An Uzbek militant who claims to be fighting alongside the Taliban-aligned Imam Bukhori Jamaat in Syria has criticized the Islamic State (IS) group in an interview with RFE/RL's Uzbek Service.
The militant, who communicated via the WhatsApp messaging service last week, claimed that he was in Syria. The militant would not give his name but spoke via a Syrian cellphone number.
The interview offers interesting insights into the opinions and experiences of a rank-and-file militant in the main Uzbek Islamist foreign-fighter faction in Syria.
What Is Imam Bukhori Jamaat?
Based in the northern Syrian province of Aleppo, the Imam Bukhori Jamaat is the main Uzbek militant faction in Syria outside of IS. It has fought in offensives against forces loyal to Syrian President Bashar al-Assad, alongside Syrian Islamist factions as well as other Islamist foreign-fighter battalions.
Imam Bukhori Jamaat has long-standing links to the Afghan Taliban. It has previously said it was formed by "authorization of the Islamic Emirate of Afghanistan," the name used by the Afghan Taliban. Imam Bukhori Jamaat's leader, Sheikh Salahuddin, is reputed to have spent a long time in Afghanistan before coming to Syria.
In November 2014, the group released a video showing Salahuddin and some of his fighters pledging allegiance to then-Taliban leader Mullah Mohammad Omar.
The Uzbek militant who spoke to RFE/RL said that the group had now pledged allegiance to Mullah Mohammad Akhtar Mansur, who was recently named as the Taliban leader after it was revealed that Mullah Omar died in 2013.
In one of its videos, the group sung songs with lyrics that include the phrases, "We will return to Uzbekistan," while in another video militants said they would "go to Uzbekistan, Kyrgyzstan, Tajikistan, and wherever."
However, there is no evidence to suggest that Imam Bukhori militants have returned to Uzbekistan.
Opposed To IS
The main motivation for the Uzbek militant to contact RFE/RL appears to have been a desire to express his group's opposition to the IS group. "IS is a group with a false 'aqidah' [Islamic creed]. Its leader [Abu Bakr] al-Baghdadi is a person who likes to indulge in pleasures, he is a depraved person," the Uzbek militant said.
Baghdadi had "succumbed to an improper aqidah" and had "surrounded himself with ignoramuses who consider as infidels even those who smoke cigarettes," the militant said.
Baghdadi had also deemed it permissible to kill other Muslims, the militant added.
He claimed that large numbers of Jabhat al-Nusra fighters were killed when IS attacked them in Syria's Raqqa Province, and took an oil plant that JAN had controlled.
The militant did not say when the attack on the Raqqa oil field occurred. However, IS has captured other oil fields from Jabhat al-Nusra, including the Al-Omar field, Syria's largest, in July 2014.
"In Raqqa, there is an oil plant. It was captured by Jabhat al-Nusra. After Baghdadi attacked [Nusra], spilling the blood of around a thousand mujahedin [jihadist fighters], and taking about one and a half thousand captive, he took the oil plant for himself," the militant said.
"Once [IS] declared it permissible to kill Muslims, to confiscate their property, sell their women for $500 at the bazaar, a fatwa was issued for us to fight against IS. If they come onto our territory then we will fight against them."
The Uzbek militant said that his group in Syria would never pledge "bay'ah" (an oath of allegiance) to Baghdadi. "We gave bay'ah to Mullah Omar and after him we gave bay'ah to the current leader of the Taliban," the militant told RFE/RL.
Growing Number Of Uzbeks In Syria?
The militant claimed that around 300 Uzbek militants are fighting alongside the Imam Bukhori Jamaat and had come to Syria together with their families.
It is not possible to independently confirm the number of militants in the Imam Bukhori Jamaat. Videos released by the group have shown as many as 75 militants.
The militant claimed that all in all, there are around 6,000 Uzbeks fighting in Syria in various groups, although there is no evidence to suggest that there is anything approaching that number. Analysts say that the figure is more likely to be in the several hundreds, though this is impossible to confirm.
