2015 Retrospective: How the Fall of the IMU Reveals the Limits of IS’ Expansion

The 2015 fall of the Islamic Movement of Uzbekistan (IMU), a Central Asian jihadi movement that has long fought alongside the Taliban in Afghanistan and Pakistan, highlights the impact of two fundamental shifts in the jihadi landscape during 2015. Mobilized by the Afghan Taliban’s two-year-long deception over the death of the Taliban’s enigmatic and magnetic former leader, Mullah Omar, the IMU responded to the Islamic State’s (IS) attempts to create a foothold in Afghanistan.

The outcome of the IMU’s decision to declare their allegiance to IS leader Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi may reveal the limitations of IS’ expansion strategy in lands in which there is already a consolidated jihadi organization. As soon as IS’ Caliphate was declared on June 29 2014, the organization began to demand allegiance from existing jihadi groups. IS has developed wings from dozens of small jihadi groups since then. However, as its affair with the IMU showed, IS’ expansion has been erratic—and at times unsustainable—among the largest and most established jihadi organizations.

Disillusionment with the Taliban and IMU Breakaway

On July 30, 2015, amid months of mounting demands for evidence that Mullah Omar is alive, and only days after the July 15, 2015 release of an Eid al-Fitr message attributed to the Taliban leader, the Afghan Taliban issued a statement admitting that he had died on April 23, 2013. The Afghan insurgency’s duplicity about the death of Mullah Omar appeared to have precipitated the splintering of local factions by acting as a catalyst for existing dissatisfaction.

One window into this process was given online in messages from an alleged Taliban dissident, writing under the name “Abu Talut.” Abu Talut, self-described as a former member of the Taliban who joined in December 2008 and “provided services in recruiting, administration and technical assistance,” quickly became a prominent and influential online voice against the Taliban. He described disillusionment with the Taliban’s operations and strong nationalist focus, but claimed that he remained with the organization because of their resistance to the U.S.

Abu Talut’s activity in the summer of 2015 illustrates attempts to use the Taliban’s controversial handling of Mullah Omar’s death as a wedge to drive jihadis in the region towards IS. On July 31, for example, he claimed, “Many Taliban commanders are joining Islamic State after Taliban shura council historical lies and betrayal” and “Taliban in Faizabad province joined Islamic State and pledged allegiance to Caliph Ibrahim bin Awad Al-Qureshi.”

In keeping with his narrative of the ascendency of anti-Taliban factions, on July 31, Abu Talut announced that the IMU had broken away from the Taliban and announced that the “Islamic Movement Uzbekistan pledged allegiance to IS and urged all Taliban leaders to join Islamic State Caliphate.” At the same time, he portrayed the organization as an ascendant power on the ground, adding that the “whole north is under IMU.”

Within a week, on August 6, 2015, the IMU made their change of affiliation official, releasing a video depicting IMU leader Uthman Ghazi and his fighters pledging allegiance to IS. The pledge followed a September 2014 statement of support for IS by Ghazi (though he did not explicitly pledge at that time). Ghazi again acknowledged Baghdadi as “Caliph” in a November 2014 statement that hailed Baghdadi as “the caliph for the Islamic Ummah [Nation].”

The IMU’s conversion to an IS affiliate was regarded by jihadi analysts as a great win for IS’ expansionist plans, as it gave the Syria-based organization an additional foothold in the heartland of al-Qaeda (AQ)-centered organizations.

The IMU’s conversion to an IS affiliate was regarded by jihadi analysts as a great win for IS’ expansionist plans, as it gave the Syria-based organization an additional foothold in the heartland of al-Qaeda (AQ)-centered organizations. One such observer framed the situation as a turning point for IS, writing, “For those who may not understand, for Khurasan the bayah of IMU is similar to Umar's Islam. It is a big victory, al-hamdulillah…”

Afghanistan-based supporters of IS celebrated the IMU’s departure from the Taliban. In one celebratory video, released on September 7, a group calling itself the “Khorasan Province of the Islamic State (IS)” released a video of fighters congratulating the IMU for pledging to Baghdadi. Foreshadowing the brutality that the Taliban would eventually accuse the splinters of employing, the video supplemented the celebratory message with footage showing the beheading an Afghan soldier.

Aftermath

By September 8, the cost of the IMU’s change of affiliation began to become apparent. On that day, a Twitter user describing himself as a solider of the Afghan Taliban announced the initiation of a military campaign against the IMU. The alleged fighter, writing under the name “Khurassani313,” opened the report by claiming that pro-IS factions in Pakistan had urged the IMU fighters to fight the Taliban in the border province of Zabul. However, according to Khurssani313’s analysis, opening a front would dearly cost the breakaway faction, noting both the IMU’s alleged instigation and its isolation from support:


#Uzbek fighters should b aware that #Zabul is a stronghold of #Islamic_Emirate if they made any mistake by attacking #Taliban or something
Like that #Taliban will not show any mercy to them and will InshAllah every one of them and they even can't run to another place
Coz all there is no border to any other country and all the nearby provinces r under #Taliban control so u must have to think thousand time
“If #Isis fighting in #Nangarhar its coz they cun easily run to #pakistani territory but where will u go ???

Reports of armed conflicts between the Taliban, the IMU, and pro-IS splinter factions continued through the fall of 2015. Social media posts echoed reports of struggles on the ground. As the season progressed, messages from Taliban dissidents featured triumphant announcements of the inevitable decline of the Afghan Taliban and the rise of the IS. For example, writing on November 11, 2015, the aforementioned Twitter account of Abu Talut acknowledged clashes between Taliban and IS-aligned forces in Zabul, but claimed that the Taliban was facing “Mass-defection and less recruitment,”

Endgame for the IMU

The IMU’s August pledge to IS placed the organization in the center of the Taliban’s struggles with splinter factions and attempt to reconsolidate their power in Afghanistan. Partisans of the Taliban were reporting the elimination of IS-affiliates, with a pro-Taliban Twitter account announcing on November 8 that the Afghan organization eradicated IS from Zabul:

On November 22, 2015 another pro-Taliban Twitter account responded to a request for an update on the strength of IS affiliates in Afghanistan. The pro-Taliban account, using the name “Talib 313,” reported that the splinter actions were “Almost finished.. very weak presence in 2 or 3 districts.”

