. [2]

Umar also studied at Darul Uloom Haqannia madrassa, located in the Khyber Pakhtunkhwa province of Pakistan. The seminar y has a reputation as a jihad factory because of its decades- old practice of sending students to Afghanistan to fight against Russian and later American forces. With more than 10,000 students, the madrassa is headed by Sami ul-Haq, leader of the Deobandist Jamiat-e-Ulea Islam political part.
More than 10,000 strong student body the madrassa is headed by Sami ul Haq, leader of Deobandi sect Islamist party Jamiat-e-Ulema Islam. Half of the Afghan Taliban cabinet considered Darul Uloom Haqannia as their alma mater. Mullah Omar, the supreme commander of the Afghan Taliban, reportedly studied at the madrassa. (Reuters Pakistan, September 9, 2014)

Works of Asim Umar

Umar, the newly appointed Amir of AQIS, has written a number of conspiracy theory books. Umar writes in Urdu, the national language of Pakistan. His favorite topic is Dajjal (the Islamic equivalent of the Anti-Christ). Despite being part of Pakistan’s jihadist network, Umar focuses on cosmic and Manichean issues like second coming of the Nabi Issa (the Prophet Jesus), the appearance of the Mahdi, Armageddon, and Dajjal. Umar connects these upcoming scenarios with current events like the U.S. invasion of Afghanistan, the activities of private security contractor Blackwater/Xe (known since 2011 as Academie) and the Bermuda Triangle.

Dajjal Ka Lashkar: Black Water (Army of Anti-Christ: the Black Water)

Umar describes events related to private security company Blackwater/Xe activities in Pakistan, and narrates some of his own experiences. In Umar’s view, the employment of Blackwater/Xe in Pakistan and their growing influence at the behest of Pakistani apostate rulers, is part of a Christian-Jewish conspiracy against Pakistan, much bigger than anyone could imagine. Umar considers Blackwater/Xe an organization of religious fanatics spying in Pakistan. Blackwater/Xe, according to Umar, is working to steal Pakistan’s nuclear assets and is part of a wider plan for setting appropriate conditions for the arrival of Dajjal. In this view, Black Water has managed to create an economic crisis in Pakistan while recruiting thousands of apostate Pakistanis and trying hard to push the Pakistani government to provide them with bases and air strips in Pakistani territory. In the last chapter of this work, Umar lists U.S. military bases in the Indian Ocean and the Middle East. [3]

Umar 1Teesri Jang -e- Azeem Aur Dajjal (World War III and Dajjal)

Umar links the impending outbreak of the Third World War with the arrival of Dajjal while describing signs and events before the Battle of Armageddon. Umar identifies a long list of events from wars in Bosnia, Chechnya, Pakistan, India, Syria, Iraq and even relates the roles of the IMF, World Bank, international media , private firms like Blackwater/Xe and multinationals like Nestle to a “Western plan” to depopulate Muslim countries by launching population control campaigns. [4]

Imam Mehdi ke Doost aur Dushman (Friends and Foes of the Mahdi [Messiah])

In this work, Umar links various different conspiracies to the role of Shi’a clergy and the collusion of various different Shi’a sects (such as the Ismailis, Alawis, etc.). Another important sign, according to Umar, is the emancipation of women. Umar claims families such as the Rockefellers, Bushes and the family of the Agha Khan have been hatching conspiracies against the Imam (Messiah). In a tacit manner, Umar cites the Yemeni people and, indirectly, Osama bin Laden, in upholding the truth and acting as friends of the Imam. Umar dedicates the book to Ghazi Abdur Rasheed, leader of the radical Islamists killed during the Red Mosque Operation (Operation Silence) in Islamabad in July 2007. [5]

Umar 2Bermuda Tikon aur Dajjal (Bermuda Triangle and Dajjal)

Umar describes the Bermuda Triangle and alleged disappearances of vessels in detail. He narrates eye-witness accounts and then elucidates the links between extraterrestrials and Dajjal with the involvement of the U.S. government, NASA, Pentagon and American scientists. Umar then explores his favorite conspiracy theory, one suggesting the Shi’a, the U.S. government, the European Union, apostate Muslim regimes, Blackwater/Xe, the World Health Organization, UNICEF and others are working together to side with Dajjal in the end days. Umar dedicated this book to the prisoners at Guantanamo Bay. [6]

