- - Friday, January 20, 2012

BERLIN — German prosecutors last week charged an Afghani man with recruiting for the Islamic Movement of Uzbekistan (IMU) — a case that underscores how the Central Asian radical group has become an international jihadist movement with links to the Taliban and al Qaeda.

“The IMU has become a much more pan-Islamic movement which includes not just Central Asians but also Uighurs from China, Chechens from the Caucasus, Dagestanis, even Turks,” said journalist Ahmed Rashid, author of “Taliban: Militant Islam, Oil and Fundamentalism in Central Asia.”

“It’s recruiting people from all over the former Soviet Union, and now one or two of its splinter groups working more closely with al Qaeda are recruiting Europeans as well,” said Mr. Rashid, who lives in Lahore, Pakistan.

One of those accused of doing that recruitment is Omid H., a 22-year-old Afghani man who was arrested in Kassel, in western Germany, in July. He was charged Jan. 10 and faces a possible five-year sentence.

Prosecutors, who identify him as Omid H. because of German privacy laws, say he created 20 blog posts aimed at recruiting Germans for the IMU and al Qaeda.

Omid H. glamorized armed conflict against the “enemies of Islam” and promoted the murder of “non-believers” and participation in violent jihad, prosecutors say.

Louise Taggart, Eurasia intelligence analyst at the risk management firm AKE Group Ltd. in London, said this is in line with the message from the official IMU website, which “propagates not only terrorist activity in Central Asia but also global jihad ideals, as associated with al Qaeda cells.”

Analysts say that the IMU is known to be recruiting in Europe, and particularly in Germany, which has large Turkish and Kurdish communities. The group also is targeting Central Asians living abroad, such as migrant workers in eastern Russia.

The IMU was formed in 1991 in Uzbekistan with the aim of overthrowing regional secular governments that had gained independence from the Soviet Union and creating a Central Asian caliphate — a single, Islamic state governed according to Sharia law.

“One of the group’s early names was the Islamic Turkestan Movement, referring to all Turkic peoples and nations in Central Asia,” said Lilt Gevorgyan, an analyst at IHS Global Insight, an economic analysis and marketing intelligence firm in London.

Analysts believe that IMU militants were forced out of Central Asia more than a decade ago during a crackdown by regional governments after a series of campaigns by the group in the Ferghana Valley, which borders Uzbekistan, Tajikistan and Kyrgyzstan.

After the U.S.-led invasion of Afghanistan in 2001, the group forged close ties with al Qaeda and the Taliban in Afghanistan and Pakistan, and has been deeply involved in conflicts in both countries.

Now that the IMU is under new leadership in tribal areas of northern Pakistan, analysts say the group is threatening to make a comeback in Central Asia.

“In the past two years, they seem to have made a much more determined move into northern Afghanistan in order to try and infiltrate their own homelands in Central Asia,” Mr. Rashid said.

As evidence of the IMU’s renewed vigor, Ms. Taggart pointed to an IMU-led attack on 25 members of the Tajik armed forces in September 2010 and the reported presence of other newly established militant splinter groups in the region.

“The IMU’s new leader, Usmon Odil, has also threatened to take revenge for the persecution of the Uzbek minority in Kyrgyzstan following violent events in 2010,” she added, referring to clashes in the southern region of Osh that left dead as many as 2,000 people, mostly ethnic Uzbeks.

Mr. Rashid noted that there have been no major events such as bombings linked to the IMU outside Pakistan and Afghanistan. But he said smaller incidents in Kyrgyzstan and Tajikistan suggest an “effort by them to try to penetrate back into Central Asia.”

Central Asian governments have reacted zealously to the terrorist threat in the past decade. The prosecutor’s office in Tajikistan released figures last week claiming to have convicted 168 terrorists in the past year alone.

However, governments in the region have been known to distort the threat of Islamic terrorism as a cover to persecute those they perceive as political threats, including nonviolent Muslims, analysts say.

Some fear the IMU’s involvement in the Afghan conflict could extend to attacks on NATO supply routes through Central Asia.

“So far we haven’t had a major attack … but I’m sure that would be one of their targets,” said Mr. Rashid.

The group is believed to have sustained heavy losses during Pakistani military operations in October 2009. A U.N. Security Council report published in April estimated the group to have a worldwide membership of about 500.

Ms. Taggart said recruitment drives in Europe are an attempt to bring funds and fighters to the cause in Central Asia.

Ms. Gevorgyan said a German-language video posted in August — which appears to document new German IMU recruits battling security forces in Afghanistan — shows the IMU’s recruitment drive has won some hearts and minds.

IMU videos often mention the need to gain operational experience in Afghanistan or in the northern Caucasus,” said Ms. Gevorgyan. “Some of the more ardent supporters will go.”

While the IMU so far seems focused on recruiting for operations in Central Asia, analysts say it could be looking to carry out terrorist attacks in Europe.

“The growing presence of radical elements both in Germany and in other Western European countries, and the recent arrests made in Germany highlights the risk [the IMU‘s] presence poses to domestic security,” said Ms. Taggart.