The Islamic Movement of Uzbekistan (IMU), like the Islamic Renaissance Party (IRP) in Tajikistan, is a home-grown fundamental Islamist movement in opposition to the Karimov regime in Uzbekistan, an un-democratic holdover from the Soviet era. The group first appeared as a federation of Islamic groups formed in Ferghana since 1992, and was headed politically by Tashir Yuldashev and militarily by Juma Namangani (Abou Zahab, 7). The emergence of these atomized fundamentalist religious groups was in part a backlash against the suppression of religion under Soviet rule. The IMU was one of the first to consolidate these disparate groups into a concerted front. While they superficially endorse other elements of Jihadist ideology, such as anti-American/Israeli sentiment, as well as the liberation of Palestine, their main concerns are the violent overthrow of Karimov and the installation of Sharia Law.
When on February 16, 1999, six bomb blasts ripped through Tashkent, the Uzbek government placed the blame at the feet of the previously little known IMU, as well as a smattering of other opposition figures. Since no one ever claimed responsibility for the attacks, it is hard to say whether or not the IMU was actually responsible, although this assertion helped to push the movement to the forefront of the central Asian political scene. Regardless of their complicity in the attacks, the IMU arrived definitively on the jihadist scene in August 1999 with the capture of four Japanese scientists in Kyrgyzstan, whom they eventually released for ransom. In the following summer of 2000, the IMU gained further visibility by kidnapping a group of American mountaineers. Though the hostages soon escaped, it was this incident which led the State Department to add the IMU to their list of international terrorist organizations. These kidnappings were followed by several small, armed incursions into Uzbekistan in 2000 and 2001(Akbarzadeh, 30). However, after the events of September 11, 2001, the organization’s attention was diverted towards Afghanistan and the developing conflict. It was at this point that their designation as a terrorist organization would become increasingly important.
The IMU frequently worked in close cooperation with other extremist elements in the region. The IMU is most notorious for consorting with the Taleban and al-Qaida and was “one of the only two organizations mentioned alongside al-Qaeda in George W. Bush’s speech to the joint session of congress in the immediate aftermath [of September 11, 2001]” (Khalid, 156). Leading up to 2001, the IMU received material support as well as a base of operations from the Taleban. Following this, after the United States’ invasion of Afghanistan, the IMU fought side by side with al-Qaida and the Taleban in Afghanistan.
While this fruitful relationship provided the IMU with experience and credibility in the eyes of radical Islamists, the foray into Afghanistan may in reality have been their downfall. Due to their small numbers, the IMU’s net effect on the conflict was decidedly small. However the opposite is true of the conflict’s effect on the movement. In November 2001, Juma Namangani was killed with hundreds of his followers by an American bombing campaign in Mazar-e-Sharif (Akbarzadeh, 34). This dealt a devastating blow to the IMU, and despite rumors of some rallying around Yuldashev, the organization today is merely a ghost of its former self.
The swift rise to prominence by this small group of fundamental Islamists immediately after the fall of communism highlights the difficulties confronted by central Asian governments in coping with the rapid resurgence of Islam. It also shows the effect of the Soviet regime’s violent suppression of religious groups on the political climate of the post-Soviet region. Without the repression of the Soviet era, it is uncertain whether the fundamentalist message of the IMU would have found any resonance within the population. Opposition to the previous Soviet regime, represented by Karimov, has served as a rallying point for the IMU. Their role in the conflict in Afghanistan, as well as incidents in and around Uzbekistan, indicate that small fundamentalist Islamic groups, as a backlash to communist subjugation, will become increasingly visible within the central Asian periphery of Russia.
- Mariam Abou Zahab, Islamist Networks (New York: Colombia University Press, 2004).
- Shahram Akbarzadeh, Uzbekistan and the United States (London: Zed Books, 2005).
- Adeeb Khalid, Islam After Communism (Berkeley: University of California Press, 2007).