Association with Pakistani Islamist Terrorist Groups

Before becoming the Amir of AQIS, Umar has tagged along with Jihadi organizations in Pakistan in various capacities. He served as propagandist of Harkat al Jihad-e-Islami (HuJI) and Harkat ul Mujahideen (HuM). Umar was also close to Sipah-e-Sahaba and Lashkar-e-Jhangvi, and has written openly against “Shi’a designs” in Pakistan in his books. The moment when Umar became associated with al-Qaeda is not known, but it is assumed that the relationship developed in Taliban-ruled Afghanistan where al-Qaeda was running training camps and graduating thousands of HuJI and HuM militants every year from 1996 to 2001. The relationship strengthened after hundreds of militants escaped the Red Mosque Operation and joined hands with al-Qaeda in tribal areas. [7]

Umar has a long association with al-Qaeda Core in tribal areas of Pakistan under the protection of the Tehrik-e-Taliban Pakistan (TTP). Because of his jihadi credentials he was earlier selected by al-Zawahiri to head al-Qaeda’ss Shari’a committee in Pakistan (NDTV [New Delhi], September 4, 2014). After taking charge of AQIS, Umar has reaffirmed his stance by declaring the United States his prime enemy. In his message to Indian youth he asked: “Why is it that the Muslims of India are totally absent from the fields of jihad? Rise! Awaken! Participate in this global jihad to give a final push to the collapsing edifice of America” (Hindustan Times, September 4, 2014)

As a result of his long jihadi career in Afghanistan, Kashmir and Pakistan, Umar speaks fluent Arabic, Urdu, Uzbek and Pashto. While working for the overwhelmingly Pashtun TTP, Umar translated jihadi material from Pashto to Urdu. Because of his Islamic clerical education, Umar is well versed in Islamic issues. He is a good orator as well as an effective propagandist. However, little is known about his jihadi credentials as far as field operations are concerned. According to one source, Umar is more of an ideologue than actual fighter. [8]

Umar’s current focus is on jihadi activities in Indian Kashmir, Assam, Myanmar and Pakistan. He has capitalized on the available pool of jihadis in Pakistan to raise a new cluster from regions experiencing jihadi turbulence. Umar has denounced taking refu
“Those (Kashmiris) who swore to martyrs to walk their path till their last breath and vowed to continue jihad; who convinced them to shun jihad and dream about [obtaining the] freedom of Kashmir by resorting to protests, shutdowns and democratic ways?… Caravans are heading from Afghanistan to liberate India and it is not being done on instructions of any intelligence agency, and not as part of some governmental policy, but simply to abide God’s command…”  [9]

Conclusion

Al-Qaeda Amir Ayman al- Zawahiri is ready to compete with the Islamic State. In a country like Pakistan where a range of jihadis is available, hoping to recruit and revive many of the dormant jihadi groups under the banner of AQIS. Elevating Asim Umar to Amir of AQIS is a tactical move; Umar’s experience of working with jihadi organizations will enable him to widen the al-Qaeda network in Pakistan and India.

Notes

1. HuMA, South Asia Terrorism Portal, http://www.satp.org/satporgtp/countries/Pakistan/terroristoutfits/HuMA.htm)
2. (HuMA, South Asia Terrorism Portal, http://www.satp.org/satporgtp/countries/Pakistan/terroristoutfits/HuMA.htm)
3. Asim Umar, Dajjal Ka Lashkar: Black Water, Jamia Hafsa Urdu Forum, Islamabad, 2009.
4. Asim Umar, Teesri Jang -e- Azeem Aur Dajjal , Al-Ghazi Welfare Trust, Bagh, Azad Kashmir, October 2006.
5. Asim Umar, Imam Mehdi ke Doost aur Dushman, Al-Hajira Publications, Karachi, May 2009.
6. Asim Umar, Bermuda Tikon aur Dajjal, Al-Hajira Publications, Karachi, 2009.
7. Interview with a local journalist in Islamabad who requested anonymity, September 10, 2014.
8. Ibid
9. As-Sahab Media video: War Should Continue, Message to Muslims of Kashmir, Shamikh, June 16, 2014.

