Small Wars Journal

The IMU Ascendant: How Uzbek Autocracy Empowers Terrorist Entrepreneurs

Sat, 06/28/2014 - 12:12pm

The IMU Ascendant: How Uzbek Autocracy Empowers Terrorist Entrepreneurs

Luke Lischin


After approximately one decade spent in the shadow of the Afghan Taliban, the Islamic Movement of Uzbekistan (IMU) claimed ownership over what appear to be increasingly frequent waves of violence focused in Afghanistan, Pakistan, and at the borders of Central Asia. While the return of the IMU as a capable fighting force may be rightly construed as a threat to the stability of Central Asia writ large, the risks are especially pronounced in the case of the region’s most populous state, Uzbekistan. Given recent signs of the IMU’s replenished vitality, this paper seeks to assess the prospects of an IMU incursion into Uzbekistan, arguing that policies designed by Uzbek President Islam Karimov to subjugate Uzbek civil society and restrict foreign influence have actually strengthened the position of the IMU as a military and political threat to the regime.

Introduction: Crying Wolf

“An unidentified analyses department officer” at the Uzbek national security service sings along: “Hey, get up! We are facing an unexpected danger! Damned IMU shall attack us any minute from beyond the Pamir Mountains! As soon as snow on mountain slopes melts and mountain paths reveal themselves, the hordes of armed cap-a-pie militants will stream into the Fergana Valley!” The “analyst” sings back: “No, the enemy is not awaiting warmer days, the enemy is transporting its thugs already!”[i]

With sardonic wit, Uzbek journalist Yadgor Norbutayev authored the above quotation in mocking imitation of security discourses within Uzbekistan. Depicting the Uzbek security establishment as a veritable choir of “boys who cry wolf”, Norbutayev cynically accuses these individuals of spewing alarmist rhetoric in order to manipulate a reticent United States into providing the Uzbek military with advanced arms.[ii] Indeed, Uzbekistan has not been subtle about pursuing patronage from the International Security Assistance Force (ISAF) withdrawing through the Northern Distribution Network (NDN) in Uzbekistan, and has implored several NATO members to sell their surplus equipment to the Uzbek military.[iii]

For Norbutayev, the Islamic Movement of Uzbekistan (IMU) is nothing more than an unpleasant memory of brutal militants who perished almost a decade ago, resurrected in the rhetoric of Uzbek politicians looking for military patronage from foreign powers. Western commentators have been equally skeptical of claims that have emerged in recent years concerning the return of the IMU and its offshoots[iv], observing that the impending tide of Islamic insurgency portended over the last several years has failed to emerge. They insist that the death of the founding members of the IMU and the reports of dead Uzbek militants throughout Afghanistan in addition to the absence of large-scale violence indicates that the IMU is “fading from existence”.[v] Others, however, are less convinced.

Between 2009-2013, ISAF reported engaging Uzbek militants in Kunduz and Takhar provinces in Northern Afghanistan in increasingly frequent confrontations.  There, IMU cells mounted hit and run attacks against ISAF detachments, using the support of the almost 2 million Afghan-Uzbeks who live in these provinces. The IMU reportedly collected taxes on farmers in Kunduz province as a minor source of revenue, and had even installed an IMU affiliated “shadow governor” by the name of Attallah who was removed from power in 2010.[vi] According to reporting by Bethany Matta of Al-Jazeera, the escalation of IMU violence and public support for the group came as a surprise to local governance and coalition forces that recalled the period of peace that followed the removal of the Taliban from the area in 2002. Capitalizing on apparent popular dissatisfaction with the prefects who replaced Taliban governors and common ethno-linguistic ties with the locals, the IMU has been linked to guerilla-style attacks and suicide bombings targeted at senior Afghan officials.[vii]  

While very little is known about the current leader of the IMU emir Usman Ghazi and his cadres, the current record of the IMU is not entirely opaque.[viii] A well-researched 2010 report by the Center for Strategic and International Studies (CSIS) offers a middle-of-the-road interpretation of the limited open-source materials available on the group, ultimately concluding that the threat of Uzbek terrorism has not abated. Operating throughout Northern and Eastern Afghanistan and Northern Waziristan, Pakistan, the CSIS report estimates the fighting strength of the IMU in these areas somewhere between 1,000-5,000 troops.[ix] These fighters are financed primarily by the Afghan Taliban, who provides the IMU with approximately $2,440,000- $4,878,000 USD per year.[x] Content analysis of the IMU’s webpage “Furqon” has recorded expanding lists of martyrs, regular reporting on activities, and A/V propaganda materials that suggest that the IMU possesses a relatively sophisticated and well-resourced public relations wing.[xi]

