In the evening hours of June 8, 2014, 10 gunmen attacked the old terminal of Jinnah International Airport in Karachi. They were armed with rifles, rockets, grenades and suicide vests. They carried backpacks with food and water, indicating they were prepared for a long operation. They battled with security forces for five hours, set buildings ablaze and forced a temporary shutdown of international air traffic. The attack left 34 people dead, including the 10 assailants.[1]

Tehrik-i-Taliban Pakistan (TTP) claimed the attack, but it soon emerged that the Islamic Movement of Uzbekistan (IMU) had provided the assault team for the operation. Uzbek militants have been implicated in a string of similar attacks in Pakistan, most notably on Mehran Naval Base in May 2011, Minhas Airbase at Kamra in August 2012 and Peshawar Airbase in December 2012.[2] This raises the question of whether the IMU has become a strategic asset to the TTP, with the capability to strike high-value targets in urban centers of Pakistan.

The IMU’s role in Pakistan has so far only been superficially treated in the existing literature. Recent studies tend to focus on the potential threat from the IMU against Central Asia and the West after NATO forces leave Afghanistan in 2014.[3] There is general agreement that the IMU keeps supporting Pakistani militant groups because they are dependent on the sanctuaries provided to them by the TTP and because “they are foreigners and have no choice.”[4] A few studies suggest that the IMU’s original aims and goals have been diluted and the organization has been dispersed, due to heavy targeting of the IMU’s leadership since 2009.[5] The existing literature, however, fails to explore the role played by the IMU in recent high-profile attacks in Pakistan.

This article seeks to fill this gap. It critically examines claims of the IMU’s involvement during the Karachi airport attack and other high-profile militant operations against hard targets in Pakistan. It is based on press reports, official statements and the IMU’s own propaganda. These sources are often biased, but together they may paint a fuller picture than has been provided so far.[6] The article finds that the strength and cohesiveness of the IMU in Pakistan tends to be conflated. The IMU has a small footprint outside of its traditional sanctuary in the Federally Administered Tribal Areas (FATA), and it is dependent on local networks to operate in places such as Sindh and Punjab. There are so far few indications that IMU officials have been involved in masterminding attacks on Pakistani soil. Their role seems limited to recruiting and training suicide squads,[7] while local commanders from the TTP, former Kashmiri networks, or occasionally al-Qa`ida select targets and timing for attacks. This does not mean that the IMU should be dismissed as a serious threat in the future. The IMU has demonstrated its capability to carry out deadly and relatively sophisticated attacks compared with many other groups operating in the same theater. The IMU’s primary weakness in Pakistan is not its lack of capability, but its lack of coherent leadership and dependence on local networks to operate.

The Karachi Airport Attack
The Karachi airport attack was ambitious, well-planned and relatively well-executed, compared to similar attacks claimed by the TTP in the past. The attackers entered the airport from at least two sides, wearing uniforms and using fake identification cards to pose as Airport Security Force (ASF) personnel.[8] Once inside the airport, they reportedly operated in pairs.[9] The large number of weapons and other equipment found on the dead militants speaks to the high ambitions of the attack.

The fighting took place in and around an old terminal building, which is rarely used for civilian air traffic. This led some observers to claim that the attack had failed because the assailants did not manage to reach the civilian passenger terminal. The original aim of the attack, however, is not known. The TTP’s and the IMU’s own statements about the objectives of the attack differ, and in any case cannot be taken at face value.[10] The large number of petrol bombs carried by the militants indicates they were going to cause material damage, presumably to aircraft.[11] This would follow the pattern of previous attacks on military bases in Pakistan. In the attack on Mehran Naval Base in Karachi in 2011, two P3-C Orion surveillance aircraft were destroyed.[12] The attack on Minhas Airbase in Punjab in 2012 also resulted in damage to aircraft worth millions of dollars.[13] Moreover, operational planners must have known that any attack on the airport, even the old terminal, would lead to a temporary shutdown of international air traffic to and from Pakistan’s busiest airport, causing economic damage and great embarrassment to the country’s political leadership. In that sense the attack was a success, although the militants likely hoped for the siege to last longer than five hours.

