Willing Terrorists from Germany
In early March 2008 the German-born Turk Cüneyt Ç. conducted a suicide attack on an American base in the Afghan province of Khost. Two American soldiers and two Afghans were killed. The Islamic Jihad Union (IJU), which first went public in 2007, claimed responsibility, publishing video recordings which showed the perpetrator preparing for and conducting the attack.
It was the latest in a series of indications that the IJU had acquired a number of German-Turkish recruits whom they trained in Waziristan, Pakistan, and who ultimately planned terrorist attacks on their behalf.
For instance, the IJU claimed responsibility for the plans of the so-called "Sauerland cell", a small group of German converts and German Turks who planned attacks on American facilities in Germany. The core members were arrested in September 2007 in the Sauerland region of North Rhine-Westphalia. The IJU was previously little-known, and the events raised the question as to who exactly it consists of and what effects its goals, strategy and recruitment base will have on the threat level in Germany.
A splinter group from Usbekistan's Islamist movement
The IJU is an Uzbek organization which emerged from the Islamic Movement of Uzbekistan (IMU), which has been fighting the Uzbek state ever since the 1990s. Beginning in 1998 the IMU set up its headquarters in Afghanistan, subsequently in South Waziristan, Pakistan. The IJU split off due to a prolonged strategic debate within the IMU centering mainly on the organization's goals. To this day the leadership of the IMU insists that it is primarily fighting the Karimov regime in Uzbekistan.
As early as 2001 it was opposed by a strong internationalist wing which demanded that the "Holy War" be expanded to Central Asia and ultimately directed against the West as well. As they were unable to prevail within the IMU, in 2002 several dissenters founded the IJU. Like the IMU, their leadership lived in Pakistan, but in Northern Waziristan, where they still maintain their headquarters in Mir Ali.
In spring and summer 2004 the new group – then known as the Islamic Jihad Group – conducted suicide attacks on Uzbek, Israeli and American targets in Uzbekistan.
The alliance with the Taliban and al-Qaeda
In the following years the IJU did not succeed in conducting any more attacks in Central Asia. Instead, in 2007 they designated Afghanistan as their main area of operations and increasingly supported the Taliban and al-Qaeda. The planned attack in Germany was an attempt to support the struggle in Afghanistan. The IJU leadership was mainly concerned with influencing the German debate on extending both Afghanistan mandates (OEF and ISAF).
They evidently calculated that attacks just before the Bundestag votes in October and November 2007 could prevent an extension and force the withdrawal of troops. The Taliban and al-Qaeda had long regarded Germany as the weak link in the chain of the major troop providers.
The IJU is a very small organization whose membership probably does not exceed 100 to 200 people. Most of them come from Uzbekistan, with Tadjiks, Kyrgyzes and Kazakhs represented as well. As the IMU, which is still much stronger than the IJU, also has its headquarters in Waziristan, the IJU has great difficulty in maintaining a profile of its own. It tries to distinguish itself from the mother organization by actively supporting the Taliban in Afghanistan and working closely with al-Qaeda.
For the Taliban and al-Qaeda the IJU is a more attractive partner than the IMU due to the IJU's unconditional support for the joint struggle against foreign troops in Afghanistan and for global jihad. By contrast, contrary to its rhetoric the IMU has rarely participated in fighting by the Taliban and its Pakistani and Arab supporters in Afghanistan.
Until the beginning of 2008 the connection between al-Qaeda and the IJU was the Libyan Abu Laith al-Libi, one of bin Laden's most important field commanders. In late January he was killed in an air raid when an American drone fired a missile at a residential building in Mir Ali. Along with Libi, several IJU members were killed. Libi, whom the IJU referred to as "our sheikh" was probably the strategic head of the IJU and the man behind the planned attacks in Germany. He had especially close contacts with the Taliban and was a sort of "Central Asia commissioner" for the al-Qaeda leadership.
An Uzbek-Turkish al-Qaeda?
Beginning in October 2007 the IJU came under pressure from the Pakistani army and the US. It reacted with an unprecedented publicity campaign. On a website based in Turkey (www.sehadetvakti.com), they posted videos of training measures, military actions in Afghanistan and finally the "martyr video" of Cüneyt Ç.
The fact that the IJU used a Turkish website as a mouthpiece indicates that it is addressing mainly Turks and Europeans with Turkish backgrounds. The milieu of the Sauerland group is largely dominated by Turkish Jihadists. Turks and Uzbeks are related Turkic peoples who speak similar languages. An Uzbek organization with transnational operations and internationalist arguments is thus an ideal instrument for recruiting Turks. As al-Qaeda has remained a heavily Arab-dominated organization that has had little success so far in recruiting Turks en masse, it has especially good reason to be interested in cooperating with the IJU.
The integration of Turks would strengthen a trend which has been apparent since 2003: in 2001 al-Qaeda was still Arab-dominated, but is becoming a more global organization that even recruits Pakistanis, Kurds and an increasing number of European Muslims.
Whether the IJU can continue this trend will depend very much on further developments in the Pakistani tribal areas. The liquidation of Libi on Pakistani territory shows that the USA is prepared to risk conflicts with the government in Islamabad in order to keep the Jihadists from gaining strength in the tribal areas. Moreover, the IJU is a very small organization which could swiftly vanish from the scene after a few severe setbacks like the one in January. Its great advantage is that it enjoys the support of the Afghan Taliban and al-Qaeda.
It remains unclear whether the IJU will be able to establish a new terrorist network dominated by Uzbeks and Turks and maintain it in the long run. The number of its adherents is still quite low. All the same, the events of 2007 sound a clear warning. If the importance of Uzbeks and Turks in international terrorism continues to grow, Germany, after Turkey, will be the country most affected.
© Qantara.de 2008
Translated from the German by Isabel Cole
This article is an abridged version of "The Islamic Jihad Union - On the Internationalisation of Uzbek Jihadism", published by the German Institute for International and Security Affairs, SWP Comments 2008/C 07, April 2008.
Guido Steinberg is an expert in Islamic Studies. He has been working for the German Institute for International and Security Affairs since autumn 2005 where he specialises in developments in the Arab world and in Islamic terrorism. 2002-2005 he was an advisor on international terrorism to the federal Chancellery in Berlin.