The Author

Farhan Zahid earned his Ph.D. in Counter Terrorism Studies from the University of Brussels, Belgium. Dr. Zahid has authored more than 20 research papers and articles. He writes on counter-terrorism, al-Qaeda, Pakistani al- Qaeda-linked groups, Islamist violent non-state actors in Pakistan, jihadi Ideologies and the Afghan Taliban.

The preceding is a guest contribution to Aberfoyle International Security (AIS) and does not necessarily reflect the views or opinions of AIS.

ISLAM’S LEADING MUFTIS CONDEMN THE “ISLAMIC STATE”

Andrew McGregor
September 4, 2014

Egypt’s Grand Mufti (chief Islamic jurist), Shaykh Shawqi Ibrahim Abd al-Karim Allam, has opened a new campaign to combat Islamist militancy of the type promoted by the Islamic State through electronic means such as internet sites, videos and Twitter accounts. The campaign, which will involve Islamic scholars from across the world, aims to: “correct the image of Islam that has been tarnished in the West because of these criminal acts, and to exonerate humanity from such crimes that defy natural instincts and spread hate between people” (Middle East News Agency [Cairo], August 31; September 1; AP, August 25). There were 37 million internet users in Egypt as of September 2013 (Ahram Online, September 1).

Grand Mufti EgyptGrand Mufti Shaykh Shawqi Ibrahim Abd al-Karim Allam

Egypt’s Grand Mufti has also been pulled into the controversial death sentences issued against leading members of the Muslim Brotherhood and their followers in connection with a series of violent incidents that followed last year’s popular rising/military coup that toppled the rule of Muhammad Morsi and the Freedom and Justice Party (the political wing of the Brotherhood). The specific case in which the Grand Mufti was invited to give his opinion involved death sentences handed down to Muslim Brotherhood Supreme Guide Muhammad al-Badi’e and seven other Brotherhood leaders in June (six others were sentenced to death in absentia, but have the right to new trials if they return) in connection with murder charges related to the clashes at the Istiqama mosque in Giza on July 23, 2013 that left nine people dead.

Egyptian legal procedure calls for all death sentences to be confirmed by a non-binding decision of the Grand Mufti, though in practice such decisions are nearly always followed. Unusually, in this case, the Mufti’s original decision to commute the June death sentences to life imprisonment was returned by the court for reconsideration (Ahram Online [Cairo], August 30; al-Jazeera, August 8). Shawqi Allam declined to take the hint and instead reaffirmed his position that the death penalties were inappropriate given that the evidence consisted solely of unsupported testimony from a police operative (Deutsche Welle, August 30). The Grand Mufti’s actions have been interpreted as a rebuke to the judicial process that has delivered hundreds of death sentences to Muslim Brotherhood members and supporters this year following the group’s official designation as a “terrorist” organization. Muhammad al-Badi’e still faces another death sentence in relation to a separate case regarding the Brothers’ alleged armed response to a July 2014 demonstration at their al-Muqattam headquarters in eastern Cairo.

The decisions of Egypt’s Dar al-Ifta (House of Religious Edicts) are typically closely aligned to official government policy, leading many observers to consider it a quasi-governmental agency. Nonetheless, the office and Egypt’s Grand Mufti remain important sources of spiritual direction throughout the Sunni Islamic world, with thousands of fatwa-s being issued every month in response to questions of faith and practice from around the Islamic world. Compared to institutions such as Cairo’s 10th century al-Azhar Islamic University (also brought under government control in 1961), Dar al-Ifta is a comparatively modern institution, having been created at the order of Khedive Abbas al-Hilmi in 1895.

Grand Mufti Saudi ArabiaGrand Mufti Shaykh Abd al-Aziz al-Ashaykh

In Saudi Arabia, Grand Mufti Shaykh Abd al-Aziz al-Ashaykh, chairman of the Council of Senior Ulema and the General Presidency of Scholarly Research and Ifta (the Kingdom’s fatwa-issuing office), used an August 28 radio interview to respond to the arrest of eight men charged with recruiting fighters for the Islamic State by urging young Saudis to resist calls for jihad “under unknown banners and perverted principles” (Nida al-Islam Radio [Mecca], August 28).