Both the TTP and the IMU issued statements claiming responsibility for the Karachi airport attack. They were not competing claims—rather, it was presented as a joint operation.[14] The IMU’s statement of responsibility contained pictures of 10 individuals claimed to be the assault team.[15] This was supported by eyewitnesses in the Karachi airport who stated that the attackers looked like Uzbeks or other Central Asians.[16]

Who Was The Karachi Mastermind?
The claim that the IMU provides manpower for suicide attacks in Afghanistan and Pakistan is not new. More interesting, however, is the identity of the mastermind behind the attack. Initially, some Pakistani media claimed that the mastermind was an IMU member with the nom de guerre Abu Abdur Rehman Almani.[17] If true, it would signal a dramatic evolution in the IMU’s role and importance in Pakistani militancy. While the IMU is known to provide manpower and training to operations planned by other groups, there has so far been little open source evidence that they contribute on the level of strategic planning.

The allegations about Almani, however, could not be independently verified. The only information in the case comes from anonymous sources in the Pakistan Army, who stated that Almani was killed in an air raid against militant hideouts in North Waziristan Agency on June 15, 2014.[18] It should be noted that the claim about Almani’s death came in the midst of a state-run propaganda campaign to gather popular support for Operation Zarb-e-Azb—a long-awaited, but controversial military operation against militant hideouts in North Waziristan. The media also could not agree on the exact role played by “Almani” (the nickname suggests he is of German origin)—he was variably described as a “key commander,” “mastermind,” or “expert on improvised explosive devices.”[19]

The IMU has so far not commented on the claim. The only individual in the IMU known to use the nickname “Abdur Rehman” appeared in a propaganda video about a joint TTP-IMU attack on Bannu prison in April 2012.[20] If this is the same individual who the Pakistan Army claimed to have killed on June 15, he can hardly be described as a “mastermind.” The individual in the video presented himself as a foot soldier and cameraman in the prison raid, and did not appear to possess any of the skills necessary to plan high-profile attacks on behalf of the TTP.[21]

Others have suggested that Adnan Rasheed, a former Pakistani Air Force airman who was freed in the Bannu prison break, was the mastermind of the Karachi airport attack.[22] After Rasheed’s escape in April 2012, there were fears that he would plan attacks for the TTP against Pakistani Air Force bases across the country.[23] There were at least two such attacks after Rasheed’s escape—against the Kamra Airbase in August 2012 and Peshawar Airbase in December the same year. Media speculated that Rasheed was involved in both of these attacks.[24] This seems to be based on the assumption that as a former airman, he must have had insider knowledge of Pakistani Air Force bases. Rasheed may have contributed with advice to operational planners, but it is questionable how operationally valuable his information would be after an eight-year absence from these bases. Moreover, the Peshawar Airbase attack in 2012 was a tactical failure—hardly testimony to Rasheed’s operational genius, if he was at all involved.[25]

There is reason to treat claims of Adnan Rasheed’s operational role in the TTP and IMU with some skepticism. Rasheed was radicalized while working as an airman in the Pakistani Air Force in the late 1990s. He was arrested in 2003 due to his involvement in an assassination attempt against General Pervez Musharraf. From jail, he largely acted as an activist and propagandist.[26] He has continued in this role after his release, for example by authoring a highly publicized letter to Malala Yousafzai, the schoolgirl who was shot by the Taliban in Swat in October 2012.[27] He does not fit the profile of a high-level strategic planner due to his lack of operational experience, except for what he might have gained in FATA since his escape in mid-2012.

On the other hand, Rasheed fits perfectly into the TTP’s and the IMU’s strategic messaging campaigns. The plight of Muslim prisoners is a recurrent theme in jihadist militant propaganda and freeing a relatively well-known figure like Adnan Rasheed from jail must be seen as a victory. The IMU did not hesitate to exploit this fact in their propaganda. In their highly publicized video about the Bannu prison break, Rasheed stated that he specifically requested the IMU to free him.[28] Yet the IMU’s role in the prison break should not be overstated. There are clear indications that the operation was planned and largely executed by local Taliban militants, not by the IMU. Even the IMU’s own propaganda acknowledges this fact.[29]

Adnan Rasheed’s appointment in February 2013 as leader of Ansar al-Aseer, a TTP-IMU unit tasked with freeing militants from jail, should be viewed in the same strategic messaging context.[30] While he appears to be the perfect public face for such a unit, it does not necessarily make him an important strategic planner.