Even more ominously for the IMU, their name began to be used interchangeably with that of IS in Afghanistan. For example, describing the defeat of IS’ Afghanistan branch and the IMU in Zabul Province, a statement attributed to the Afghan Taliban’s Pashto-language site promised to “shed light on the crimes of Da'esh (IMU) in Zabul.” An English-language translation and summary of the Pashto-statement was distributed online on December 2, 2015 under the title, “2nd Detailed Statement released by Islamic Emirate of Afghanistan about Da'esh (IMU) & Mansur Daadullah.” Throughout the December statement, and particularly while listing the alleged crimes against civilians, the author repeatedly treated the IMU and the Afghanistan branch of IS as interchangeable, using the hybrid terms “Daesh (IMU)” and “Daesh-IMU” nearly two-dozen times in the three-page statement.

In December, Sabiq Jihadmal, the previously shown Twitter account, declared the death of Ghazi in a Twitter message that claimed to show Ghazi’s corpse. Additionally, the pictures showed a clean-shaven man, an attribute the Sabiq Jihadmal claimed indicated that Ghazi had attempted to hide the evidence of his jihadi ideology in an attempt to escape his Taliban pursuers.

On the following day, a pro-IMU fighter gave an account of the group’s downfall and elimination. In a message posted on Twitter on December 10, 2015, the jihadist, “Tahir Jan,” gave “a statement on the truth of what happened in Zabul.” Jan’s story claimed that the Taliban and Afghan government entered into an agreement in Zabul to destroy the remainder of the IMU. The Taliban’s forces quickly laid siege to the Uzbek’s bases, slaughtering hundreds of IMU partisans. Although Ghazi was able to escape, his hiding place was quickly discovered and he was captured.

Jan described the consequences of forsaking the Taliban:

The former Islamic Movement of Uzbekistan has almost been completely destroyed unfortunately, and maybe less than 10% of those who were in the fronts or on other assignments remain after the events of Zabul.

He followed up grimly, “What America and its agents could not do in 14 years, the Taliban did in 24 hours.”

Conclusion and Analysis

The fall of the IMU not only provides a compelling tale of fratricidal competition between jihadi organizations, but highlights the challenges to IS’ expansionist strategy. In particular, the fate of the IMU—and similar narratives of persecution faced by IS supporters among the Somali-based Shabaab al-Mujahideen—indicates that IS’ attempts to splinter local organizations fare differently when there is already a consolidated jihadi organization.

In these places, IS’ attempts to lure jihadi factions away from AQ-affiliated movements benefited from underlying tensions among and between the existing jihadi organizations. Notably, in their September message describing their break from the Afghan Taliban, the IMU castigated the group for failing to strictly enforce the Sharia in areas under their control. The IMU message resembles statements from a number of individuals and groups, located throughout the jihadi world, who have justified their decisions to join IS with reference to frustration with their original organizations. Such messages have included an IS fighter's claims of incorrect Sharia enforcement by the Nusra Front, al-Qaeda's (AQ) Syrian affiliate. Perhaps recognizing the power of leveraging disillusionment for their own recruitment, IS has sought to promote alleged examples of compromise from AQ-affiliated organizations. Notably, in the 12th issue of its English-language Dabiq magazine, IS issued a claim that Shabaab does not ban khat (a drug reviled by jihadis) within its territories.

The similarities of these messages suggest that the lure of participating in an uncompromising jihadi insurgency is a powerful draw for members of the jihadi community. Yet, the eradication of the IMU suggests that rather than tolerate the existence of jihadi movements with competing loyalty, the more solidified organizations are quick to quash splinter movements.

Pro-IMU fighter to IS leadership: "Is the blood of our brothers and sisters cheap to this degree?"

Moreover, the narrative illustrates an avenue through which IS may be brought down by its own propaganda successes. If IS wants to keep being an attractive alternative to AQ, it cannot afford to be as hands-off for their nascent provinces. The public nature of the information about these splinter pro-IS factions being eradicated, and lack of IS response, may put a check on IS expansion in high-value areas. Most damagingly, Tahir Jan’s announcement of the devastation of the IMU included a bewildered message directed at IS, asking why the group failed to offer any support to them as they struggled with the aftermath of their declaration of allegiance to the Caliphate. Jan noted that the eradication of the IMU had not gone unnoticed by other IS supporters in Afghanistan:

Most of the brothers in the Islamic State in Khorasan or their supporters are amazed by this silence by the Caliph, Sheikh Muhammad al-‘Adnani, the governor of Khorasan, and the media of the Islamic State, may Allah preserve and support them, as if nothing had happened, even though a month had passed since the events. Is the blood of our brothers and sisters cheap to this degree?

Additionally, Jan’ message indicated the degree to which IS is being held responsible for the administration of their Central Asian branches. Along with the story of the IMU’s defeat, Jan voiced disbelief with IS’ “governor of Khorasan” and called upon Baghdadi to hold him responsible for local administration:

Indeed, we see slowness by the governor of Khorasan in helping the families with money and other things!! According to what appears to us now, and we hope from the Caliph to hold him accountable if he is neglectful, for we have pledged allegiance so that the blame of anyone would not take us in Allah, and if he is excused then we ask Allah to forgive us and him.