Given the impending withdrawal of US forces from the region, the information cited above is rendered all the more disconcerting, as their departure will undoubtedly reshape the strategic terrain of South and Central Asia, with critical implications for all countries therein. [xii] Whether the IMU will choose to exploit their position in Northern and Eastern Afghanistan is at this moment is an open question that hinges upon a dearth of information regarding the IMU’s intentions. Following a suicide operation in the province of Panjshir on June 3rd 2013, the IMU released the following statement: “we hope from Allah that future conquests are very near in the Mawarounnahr region [the ancient name for modern-day Uzbekistan, Tajikistan, Kyrgyzstan and Kazakhstan]” [xiii] Evidently, the IMU has not forgotten its Central Asian roots during its decade in exile. Nevertheless, whether this ominous threat is predicated upon a concrete strategy to realize these “conquests” is at this time unknowable. This limitation precludes any firm predictions on if and when an IMU campaign can be expected in Uzbekistan, but it does not prevent one from asking whether Uzbekistan would be vulnerable to such a campaign.

Drawing insights from social network theories of elite politics and civil society, this paper argues that the very policies designed by Uzbek President Islam Karimov to subjugate Uzbek civil society and restrict foreign influence have actually strengthened the position of the IMU as a military and political threat to the regime. As the IMU continues to collect wealth and power from Taliban sponsorship and other avenues of foreign support, the IMU can work with Uzbek elites and other underground civil associations to rally popular support, and ultimately set the stage for terrorism, popular unrest, and even insurgency. Uzbek politicians may have been crying wolf just to attract foreign support, but let us not forget how that fable ends.

Terrorists and Constituents: Civil Society and Violent Entrepreneurs

Social network theories of terrorism often share common assumptions regarding the bounded rationality of terrorists operating within particular social contexts. Under this line of reasoning terrorists are not exceptional actors whose motivations are too particular or idiosyncratic to explain but are, in the words of Sherzod Abdukadirov “social entrepreneurs”. Andukadirov asserts that terrorist actors are much like non-profit organizations in that they can provide societies with alternative access to public goods that other actors, primarily the state, have failed to adequately provision. Public goods, unlike private goods, are often intangible and conceptual in nature, and carry a normative subtext. “Security”, “defense”, and “justice” are critical examples of public goods that terrorist groups, by virtue of their capacity and willingness to use force, are sometimes able to provide. Because these groups are nominally driven by an innate desire to provide these goods and gain public trust, terrorist organizations are understood to be “altruistic” and therefore willing to incur material costs in order to supply these goods.[xiv]

For heuristic purposes, models that follow these basic assumptions provide students and practitioners with a basic appreciation for what motivates terrorists to act, adapt, and change by providing a general raison d’etre for political violence. Applied to empirical cases, these models sometimes fail to fully account for behaviors observed of terrorist actors. The issue with these theoretic models is that they often take the social interaction of terrorists with other actors as given, when there are many kinds of barriers to entry that prevent these groups from provisioning goods. These barriers may be legal, such as sanctions that proscribe the transference of funds to state-designated organizations, cultural, as in endogenous ethno-nationalist networks, or resultant from a contest of arms between other competitors. When studying how terrorists aggregate power through social entrepreneurship, it is therefore imperative to examine how these actors gain access to the persons, services, and resources they need to fulfill their aims.[xv] In the case of the IMU, it is therefore necessary to examine the barriers to networking erected by the government of Uzbekistan before their prospects for influence can be accurately depicted.

Neopatrimonial Uzbekistan: Elite Politics and Stability

Uzbekistan’s continued stability continues to baffle many scholars, especially those who engage in large-N multivariate analysis. Contrasting the cases of Tajikistan and Uzbekistan in the mid 1990’s, Idil Tunçer-Kilavuz observes that commonly used correlates of civil war relating to population density, ethnic composition, and geographic terrain, appeared in higher proportions in Uzbekistan than in Tajikistan, yet Uzbekistan remained stable while Tajikistan dissolved into conflict. Tuncer-Kilavuz does not dismiss the value of the correlates outright, arguing that these correlates must be translated in case-specific contexts that take into account the perceptions of salient political actors, namely the elite. The conclusion reached by Tuncer-Kilavuz is akin to the balance of power concept argued by defensive realists within the discipline of international relations; where opposing actors are relatively equal in power, conflict is deterred.[xvi]  Unlike Tajikistan, Uzbekistan achieved a relative level of power parity and mutual interest through an intricate web of patron-client relations stemming from the office of the president best described as “neopatrimonial”.

