The son of a fabled slain Uzbek militant commander has been luring Uzbek men in northern Afghanistan to join the so-called Islamic State (IS) militant group, according to officials in the northern province of Sar-e-Pul.
Abdul Rahman Yuldash, a reclusive wanted man, is reportedly leading efforts to help establish an IS footprint in Afghanistan's northern provinces bordering his native Uzbekistan. Officials are not sure where he is based or how he operates.
Authorities, however, say they "have received reports about the presence of Tahir Yuldash's son in some villages," Zahir Wahdat, governor of restive Sar-e-Pul Province, told VOA.
Tahir Yuldash was a co-founder and leader of the Islamic Movement of Uzbekistan (IMU). The hard-line Islamist group was established in the mid-1990s in Uzbekistan and included fighters from several central Asian nations, operating from bases inside Tajikistan and Taliban-controlled Afghanistan, analysts say.
Once a strong ally of the Taliban, the IMU later became closely associated with Al-Qaeda and its leader, Osama bin Laden.
Following the Taliban ouster in 2001, Tahir Yuldash and his followers settled in tribal areas in Pakistan near the Afghan border; however, disputes followed with local tribes that accused Yuldash of imposing his extreme ways on locals, including women, and recruiting them for military training.
Tahir Yuldash's men engaged in clashes with local militant groups and were accused of killing many tribal elders, which led to their eventual move to Afghanistan's Zabul Province in 2007. Tahir Yuldash was reportedly killed in a U.S. drone strike in August 2009.
Little is known about the younger Yuldash, but he reportedly lived in Pakistan's southern port city of Karachi after his father’s death.
"He used to live in Karachi and may still be based there," said Wahid Muzhda, a Taliban analyst in Kabul.
Yuldash has twice been seen in Sar-e-Pul's Sayyad district recruiting for IS, local security officials told VOA's Afghanistan service. Many militants previously associated with the Taliban are now signing up for IS in the area, officials say.
According to Muzhda, Uzbek fighters in northern areas of Afghanistan are fleeing the Taliban and switching sides to join IS, a claim he says the Taliban denies.
"The IMU has split up into three smaller groups," Muzhda said, adding that one of the groups has pledged allegiance to IS.
The IMU was closely linked with the Taliban and fought against the Afghan government. However, analysts say differences surfaced after the Taliban announced their disassociation with international terrorist groups, including Al-Qaeda, and abandoned plans to support the spread of terrorist activities into Central Asia.
Osman Ghazi, Tahir Yuldash's successor and son-in-law, accused the Taliban of being apostates and pledged allegiance to IS leader Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi, according to Muzhda.
Following the split, the two groups engaged in fierce fighting in 2015 in Zabul, which left at least 110 dead and dozens wounded. To show its loyalty to Islamic State, the IMU fighters kidnapped and killed around a dozen ethnic Shi'ite Afghans. Ghazi was arrested and hanged by the Taliban last year.
Yuldash was recently injured in an explosion after visiting his family in Zabul, Muzhda said.
The IMU's presence is known in some parts of the northern provinces where locals have spotted Uzbek fighters and their families.
"About two years ago, 10 or 15 families that belonged to the Islamic Movement of Uzbekistan came and settled in Darzaab," a local resident in neighboring Jouzjan Province told VOA's Uzbek service on condition of anonymity for safety reasons.
"We believe the IMU is training fighters," he said. "I know some local Uzbeks from Sar-e-Pul, Faryab, and Badghis have also joined them."
Militant Activity Grows
Afghanistan's northern provinces have recently seen an increase in militant activities. More than 4,000 fighters from different militant groups are active in Sar-e-Pul, according to Zabihullah Amani, a spokesman for the provincial government.
According to the governor of Sar-e-Pul, Afghan forces are engaged in heavy battles with militants in five districts. The Kohistanat district, he said, has been under the militants' control for the past 18 months and is where foreign fighters train local militants.
"Parts of Sar-e-Pul have become bases and safe havens for anti-government militants," he said, adding that many fighters from Central Asian countries such as Uzbekistan, Tajikistan, and Kazakhstan are present in the area, including Tahir Yuldash's son.
"IS does not have a large base yet, but some local commanders [militants], who used to be with the Taliban, are now sympathizing with IS and want to join the group. No doubt, they [IS] are trying to establish a large base in the province," the governor told Afghan Tolo TV.
-- Written by Noor Zahid for Voice of America