The interview followed a statement entitled “Foresight and Remembrance” made several days earlier in which the Saudi Grand Mufti described members of al-Qaeda and the Islamic State as “Kharijites, the first group that deviated from the religion because they accused Muslims of disbelief due to their sins and allowed killing them and taking their money,” a reference to an early and traditionally much despised early Islamic movement whose advocacy of jihad against rulers they deemed insufficiently Islamic (similar to the takfiri pose adopted by the modern Islamist extremists) led to nearly two centuries of conflict in the Islamic world: “Extremist and militant ideas and terrorism which spread decay on earth, destroying human civilization, are not in any way part of Islam, but are rather Islam’s number one enemy, and Muslims are their first victims…” (Saudi Press Agency, August 19).

The Grand Mufti’s comments reflect a growing concern in Saudi Arabia that the Kingdom will inevitably be targeted by the so-called Islamic State, a development that could shatter the partnership between Wahhabi clerics and the al-Sa’ud royal family that dominates the Kingdom both politically and spiritually. Thousands of Saudis are believed to have left to join Islamic State and al-Nusra Front forces in Iraq and Syria in recent months (Reuters, August 25). The Islamic State poses a direct challenge to the religious legitimacy of the al-Sa’ud monarchy and their rule of the holy cities of Mecca and Madinah by presenting the creation of a caliphate as the true fulfillment the Wahhabist “project” while simultaneously undercutting the authority of Wahhabist clerics such as Shaykh Abd al-Aziz, whom the movement views as having been co-opted by their partnership with a “corrupt and un-Islamic” royal family.

This article first appeared in the September 4, 2014 issue of the Jamestown Foundation’s Terrorism Monitor.

PREPARING FOR THE NEXT STAGE: ISLAMIC JIHAD’S GAZA WAR

Andrew McGregor
September 4, 2014

Days after the September 24 ceasefire that ended Israel’s Operation Protective Edge in Gaza, thousands of members of Islamic Jihad who had fought alongside Hamas in the 50 day conflict gathered with their weapons in Gaza City to hear al-Quds Brigade (the armed wing of Islamic Jihad) spokesman Mahmoud al-Majzoub (a.k.a. Abu Hamza) declare: “We have not stopped making weapons, even during the battle, and we will redouble our efforts… to prepare for the next stage, which we hope will be the battle for freedom” (AFP, August 30).

Islamic JihadIslamic Jihad Movement in Palestine

The Iranian-supported Sunni “resistance movement” (full name: Harakat al-Jihad al-Islami fi Filastin – The Islamic Jihad Movement in Palestine) was targeted by Israeli bombardment and heavily involved in the urban warfare that claimed the lives of 66 Israeli soldiers. Islamic Jihad reports the loss of 121 members during the fighting but asserts that it managed to fire 3,250 rockets, mortars and missiles into Israel during operations that were often closely coordinated with Hamas (i24news.tv, August 29). In addition, some 900 mortar shells were fired during operations against Israeli armor along the Gaza-Israel border (Press TV [Tehran], August 30). Certain IJ leaders were targeted during the conflict, including Shaban Sulayman al-Dahdouh, who was killed along with 13 others in a July 21 airstrike (Ma’an News Agency, August 5).

Islamic Jihad leader Ramadan Abdullah Shallah maintains that Israel was surprised by the military capabilities of the resistance movement in Gaza (Press TV, August 26). His movement mounted its own limited military operation in March after Israeli forces killed three IJ fighters within Gaza, firing 130 rockets into Israel during “Operation Breaking the Silence” (al-Jazeera, March 12).

While Islamic Jihad was prepared to negotiate a ceasefire in the latest conflict in August, Israeli demands for disarmament were rejected from the first. According to a senior Islamic Jihad leader, Khader Habib, “The issue of arms is connected to the existence of the occupation… This right [to bear arms in self-defense] is guaranteed by the laws of heaven and earth” (Middle East Monitor, August 7).