The militant did not say whether the 6,000 Uzbeks he claims are fighting in Syria include those fighting in IS, and he did not mention the names of any other Uzbek factions. However, as well as the Imam Bukhori Jamaat, there is another Uzbek group -- referred to as both Jannat Oshiklari and Tawhid wal-Jihod -- that is fighting in Aleppo Province.
There are considerable economic advantages for Uzbeks who come to fight in Syria, the militant said. "In Syria right now, in the brigades that I know of, there are about 6,000 Uzbeks. That's because here the majority of things, apart from gas, are practically free, there are no taxes," he told RFE/RL.
"So over the past year, the number of families that are coming to these places has grown. Wherever you look there are Uzbeks, praise be to God."
Most Uzbek militants in Syria -- apart from those in IS -- are loyal to the Taliban, he claimed.
The number of Uzbeks fighting in Syria is unknown. Abdulaziz Mansur, the deputy chairman of the Muslim Board of Uzbekistan, told RFE/RL's Uzbek Service in March that there were "about 200" Uzbeks in Syria.
A Kazakh analyst, Erlan Karin, has estimated that there are about 500 Uzbeks there.
The Uzbek militant told RFE/RL that Uzbeks who come to Syria were given free rein to do whatever they like. "They can go to the Uzbeks, or to the Saudis, or to brigades of other nationalities. Those who want to study the Koran can go to a madrasah," he said.
"Whoever wants to study military skills goes to military specialists. Whoever wants to learn how to make bombs or fight with heavy weaponry goes to other specialists. That is, the person himself determines where and to whom to go."
Most new Uzbek recruits go to the Imam Bukhori Jamaat or to Jabhat al-Nusra, he said, while many Russian-speaking recruits to go Jabhat al-Nusra brigades.
The Uzbek militant was surprisingly uncritical of the most famous (or infamous) Russian-speaking IS militant in Syria: Umar al-Shishani, a.k.a. Tarkhan Batirashvili, a Kist, or ethnic Chechen from Georgia, who rose to become a military commander in the IS group.
While militants from other non-IS groups from territories in the former Soviet Union have slammed Batirashvili, accusing him of using militants as "cannon fodder," the Uzbek militant suggested that the Kist might himself have criticized IS.
"He was devout and he wanted to wage true jihad," the Uzbek militant said of Batirashvili. "But later, having seen IS's incorrect actions, he probably also considered them "Khawarij" [an Islamic term meaning a deviant group] and probably they destroyed him for it. But I don't know for sure where he is or with whom."
IMU Joins IS
There appear to be good reasons why the Uzbek militant from the Imam Bukhori Jamaat chose to speak to RFE/RL now about his group's attitude toward IS. His decision comes amid important shifts in the Uzbek militant landscape.
A 2 1/2-minute video seen by RFE/RL on August 6 showed the leader of the Islamic Movement of Uzbekistan (IMU), Usmon Ghazi, swearing an oath of allegiance to IS leader Baghdadi. "From now on, we are not just a movement, we are a state," Ghazi says, according to a narrator's translation of his oath.
The video describes itself as representing "Wilayat Khorasan," IS's name for its so-called province in the Khorasan region, which includes parts of modern Iran, Afghanistan, Tajikistan, Turkmenistan, and Uzbekistan.
It is not clear when the video was filmed. But the alignment of the IMU with IS, together with IS's increased propaganda targeting Russian speakers and Central Asians, is likely to have great significance for smaller groups like the Imam Bukhori Jamaat, including by making it harder for such groups to recruit fresh militants into their own ranks, for example.
In June, an Uzbek militant fighting alongside IS appeared in a video calling on Uzbeks to defect to IS from other groups, including Jabhat al-Nusra.
The Imam Bukhori Jamaat is already sensitive to the idea of its militants defecting to IS. In October 2014, a group of militants from the faction released a video in which they pledged allegiance to Baghdadi.