The US Treasury and State Departments successfully and effectively conduct counter-terrorist operations against and apply constant and systematic pressure on ISIS and al-Qaeda-affiliated Central Asian Salafi Jihadi groups. The war on terrorism is being fought on many fronts: diplomatic, intelligence, covert, sanctions, law enforcement, and military. For the past two decades, the US has labeled the most vocal and violent Islamist extremist groups from Central Asia as Specially Designated Terrorists (SDT) and Foreign Terrorist Organizations (FTO). Under the provision of the Farrakhan Amendment Act, US law enforcement freezes all assets and finances of global terrorist groups known as the SDT and FTO. The US recently added the Uzbek jihadi group Katibat al Tawhid wal Jihad to the global terror organizations.
The US declared Katibat al Tawhid wal Jihad
On March 7, 2022, the US State Department added the Central Asian Salafist jihadi group Katibat al Tawhid wal Jihad (KTJ) to the US government’s list of specially designated global terrorist organizations. In addition to this designation, KTJ was included in the UN Security Council’s ISIS and Al-Qaeda Sanctions List, which requires all UN member states to implement an asset freeze, travel ban and arms embargo against KTJ’s Uzbek jihadists.
The US designation noted that “the al-Qaeda-affiliated KTJ operates in Syria’s Idlib province alongside Hayat Tahrir al-Sham (HTS) and with other designated terrorist groups such as Katibat al-Imam al-Bukhari (KIB) and the Islamic Jihad Group (IJG)” from post-Soviet Central Asia.
The statement from the U.S. State Department also said that “KTJ was not only involved in terrorist activities in Syria, but was also responsible for conducting external attacks, such as the St. Petersburg subway attack in Russia in April 2017, which killed 14 passengers and wounded 50 others, and a car bomb attack on the Chinese embassy in Kyrgyzstan’s capital, Bishkek, in August 2016, injuring three people.”
The State Department further stated that as a result of the designation, all of KTJ’s property and proprietary interests are on hold and foreign financial institutions conducting transactions on KTJ’s behalf may also be subject to US sanctions.
Uzbek jihadists in Syria condemn US designation KTJ
On March 13, a week after the State Department designated KTJ a global terrorist organization, the KTJ’s Shura Council released a statement denouncing the US move. In a statement of its own, published on its Telegram channel, the major Uzbek jihadi faction questions the size of the US, saying its decision was unfair. The KTJ states that “no matter how powerful a government or society, it will not be great in the eyes of the people unless it governs with justice and eliminates oppression.”
The Uzbekistani jihadist group in Syria has denounced its US appointment, claiming that “KTJ consists of people who have responded to the cries of the downtrodden in Syria because protecting the downtrodden is the duty of all humanity.”
The large Central Asian militant group went on to claim that “It is not KTJ’s policy to launch attacks outside of Syria” and that its members had nothing to do with the 20016- have to do in 2017 . At the end of their statement, KTJ ideologues claim that “our group does not belong to al-Qaeda or ISIS”. However, this claim is absolutely false.
It is noteworthy that al-Qaeda became the ideological mentor and inspirer of the Uzbek, Kyrgyz and Tajik radical Islamists from the Fergana Valley and opened the door to global jihad. KTJ was founded in 2013 by Sirojiddin Mukhtarov (aka Abu Saloh), an influential ethnic Uzbek jihadi-Salafist from the Kyrgyz Osh region of northern Syria. Under his leadership, KTJ swore allegiance (Bayat) to al-Qaeda leader Ayman al Zawahiri and joined the Al Nusrah Front in September 2015. Al Nusrah was then an official affiliate of al-Qaeda in Syria, which billed itself as Al Qaeda in the Levant.
During the preparation of this material, a group of political Islam experts again listened to KTJ’s Bayat, in which Abu Saloh clearly pronounced the name of Ayman al-Zawahiri and swore allegiance to al-Qaeda. Even though al-Qaeda and Hayat Tahrir al-Sham, al-Nusra’s successor, parted “peacefully” in 2016, the Uzbek battalion remains loyal to al-Qaeda. KTJ never denied his bayat to Ayman al-Zawahiri. Additionally, during this period, KTJ demonstrated its adept ability to spread al-Qaeda ideology in the Fergana Valley and among Central Asian migrants in Russia.
To date, KTJ remains the most combat-ready, best-equipped and largest foreign battalion in Idlib province, on par with the Turkestan Islamic Party’s Uyghur Salafi Jihad group of Xinjiang, China. Both are waging jihad against the regime of Bashar al-Assad under the auspices of HTS. The approximate number of Uzbek militants is about 500 people. Northwest Syria is known to have long been a hotbed of armed resistance and a hub of al-Qaeda-related operations, and has become a safe haven for Uyghur, Uzbek, Tajik and Kyrgyz militants and their families.
Current KTJ leader Ilmurad Khikmatov (aka Abdul Aziz al-Uzbeki) is also one of al-Qaeda’s staunch supporters. In April 2019, Abdul Aziz, an ethnic Uzbek from the Fergana Valley and a former deputy emir of the al-Qaeda-affiliated Islamic Jihad Union (IJU) in Afghanistan, was elected the new leader of the KTJ. According to a February 3, 2022 UN Security Council report, “KTJ’s capability is being undermined by the conflict between current group leader Abdul Aziz and former group Emir Abu Saloh.” But that is a superficial assessment of the situation among Uzbek jihadists in Syria .