Al-Quds Brigade spokesman Abu Hamza has emphasized that Islamic Jihad is determined to improve its military capabilities while thanking those nations and groups who supported the Palestinians during the Israeli offensive, singling out Hezbollah, Iran and Sudan in particular (Press TV [Tehran], August 30). Iranian Revolutionary Guard Corps (IRGC) commander General Mohammed Ali Jafari has assured both Hamas and Islamic Jihad of more help “than in the past in all defense and social domains” (AFP, August 30).
With inspiration from the 1979 Islamic Revolution in Iran, Palestinian exiles Abd al-Aziz Awda and Taghi Shaqaqi created Islamic Jihad in the same year, initially operating out of Egypt. Shaqaqi was assassinated in Malta by a Mossad team in 1995, while Awda assumed the spiritual leadership of the group. Today, Islamic Jihad operates in both Gaza and the West Bank under the leadership of Dr. Ramadan Abdullah Shallah, an original member and former professor in southern Florida who took control of the movement after Shaqaqi’s death.

Though he views its establishment as unlikely, Shallah has indicated he would favor the establishment of a one-state solution to the Israeli-Arab conflict in which Palestinian Muslims and Christians would have equal rights with Israeli Jews. [1] Short of a one-state solution, the IJ secretary-general insists on nothing less than the “total liberation of Palestine.” Shallah acknowledges ideological similarities with Hamas, but emphasizes Islamic Jihad’s separate approach:

We share the same Islamic identity. From a strategic point of view, there is no difference between us and Hamas, only a tactical difference… Don’t ask me what the political solution is to be. We aren’t the guilty party to be asked for a solution because we didn’t create the problem. Our sacred duty is to fight, to resist occupation of our sacred land change the conditions of our people. That is our duty, our sacred duty. Others, like Fatah, have maps and negotiations. We resist. [2]

Despite the close (and almost essential) military cooperation between Hamas’ Izz al-Din al-Qassam Brigades (the military wing of Hamas) and Islamic Jihad during the conflict with Israel, the two movements have become political rivals to some degree within Gaza. Recent polling has suggested Islamic Jihad has made recent gains in popularity at the expense of Hamas, though the movement still commands just over 13 percent support (Al-Monitor, August 10). Besides its military activities, Islamic Jihad offers social services to Gaza’s hard pressed population, including health services, schools and dispute mediation, the latter often in ways that are more efficient than similar services offered by Hamas.

The movement believes its focus on armed struggle is attracting new supporters, though Islamic Jihad has the luxury of not having to focus on the nearly insurmountable problems of governing a region under blockade that confront Hamas on a daily basis. Islamic Jihad has also distanced itself from Hamas’ association with Egypt’s Muslim Brotherhood, a liability in today’s political climate and counter to IJ’s interest in maintaining good relations with the new Egyptian leadership. There are reports of occasional small-scale clashes between Hamas and Islamic Jihad inside Gaza, but Islamic Jihad shows little inclination to pursue or escalate these conflicts, keeping in mind that Hamas has control over the supply of weapons smuggled into Gaza (al-Akhbar [Beirut], April 16).

Notes

1. Scott Atran and Roberty Axelrod: “Interview with Ramadan Shallah, Secretary General, Palestinian Islamic Jihad,” Damascus, Syria, December 15, 2009, Perspectives on Terrorism 4(2), 2010, http://jeannicod.ccsd.cnrs.fr/docs/00/50/53/76/PDF/Ramadan_Shallah.pdf
2. Ibid.

This article first appeared in the September 4, 2014 issue of the Jamestown Foundation’s Terrorism Monitor.

EGYPT, THE UAE AND ARAB MILITARY INTERVENTION IN LIBYA

Andrew McGregor
September 4, 2014

A pair of recent airstrikes against Islamist-held targets in the Libyan capital of Tripoli have raised questions about Arab military intervention in Libya after reports emerged claiming the strikes were conducted by United Arab Emirates (UAE) aircraft using Egyptian airbases. The first strike, on August 17, hit up to a dozen sites in Tripoli held by the Misratan militia and their Islamist allies, killing six people and destroying a small arms depot. A second wave of attacks on August 23 struck numerous military targets shortly before dawn in southern Tripoli, but failed to prevent the Islamist-allied Libyan Shield militia (dominated byQatari-backed Misratan fighters and allied to the Muslim Brotherhood and Ansar al-Shari’a) from seizing Tripoli’s airport and most of the capital only hours later (Middle East Monitor, August 27; New York Times, August 25).

