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With Recent Attacks, the IMU Seeks to Raise Its Profile in Pakistan

Tuesday, June 17, 2014

Two separate terrorist attacks rocked the international airport in Pakistan’s biggest city, Karachi, last week, killing dozens. On Sunday, the Pakistani military launched a long-delayed ground assault into its tribal regions in an effort to root out the militants that Pakistani Prime Minister Nawaz Sharif now calls a threat to “the sovereignty of the motherland.”

Pakistan has for years been locked in conflict with the Pakistani Taliban, also known as the TTP, a homegrown Pakistani group with links to the Afghan Taliban. But the Pakistani military’s initial statements on its operations in the tribal areas this week emphasized that among the more than 100 militants killed in air strikes preceding the ground assault, “most of those killed are Uzbeks.” Indeed it was a group with Uzbek origins, the Islamic Movement of Uzbekistan (IMU), that claimed some of the credit for the Karachi airport attack, and the Pakistani military now appears to be targeting the group.

Alongside the TTP, the Pakistani government’s main domestic adversary, the IMU has also been battling the Pakistani military for a number of years. The IMU was first formed in the late 1990s by Uzbeks based in Northern Afghanistan with the intent of overthrowing the Uzbek state and installing a caliphate in Central Asia’s Ferghana Valley, which also extends to Kyrgyzstan and Tajikistan. If the IMU’s concerns at the start were not strictly local, they did not explicitly extend to South Asia. So why has the IMU taken on the Pakistani military, far from its own home turf?

The shift has to do with the IMU’s alliances. The group's founders were driven from Uzbekistan by a government crackdown in the 1990s, and the IMU was then driven from its original bases in Northern Afghanistan by the U.S.-led invasion in 2001. Thereafter, the IMU settled in Pakistan’s tribal areas, moving frequently as it became a target of attacks from the Pakistani military. According to Noah Tucker, managing editor of the South and Central Asia-focused publication Registan and associate for the Central Asia program at George Washington University, the Karachi attack was only the latest in a pattern of reprisal attacks against the Pakistani military, which has sought to uproot the IMU yet again.

The group is now believed to be based in the Pakistani tribal agency of North Waziristan, where the presence of the Pakistani Taliban affords them some protection and the absence of central government authority has left space for what they advertise as a community governed by Shariah law.

As guests of the TTP, the IMU takes pains to advertise its own importance to the fight against the Pakistani military. Though the IMU touted its own role in the Karachi attacks without mentioning the TTP, for example, a Pakistani Taliban spokesman clarified to an AFP reporter that it was a joint operation. “I think they leave out talking about TTP and the other people who are really in charge . . . in order to kind of embellish their own role and just make a better sales pitch” to potential recruits, says Tucker.

But the TTP remains the much stronger group. Whereas the IMU counts only a few hundred fighters, the TTP, says Tucker, is bigger, better funded and better integrated into local institutions and tribal governance. The IMU’s relatively high profile is a product less of its actual strength than of the Pakistani military’s incentive to de-emphasize the local casualties of its operations, combined with the IMU’s own efforts to attract recruits.

Outside of such recruitment efforts, the IMU now barely mentions the country it is named for, notwithstanding its early vows to take over Uzbekistan. Under assault from Pakistani security forces and losing potential recruits to the Syrian war, however, the group now appears more defensive than expeditionary. Tucker says their communications have reflected this shift. The IMU has stopped telling Muslims in Central Asia that it will return to overthrow oppressive governments and institute Shariah law. “Now they’re saying. . . ‘come and help us.’” But with the Pakistani military staging its largest operation in years against militants in the tribal areas, that call seems likely to go unheeded.

Photo: Pakistani security forces patrol the Swat Valley (Mushtaq Ahmad Sadiq).