WASHINGTON, DC - Wednesday, April 18, 2012 -
The Uzbek-led Islamic Jihad Union (IJU) has made its first inroads in the U.S. In 2012, three Uzbeks were arrested for activities related to their communications with the IJU. The IJU’s recruitment in the U.S. is a new development and likely to be duplicated by other Central Asian jihadist groups intent on expanding their global reach.
Although the IJU appears to be on the decline, efforts like this show that the group still warrants heightened scrutiny. Although the majority of the IJU’s attacks since 2005 have taken place in Afghanistan and Pakistan, recent arrests show the desire, if not operational capability, for the IJU or allied groups to direct single-man operations in the U.S.
BACKGROUND: At its inception in 2002, the Uzbek-led Islamic Jihad Union (then called the Islamic Jihad Group) targeted Western and government institutions in Uzbekistan. In 2005, after a series of deadly but tactically ineffective attacks in several cities, the IJU began working closely with al-Qaeda’s external operations unit to recruit Turks and Germans to attack targets in Europe and fight in Afghanistan and Pakistan.
The IJU has now made its first inroads in the U.S. In 2012, two Uzbeks were arrested and one Uzbek plead guilty for activities related to their online communications with the IJU and a person called the “Emir.”
The three Uzbeks arrested in the U.S. are Ulugbek Kodirov, Jamshid Muhtorov, and Bakhtiyar Jumaev. Kodirov, a 22-year old on an expired student visa, began communicating online with a person called the “Emir” whom Kodirov believed was from the Islamic Movement of Uzbekistan (IMU). In July 2011, the Emir spoke with Kodirov on the phone and asked what Kodirov could “do about the President” since Kodirov was “geographically closer.”
Kodirov later met an Uzbek friend in Alabama and showed him jihadist websites and videos on his laptop computer. An FBI informant infiltrated their friendship and arrested Kodirov when he accepted a machine gun and a hand grenade from the informant to “carry out his plan to kill the President.”
Muhtorov, an Islamist, is charged with provision and attempted provision of personnel to the IJU. The evidence against him includes emails with a web site administrator whom he met via an IJU propaganda website, sodiqlar.com, in which Muhtorov says he is going to a “wedding” but also that he is “ready for any task, even with the risk of dying.”
In 2005, Muhtorov had posted articles online opposing the Uzbekistani government. He fled the country after he and members of his family were arrested during the government’s crackdown following the unrest in Andijan, in which several hundred people were killed, and gained refugee status in the U.S.
Jumaev is charged with conspiring to provide material support or resources to a terrorist organization (the IJU) for the “overt act” of sending $300 from his home in Philadelphia to Muhtorov in Colorado to help Muhtorov buy a plane ticket to Turkey. According to the complaint, emails between Muhtorov and the IJU web site administrator, Abu Mohammed, confirmed that Jumaev would send Muhtorov money.
Jumaev and Muhtorov also had phone conversations about content on the Uzbek-language jihadist web site, furqon.com, and sodiqlar.com – which they referred to as “the website for the IJU” – restrictions on Sharia Law in Europe, jihadist videos on YouTube set in the mountains of Pakistan, loyalty oaths to the IJU, and recollections of IMU founder Juma Namangani.
Notably, the Facebook page that connects to Abu Mohammed’s sodiqlar.com email address says he is from Bukhara and the “about me” section says, “I'm just a Muslim, I work only for Allah, my religion is Islam … I love jihad, I don't love cowardice.” Among his Facebook friends, two describe themselves as “jihadists” and another friend, a “female,” links to Muhtorov’ email address.
IMPLICATIONS: Although the majority of the IJU’s attacks since 2005 have taken place in Afghanistan and Pakistan, the instructions to Kodirov show the desire, if not operational capability, for the IJU or allied groups to direct single-man operations in the U.S. The allegations against Muhtorov and Jumaev are consistent with the methods the IJU has used to recruit Europeans into its ranks.