Two systemic pillars, as defined by Alisher Ilkhamov, hold up neopatrimonial regimes; a system for the seizure and control of power, and a system for the rational government provisioning of goods and services. In the particular case of Uzbekistan, neopatrimonialism functions to privilege President Karimov’s family and an inner circle of oligarchs without regard for the rule of law, and uses arbitrary arrests as well as the use of military force to eliminate political entrepreneurs and dissidents that threaten his interests. After the horrors that befell Andijan in 2005, some ethnographers were quick to point out that the government’s response was not just a reaction to neighboring Kyrgyzstan’s Tulip Revolution, but a reflection of an internal power struggle between the Samarkand Clan (Karimov’s clan) and the Tashkent Clan. While this may be true is a broad sense, the use of the term “clan conflict” belies the underlying causes of the massacre.[xvii]

Clans are too often used as shorthand terminology for primordial (i.e. blood-based) kinship networks that link families and individuals across the bounds of class. In practice, however, clans function as complex webs of patronage that often enrich key players within the network that rises to prominence. A clan, therefore, derives power and influence not from its parochial claims to a particular land or lineage, but from its ability to satisfy the needs and wants of important constituents.[xviii] Understood as an extreme variant of interest-politics, Karimov’s neopatrimonial regime is not unlike the power mechanisms used by criminal networks like the 19th century Italian Cosa Nostra or the Afghan Taliban’s Haqqani Network. As one reporter recently observed, Karimov appears to have transcended the old clan rivalries that characterized Uzbekistan in years past, and solidified political economic power within his family and a small circle of clients. With the “Karimov Clan” solidifying power within the state to a narrower constituency, the President enhances his executive authority, but at the price of alienating former clients. Stated in other terms, Karimov’s personal power may be greater than ever, but his enemies grow more numerous.[xix]

The past 13 years have witnessed an unmistakable backlash against prominent businessmen and regional politicians executed primarily under the guise of just criminal prosecution. During this time, at least four provincial governors, Jora Noraliyev, the governor of Surkhandarya, Alisher Otaboyev, governor of Fergana, Saydullo Begaliev, governor of Andijan, and Ziyovuddin Niyozov, governor of Tashkent have been arrested under charges of official corruption and incompetence, and were stripped of their posts.[xx] Prominent businessmen, including retail wholesalers, energy tycoons, and football club owners have also been targeted for alleged illicit financial activity including embezzlement and money laundering. Ostensibly conducted to cleanse the country of oligarchs, these arrests were widely interpreted as means for Karimov to redistribute the equities and assets of the condemned to loyal constituents and pad the contents of his own wallet.[xxi]    

The sense of insecurity and disaffection inculcated within a growing segment of the Uzbek elite will be further compounded by the questions of succession that surround an aged an ailing Karimov.[xxii] It has been speculated that Karimov’s eldest daughter Gulnara Karimov is being groomed to take her father’s place. Gulnara has held a number of diplomatic positions, and has engaged in philanthropic activities abroad, thus augmenting her political bonafides. That said, Gulnara is widely viewed to lack the political acumen of her father, and is dogged by numerous financial scandals.[xxiii] More likely, it seems that Karimov will be succeeded by either Prime Minister Shavkat Mirziyaev or Deputy Prime Minister and Finance Minister Rustam Azimov, both men within Karimov’s inner circle.[xxiv] Regardless of who succeeds Karimov, the patronage network created by the current president will remain more or less intact after his passing, to the chagrin of elites who find themselves excluded from its streams of power and lucre. Under these conditions, some members of the Uzbek elite would be motivated to find other means of securing their power, perhaps turning to the public to draw strength from the position of a populist politician. In Uzbekistan, however, the lack of independent civil society does much to prevent these ambitions from becoming realized.

Civil Society in Uzbekistan: Licit and Illicit Formations

In a democratic society, civil society in its political integration often works to the advantage of the disenfranchised and disadvantaged, who find new opportunities within communal structures to assert their political interests. These voluntary associations span across all strata of society to mobilize individuals, communities, enterprises, and political parties to affect some desired change through myriad forms of action.[xxv] Those who have fallen from Karimov’s good graces might under different circumstances turn to civil society as a platform upon which they can reengage with political society; but this is not the case in Uzbekistan.

Officially, no independent civil society exists in Uzbekistan, because civic associations of any kind must be registered with the Ministry of Justice in a process that subjects the NGO to a lengthy process of multi-agency review.[xxvi] Under this arrangement, Uzbek civil society is given access to public funds in order to pursue their government approved programs, but the ability of these organizations to affect real changes in political circumstance is effectively nil due to the legal constraints and administrative impediments imposed upon them. The legal foundation of this policy can be traced back to the 1998 Law on Freedom of Conscience and Religious Organizations and the 1999 Law on NGOs. Passed under the pretense of protecting religious liberty and tolerance within a secular Uzbek society, articles of the law proscribed the public adornment of religious garb by non-clergymen, proselytism, and the production, storage, and distribution of materials that contained extremist or separatist ideas. Further, the law declared that organizations that failed to register with the government were unrecognized, and subject to prosecution. Under pursuant legislation during the early 2000’s and in reaction to the civil disturbances stirred in the wake of the first IMU campaign, Uzbekistan began to crack down on unregistered NGO’s and used the selective enforcement convoluted tax laws to silence journalists and dissidents who sought to report these actions.[xxvii]