Notably, Abu Saloh was removed from the leadership of KTJ under pressure from HTS for openly supporting his main jihadi opponent, the al-Qaeda-affiliated Hurras al-Din (HD), which led HTS Abu Mohammad al-Jolani directly challenged. It is also known that in 2008, as a member of the Islamic Movement of Uzbekistan (IMU), new KTJ leader Abdul Aziz swore allegiance to al-Qaeda and the Taliban in the Afghan-Pakistan border zone of Bayat. In fact, the IMU became one of the strongest non-Arab al-Qaeda-affiliated groups in Central and South Asia at the time. Abdul Aziz trained at the Haqqani Network military center in Mir Ali, North Waziristan, which also housed an al-Qaeda camp.
Militant Salafism is thus the fundamental basis of KTJ’s jihadi ideology. In accordance with its ideological doctrine, the group aims to overthrow the five “tahut” (godless) regimes of post-Soviet Central Asia and establish a single Sharia-ruled caliphate in the Fergana Valley. During the Jummah Khutbah, the KTJ’s new imam and its main ideologue, Ahluddin Navqotiy, constantly glorifies jihadist Salafi scholars from the Middle Ages to the present day, such as Ibn Taymiyyah, Muḥammad ibn Abd al-Wahhab, Sayyid Qutb, Al-Qaeda’s senior figures like Osama bin Laden, Abu Musab al Zarqawi, Abu Yahya al Libi, Ayman al-Zawahiri and the prominent modern jihadi thinkers Abu Qatada al-Falastini and Abu Muhammad al-Maqdisi.
Therefore, KTJ’s claim of no connection to al-Qaeda is a complete lie. Today, KTJ Uzbek jihadists continue to benefit from close and trusted ties to Al-Qaeda, the Taliban and the HTS, which act as an ideological mentor and militant umbrella for many foreign fighter groups from Central Asia and the Caucasus.
The US continues to pressure Central Asian jihadist groups
This is not the first time the US government has labeled Central Asian Salafist-jihadist groups a global terrorist organization and imposed sanctions on them. It is known that on September 25, 2000, the US State Department included the Islamic Movement of Uzbekistan in the list of foreign terrorist organizations Afghan Taliban, the Haqqani network and al-Qaeda in 1998. The IMU leader Tahir Yuldash (2009) and his military emir Juma Namangoni (2001) were killed in a US missile attack.
On June 17, 2005, the US State Department listed the Islamic Jihad Union as a foreign terrorist organization. The IJU is a splinter faction of the IMU and a significant number of its members are from Central Asia. The IJU has been waging jihad in the Afghan-Pakistani region for more than a decade. It maintains close ties with al-Qaeda and Taliban leaders. US missile airstrike killed several senior IJU leaders, including their Emir Najmuddin Jalolov, in drone strikes in North Waziristan in 2009.
According to the latest UN Security Council report, “The IJU took an active part in fighting alongside the Taliban in capturing Kabul, and as a result its fighters are now enjoying greater freedom of movement around the country. The IJU, led by Ilimbek Mamatov, a Kyrgyz, and his deputy, Amsattor Atabaev of Tajikistan, is considered the most combative Central Asian group in Afghanistan. It operates mainly in Badakhshan, Baghlan and Kunduz provinces.” The UN report also notes that “Central Asian embassies based in Afghanistan have observed with concern that several IJU leaders have freely traveled to Kabul. In September 2021, Mamatov and Dekhanov visited Kabul separately.”
On December 29, 2004, the US State Department placed the Uyghur Salafist jihadi group Eastern Turkistan Islamic Movement on the Terrorist Exclusion List (TEL). Squad leaders Hassan Mahsum (2003) and Abdul Shakur al-Turkistani (2012) were killed in a US drone strike. However, on November 5, 2020, Secretary of State Mike Pompeo removed ETIM from the Terrorist Exclusion List under the Immigration and Nationality Act (INA).
On March 22, 2018, the US State Department placed the Uzbek jihadist group Katibat Imam al Bukhari on the US government’s list of designated global terrorist organizations. KIB is currently conducting jihad in Syria against the regime of Bashar al-Asad under the umbrella of HTS. KIB is now run by Tajikistan’s ethnic Uzbek, Abu Yusuf al-Muhajir, who has close and trusting ties with Sirajuddin Haqqani, the Taliban government’s interior minister and leader of the powerful al-Qaeda-affiliated Haqqani network. The group also operates in northern Afghanistan, particularly in Faryab, or other ethnically Uzbek areas. Like IJU and KTJ, KIB is an offshoot of IMU and has sworn allegiance to the Taliban.
In summary, the US government’s designation of Central Asian and Caucasian Salafist-jihadist groups as a global terrorist organization provides a positive impetus to global counterterrorism efforts. Such a move will surely help the governments of Central Asia and the Middle East to cut off the channels of financial, material and military assistance to extremist groups linked to al-Qaeda and ISIS.