Most often, the Europeans are recruited by the IJU via the internet and then facilitated into Afghanistan and Pakistan to fight or train for attacks back home. The shooting spree by Mohammed Merah in France in March highlights the danger of U.S. residents training abroad and returning home to carry out operations.
Since at least 2009, the year when then IJU leader Najmiddin Jalalov was killed in a U.S. drone strike, the IJU’s operational capabilities have fallen sharply, and its high-profile German recruits have moved to the IMU. The IJU’s attempts to infiltrate the U.S. could signal a decision by the group to gain a fingerprint in a country where the IMU has not made inroads.
In fact, one of the reasons why the IJU started to recruit European citizens in the mid-2000s was to distinguish itself from the IMU. Yet, the U.S. government’s detection of the IJU’s online activities represents another failure for the group. Despite the IJU’s vigorous online propaganda campaign on web sites that relay its message, such as www.sehadetzamani.com in Turkish language and www.sodiqlar.com in Uzbek language, the group’s execution of attacks continues to be ineffective.
The IJU’s evolution from a group with an “Uzbekistan first” strategy to a group with a specialty in recruiting in Europe and now the U.S may be duplicated by other Central Asian jihadist groups in the Afghanistan-Pakistan border area, including the Kazakh-led Jund al-Khilafa (JaK), which emerged in summer 2011.
After Uzbekistan crushed Islamists and opponents of the regime in 2005, the IJU relocated to Pakistan and adopted a new ideology that comported with its changed circumstances. As articulated by Najmiddin Jalolov in 2007, “spreading Jihad around the world” is necessary in order to “liberate Muslims from the tyranny of the infidels.”
Similarly, after committing at least three attacks in the last four months of 2011, JaK has been silent in Kazakhstan in the first four months of 2012. The Kazakh government’s crackdown on JaK, including the arrests of 47 people for a botched attack by a four-man cell in Atyrau, may have stifled JaK operations in the country.
Now JaK is showing signs of shifting from Kazakhstan to a focus on Europe, as evidenced by two JaK statements issued on March 22 and March 31 on the Ansar al-Mujahideen jihadist forum claiming responsibility for training Muhammed Merah in Pakistan for his “blessed operations” in France. For the first time JaK did not justify its attacks based on events in Kazakhstan, but rather JaK blamed Israel, European countries, blood dropped in Afghanistan, and discriminatory French policies towards Muslims.
CONCLUSIONS: As Western intelligence services become more adept at stopping large-scale terrorist attacks, which require intensive preparation and wide personnel networks, more jihadist groups will employ single-man operations and instruct Western recruits to carry out attacks from their safe havens abroad. This will pose a challenge for law enforcement and intelligence services since the evidence in cases of online recruitment is largely circumstantial.
Nonetheless, it is probable that Western countries will err on the side of caution and preempt individuals whose activities raise red flags, like Kodirov, Muhtorov, and Jumaev, because the chance that one of them could become the next Mohammed Merah is a risk that no country is willing to bear. Groups like the IJU and JaK which have been forced to operate outside of their homelands and that possess a unique ability to reach into Turkic-speaking populations in the West are well-suited to recruit from among their ethnic kin in Europe and the U.S.
The important question is when these groups will learn to reach out to recruits without employing such easily detectable means as emails and phone conversations, which are certain to come under surveillance by the authorities at the slightest suspicion.
AUTHOR’S BIO: Jacob Zenn graduated from Georgetown Law and the Johns Hopkins School of Advanced International Studies (SAIS) Nanjing Center for Chinese-American Studies in Nanjing, China. He writes regularly for the Jamestown Foundation's Militant Leadership Monitor, Terrorism Monitor and Eurasia Daily Monitor and has contributed articles on international affairs for Asia Times, Hürriyet, Yemen Times, and the CTC Sentinel.
(This article was first published in the Central Asia-Caucasus Analyst (www.cacianalyst.org), a biweekly publication of the Central Asia-Caucasus Institute & Silk Road Studies Program Joint Center.)