From 2002 onward, the state continued to reign in the independence of Uzbek civil society. Groups promoting human rights and transparent governance such as the Open Society Institute were among the first to be denied the proper licenses to operate legally due to their promotion of materials deemed anti-Uzbek by the ministries. By way of numerous executive decrees, segments of Uzbek civil society were forced to re-register with the Ministry of Justice, thus providing the state with the opportunity to deny licenses to those organizations deemed troubling. The 2004 decree “On measures on increasing efficiency of the accountability pertaining to financial means, grants and humanitarian aid received from international and foreign governmental and nongovernmental organizations” required that all NGO’s store and transfer all assets through the Central Bank of Uzbekistan or Askana Bank, subjecting the finances of these organizations to constant surveillance, threat of seizure, and limited opportunities for investment and distribution.[xxviii]

In effect, the Karimov regime has created a system of civil society wherein foreign donations from international aid organizations destined for Uzbek NGO’s flow directly into state coffers, and are distributed at the discretion of bureaucratic elites overseeing the management of these funds. The centralization of these aspects of civil society, apart from defrauding international donors, has also encouraged the local extortion of small to medium sized indigenous enterprises that face bureaucratic and legal harassment if they do not “donate” to select organizations. In light of this toxic culture of official control and corruption, Uzbeks are highly disillusioned by the current state of civil society, and are by in large discouraged from participating. Considering that the watchdog group Transparency International rated Uzbekistan the 7th most corrupt state in the world, this cynicism can hardly be blamed.[xxix]

Lacking basic freedoms of speech and organization, those not discouraged by the injustice and excess of Uzbek regulations have taken to the creation of underground organizations that operate outside all legal remits. Undoubtedly, the underground association that has garnered the most attention from Western scholars is the London-based international NGO, Hizb-ut-Tahrir (HT), a Salafist Islamist group that advocates on behalf of creating a global Sunni caliphate. Ideologically, HT espouses a literalist and extreme version of Sunni Islam that categorizes Shia, Jewish, Christian, Western, and secular individuals and institutions as evil. Like al-Qaeda and the IMU, HT desires to realize a world governed under their originalist interpretation of Sharia, but nominally rejects violence as a means of achieving this desire. Instead, HT has organized itself into a hierarchical collection of semi-autonomous cells operating in over 45 countries to distribute propaganda interpreting religion, governance, international affairs, and local conflicts through the prism of their ideology.[xxx]

HT is banned in Uzbekistan, as well as in Kyrgyzstan, Tajikistan, and Kazakhstan for espousing an extremist, separatist ideology despite their conveyed commitment to non-violence, but this has not prevented HT from maintaining a presence in the region.  Imprecise estimates owed to the organization’s criminal status number HT’s membership at 7,000 to 60,000 people in Uzbekistan, with somewhere between 3,000 and 5,000 members living in Tajikistan and Kyrgyzstan. Beyond merely disseminating leaflets and A/V materials, HT cells have been reported to fulfill needs left unmet by local governments. HT members are noted to contribute to local charities, and donate basic goods to needy families in rural areas of Uzbekistan such as Ferghana. Politically, HT has organized protests and authored policy proposals that decry the economic inequalities and official corruption of the Central Asian republics, and offer religious rule as a solution to this common blight. Additionally, HT is perhaps the greatest patron of local religious communities across Central Asia, whose secular regimes proscribe unregulated religious education and association.[xxxi]

Non-religious groups that represent liberal democratic platforms such as Birlik and Erk parties, and single-issue groups like the Human Rights Society of Uzbekistan and the Independent Human Rights Society of Uzbekistan have also maintained a significant presence in the country, albeit to an extent less publicized than that of HT.[xxxii] Even so, against the forces of state repression and the ethos of national ideology, the impact of HT and other anti-Karimov groups within Uzbekistan has been marginal. Though these groups continue to survive, an impressive feat under such hostile conditions, coherent and unified action against the regime has never emerged. Omitting the sensational IMU bombings in Tashkent 1999 and the 2005 Andjian incident, expressions of public outcry have been confined to sporadic protests mounted by dozens of individuals from diverse backgrounds that ultimately fail to coalesce into national movements. Even when thousands of protestors convene to protest public policy as they did in Andijan, the impulse to action did not spread to other regions, and Karimov reacted with unbridled savagery.[xxxiii]

Uzbek Foreign Policy and Foreign Actors

As the circle of Karimov’s neopatrimonial clientele continues to shrink, those on the fringes of the regime and those left behind are rendered increasingly disempowered and displeased due to the lack of access to basic resources and legal recourse. Keeping the greater part of society disempowered by limiting basic freedoms and public patronage is a critical component of Karimov’s strategy of self-preservation, but this strategy is not without its vulnerabilities. Resting on the assumption that the regime can maintain direct control over the population by coercing dependence upon, and therefore compliance with the regime, Karimov must also ensure that foreign actors do not intervene in Uzbekistan’s internal affairs. Towards this end, Karimov has gone to great lengths.