The planner of the Karachi airport attack is more likely to be a person unknown to the public—someone with extensive guerrilla warfare experience or someone who worked as a special forces commando in the past. This is a common characteristic of high-ranking operational planners who previously worked with Pakistani militants. Ilyas Kashmiri, who probably masterminded the Mehran Naval Base attack in 2011, was a former special forces commando trained by the Pakistan Army.[31] Zaki ur-Rehman Lakhvi, the operational commander of Lashkar-i-Tayyiba (LeT) and the purported mastermind behind the Mumbai attacks in 2008, had extensive guerrilla warfare experience dating back to the Afghan-Soviet war.[32]

It cannot be ruled out that the IMU might have such candidates among their ranks. The IMU is known to recruit people from Russia and the former Soviet Union.[33] It is not unthinkable that their ethnic and linguistic profile may attract people with a Russian/Soviet Army or even special forces background, as claimed by some media reports.[34] The IMU’s military commander Juma Namangani, who was killed in Afghanistan in 2001, was himself a former paratrooper in the Soviet Army.[35] An individual named Eldar Magomedov, arrested on terrorism charges in Spain in 2012, was described as a former Russian special forces soldier who traveled in Waziristan in 2008-2011. He was linked to al-Qa`ida and the Islamic Jihad Union, an IMU offshoot.[36] It is impossible to confirm, however, whether this is a widespread phenomenon. If the IMU possessed such a critical capability, they would be unlikely to reveal it in official propaganda.

An examination of the IMU’s role in the Karachi airport attack seems to leave more questions than answers, in particular with regards to the strategic planning capacity of the IMU. It is therefore necessary to look at the IMU’s role in other high-profile attacks in Pakistan.

The IMU’s Role in Previous Attacks in Pakistan
The IMU may have been involved in three key operations claimed by the TTP during the last five years: the attack on Mehran Naval Base in May 2011, Minhas Airbase in August 2012 and Peshawar Airbase in December 2012. In all three cases, media speculated that “Uzbeks” or other foreigners had been involved in the execution of the attack.[37] A closer examination, however, suggests that there is no clear pattern regarding the IMU’s involvement, either on a tactical or a strategic level.

The attack on Mehran Naval Base (PNS Mehran) in Karachi occurred on May 22, 2011. It started in the late evening, and lasted for around 16 hours. Four attackers entered the base by climbing a perimeter wall. The ensuing gun battle resulted in the deaths of 10 soldiers and the destruction of two P3-C Orion patrol aircraft.[38] While several militant outfits were blamed, it appears, in the end, that it was masterminded by the notorious Pakistani militant Ilyas Kashmiri, who at the time worked with al-Qa`ida and the banned militant group Harkat-ul-Jihad-al-Islam (HUJI).[39] Al-Qa`ida’s media agency al-Sahab later issued a video showing the perpetrators of the attack.[40] Their real identities were never revealed but they were described as foreigners or Uzbeks by media and eyewitnesses. It was later discovered that the TTP may have provided the attackers with a safe house in Karachi.[41]

On August 16, 2012, nine militants dressed as airmen attacked the Minhas Airbase at Kamra (PAF Kamra). The base is situated in Punjab Province, some 50 miles west of Islamabad. The attack resulted in a two-hour gun battle in which two security force members were killed.[42] More importantly, the attackers succeeded in destroying a Saab 2000 aircraft with Airborne Warning and Control System (AWACS) capability.[43] Reports differ with regards to the perpetrators, but most local media as well as official sources stated they were Pakistani nationals, rather than Uzbeks.[44] Investigation into the incident focused on arresting suspects in Punjab Province.[45]

