By Uran Botobekov
March 13, 2018
According to American intelligence agencies, in the recent six months the influx of new recruits from post-Soviet states of Eurasia to Syria, who want to fight for the establishment of the Caliphate, has significantly reduced. It has occurred after the fall of the so-called Islamic State in Iraq and Syria, and also after a significant weakening of positions of the jihadist group Hay’at Tahrir Al –Sham associated with al-Qaeda.
However, al-Qaeda, via its groups in Central Asia and Caucasus, which are fighting within Hayat Tahrir al-Sham, has developed and actively used new tactics of recruitment and distribution of the radical ideology of Jihadism. Since March 2018, two terrorist groups from Central Asia, Katibat Imamal Bukhari and Katibat al Tawhid wal Jihad have started to actively distribute photocopies of leaflets via social media supporting the jihadist line of al-Qaeda.
The leaflets in Russian, Uzbek, Kazakh, Uighur and Tajik advocating the support of pro-al-Qaeda groups in Syria and calling on the continuation of the “jihad to protect Islam” have been regularly published on a Telegram channel. The geography of such leaflet distributors is rather broad. For reasons of security, the leaflets don’t contain full names or surnames of the new supporters of al-Qaeda. Instead, they contain only a region, country, town or village of the leaflet senders. The senders’ addresses imply that the senders reside in Western Europe, Russia, Caucasus, Central Asia and Xinjiang Uygur Autonomous Region of China.
Despite the fact that leaflets are written in various languages and sent from various regions of the Eurasian continent, the contents of such leaflets are identical. The fundamental idea behind the leaflets is to support the jihadist groups fighting in Syria and to become a member of the main Sunni terrorist organization al-Qaeda.
Thus, March 4, 2018, the Telegram page of Central Asian militants of Katibat al Tawhid wal Jihad contained the leaflet with the following content in Uzbek, “Dear Muslims Mujahideen Ahlu al-Sunnah wa al-Jamaah! We support the holy struggle pursued by the brave warriors of Allah Hay’at Tahrir Al –Shamon the blessed land of Sham (Syria) against atheists. Your actions are meant to establish the Sharia laws on earth. May Allah be pleased with you. Soon we will come to you to support you. Allahu Akbar! Tajikistan, Hudjont, 03.04.2018.”
Another leaflet said that “the Muslims in On Adyr micro-district, Osh, Kyrgyzstan, support the Mujahideen of Hay’atTahrir Al –Sham. Let Allah give you victory in the war against the crusaders.” Also a leaflet from Dagestan, Russia, has been published with a call to “support the Mujahideen of Hay’at Tahrir Al –Sham and a prayer for the early establishment of the caliphate.” Tawhid wal Jihad on his Telegram page has published the photocopies of over 100 leaflets calling to support jihad under the leadership of pro-al-Qaeda groups in Syria. These leaflets have been sent from Moscow, Chelyabinsk of Russian Federation; Jizak, Ferghana, Namangan regions of Uzbekistan, Chimkent, Kyzyl Orda of Kazakhstan; Uzgen, Osh, Aravan, Nookat, Jalal-Abad of Kyrgyzstan; Ukraine (no town specified), South Korea (no town specified), Western Europe (no state specified) and Jeddah of Saudi Arabia.
The leaflets have been written mainly in Uzbek and Russian by hand by an ordinary pen. There’s no doubt in the authenticity of these leaflets. The grammar of presentation, the authors’ handwriting and the time of publication in the Telegram indicate that the leaflets have been written by different people, at different times and in different countries.
Among the numerous leaflets published by Katibat al Tawhid wal Jihad on the Telegram channel, we have paid attention to those sent from Turkey and Egypt. The leaflet from Turkey was in the form of an Islamic flag of al-Qaeda and contained the promise that “we will soon arrive in Sham and together with the Mujahideen Hay’at Tahrir Al-Sham we will sing Takfir (devotion to Allah). And then the dead bodies of the Kafirs will lie under our feet.” The leaflet from Cairo was written by hand in literate Arabic, in which the support of al-Qaeda is expressed on behalf of the Mujahideen of Egypt.
