The son of a fabled slain Uzbek militant commander has been luring Uzbek men in northern Afghanistan to join the so-called Islamic State group, officials in the northern province of Sar-e-Pul told VOA.
Abdul Rahman Yuldash, a reclusive wanted man, is reportedly leading efforts to help establish an IS footprint in Afghanistan's northern provinces which border his native Uzbekistan. Officials are not sure where he is based or how he operates.
Authorities, however, say they "have received reports about the presence of Tahir Yuldash's son in some villages," Zahir Wahdat, governor of the restive northern Sar-e-Pul province, told VOA.
Tahir Yuldash was a co-founder and leader of the Islamic Movement of Uzbekistan (IMU), a socio-religious group that turned Islamic fundamentalist. IMU, established in the mid-1990s in Uzbekistan and including fighters from several central Asian nations, operated from bases inside Tajikistan and Taliban-controlled Afghanistan, analysts say.
Once a strong ally of the Taliban, IMU later became closely associated with al-Qaida and its leader, Osama bin Laden.
Following the Taliban ouster in 2001, Tahir Yuldash and his followers settled in tribal areas in Pakistan, near the Afghan border; however, disputes followed with local tribes that accused Yuldash of imposing his extreme ways on locals, including women, and recruiting them for military training.
Tahir Yuldash's men engaged in clashes with local militant groups and were accused of killing many tribal elders, which led to their eventual move to Afghanistan's Zabul province in 2007. Tahir Yuldash reportedly died in a U.S. drone strike in August 2009.
Little is known about the younger Yuldash, but he reportedly lived in Pakistan's southern port city of Karachi after his father died.
"He used to live in Karachi and may still be based there," Wahid Muzhda, a Taliban analyst in Kabul, told VOA.
Yuldash has twice been seen in Sar-e-Pul's Sayyad district recruiting for IS, local security officials told VOA's Afghanistan service. Many militants who previously were associated with the Taliban are now signing up for IS in the area, officials say.
According to analyst Muzhda, Uzbek fighters in northern areas of Afghanistan are fleeing the Taliban and switching sides to join IS, a claim he says was denied by the Taliban.
"The IMU has split up into three smaller groups," Muzhda said, adding that one of the groups is pledged to IS.
The IMU was closely linked with the Taliban and fought against the Afghan government; however, analysts say differences surfaced after the Taliban announced its disassociation with international terrorist groups, including al-Qaida, and abandoned plans to support the spread of terrorist activities into central Asia.
Osman Ghazi, Tahir Yuldash's successor and his son-in-law, accused the Taliban of being apostates and pledged allegiance to IS leader Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi, according to Muzhda.
Following the split, the two groups engaged in fierce fighting in 2015 in Zabul, which left at least 110 dead, and dozens wounded. To show its allegiance to Islamic State, the IMU fighters kidnapped around a dozen ethnic Shi'ite Afghans and killed them. Ghazi was arrested and hanged by the Taliban last year.
Yuldash was recently injured in an explosion after visiting his family in Zabul, Muzhda said.
The IMU's presence is known in some parts of the northern provinces where locals have spotted Uzbek fighters and their families.
"About two years ago, 10 or 15 families that belonged to the Islamic Movement of Uzbekistan came and settled in Darzaab," a local resident in neighboring Jouzjan province told VOA's Uzbek service, on condition of anonymity for safety reasons.
"We believe the IMU is training fighters," he said. "I know some local Uzbeks from Sar-e-Pul, Faryab, and Badghis have also joined them."
Militant activity grows
Afghanistan's northern provinces have recently seen an increase in militants' activities. More than 4,000 fighters with different militant groups are active in Sar-e-Pul, according to Zabihullah Amani, a spokesperson for the provincial government.
According to the governor of Sar-e-Pul, Afghan forces are engaged in heavy battles with militants in five districts. The Kohistanat district, he said, has been under the militants' control for the past year-and-a-half and is where foreign fighters train local militants.
"Parts of the Sar-e-Pul province have become bases and safe havens for the anti-government militants," he said, adding that many fighters from several central Asian countries such as Uzbekistan, Tajikistan, and Kazakhstan are present in the area, including Tahir Yuldash's son.
"IS does not have a large base yet, but some local commanders [militants], who used to be with the Taliban, are now sympathizing with IS and want to join the group. No doubt, they [IS] are trying to establish a large base in the province," the governor told Afghan Tolo TV.