On December 15, 2012, there was an attempt to attack Peshawar Airbase. A group of militants fired rockets at the airport, which killed a total of five people. There was an attempt to explode a car bomb, but this apparently failed.[46] The attack lasted around three hours.[47] In the morning after the attack, police carried out a raid on an apartment in Peshawar that resulted in the deaths of five more militants who were described as part of the attack cell.[48] Several sources claimed that the attackers were Russian or Central Asian.[49] One source said that a group led by Abdul Samad Shishani (the name indicated a Chechen background) had carried out the attack, presumably on behalf of the TTP. The attack was poorly planned and executed, compared with the other attacks outlined above. This fits the theory that the assault team was from a breakaway faction and not from the IMU proper.[50]

In sum, there are few patterns with regards to the IMU’s actual involvement in the three attacks. There are indications that Uzbeks or other Central Asians were indeed part of the assault teams in the Mehran Naval Base attack and the Peshawar Airbase attack. It is unclear, however, whether these militants belonged to the IMU, fought under other Central Asian commanders, or were simply freelancers. The IMU did not issue any official claims of responsibility in any of the three cases.

The IMU have claimed involvement in other attacks in Pakistan. Their most publicized claim was their role in the attack on Bannu prison on April 15, 2012, in which several hundred inmates were freed. As noted above, it is questionable whether the IMU played a leading role in the attack. It was likely planned by militants from the Mehsud faction of the TTP.[51] Another attack often attributed to the IMU is the attack on the Dera Ismail Khan prison in 2013.[52] The two prison breaks had many similarities. Both attacks were carried out by a large group of fighters (more than 100) and succeeded in freeing hundreds of prisoners. The jailbreaks appeared well-planned, suggesting that the operational planners had access to insider information. The assault group was divided into several teams, each with their specialized task. It is possible that the IMU participated in the attacks, performing one or several specialized functions. Due to the large participation of local fighters, however, it is unlikely that they played an overall planning or coordinating role.

It does not appear that the IMU has become an essential strategic asset to the TTP. The IMU continues to have a small footprint outside its sanctuaries in FATA, and they are dependent on local networks to operate. The IMU continues to be a fragmented organization, operating as a loose network of criminals, urban terrorist cells and religiously motivated insurgents. While the IMU has some strategic value to the TTP, it would be wrong to view the IMU as a potent threat to Pakistani national security.

The IMU in Pakistan, however, should not be dismissed. The IMU are vehemently opposed to negotiations with the Pakistani government. They are willing to support groups in Pakistan who do not follow “mainstream” militancy, such as the TTP or other breakaway factions. In spite of being heavily targeted in recent years, the IMU has the potential to re-emerge in the region after NATO withdraws from Afghanistan in 2014. Moreover, the Karachi airport attack demonstrated that the IMU has the potential to act as a spoiler in future peace processes in Pakistan.

Anne Stenersen, Ph.D., is a Research Fellow at the Norwegian Defence Research Establishment (FFI) in Norway.

[1] “Karachi Airport Attack Signals Tactical Shift by Taliban,” Reuters, June 12, 2014.

[2] “TTP Using Uzbeks to Conduct Terrorist Attacks,” The News International, December 18, 2012.

[3] Luke Falkenburg, “On the Brink: The Resurgence of Militant Islam in Central Asia,” Small Wars & Insurgencies 24:3 (2013): pp. 375-393; David Witter, “Uzbek Militancy in Pakistan’s Tribal Region,” Institute for the Study of War, January 27, 2011; Jacob Zenn, “The Indigenization of the Islamic Movement of Uzbekistan,” Terrorism Monitor 10:2 (2012); Duncan Fitz, “Central Asian Militancy: A Primary Source Examination,” Center for Strategic and International Studies, May 2014; “Pakistan’s ‘Fanatical’ Uzbek Militants,” BBC, June 11, 2014.

[4] Fitz, p. 11; Peter Sinnott, “Peeling the Waziristan Onion: Central Asians in Armed Islamist Movements in Afghanistan and Pakistan,” China and Eurasia Forum Quarterly 7:4 (2009): p. 47.

[5] Ibid.; Matthew Stein, “The Goals of the Islamic Movement of Uzbekistan and its Impact on Central Asia and the United States,” Foreign Military Studies Office, January 2013.