Reclusive, but not isolationist, Uzbekistan’s foreign policy has shifted away from affirming regional commitments to security in favor of dealing with international great powers on bi-lateral terms. In 2012, Uzbekistan withdrew its membership from Collective Security Treaty Organization (CSTO), Russia’s flagship multilateral military alliance in Eurasia. Having withdrawn once before from CSTO in 1999, Uzbekistan has always been a reticent member of CSTO and has never participated in joint military exercises orchestrated by the organization. Apparently unimpressed by such exercises, which are commonly regarded as merely symbolic, and chaffed by Russia’s predominance in the forum, Karimov expressed firm convictions when he announced that CSTO did not and could not address Uzbek interests.[xxxiv] Armed with the largest, best equipped, and overall most formidable military force in Central Asia proper, Uzbekistan certainly did not rely on CSTO to guarantee its security.

Rather than turning to NATO or redoubling its commitment to the Shanghai Cooperation Organization, Uzbekistan has instead cooperated with Russia on terms laid out by the 2004 Treaty on Russian-Uzbekistan Strategic Partnership (RFUSP) and 2005 Treaty on Alliance Relationships with Russia. Meanwhile, Uzbekistan has not yet commented upon the status of the 2002 U.S.-Uzbekistan Strategic Partnership Treaty, keeping American diplomats in Tashkent on edge. US investments in Uzbekistan including the infrastructure supporting the NDN and the launch of the US New Silk Road Strategy further add to the anxiety felt by Washington during this period of diplomatic uncertainty. At present, Tashkent plays a delicate game of balancing its agreements with Washington and Moscow, though it would appear that Karimov might prefer to work with Russian patrons.[xxxv]

Russia aside, Uzbekistan has been loath to cooperate with other actors in the region, viewing its neighbors as security liabilities rather than potential allies. Between 1998 to the present, Uzbekistan has regarded Tajikistan and Kyrgyzstan with deep suspicion and open hostility. At the height of the IMU’s first campaign, Uzbekistan repeatedly accused Kyrgyzstan and Tajikistan of providing the group safe havens, and engaged in airstrikes in both states under the pretext of targeting the IMU. Uzbekistan also unilaterally strengthened its borders to impede IMU transit by erecting walls, laying mines, and digging trenches at critical transit points into Tajikistan and Kyrgyzstan.[xxxvi]

Despite the large ethnic Uzbek populations that reside in the border areas of these countries, Karimov, for all of his pan-Uzbek rhetoric, has never called for the repatriation of these populations because he regards them with great suspicion. The Uzbek intelligence service has been known to surveil these foreign Uzbeks, and even resort to extraordinary rendition to capture persons of interest in clear violation of the international norms of sovereignty and extradition. Polling conducting by Matteo Fumagalli of Uzbek diaspora populations in these areas revealed that, unsurprisingly, these populations have highly negative views of Karimov and his policies aimed at their communities. Although a majority of respondents felt a strong sense of connection to Uzbeks living in Uzbekistan proper, it should be noted that only a minority voiced any desire to live in Uzbekistan, citing the repression therein as a deterrent.[xxxvii]

Conclusion: An Argument Not To Be Discounted

Should it choose to do so, the IMU can serve as a critically destabilizing external force in Uzbekistan by channeling the ire of elite and associational victims of the regime to form an alternative patrimonial network opposed to Karimov’s. As Martha Brill Olcott, a venerable Western scholar of Central Asia concludes in her most recent work In the Whirlwind of Jihad, most Uzbeks are content with the state sponsored version of Hanafi Islam, and are unlikely to embrace Salafist groups. Gaining social and spiritual satisfaction from the daily ritual of the mahala,[xxxviii] Hanafi Uzbeks are thus not inclined to view Salafist beliefs and practices with much more than curiosity.[xxxix] It is true that the practicing Hanafi Uzbeks and secular Uzbeks share little in kind with their literalist and puritanical countrymen, save for one key sentiment: disdain for Karimov. In the study of sub-state violence, one should never forget the perennial maxim of political science: “Politics makes strange bedfellows.”