UAEUAE Air Force F-16s

Though anti-Islamist commander General Khalifa Haftar attempted to claim responsibility for the attacks, their precision, the distance covered by the aircraft and the night operations all precluded the participation of Haftar’s small air element. The U.S. State Department initially said the airstrikes were conducted by UAE aircraft operating from an Egyptian airbase, but later issued a type of ambiguous retraction that suggested further questions should be addressed to the parties involved (Ayat al-Tawy, August 29; Ahram Online [Cairo], August 29). The participation of Egypt and the UAE was confirmed, however, by Pentagon spokesman Admiral John Kirby (Financial Times, August 21; Reuters, August 26). On August 26, a U.S. official said Washington was aware the UAE and Egypt were preparing an attack on Tripoli, but had warned against carrying out the operation (AP, August 26). When the two Arab militaries took the decision to strike Tripoli, they failed to inform their long-time military patron, possibly marking some dissatisfaction with Washington’s reluctance to take more decisive action in Libya and elsewhere.

An Arab Military Solution?

The apparent failure of General Haftar’s “Operation Dignity” has led his Arab backers in Egypt, the UAE and Saudi Arabia to consider more direct approaches to re-establishing security in Libya, where both of the nation’s major cities (Tripoli and Benghazi) have been effectively seized by Islamist militias, forcing the national government to move to Tobruk, close to the border with Egypt.

Rumors of an Algerian-Egyptian invasion of Libya circulated throughout August, though a prolonged Algerian military intervention would risk inflaming social and economic tensions within Algeria (Middle East Eye, August 21). The lack of military cooperation between Algeria and Egypt would also seem to argue against a joint operation.

Qatar supports the Islamist faction in Libya and hosts leading Islamist politician Ali Muhammad al-Salabi, an associate of former Libyan Islamic Fighting Group commander Abd al-Hakim Belhadj, now a prominent Islamist militia commander in Tripoli. Both the Algerian and Egyptian militaries are involved in ongoing counterterrorism campaigns; the question is whether these nations view Libya as an unwanted second front or as an integral part of a wider international anti-terrorist campaign.

The UAE Adopts a More Muscular Foreign Policy

The UAE’s approach to regional security has been described by UAE Minister of State for Foreign Affairs Dr. Anwar Gargash:

Arab affairs should be settled within the framework of the Arab world because the Arab arena then becomes [accessible] to many regional players. I think this is a risk that threatens all Arab countries… There must be strong and effective police and military forces because not every threat faced by countries is international. There are many regional challenges so we should have the potential to face these threats. As [much as] the UAE and other countries need regional allies, we have to start with our own self-power and potential (The National [Abu Dhabi], March 31).

Gargash later said that allegations of UAE interference in Libyan affairs were merely an attempt to divert attention from Libya’s parliamentary elections, in which the Islamists fared poorly: The people have spotted [the Islamists’] failure and recognized their lies. Disregarding the results of the Libyan parliamentary election is nothing but an indication of the isolation of the group which is seeking a way out of their segregation and [to] justify their mismanagement… Since their seven percent does not form a majority, Islamists in Libya resorted to violence and spread chaos across the country” (Khaleej Times [Dubai], August 27).

UAE pilots certainly know the way to Tripoli; during the NATO-led intervention in 2011, the UAE Air Force (UAEAF) deployed six F-16s and six Mirage fighter jets during the anti-Qaddafi campaign (AP, April 27). The UAE has used some of its considerable oil wealth to obtain a modern and well trained air arm to help ensure the security of the Emirates in an increasingly unstable region. Many of the pilots and technicians are Pakistani ex-servicemen serving the UAE on private contracts. With the Mirage jets being phased out in favor of American-built F-16s, many of the pilots are not trained in the United States or by American trainers in the UAE. The UAE is also one of the few nations in the region to have mid-air refueling capabilities for long-distance operations thanks to its recent purchase of three Airbus A330 Multi Role Tanker Transports (MRTT). In recent years, the UAE has been improving its military capabilities to take a greater role in foreign affairs (particularly in the Arab world) and regional counterterrorism efforts under the direction of Crown Prince Muhammad bin Zayid al-Nahyan.