[6] Press reports may not distinguish accurately between the IMU, al-Qa`ida and other militant groups in Pakistan. Pakistani authorities may have an interest in conflating the role of the IMU and other external actors to achieve popular support for military campaigns in FATA. The IMU’s own publications are an invaluable and rather under-exploited source of information, but must be read as strategic communication, the aim being to attract new recruits and financing to the organization.

[7] In this article, suicide squads refer to both suicide bombers (fighters who wear suicide vests and who intend to blow themselves up during battle), and “fidayin” (fighters who are not wearing suicide vests, but who nevertheless expect to die during a confrontation with security forces).

[8] Some reports indicated that they were not successful in deceiving security guards, and that they therefore had to enter the airport by force. According to one source, the militants raised suspicion because they were wearing the wrong type of shoes. See “Karachi Airport Attack Signals Tactical Shift by Taliban”; “Assault on Pakistan Airport Signals Taliban’s Reach and Resilience,” New York Times, June 9, 2014; “At Least 18 Pakistanis Killed by Assailants Who Stormed Karachi Airport,” Washington Post, June 9, 2014.

[9] “More Than Two Dozen Dead as Taliban Assault Pakistan’s Main Airport,” Reuters, June 9, 2014.

[10] The TTP said that the goal of the attack was to hijack aircraft and hold passengers hostage, while the IMU’s statement said that the operation targeted “fighter jets, American drones and other military planes” in a special section of the airport, and that it did not intend to target civilian passengers. See “Statement Regarding the Martyrdom Operation in Karachi Airport,” Jamia Hafsa forum, June 10, 2014; “What’s Behind Karachi Airport Attack?” CNN, June 9, 2014.

[11] This view was also presented by the interior minister in a press conference shortly after the attack. See “Seven Bodies Recovered From Karachi Airport’s Cold-Storage Facility,” Dawn, June 10, 2014.

[12] “10 Pakistani Troops Killed in Gun Battle at Naval Base,” CNN, May 23, 2011.

[13] “Tax-Payers Kept in the Dark about Loss of Plane Worth $250m,” The News International, February 9, 2013.

[14] “Statement Regarding the Martyrdom Operation in Karachi Airport”; “Assault on Pakistan Airport Signals Taliban’s Reach and Resilience.”

[15] “Statement Regarding the Martyrdom Operation in Karachi Airport.”

[16] “As it Happened: Karachi Airport Attack,” BBC, undated.

[17] “Karachi Airport Attack Mastermind Killed in N Waziristan: Sources,” Dawn, June 15, 2014.

[18] The Pakistan Army’s official statement said that the air raid had killed “foreign and local terrorists” who were linked to the planning of the Karachi airport attack. See ibid.; “Press Release No PR123/2014-ISPR,” Inter Services Public Relations, June 15, 2014.

[19] “Karachi Airport Attack Mastermind Killed in N Waziristan: Sources”; “Troops Chasing Panicked Militants in Far and Wide of NW Agency,” Pakistan Observer, June 19, 2014.

[20] “Operation Bannu-Jail,” Jundullah, May 2012.

[21] In the video, Abdur Rehman claims that he was not informed of the attack plan beforehand. When describing the attack, he made repeated references to his “commander,” indicating that he himself played a subordinate role.

[22] Amir Mir, “Khaki-Turned-Jihadi Adnan Rasheed Masterminded Karachi Attack,” The News International, June 11, 2014.

[23] Syed Adnan Ali Shah Bukhari, “Pakistan’s New Most Wanted: A Short Sketch of Adnan Rasheed,” Militant Leadership Monitor 3:5 (2012).

[24] “Chechen Militants Behind Peshawar Airport Attack,” Pakistan Today, December 26, 2012

[25] The attack was a tactical failure because the militants failed to breach the perimeter wall of the base, despite having access to several suicide bombers and at least one vehicle-borne improvised explosive device. See “Uzbek Militants Behind Peshawar Airport Attack,” The Nation, December 17, 2012.

[26] Bukhari.

[27] “Malala Yousufzai Attack: Taliban Commander Adnan Rasheed Regrets Assault On Pakistani Teen,” Huffington Post, July 17, 2013.

[28] “Operation Bannu-Jail.”

