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Katibat al Tawhid wal Jihad Responds to Being Designated as a Global Terrorist Organization
On March 7, 2022, the US Department of State added the Central Asian Salafi-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 has been added to the UN Security Council's ISIS and al-Qaeda sanctions list, which requires all UN member states to implement an asset freeze, a travel ban, and an arms embargo against Uzbek jihadists of KTJ.
The US designation noted that "al Qaeda-affiliated KTJ operates in Syria's Idlib Province alongside Hayat Tahrir al-Sham (HTS) and cooperates with other designated terrorist groups such as Katibat al-Imam al-Bukhari (KIB) and Islamic Jihad Group (IJG)” from the post-Soviet Central Asia.
The State Department’s designation also noted that "in addition to engaging in terrorist activities in Syria, KTJ has also been responsible for conducting external attacks, such as the St. Petersburg metro attack in Russia in April 2017 which killed 14 passengers and injured 50 others, as well as a suicide car bombing of the Chinese Embassy in Kyrgyzstan's capital of Bishkek in August 2016 which wounded three people."
The State Department further explained that, because of this designation, all assets and interests in property of KTJ are blocked, and foreign financial institutions that conduct any transaction on behalf of KTJ could also be subject to US sanctions.
Uzbek Jihadists in Syria Denounce US Designation of KTJ
On March 13, a week after the State Department designated KTJ as a global terrorist organization, the Shura Council of KTJ released a statement denouncing the US move. In its own statement, which was released on its Telegram channel, the major Uzbek jihadi faction criticizes the US and argues that the decision was unfair. The KTJ states that “no matter how powerful a government or society might be, it will not be great in the eyes of people if it does not rule with justice and eliminate oppression."
The Uzbek Jihadi group in Syria denounced its terrorist designation by the US and claimed that "KTJ consists of people who responded to the cries of the oppressed in Syria because protecting the oppressed people is the duty of all humanity."
KTJ further asserted that “it is not the policy of KTJ to launch attacks outside Syria" and its members have nothing to do with the suicide attacks on Russia's St. Petersburg metro or the Chinese embassy in Bishkek. 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 Uzbek, Kyrgyz and Tajik radical Islamists from the Fergana Valley, opening the door to global jihad. KTJ was created by Sirojiddin Mukhtarov (alias Abu Saloh), an influential ethnic Uzbek jihadi Salafist from Kyrgyzstan’s Osh region, in northern Syria in 2013. Under his leadership, KTJ pledged allegiance (Bayat) to al-Qaeda leader Ayman al Zawahiri and joined the al-Nusrah Front in September 2015. Al-Nusrah was an official branch of al-Qaeda in Syria at the time which described itself as al-Qaeda in the Levant.
During the preparation of this material, a group of experts on political Islam listened to KTJ's bayat once again, in which Abu Saloh clearly pronounced the name Ayman al-Zawahiri and swore allegiance to al-Qaeda. Despite the fact that al-Qaeda and Hayat Tahrir al-Sham, the successor of al-Nusra, parted ways 'peacefully' in 2016, the Uzbek battalion remains loyal to al-Qaeda. KTJ has never disavowed its bayat to Ayman al-Zawahiri. Moreover, during this time, KTJ demonstrated its deft ability to spread the al-Qaeda ideology into the Fergana Valley and among Central Asian migrants in Russia.
To date, KTJ is the most combat-ready, well-equipped and largest foreign battalion in Idlib province, on a par with the Uyghur Salafi-Jihadi group, the Turkestan Islamic Party from Chinese Xinjiang. Both are waging jihad under HTS's auspices against the Bashar al-Assad regime. The approximate number of Uzbek militants involved is about 500 people. It is known that long a hotbed of armed resistance and a center of al-Qaeda-related operations, northwest Syria has become a safe haven for Uyghur, Uzbek, Tajik and Kyrgyz militants and their families.
KTJ's current leader Ilmurad Khikmatov (alias Abdul Aziz al-Uzbeki) is also one of al-Qaeda's devoted followers. In April 2019, Abdul Aziz, an ethnic Uzbek of the Fergana Valley and former deputy emir of the al-Qaeda-linked Islamic Jihad Union (IJU) in Afghanistan, was elected the new leader of KTJ. According to a UN Security Council report dated 3 February 2022, "KTJ’s capability is undermined by conflict between the current group leader Abdul Aziz and the former group emir Abu Saloh." But this is a superficial assessment of the situation taking place among the Uzbek jihadists in Syria.