If the IMU is willing to shelve its more global jihadist aspirations, increase the volume of its anti-Karimov rhetoric, and seize opportunities in Uzbekistan, the group can build a strong coalition through various means. While the specifics of the IMU’s ideology may be off-putting to some potential allies, the unique capabilities of the organization could easily overshadow ideational differences. Most obviously, the IMU represents the single most coherent sub-state threat to Uzbekistan’s monopoly on force, and can offer elites the “muscle” they need to ensure the security of their polities. Without question, IMU fighters are no match for Uzbekistan’s conventional forces in the context of an open confrontation, but that is not where these forces excel. Trained by veteran Taliban commanders and tested by years of conflict with ISAF, IMU guerillas are not rank amateurs. So long as they do not succumb to the temptation to hold fixed positions within Uzbekistan as they did in their ill-fated 1999-2001 campaign, IMU guerillas and terrorist cells could wreak havoc in border municipalities and harry frustrated military detachments. These operations would not topple the regime overnight, but if well executed, they would at the every least expose chinks in Karimov’s authoritarian armor by striking against symbols of his authority and evading his forces.[xl]

Politically, the IMU could also prove useful to ambitious Uzbek elites by virtue of the socio-political networks they maintain. First and foremost, the close relationship between the Taliban and the IMU could serve as an indispensable boon to would-be revolutionaries. In the wake of the US withdrawal, the Taliban may find itself in control of the assets of the Afghan state, and be willing to use these assets to assist their brothers in arms and replace Karimov with a ruler more amenable to Afghan interests. IMU connections to HT would also be valuable as a mechanism to garner support from clandestine chapters within Uzbekistan and more open diaspora populations outside the country. Beyond providing revolutionaries with a pool of supporters from which finances and recruits may be collected, attracting a strong coalition of Uzbek civilians would serve to imbue the movement with a popular legitimacy it would otherwise lack. 

Bound by a common hatred of the ruling government, it is not unthinkable that secular liberals, ethno-nationalists, and religious extremists would rally behind the same banner; it has happened before. Mohammad Reza Pahlavi, the Shah of Iran was a secular autocrat propped up by foreign influence and ousted by an idealistic coalition of young middle to lower class citizens who did not subscribe to a single, unified ideology the outset of the revolution. Some Iranians lined up behind the revived National Front of Karim Sanjabi and Daryush Forouhar who drew upon the democratic legacy of former President Mohammed Mosaddeq. Others followed a robust array of socialist and Marxist ideologies and joined the exiled Tudeh Pary as well as the leftist guerilla groups Rah-e Kargar and Peykar. Syncretism also occurred between movements, as exemplified by leaders such as Mojahedin-e Khalq whose followers were known as Islamic Marxists. Ayatollah Ruhollah Khomeini, however, emerged from this confused collective of revolutionaries as the chief arbiter of the revolution due to his charismatic prowess as a leader and his uncomplicated yet appealing design for the new Iranian state. International incidents, most notably the 1979 US embassy hostage situation, only enhanced Khomeini’s profile, as he retrofitted the administrative machinery with the vanguard of the revolutionary leadership and installed the governing ulama to watch over them. By 1981, Khomeini had consolidated his authority to the point that his former leftist allies became fodder for the Revolutionary Guard.[xli]

The Iranian Revolution cannot provide observers with an accurate blueprint of how regime change will occur in Uzbekistan, if it does indeed occur at all. What this historical precedent demonstrates is how factions of disparate ideological persuasions can overcome deeply held convictions in the name of common interests under hostile conditions. If the IMU can channel popular unrest and elite disposition through political networks that secure ideational and material support, the IMU can seize this moment in history to damage a regime that has long overstayed its welcome. Whether the IMU will in reality accomplish such a feat is a rightly contentious issue. Nevertheless, the ascension of the IMU into a position of regional power in years following 2014 cannot be written off as alarmist fantasy, as to do so would be to ignore the structural vulnerabilities of Uzbekistan today.

The views and opinions expressed in this article are those of the author, and do not necessarily reflect those of the National War College or any agency of the U.S. government.

End Notes

[i] Yadgor Norbutayev, “Islam Karimov and the Goldfish,” Ferghana News, 3/18/2013, Accessed 5/4/2013:

[ii] Ibid.

[iii] Andrew E. Kramer, “As NATO Prepares for Afghan Withdrawal, Uzbekistan Seeks War’s Leftovers,” The New York Times, 1/31/2013, Accessed 4/4/2013:

Sonia Rothwell, “NATO, Uzbekistan and the ISAF Withdrawal,” ISN, 3/12/2013, Accessed 5/4/2013:

[iv] Most notably the Islamic Jihad Union

[v] See Shakar Saadi, “IMU on verge of fading from existence: The group is becoming desperate, suffers leadership problems and may not make it through the winter, analysts say.,” Central Asia Online, 10/19/2012, Accessed 5/4/2013:

Joshua Foust, “Are Terror Groups Faked? Does the IJU Even Exist?,” Registan, 6/20/2009, Accessed 5/4/2013

[vi]Bill Roggio, “IMU-linked Taliban district commander killed in Takhar raid,” The Long War Journal, 9/5/2010: Accessed 5/4/2013:

- “Iran-backed senior IMU commander captured in Afghan north,” The Long War Journal, 9/15/2010, Accessed 5/4/2013:

Patrick Megahan, “Increased targeting of IMU continues in Afghan north,” The Long War Journal, 4/5/2013, Accessed 5/4/2013:

[vii]Bethany Matta, “Uzbek fighters gain support in Afghan north: An al-Qaeda-linked group is increasing its appeal among youth in Takhar, where government dissatisfaction runs high.,” Al-Jazeera, 4/10/2013, Accessed 5/4/2013:

[viii] Shakar Saadi, “New IMU leader has criminal record. IMU loses accomplices, recruits terrorists on the side,” Central Asia Online, 8/14/2012, Accessed 5/4/2013:

[ix] Thomas M. Sanderson, Daniel Kimmage, and David A. Gordon 2010, “From Ferghana Valley to South Waziristan,” CSIS, 17-18

[x] Syed Shoaib Hasan, “The Militant Economy,” The News, 02/18/2013, Accessed 5/4/2013:

(Accessed through:

Adam Pankowski, “The Taliban’s Assets in the United Arab Emirates,” International Institute for Counter-Terrorism

[xi] Matthew Stein 2013, “The Goals of the Islamic Movement of Uzbekistan and Its Impact on Central Asia and the United States,” Foreign Military Studies Office

Martha Brill Olcott, In the Whirlwind of Jihad, (Washington: Carnegie Endowment for International Peace, 2012), 297-299

[xii] Barack Hussein Obama, “State of the Union,” C-Span, 2/12/2013, Accessed 5/4/2013:

[xiii] Jacob Zenn, “ Central Asian Leaders Wary of Post-2014 IMU Threat,” The Jamestown Foundation, 7/12/2013, Accessed 7/15/2013:[swords]=8fd5893941d69d0be3f378576261ae3e&tx_ttnews[any_of_the_words]=Qatar&tx_ttnews[tt_news]=41125&tx_ttnews[backPid]=7&cHash=aa4cf529733d3b50aa8c86877449a388#.UeSLyFMtZ-V

[xiv] Abdukadirov, Sherzod 2010, “Terrorism: The Dark Side of Social Entrepreneurship,” Studies in Conflict & Terrorism 33, no. 7, 603-617

Bruce Hoffman, Inside Terrorism, (New York: Columbia University Press, 2006), 35-38

Jessica Stern and Amit Modi “Producing Terror: Organizational Dynamics of Survival”, Countering the Financing of Terrorism, eds. Thomas J. Biersteker and Sue E. Eckert, (New York: Routledge, 2008), 30-36

[xv] Timothy Wittig, Understanding Terrorist Finance, (New York: Palgrave MacMillan 2011), 112-117

Jessica Stern and Amit Modi “Producing Terror: Organizational Dynamics of Survival,” Countering the Financing of Terrorism, eds. Thomas J. Biersteker and Sue E. Eckert, (New York: Routledge, 2008), 36-40

[xvi] Idil Tunçer-Kilavuz, “Understanding Civil War: A Comparison of Tajikistan and Uzbekistan”, Europe-Asia Studies 63, no. 2, (2011),263-290

[xvii] Alisher Ilkhamov, “Neopatrimonialism, interest groups and patronage networks: the impasses of the governance system in Uzbekistan,” Central Asian Survey 26, no. 1, (2007) 65-84

[xviii] İdil Tunçer-Kılavuz, “Political and social networks in Tajikistan and

Uzbekistan: clan, region and beyond,” Central Asian Survey 28, no. 3, (2009) 323-334

[xix] Alisher Ilkhamov (2007), 65-84

Staff, “Uzbekistan: Karimov Appears To Have Political Clans Firmly In Hand,” Radio Free Europe/Radio Liberty, 5/9/2013, Accessed 5/4/203:

[xx] Eric M. McGlinchey, “Searching for Kamalot: Political Patronage and

Youth Politics in Uzbekistan,” Europe-Asia Studies 61, no. 7, (2009) 1137-1150

Adolat Najimova and Daniel Kimmage, “Uzbekistan: Karimov Reappraises Andijon,” Radio Free Europe/Radio Liberty, 10/19/2006, Accessed 5/4/2013:

[xxi]Bruce Pannier, “Big Business In Uzbekistan Targeted In Wave Of Arrests,” Free Europe/Radio Liberty, 3/12/2010, Accessed 5/4/2013

Staff, “Uzbek Bankers Arrested Over Foreign Currency Deals,” RIANOVOSTI, 7/2/2013, Accessed 5/4/2013:

[xxii] Staff, “Uzbek opposition leader insists President Karimov suffered heart failure,” Fergana News, 3/23/13, Accessed 5/4/2013:

[xxiii] American Embassy Tashkent, “Uzbekistan: Rumors of Succession Planning, Government,” Wikileaks, 7/31/2009, Accessed 5/4/2013:

Farruh Yusupov and Daisy Sindelar, “Swedish TV: How Millions In Telecoms Bribes End Up In Karimova's Pocket,” Radio Free Europe/Radio Liberty, 12/12/2012, Accessed 5/4/2013:

Traveller, “Gulnara Karimova: Is She Ready to be the Next President of Uzbekistan?,” Registan, 4/8/2013, Accessed 5/4/2013:

[xxiv]Farruh Yusupov and Daisy Sindelar, “Karimov Absence Fuels Rumors Of What Comes Next In Uzbekistan,” Radio Free Europe/Radio Liberty, 3/27/2013, Accessed 5/4/2013:

[xxv] Iris Marion Young, Inclusion and Democracy, (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2000), 64-167

[xxvi] For foreign-based NGO’s the Ministry of Foreign Affairs is also included in the registration process.