The Egyptian Perspective

Although a cursory examination of a map of North Africa would seem to indicate Libya and Egypt are close neighbors, in reality, their interaction has been historically limited by distance, topography and culture. A brief 1977 border war that ended in disaster for Mu’ammar Qaddafi’s poorly trained Libyan forces marked the last military encounter of any significance between the two nations.

Egyptian president Abd al-Fattah al-Sisi told a U.S. congressional delegation on August 29 that Egypt respected Libyan internal affairs but noted that democracies cannot be built on ruins: “Despite Egypt being one of the most harmed parties from the deteriorating political and security situation in Libya, it is committed to non-interference in internal Libyan affairs” (Egypt State Information Service, August 29; Ahram Online [Cairo], August 29). While Egypt has been reluctant to admit any involvement in the airstrikes, there are reports that its newly formed Rapid Intervention Force, a group of some 10,000 commandos with airborne capability dedicated to counterterrorism operations, has been involved in intelligence collecting operations in eastern Libya focused on Ansar al-Shari’a activities (AP, August 26; Cairo Post, May 8; al-Bawaba, March 30).

Egyptian foreign minister Sameh Shoukry was adamant that Egypt was not involved in “any military activity and does not have any military presence on Libyan territories,” all of which might be technically true if Egypt only provided use of an air base to a UAEAF mission (al-Jazeera, August 26). UAE officials were more reticent, noting at first only that the Emirati authorities had “no reaction” to reports of UAEAF activity in Libya (al-Jazeera, August 26).

The day after the attack, the Egyptian and Libyan Foreign Ministers announced a bilateral initiative to restore security in Libya without military intervention by non-Arab (i.e. Western) nations. The plan calls for the disarmament of Libya’s militias with the aid of regional and international partners, but depends largely on commitments from international arms suppliers to halt sales to the militias after disarmament. Though well-intended, neither the Egyptian nor Libyan armed forces have the ability or will to further this initiative (Ahram Online [Cairo], August 25).

Egypt’s Concerns

The political chaos in neighboring Libya is the source of a number of security concerns being examined by Cairo. These include:

• Contacts and arms trading between Libyan Islamists and Salafi-Jihadist groups operating in the Sinai
• Harassment and assaults on Egyptian nationals working in Libya could lead to the return of hundreds of thousands of workers who would become reliant on a state already experiencing its own economic and unemployment crises for their welfare. Other economic impacts have been slight so far, as there is little trade between Libya and Egypt and only a small degree of Egyptian investment in Libya
• The absence of state control over Libyan borders, sea-ports and airports raises a host of security concerns
• New armed Islamist groups operating in the greater Cairo region and the Nile Valley (possibly including returnees from the fighting in Syria and Iraq) may seek arms supplies from Libya transported over the largely defenseless southern region of the border between Libya and Egypt. Gunmen and smugglers operate openly in the region and in July attacked an Egyptian base for counter-smuggling operations in the western desert oasis of Farafra (Wadi al-Jadid Governorate), killing 22 soldiers. Securing this region with some type of permanent military presence would require an expensive and logistically difficult deployment of officers and troops, most of whom (despite Arab stereotypes) have little to no experience of the desert and share a great aversion to serving in the Libyan desert in any prolonged capacity.
• Libya could provide a rallying point for Egyptian jihadists, likely in the newly-declared “Islamic Emirate of Benghazi” (see Terrorism Monitor, August 7). Though the anti-Sisi “Free Egyptian Army” with supposed Qatari-Turkish-Iranian backing appears to have a greater presence in the virtual world than the battlefield, a small number of Egyptian extremists have taken refuge in Libya and could attempt to form new armed opposition groups there (al-Ahram Weekly [Cairo], April 24; al-Akhbar [Beirut], April 10). Working in favor of the Egyptian government is the relative difficulty of mounting operations of any size in Egypt from Libyan bases.