[29] The IMU cameraman interviewed in the IMU’s video, Abu Abdurahman, said that the operation was planned by the ansar (supporters)—a common way for foreign fighters to refer to local militants. See “Operation Bannu-Jail.”

[30] Bill Roggio, “Taliban, IMU Form Ansar al Aseer to Free Jihadist Prisoners,” The Long War Journal, February 5, 2013.

[31] Bill Roggio, “Ilyas Kashmiri was a Pakistani Army Commando,” The Long War Journal, September 20, 2009.

[32] Wilson John, The Caliphate’s Soldiers: The Lashkar-e-Tayyeba’s Long War (New Delhi: Amaryllis, 2011), p. 144.

[33] See, for example, “The Islamic Movement of Uzbekistan: The Martyrs of the Year 1431H,” Jamia Hafsa forum, December 25, 2010.

[34] “Pakistan’s ‘Fanatical’ Uzbek Militants,” BBC, June 11, 2014.

[35] Ahmed Rashid, Jihad: The Rise of Militant Islam in Central Asia (New Haven: Yale Nota Bene, 2002), p. 138.

[36] “3 Suspected Islamist Terrorists Arrested in France,” CNN, March 1, 2013.

[37] “TTP Using Uzbeks to Conduct Terrorist Attacks,” The News International, December 18, 2012; “Chechen Militants Behind Peshawar Airport Attack”; Jacob Zenn, “The Growing Alliance Between Uzbek Extremists and the Pakistani Taliban,” Terrorism Monitor 11:5 (2013).

[38] “10 Pakistani Troops Killed in Gun Battle at Naval Base,” CNN, May 23, 2011.

[39] “Al-Qaeda Had Warned of Pakistan Strike,” Asia Times Online, May 27, 2011.

[40] “New Al-Qaeda Video Urges Rebellion In Pakistani Army, Reiterates: Dr. Warren Weinstein Kidnapped to Secure Release of Dr. Aafia Siddiqui,” Middle East Media Research Institute, March 13, 2012. Some reports also suggest that al-Qa`ida’s Saif al-Adl was involved in the attack: “Pakistan: Involvement of Lashkar-e-Jhangvi in Mehran Naval Base Attack Suspected,” Karachi Ummat, May 25, 2011.

[41] “Woman Confesses to Involvement in Mehran Base Attack,” Dawn, December 14, 2011; “Punjabi Taliban Behind Major Attacks,” The News International, December 15, 2011.

[42] “10 Killed in Pakistani Air Base Attack,” CNN, August 16, 2012; “Taliban Claim Attack on Minhas Base; Nine Militants Killed,” Dawn, August 16, 2012.

[43] “Tax-Payers Kept in the Dark about Loss of Plane Worth $250m.”

[44] “Pakistani Military Improve Security, Observers Say,” Central Asia Online, August 29, 2012; “Kamra Attack: 3 Attackers Identified, PCNS Told,” Express Tribune, September 7, 2012; “All Terrorists in Kamra Attack Were Pakistanis: Malik,” The News International, August 19, 2012.

[45] “Kamra Airbase Attack Suspects Picked Up,” Dawn, September 26, 2012.

[46] “Uzbek Militants Behind Peshawar Airport Attack,” The Nation, December 17, 2012.

[47] “5 Militants Wanted in Fatal Airport Attack Killed in Pakistan Police Raid,” CNN, December 17, 2012.

[48] “Assault on PAF Base Peshawar: Six of 10 Attackers Were Foreigners, PA Told,” Dawn, December 18, 2012; “Heretics Liable to be Slain, Says Note Found on Militant’s Body,” Dawn, December 18, 2012.

[49] “Heretics Liable to be Slain, Says Note Found on Militant’s Body.”

[50] “Chechen Militants Behind Peshawar Airport Attack.”

[51] Bill Roggio, “Pakistani Taliban Release Video of Bannu Jailbreak,” The Long War Journal, May 17, 2012.

[52] Sarah Khan, “Taliban’s Attack on D.I.Khan Prison Was Not Possible Without Pakistan Army’s Connivance,” Let Us Build Pakistan blog, August 2, 2013.

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