In early February, several groups fighting in Syria with predominantly Central Asian memberships joined forces with a new rebel coalition. In particular, the Katibat al Tawhid wal Jihad group, consisting mainly of Uzbek jihadists from Kyrgyzstan and Uzbekistan, said in a statement that they were joining the Hay’at Tahrir Al-Sham, a new rebel coalition.
In late January, a Twitter account associated with theTurkistan Islamic Party (TIP) announced that the group was joining the new Sunni alliance. Uighur militants from China’s Xinjiang Autonomous Region were among the first to openly support the creation of the Hay’at Tahrir Al-Sham.
Another group of Uzbek Islamists from Central Asia, Katibat al-Imam Bukhari, reportedly has also become a member of the Hay’at Tahrir Al-Sham, but has not published an official statement to that effect.
The joining of Uzbek militant groups with this new rebel coalition may be related to Katibat al-Imam Bukhari’s bitter experience joining with ISIS in October 2014. At that time al-Qaeda and the Taliban movement, both openly hostile to the Islamic state for leadership in the global jihad, interpreted the daring step as a betrayal. The Taliban and Katibat al-Imam Bukhari (former called the Islamic Movement of Uzbekistan) have long been allies in Afghanistan, acting under the ideological direction of al-Qaeda. Some Uzbek militants fighting in Syria did not support the union with ISIS, leading to a split in the group. The Taliban movement in November 2015 attacked a Katibat al-Imam Bukhari military camp in Afghanistan’s Zabul province and, for the abovementioned “betrayal,” executed 60 Uzbek jihadists together with their leader Usman Ghazi.
In November 2015, Uzbek jihadists in Syria pledged allegiance to the Al Nusrah Front, which in July 2016 changed its name to Jabhat Fateh al-Sham — in apparent return to their former allies. Jabhat Fateh al-Sham has played a key role in bringing Central Asian Islamist terrorist groups into the newly created opposition alliance which has Abu Jaber Hashem Al-Sheikh, former head of the Ahrar al Sham group, at its head.
Hay’at Tahrir Al-Sham’s ideological platform in general coincides with the principles and views of al-Qaeda. The new jihadist alliance advocates the creation of a single Islamic state with the rigid hierarchy and assimilation of its constituent groups. In accordance with the ideological setting of al-Qaeda’s leader, Ayman al-Zawahiri, a new armed alliance was formed by Sunni Muslims who practice a radical form of Wahhabism.
On February 9, 2017 Abu Jaber Hashem Al-Sheikh made his first appearance in a video message as the new alliance’s leader. He said that the alliance is an independent entity and that its creation “ushers a new stage in the life of the blessed revolution.” Their main mission, Abu Jaber stressed, is to topple the Assad regime. The group will begin its “military work” against the regime in short order, he said.
Hay’at Tahrir Al-Sham has successfully assimilated three terrorist groups whose members primarily hail from Central Asia: Katibat al-Imam Bukhari, the Turkestan Islamic Party, and Katibat al Tawhid wal Jihad. Now, in accordance with the general lines of the new alliance, Uighur and Uzbek jihadists in these groups will have to fight on three fronts simultaneously.
First is the war against the Syrian Army, controlled by the Assad regime. In this direction, achieving success is incredibly difficult. The Syrian Army has the active support of Iran and Russia, and Russia has been strident in pursuing rebel groups even more harshly than pursuing the Islamic State.
Second is the war against the former opposition bloc supporters, such as the Free Syrian Army, Ahrar al-Sham, Jaish al-Mujahideen, and others. Already fights have broken out between the more radical members of Hay’at Tahrir Al-Sham and the moderate opposition, with about 100 moderate Islamists killed. According to the International Crisis Group, the stumbling block was the decision of the moderate opposition to send their representatives to the recent summit in Astana and their desire to settle the conflict by peaceful means, which the Hay’at Tahrir Al-Sham did not like. In this confrontation, Western sympathy is on the side of the moderate opposition, which receives military assistance from external donors.
The third war is the confrontation between ISIS and al-Qaeda. Conflict between the two global terrorist movements for dominant leadership in the global jihad may turn into a major war in the future. Here, Central Asian militants are on both sides of the divide. Jihadists from Central Asia have long been turned into a “toy” in the hands of the major Islamist terrorist groups such as Islamic State and al-Qaeda.
Uran Botobekov has a PhD in political science and is an expert on political Islam.