January issue 2013

By | Newsbeat | Published 7 years ago

baitullahThere has never been any doubt about the presence of foreign militants from different parts of the world in Pakistan — mostly in the northwestern parts of the country — but their exact numbers and nationalities has always been a matter of conjecture.

Uzbek militants and their comrades from other Central Asian countries and the Caucasus have been present in South Waziristan and North Waziristan for around a decade. Apart from their documented physical presence in the tribal areas and intercepts of their conversation on the wireless and phones in Russian, Uzbeki and other languages monitored by the intelligence agencies, the Uzbek militants themselves gave ample evidence of their activities in Pakistan by releasing videos glorifying attacks they have conducted in the country. Their numbers may not be high, probably a few hundred, but their impact is significant, considering the high level of their commitment as fighters and the use of the most violent methods to achieve their objectives.

Until the December 15 terrorist attack on the Bacha Khan International Airport and the Pakistan Air Force base in Peshawar, there was no concrete evidence of involvement of Central Asians and Caucasians in attacks in urban Pakistani centres. But following the failed attack, the authorities recovered the bodies of foreign militants, for the first time — and that too with tattoos.

The large tattoos on the backs of two bodies intrigued local investigators, who were told tattooing is common in Russia, including the Caucasus, and some of the Central Asian republics.

The tattoos of “Satan” and “Angel of Death” on one body were also published in newspapers. Another had the name ‘Yusuf’ engraved on his arm in the Russian script. The police and other investigators figured that five of the nine attackers were foreigners as they had distinctive Caucasian and Central Asian features. Many people were shocked to see the tattoos and Islamic scholars decreed that it was un-Islamic to have one’s body tattooed.

A note in Urdu found on the body of a fighter said he was Musa’b from Daghestan and was taking part in this “blessed operation” because heretics are liable to be killed till the evil is eliminated. It was strange though that the note was in Urdu and not in Russian, the language commonly spoken in the Caucasus from where the Daghestani and Chechen fighters supposedly came and took refuge, first in Taliban-ruled Afghanistan and then, after the US-led invasion of that country in October 2001, in Pakistan’s tribal areas, particularly South and North Waziristan.

A number of foreign fighters, mostly Arabs, some Central Asians and a few Chinese Muslims, have been killed in the tribal areas in US drone strikes and Pakistan’s military operations, but security forces have never been able to get hold of any of their bodies or locate their graves. The first and last time the army captured any Central Asians was in the early years of military action against the militants in South Waziristan when two Tajiks, a young man and a teenager, were seized and presented before the media. Also, the issue of Uzbek militants was highlighted in the summer of 2007 when the Ahmadzai Wazir tribe in Wana, Shakai and Angoor Adda areas of South Waziristan took up arms against them and their local tribal supporters and expelled them from their area after accusing them of misusing their hospitality and interfering in local affairs. The Islamic Movement of Uzbekistan (IMU) to which the Uzbeks and other Central Asian militants are affiliated was also in the news when its leader Tahir Yuldashev and his successor Abu Usman Adil were killed in missile strikes by CIA-operated drones in Waziristan in September 2009 and April 2012, respectively. The current leader of the depleted IMU is Usman Ghazi, and he too is believed to be based in Waziristan and operating across the border in Afghanistan as well.

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The IMU is no longer operationally active in Uzbekistan where it was founded in the Farghana valley, but is now largely operating in Afghanistan and Pakistan. It doesn’t hide its activities in Pakistan and has been glorifying its actions by publishing a magazine, Ghazwa-i-Hind (The Battle for India), in Urdu through its media wing, Jundullah Studio, and making and circulating videos about major attacks such as the Bannu jailbreak last year when 384 prisoners were freed in the biggest such incident in Pakistan’s history. The Uzbeks and other foreign militants have made strong alliances in Waziristan and also intermarried, to be able to live in Pakistan.

The Hakimullah Mahsud-led Tehrik-i-Taliban Pakistan (TTP) and its like-minded groups have been hosting the foreign militants and also using them to fight Pakistan’s security forces. Though it is an open secret that the TTP and al-Qaeda are now close allies, Hakimullah Mahsud explained the intimate nature of their ties when he declared in his most recent video-tape that there was no difference between his organisation and the Afghan Taliban and al-Qaeda and that he and his men were willing to get their throats cut for al-Qaeda.

Rahimullah Yusufzai is a Peshawar-based senior journalist who covers events in the NWFP, FATA, Balochistan and Afghanistan. His work appears in the Pakistani and international media. He has also contributed chapters to books on the region.