It is noteworthy that Abu Saloh was removed from the leadership of KTJ under the pressure of HTS for openly supporting its strongest jihadi opponent, al-Qaeda-affiliated Hurras al-Din (HD), which directly challenged the leader of HTS Abu Mohammad al-Jolani. It is also known that KTJ’s new leader Abdul Aziz swore bayat to al-Qaeda and the Taliban in the Afghan-Pakistan border zone as a member of the Islamic Movement of Uzbekistan (IMU) in 2008. At that time, IMU became one of the strongest non-Arab al-Qaeda-linked groups in Central and South Asia. Abdul Aziz trained at the Haqqani Network's military hub of Mir Ali in North Waziristan, which also hosted an al-Qaeda camp.
So, militant Salafism is 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 build a single Caliphate with Sharia rule in the Fergana Valley. During the Jummah Khutbah, the new imam of KTJ and its major ideologist, Ahluddin Navqotiy, constantly glorifies Salafi-Jihadi scholars from the medieval to the present, such as Ibn Taymiyyah, Muḥammad ibn Abd al-Wahhab, Sayyid Qutb, al-Qaeda's senior figures such as Osama bin Laden, Abu Musab al Zarqawi, Abu Yahya al Libi, Ayman al-Zawahiri, and prominent modern jihadi thinkers Abu Qatada al-Falastini and Abu Muhammad al-Maqdisi.
Thus, KTJ's claim of having no ties to al-Qaeda is provably false. Today, Uzbek jihadists of KTJ continue to benefit from close and trusted ties to al-Qaeda, the Taliban and HTS, who act as ideological mentors and militant umbrellas for many foreign fighter groups from Central Asia and the Caucasus.
US Continues Pressure on Central Asian Jihadi Groups
This is not the first time that the US government has designated a Central Asian Salafi-Jihadi group as a global terrorist organization and imposed sanctions. It is known that the US State Department had designated the Islamic Movement of Uzbekistan (IMU) on the Foreign Terrorist Organizations list on September 25, 2000. The IMU was the veteran organization of the Central Asian jihad, first paving the hijrat to Afghanistan and establishing close relations with the Afghan Taliban, the Haqqani network and al Qaeda in 1998. The IMU leader Tahir Yuldash (2009) and its military emir Juma Namangoni (2001) were killed in a US airstrike.
Additionally, on June 17, 2005, the State Department added the Islamic Jihad Union to its Foreign Terrorist Organizations list. The IJU is a splinter faction of the IMU, and a substantial number of its members are from Central Asia. The IJU has been waging jihad in the Afghan-Pakistan region for more than a decade. It maintains close ties with al-Qaeda and Taliban leaders. US airstrikes have killed several top IJU leaders, including the group’s emir, Najmuddin Jalolov, who was killed in a drone strike in North Waziristan in 2009.
According to the recent UN Security Council report, "IJU actively participated in fighting alongside the Taliban in the capture of Kabul and therefore its fighters now experiencing greater freedom of movement in the country. IJU, led by Ilimbek Mamatov, a Kyrgyz national, and his deputy, Amsattor Atabaev, of Tajikistan, is assessed to be the most combat-ready Central Asian group in Afghanistan. It operates primarily in Badakhshan, Baghlan and Kunduz provinces." Furthermore, the UN report notes that "Central Asian embassies based in Afghanistan have observed with concern that several leaders of IJU have travelled freely to Kabul. In September 2021, Mamatov and Dekhanov separately visited Kabul."
On December 29, 2004, the State Department added Uyghur jihadi group the Eastern Turkistan Islamic Movement (ETIM) to the Terrorist Exclusion List (TEL). The group’s leaders Hassan Mahsum (2003) and Abdul Shakur al-Turkistani (2012) were each killed in US drone strikes. However, on November 5, 2020, US Secretary of State Mike Pompeo removed ETIM from the Terrorist Exclusion List in accordance with the Immigration and Nationality Act (INA).
Then, on March 22, 2018, the State Department added Uzbek jihadi group Katibat Imam al-Bukhari to the US government’s list of specially designated global terrorist organizations. Currently, KIB wages jihad in Syria under the HTS umbrella against the Bashar al-Assad regime. KIB is now led by an ethnic Uzbek from Tajikistan, Abu Yusuf al-Muhajir, who has close and trusting relations with Sirajuddin Haqqani, the Minister of the Interior of the Taliban government and leader of the powerful al Qaeda-linked Haqqani Network. The group also operates in northern Afghanistan, specifically Faryab, and other ethnically Uzbek areas. KIB, like the IJU and KTJ, is also a splinter of the IMU and pledged loyalty to the Taliban.
In conclusion, the US government's designation of Central Asian and Caucasian Salafi-Jihadi groups as global terrorist organizations provides a positive impetus to global counterterrorism efforts. Such moves will certainly help the governments of Central Asia and the Middle East in cutting off the channels of financial, material, and military assistance to extremist groups associated with al-Qaeda and the Islamic State.