[xxvii] Matthew Crosston, Fostering Fundamentalism: Terrorism, Democracy, and American Engagement in Central Asia, (Aldershot: Ashgate Publishing, 2006), 122-124

Alisher Ilkhamov 2005, “The thorny path of civil society in Uzbekistan,” Central Asian Survey, 297-302

[xxviii] Ibid.

Sally N. Cummings, Understanding Central Asia: Politics and Contested Transformations, (New York: Routledge, 2012), 70-73

[xxix] Alisher Ilkhamov (2005), 302-305

Charles Buxton, The Struggle for Civil Society in Central Asia, (Sterling: Kumarian Press, 2011), 34-38

Transparency International, Uzbekistan, Accessed 5/4/2013:

[xxx] Mahesh Ranjan Debata, “Hizb ut-Tahrir: The Destabilizing Force in Central Asia,” Religion and Security in South and Central Asia, ed. K. Warikoo, (New York: Routledge, 2011), 125-128

[xxxi] Ibid. 132-138

Murat Lamulin, “Islamic Radicalism in Central Asia,” Religion and Security in South and Central Asia, ed. K. Warikoo, (Routledge: New York 2011), 140-144

[xxxii] Daniel Stevens, “Political society and civil society in Uzbekistan—never the twain shall meet?,” Central Asian Survey 26, no. 1, (2007), 53-54

[xxxiii] Eric McGlinchey, “Central Asian Protest Movements: Social Forces or State Resources?,” The Politics of Transition in Central Asian and the Caucuses: Enduring Legacies and Emerging Challenges, eds. Amanda E. Wooden and Christoph H. Stefes, (London and New York: Routledge, 2009), 128-130

[xxxiv] Staff, “Interview: Analyst Says Uzbekistan's Suspension Shows CSTO Is 'Irrelevant',” Radio Free Europe/Radio Liberty, 6/29/2012, Accessed 5/4/2013:

Farkhod Tolipov, “Will The U.S. And Uzbekistan Revisit Their Strategic Partnership,” The Central Asia-Caucuses Analyst, 3/20/2013, Accessed 5/4/2013:

[xxxv] Farkhod Tolipov, “Will The U.S. And Uzbekistan Revisit Their Strategic Partnership,” The Central Asia-Caucuses Analyst, 3/20/2013, Accessed 5/4/2013:

Joshua Kucera, “Capitol Hill Coddles Uzbekistan’s Karimov,” Inter Press Service, 3/4/2013, Accessed 5/4/2013:

[xxxvi] Mariya Y. Omelicheva Counterterrorism Policies in Central Asia, (New York and London: Routledge, 2011), 56-57

Matthew Stein, “Uzbekistan’s View of Security in Afghanistan After 2014,” Military Review (May-June 2012)

[xxxvii] Matteo Fumagalli, “Ethnicity, state formation and foreign policy: Uzbekistan and Uzbeks abroad,” Central Asian Survey 26, no.1, (2007) 105-122

[xxxviii] *The local Uzbek religious community.

[xxxix] Olcott (2012), 300-306

[xl] Rob Johnson, Oil, Islam and Conflict: Central Asia Since 1954, (London: Reaktion Books, 2007), 129-137

Idean Salehyan, Rebels Without Borders: Transantional Insurgencies in World Politics, (Ithaca and London: Cornell University Press, 2009), 46-55

David Witter, “Uzbek Militancy In Pakistan’s Tribal Region”, Institute for the Study of War (2011)

[xli] Ali Gheissari and Vali Nasr, Democracy in Iran: History and the Quest for Liberty, (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2006), 79-98


About the Author(s)

Luke Lischin is an Academic Assistant at the National War College. Previously, he worked as an intern at the Foundation for Defense of Democracies’ Center for the Study of Terrorist Radicalization. His research on Qatar was published in a book chapter coauthored with Daveed Gartenstein-Ross in a volume entitled Allies, Adversaries & Enemies: America’s Increasingly Complex Alliances. Mr. Lischin’s essay on terrorism in the United States entitled Assessing “The Terrorist Threat: The Primacy of Domestic Terrorism” was published in the 2012-2013 volume of The Journal on Terrorism and Security Analysis at Syracuse University. In 2014, he received his MA at Georgetown University’s Security Studies Program, where he concentrated in the study of terrorism and substate violence.