Egyptian Options

Among the options available to Egypt to impose a political/security solution in Libya are the following:

• An air campaign of limited or sporadic intensity targeting Islamist bases in Libya
• Securing the length of its 700 mile border with Libya (a near physical and financial impossibility aggravated by the lack of credible partners on the Libyan side)
• A limited incursion into Libya establishing a secured buffer zone in the northern reaches of the Libyan-Egyptian border (a move of dubious international legality that would invite Islamist attacks, inflame relations with some Arab nations and drain Egyptian resources better used in the Sinai)
• A broad multi-year military occupation (with or without allied Arab contingents) designed to disarm militias and support a new government that is likely to be viewed in many quarters as an Egyptian proxy (diplomatically provocative, militarily risky and financially draining)
• Covert military/logistical/intelligence support for new anti-Islamist factions (created with the help of Egyptian military intelligence) or existing militias. This has been the Egyptian strategy so far, but its support for the “National Libyan Army” forces of Khalifa Haftar and their allies has failed to yield results so far. Cairo may look elsewhere in Libya for someone with greater credibility in Libya to lead anti-Islamist forces – Haftar’s long American exile and CIA associations have worked against him in Libya.
• Training and arming Libyan nationals to form a new national Libyan army with some limited political direction from Cairo. According to Libyan Army chief-of-staff Major-General Abdul Razzaq Al-Nazhuri, Egypt has offered military training for Libya’s new army, an important consideration given that both NATO and the United States have backed off from earlier pledges to provide training due to the continuing unrest in Libya (Stars and Stripes, August 28).
• Continuing its policy of cultivating tribal elites in the border region for intelligence gathering and counter-terrorist operations. These elements will not work for free, however; they are seeking development projects and legal concessions in return for their cooperation. The tribes that straddle the modern border now control much of the smuggling of arms and other contraband from Libya to Egypt.

Egypt’s Muslim Brotherhood responded to the airstrikes by issuing a statement warning of the “disastrous consequences” of an intervention in Libya and calling for the expulsion of Khalifa Haftar from his Egyptian residence:

Forcing the Egyptian army into this war to achieve foreign powers’ goals and agendas represents the biggest threat to Egypt’s national security, and tarnishes the reputation of the Egyptian army, making it look like a group of mercenaries. It also weakens its capabilities when it comes to face real enemies, which brings to mind painful memories of the intervention of the Egyptian army in the war in Yemen, which later led to a disastrous defeat in 1967 in the war against the Zionist entity [i.e. Israel] (Ikhwanweb, [Cairo], August 24).

Libya’s branch of the Brotherhood, which fared badly in the elections last June, is now setting up a rival regime in Tripoli to that of the elected parliament.

Conclusion

The lack of consensus in the Arab world regarding the direction of Libya’s future precludes military intervention by an allied force under the direction of the Arab League. Any Arab attempt to impose order in Libya with a military presence on the ground would rely overwhelmingly on forces from Egypt, the Arab world’s largest military power and Libya’s neighbor. However, there are long memories in Egypt of the nation’s last major foreign adventure, the disastrous 1962-1967 Egyptian military intervention in Yemen, which disrupted the Arab nationalist movement, diminished Egyptian influence and weakened its military in the lead-up to the 1967 war with Israel. [1]

The turmoil in Libya strengthens al-Sisi’s posture as the Egyptian and even regional defender of Arabs from religious-political extremism, giving him the freedom to impose stricter security regimes designed to eliminate the Islamist opposition. The question now is whether Qatar will step up its military support of Libya’s Islamists to counter the UAE and Egypt’s support of anti-Islamist factions. The August airstrikes on Tripoli suggest that this distant arena is gradually becoming a battleground in the struggle between pro-Islamist states such as Qatar and Turkey and their more conservative opponents – the UAE, Egypt and Saudi Arabia.

Note

1. See Andrew McGregor, A Military History of Modern Egypt: From the Ottoman Conquest to the Ramadan War, Praeger Security International, Westport CT, 2006, Chapter 19.