Katibat al Tawhid wal Jihad is affiliated with the Jabhat Al-Nusra group and its ancestor Al Qaeda. The leader of the group is the Uzbek jihadist, Abu Saloh. His real name is Sirojiddin Mukhtarov, born in the Osh region of Kyrgyzstan. According to the Kyrgyz law enforcement agencies, in 2014 Abu Saloh was wounded in the eye in fighting against the Syrian governmental forces and then was treated in Turkey. Abu Saloh jointly with the Uighur terrorists from the Turkestan Islamic Party organized the explosion in the Bishkek-based Chinese embassy in August 2016. Also, the Federal Security Service of Russia accuses him of organizing an explosion in the metro of St. Petersburg on April 3, 2017, which killed 15 people, and wounded more than 50 others. The bomb was blown up by a suicide bomber, Akbarjon Jalilov, a 22-year-old native of Kyrgyzstan.
Another jihadist group from Central Asia Katibat Imam al Bukhari, close in its ideological doctrine to al-Qaeda, has also published on its Telegram page many dozens of leaflets. It should be emphasized that the main core of militant groups are nationals of Uzbekistan, Kyrgyzstan and Tajikistan, who are fighting today in the Syrian province of Idlib in alliance with Hay’at Tahrir al-Sham against the regime of Bashar Assad. The leader of Katibat Imam al Bukhari is a native of Tajikistan, ethnic Uzbek, Abu Yusuf Muhojir, who is known for his deep religious knowledge in the field of jihad and devotion to the idea of al-Qaeda. He has trust-based relations with the leadership of the Taliban movement. Some of the militants of the Uzbek group help the Taliban in Afghanistan. But Abu Yusuf Muhojir himself is now in Syria, and he leads the group there.
A leaflet with the al-Qaeda emblem decorated with an Arabic engraving “Allah is Great” was published on the Telegram page of Katibat Imam al Bukhari at the bottom of which is written in Kyrgyz, “By the will of Allah, we love, respect and support the brave lions of Hay’at Tahrir al-Sham. Soon we will follow the path of jihad, and we will fight shoulder to shoulder with you against the enemies of Islam. Kyrgyzstan, Osh, Nookat. 03.04.2018.”
Similar leaflets in support of Hay’at Tahrir al-Sham positions have been widely published on the Telegram by the media structures of Central Asian jihadists Jihod Shamoli (Wind of Jihad), Sham Ovozi (Voice of Sham) and Tavhid Xabarlari (News of Tawhid).
Tactics of Survival of al–Qaeda
We have quoted the leaflets in detail and tried to reveal their deep meaning so that the counterterrorism experts could understand the ideological tactics pursued by the main Sunni terrorist organization of al-Qaeda and its affiliated groups Hay’at Tahriral-Sham, Katibat Imamal Bukhari and Katibat al Tawhid wal Jihad.
As the analysis shows, the content and ideological platform of all these leaflets is identical. This campaign aims to, first of all, consolidate al-Qaeda supporters in Western Europe, Russia, Central Asian countries, Xinjiang Uygur Autonomous Region of China and the Middle East.
Internet and social media have become the main tool of virtual consolidation and recruitment for Salafi-Jihadi groups, affiliated with al-Qaeda. The al-Qaeda recruiting strategy in the regions of Central Asia and Caucasus accepts only ideologically verified people who are directly related to the factions of Katibat al Tawhid wal Jihad, Katibat al-Imam Bukhari, Turkestan Islamic Party and Katibat al-Ghuraba.
Al-Qaeda leader Ayman al-Zawahiri is known to strictly observe all the requirements of secrecy (no cell phone, no social media usage, no internet usage, and no emails). Therefore, the ideologists of the leaflet campaign have decided not to mention al-Qaeda in leaflets directly, rather they have organized public and mass support of his fighting wing, Hay’at Tahrir al-Sham. Despite the latest tactical differences between Ayman al-Zawahiri and Abu Mohammad al-Julani, the ideological position of the Hay’at Tahrir Al-Sham group today fully corresponds to the position of al-Qaeda.
