Are the Uzbeks Going Global?

[Editor’s note: I am thrilled to introduce Einar Wigen, author of the recent FFI report on the IJU, as a guest contributor. Einar interned at FFI last summer and is currently a a student fellow at the Norwegian Institute for International Affairs (NUPI). A fluent Turkish speaker, Einar specialises in jihadism among the Turkics. Not many people produce world-class research as summer interns, so this guy is really someone to look out for in the future.]

The Turkic peoples have until now played a fairly peripheral role in global jihadism. They have not attracted much academic attention, and apart from the 2003 Istanbul bombings and the 2008 American Consulate attacks, operations carried out by Turkics have gained little attention. The Waziristan-based group Islamic Jihad Union (IJU) seems to be trying to change this (as Jihadica has suggested before).

The IJU broke off from the Islamic Movement of Uzbekistan in 2001, and went for a while under the name Islamic Jihad Group. When the name changed in 2005, the group also assumed a new strategy, one that looked beyond Uzbekistan and focused more on global issues. This may also have involved a merger with other groups, as indicated in the “Union”. What binds the group together appears to be language, and it is primarily made up of Turkic-speaking members.

The number of IJU fighters has been estimated at between 100 and 200, the bulk of which comprises Uzbeks, who remain relatively anonymous compared to the Turks and Germans arriving in the camps. This makes it much smaller than the Islamic Movement of Uzbekistan, which operates in nearby Southern Waziristan and is hosted by Baitullah Mahsud.

Although smaller than the IMU, the IJU maintains a higher profile through its use of the website Şehadet Zamanı. It is unclear whether this website is run by the IJU itself, or by a sympathiser with privileged access to the group. The website is in Turkish and presents news on the group’s operations and on other issues relating to Jihad. It is the most important of the Turkish jihadi websites, and is frequently referred to on other forums and jihadi websites.

The IJU is based in Mir Ali in North Waziristan, where it is hosted by the influential tribal leader Jalaluddin Haqqani. Until the latter was killed in an American drone attack in January 2008, the group was in contact with the centrally placed Libyan al-Qaida member Abu Laith al-Libi. Abu Laith seems to have exerted considerable influence over the group, seemingly pushing it to take its struggle beyond Uzbekistan and Afghanistan.

The group’s best known plot was the Sauerland Cell’s planned attack in September 2007. The group was led by a German convert called Fritz Gelowicz and consisted of at least one more German and two German Turks. The plan was to attack the Uzbek and the American Consulates and the Rammstein Airbase in Germany with hydrogen peroxide bombs, each equivalent of about 250kg of dynamite. The trial against the cell is still going on, and the four main suspects have pleaded guilty.

The Sauerland Cell was trained by the IJU in Waziristan, and while in Germany it was in contact with the IJU via email. Since the attack became known, more German recruits have turned up in the IJU’s camps. In March 2008, Germany got its first suicide bomber when the Bavarian Turk, Cüneyt Çiftçi, blew himself up at an American base in Afghanistan. Another German in the IJU is the convert Eric Breininger, who has become something of a celebrity on the IJU’s webpages. He has made several appearances in videos. In his rhetoric, Germany should expect attacks because of its close cooperation with Uzbekistan and for its involvement in Afghanistan. Breininger’s picture now hangs at every point of entry to the EU, and publicly at all German airports. It was long speculated that he may become a suicide bomber, but that has not happened so far.

Through its use of the Şehadet Zamanı website the IJU is becoming a hub in the Turkic network of jihadists. The spokes go to Germany, Turkey and obviously also to Uzbekistan. Such a development would seem to give al-Qaida a foothold among radicals of the Turkic peoples.

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