Situation unclear for Uzbek extremists in Syria, Afghanistan
KABUL -- Social media postings and death toll figures from both Afghanistan and Syria paint an unclear picture of the current state of Uzbek extremists in those two countries, particularly the Imam Bukhari Jamaat (IBJ) militant group.
IBJ, which fights in Syria and Afghanistan, has only about 500 members in Syria, according to the international think tank Terrorism Research and Analysis Consortium. It did not estimate the number of IBJ militants in Afghanistan.
The group is apparently composed of ethnic Uzbeks from multiple countries. Countries with large Uzbek diasporas include Afghanistan, Kyrgyzstan and Tajikistan.
"There is no reliable information on how many Uzbekistani citizens are fighting with IBJ," Tashkent-based political scientist Umid Asatullayev told Caravanserai. "I think that OIB is trying to recruit ethnic Uzbeks in northern Afghanistan."
IBJ is little known in Uzbekistan, say officials. Indeed, Tashkent residents who spoke to Caravanserai had no idea of the group's existence.
"I've never heard of IBJ," Rashid Fayzullayev told Caravanserai.
"Imam Bukhari ... was a great scholar who put together a collection of hadiths, but I'm not familiar with the [militant] outfit named after him," said Yakub Khusanov.
"No, I don't know that name," Zulfiya Nigmanova said.
However, law enforcement recently caught a female IBJ supporter in Samarkand Province.
"On February 22, Solibakhon Nazrullayeva, a minor, was tried in Samarkand Province," Prosecutor General's Office spokesman Arif Atajanov told Caravanserai. "She stored IBJ propaganda on her laptop and tried to share it with her ... classmates."
Because she showed repentance, the court "handed down a suspended sentence of two years and fined her 1.3 million UZS [$380]", said Atajanov.
IBJ in Syria and Afghanistan
Although Caravanserai reported earlier that the IBJ relocated to Afghanistan and swore allegiance to the Taliban after a series of defeats in Syria, recent videos show it active in both countries.
A video posted on YouTube March 1 shows IBJ militants firing anti-aircraft weapons in Idlib Province, Syria. Videos posted February 9 and 15 show IBJ militants operating in northern Afghanistan.
Such propaganda videos belie the actual fate of Uzbek militants in Afghanistan, where Afghan troops are inflicting heavy casualties on all sorts of extremists, say officials.
In 2016, 1,955 ISIL ["Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant"] militants were killed in Afghanistan, said Afghan National Army Chief of Staff Gen. Qadam Shah Shahim in Kabul February 18, according to the Afghan news agency Salam Watandar.
The dead militants included 11 Uzbeks, he added.
Growing discord among Uzbek groups
Caravanserai previously reported on the schism afflicting extremist groups in Afghanistan. The Islamic Movement of Uzbekistan (IMU) split in two in recent years. The main faction expressed support for ISIL, leading to that faction's obliteration by the Taliban in a battle in Zabul Province in November 2015. After months of silence, another faction announced online that it would continue operating independently.
The IMU might have suffered decimation in that battle, but authorities remain wary of its ability to make trouble.
In February, Afghan officials reported that the son of late IMU leader Takhir Yuldashev was recruiting for ISIL in villages in Sar-e-Pul Province. His name was not reported.