ISLAMABAD: The December 16 blatant assault by the fidayeen attackers of Tehrik-e-Taliban Pakistan (TTP) targeting the Pakistan Air Force (PAF) base inside the Peshawar Airport has proven beyond any iota of doubt that the Waziristan-based Uzbek militants have become an integral part of the TTP which is mostly using them to conduct deadly guerilla attacks against sensitive military installations in all four corners of Pakistan.
Those investigating the TTP attack on Bacha Khan International Airport say the Taliban have stepped up a bloody campaign of retribution against the Pakistani security forces ever since al-Qaeda chief Osama bin Laden was hunted down in Abbottabad on May 2, 2011. While revising its previous strategy of carrying out massive attacks in big cities and killing civilians in large numbers, the TTP is now concentrating on military targets. Within weeks of Osama’s killing, a group of fidayeen attackers of the TTP had attacked the Mehran Naval base in Karachi [on May 22, 2011] and destroyed two of the four Orion maritime surveillance aircrafts besides killing ten highly-trained commandos of the Special Services Group (SSG). In a ferocious battle which lasted for 15 hours, the attackers had lost four of their men who were later identified as Uzbeks. The TTP had claimed that the attack was a revenge for the deaths of Baitullah Mehsud and Osama bin Laden.
Almost two months later, on August 16, 2012 terrorists once again went on rampage and targeted the Kamra Air base of the Pakistan Air Force. At least eight militants were killed in a counter operation that lasted over five hours, killing a PAF security official in the fire exchange. Most of the attackers were foreign nationals and described as Uzbek militants. The Kamra attack was claimed by the TTP. Those investigating the December 16 audacious assault on the PAF Air base inside the Peshawar Airport say it was almost a replay of the TTP-sponsored fidayeen attacks on the military installations in Karachi and Kamra. And significantly, most of the five fidayeen attackers who were killed in the gun battle with the security forces inside the airport were identified as Uzbek nationals. The TTP spokesman Ehsanullah Ehsan claimed responsibility, saying, “Our target was jet fighter planes and gunship helicopters [of PAF] and soon we will target them again”. Peshawar airport is a joint military-civilian facility.
A day after TTP’s raid in Peshawar, the security forces stormed an under construction building close to the airport and killed the five remaining militants who had conducted the fidayeen assault. Inter Services Public Relations (ISPR) spokesman Major General Asim Bajwa has already stated that the three terrorists killed and two others who had detonated their suicide vests during the Peshawar operation appeared to be Uzbek. As a matter of fact, Uzbek militants have been active in Pakistan since the 1990s, with the Islamic Movement of Uzbekistan (IMU) being the main group which organizes and directs these militants. Formed in 1998 by Tahir Yuldashev, the main focus of the IMU has always been ousting the Uzbek President Islam Karimov and to install an Islamic regime in Uzbekistan. Yuldashev oversaw the expansion of the IMU’s membership base from Uzbeks, Tajiks, and Kyrgyz to multiple other nationalities, including Uyghurs, Turkmen, Turks, Afghans, Arabs, Chinese, Chechens, Germans, Norwegians, as well as Russians.
As far as the bond between the TTP and the IMU is concerned, the two groups have a long history of collaboration, even before the TTP’s launching by Baitullah Mehsud. Tahir Yuldashev was the first one to have offered the services of his 2,500-plus fighters to Baitullah when he had decided to take ups arms against the state of Pakistan. The TTP provided sanctuary for the IMU in exchange for its assistance re-sourcing the fight against Pakistani security forces. This sanctuary, however, was short-lived as successive military operations in South Waziristan in 2009 [which were backed by Maulvi Nazir] and the killings of Baitullah Mehsud and Tahir Yuldashev in American drone attacks in August 2009 forced the IMU out of the region.
The new IMU ameer decided to relocate his militants to North Waziristan where it, once again, found some new allies, including al-Qaeda and the Haqqani Network. The new TTP Ameer Hakeemullah Mehsud adopted the same strategy by relocating his fighters to North Waziristan after Baitullah’s death. The TTP-IMU bond had strengthened under the command of the new leaders of the two groups which are working in tandem with each other to target the Pakistani security forces in every nook and corner of the country. A video posted online by the IMU in September 2010 had featured footage of Yuldashev’s successor Abu Usman Adil meeting with Hakeemullah Mehsud and his second-in-command, Waliur Rahman. Abu Adil was killed in a US drone strike in April 2012 and succeeded by his deputy, Usman Ghazi.
In a most recent development, the Islamic Movement of Uzbekistan has moved from its Uzbek roots and re-branded itself under the Persian Dari name of the Tehrik-e-Islami-e-Uzbekistan rather than the Uzbek name of Uzbekistan Islami Harikati. Despite having suffered some major losses in recent years, the IMU remains one of the most militarily capable and media savvy jehadi outfits operating in the Waziristan region. Even though IMU-trained Uzbek militants have taken part in several deadly fidayeen attacks against the Pakistani security forces being a key ally of the TTP, the April 15 Bannu Jailbreak this year was perhaps the only event which was filmed by the militants and marketed.
The 25-minute Uzbek-language video, which was released on June 14, was primarily meant to prove that the IMU and other al-Qaeda-linked foreign terrorists masterminded the jailbreak that freed 384 prisoners, including a top al-Qaeda militant, Adnan Rashid. If the contents of the video are to be believed, the Bannu jailbreak was planned after Adnan Rashid wrote to the ameer of the Uzbek jehadis, seeking help to getaway. The jailbreak plot was subsequently orchestrated with the support of the Tehrik-e-Taliban.