The new ideological tactics of al-Qaeda proves the statement of the Council on Foreign Relations of the US that “in recent years, al-Qaeda has been quietly rebuilding and fortifying its various branches, systematically implemented an ambitious strategy and discreetly consolidated its influence wherever the movement has a significant presence.”
The wars in Syria and Iraq have shown that al-Qaeda and ISIS have different tactics for using militants from Central Asia in a real battle. ISIS is known for using the militants from Central Asia as cannon fodder, neglecting human lives. In the protection of Mosul and Raqqa, Tajik and Uzbek jihadists have been massively used as suicide bombers who blew themselves up in the name of Allah as martyrs. According to the study of The International Centre for Counter-Terrorism, in the ISIS ranks, people from Central Asia were leading in terms of the number of suicide bombers. As a result, more than 80% of the Central Asian militants in the ISIS were destroyed. The surviving militants have managed to move to Afghanistan and rejoin ISIS-Khorasan. Some of them have returned to their countries and surrendered to law enforcement agencies, as a result, many of them were sentenced to prison.
Unlike ISIS, al-Qaeda follows the doctrine of its leader Ayman al-Zawahiri who said, “We should adapt to the practical reality wherever it is. We would take into account the circumstances of each jihadist arena and what achieves its interests”. Due to this tactics, al-Qaeda has managed to survive and maintain the efficiency of its groups in Syria, including Katibat Imamal Bukhari and Katibat al Tawhid wal Jihad from Central Asia. According to the Council on Foreign Relations, in Syria alone, al-Qaeda now has upwards of twenty thousand men under arms, and it has perhaps another four thousand in Yemen and about seven thousand in Somalia.
Due to the strategy of adoption to the practical reality, al-Qaeda has survived from unmanned aircrafts, ground clashes with the Assad forces and won in the tough competition with ISIS for the leadership in the global jihad. ISIS no longer can compete with al-Qaeda in terms of influence, coverage of territories, militant force or solidarity. The only trump card of ISIS is its ability to launch transnational terrorist strikes in Europe and USA. Today only due to “lone wolves” ISIS can still maintain its menacing brand and hold intelligence services on western countries in suspense.
Purpose of Leaflet Campaign
The leaflet campaign in support of Hay’at Tahrir al-Sham group pursues the three aims that comply with the strategic task ofal-Qaeda.
First, as we have already mentioned, this is a consolidation of supporters and distribution of the al-Qaeda ideology in the post-Soviet territory. Compared to the Arabic countries of the Middle East, African Maghreb, and Southern Asia, the post-Soviet countries of Central Asia and Muslim republics of Russia remain the least exposed to the radical ideology of al-Qaeda. Therefore, al-Qaeda thinks that it’s time for the deeper invasion in the Eurasian region.
Second, the recruitment of new members for Salafi-Jihadi groups affiliated with al-Qaeda is an important aim of this leaflet campaign. After the fall of ISIS, many of its supporters and potential jihadists in Central Asia have become confused. In this situation, al-Qaeda has decided to fill in the gap and convert the former ISIS members to their side. Moreover, the war in Syria and Iraq has shown that Central Asia has a good potential for the recruitment of jihadists.
Third, al-Qaeda is intending to open another branch in the post-Soviet area of Central Asia in addition to the five existing branches. These tactics supports the ambitions of al-Qaeda to become the leader of the global jihad. After the defeat of ISIS, Ayman al-Zawahiri has turned into a powerful leader able to set strategic tasks and to implement them successfully step by step.
In conclusion, it should be emphasized that the main target of al-Qaeda is, according to the will of Bin Laden, the USA and its allies. Therefore, western countries at the head of the US should take the “leaflet campaign” of al-Qaeda seriously because it has far-reaching goals and poses a serious threat to the interests and partners of the USA all over the world.