Typically, Central Asian militants of Katibat al-Tawhid wal Jihad (KTJ) eschew the use of the first name of their leader, Abdul Aziz (whose actual name is Ilmurad Hikmatov), opting instead to refer to him reverentially as ‘Ustoz’ or ‘Damlo,’ terms in the Uzbek language denoting a Spiritual Mentor or Teacher. Abdul Aziz ascended to the position of the second emir within the faction, succeeding its infamous founder, Abu Saloh (whose birth name is Sirojiddin Mukhtarov), a native of the southern region of Osh in Kyrgyzstan, in April 2019.
Emir in the Shade of HTS
Abdul Aziz’s unanticipated elevation to the helm of KTJ was facilitated by Abu Mohammad al-Julani, the leader of Hayat Tahrir al-Sham (HTS), amid a burgeoning conflict between the al-Qaeda-affiliated Hurras al-Din (HD) and HTS in Northwestern Syria. As the preeminent armed faction operating in Greater Idlib, HTS, which also serves as the umbrella organization for the Uzbek jihadi group, expressed disapproval of Abu Saloh’s pro-al-Qaeda orientation during the 2018 hostilities between HTS and HD. After HD’s declaration as al-Qaeda’s new proxy in Syria, the two Sunni jihadi entities have become bitter rivals, frequently competing for influence, recruits, and weaponry.
Given their hardline anti-Western ideology and steadfast jihadi positions, HD and Jabhat Ansar al-Din (JaD), another longstanding pro-al-Qaeda faction in Syria, appeared to be a more attractive option for ideologically committed KTJ Uzbek Muhajireen (Muslims immigrated to spread the Islamic faith and wage holy jihad). On May 30, 2020, Abu Saloh, along with a cadre of approximately 50 adherents, severed ties with HTS to affiliate themselves with JaD, an organization more amenable to Russian-speaking foreign fighters compared to the singularly Arab-focused, hardline approach of HD. Eventually, Abu Saloh was removed from the KTJ leadership and arrested by HTS’s internal security forces in Idlib province on June 16, 2020, paving the way for Abdul Aziz’s ascent to the top of one of the most combat-ready, well-equipped, and largest Central Asian jihadi groups.
Consequently, Abdul Aziz’s ascent to the leadership position was fraught with challenges, engendering internal strife and discontent among devotees of Abu Saloh. The incoming Shura Council initiated a campaign to delegitimize the preceding emir and his purportedly ineffective governance. Such intragroup tensions precipitated a schism within the jihadi jamaat (communities), which subsequently fractured along lines of national affinity. Specifically, Uzbeks and Kyrgyz originating from Southern Kyrgyzstan remained loyal to the former leader, whereas Uzbeks and Tajiks hailing from Uzbekistan and Tajikistan gravitated toward the new emir. Allegations of religious ineptitude were leveled against the nascent KTJ leadership.
Following the KTJ leadership change, the UN Security Council’s report indicated that “the KTJ capability is undermined by conflict between the new group leader Abdul Aziz and the former group emir Abu Saloh.” After solidifying his position as emir, Abdul Aziz implemented structural reconfigurations within KTJ, supplanting pivotal individuals in roles related to Islamic jihadi ideology and military strategy. Specifically, he designated Ahluddin Navqotiy, a trusted associate and a notable Salafi cleric esteemed among Uzbek labor migrants in Turkey, to serve as the group’s principal religious authority or imam. Sayfiddin al-Uzbeki, who had more than 10 years of jihadi experience against the Western coalition in Afghanistan, was appointed the deputy emir and new military commander.
An attempt by the new KTJ leadership and pro-HTS media to discredit Abu Saloh in embezzling $60,000 from HTS sparked a backlash against Abdul Aziz himself. He was accused of spying for the Rafidah [Shia] enemy regime. Thus, the Daily News Uzbek jihadi media claimed that Abdul Aziz, being the IJU deputy leader, was arrested during his hijrah (migration) to Syria and recruited by Iranian intelligence. According to it, as a result of his betrayal, Iranian Shia proxy groups in Idlib recently killed about 200 Uzbek KTJ militants.
An Uzbek militant named Malik Abdurahmon, on behalf of defectors, accused Abdul Aziz of spreading fitnah (strife) and enmity among Central Asian jihadi groups in both Afghanistan and Syria. According to him, the new KTJ emir has strayed from the path of Allah, using vile ways to expel Abu Saloh from the holy land of Sham on al-Julani’s order.
In this context, a stinging critique undermining Abdul Aziz’s leadership aspirations pertained to allegations of his theological inadequacy, especially when juxtaposed against Abu Saloh’s comprehensive mastery of the Quran – a quality that has consistently resonated with radical Islamists from Central Asia. Abdul Aziz is ostensibly less proficient in the nuanced complexities of Islamic theology than his antecedent. Acknowledging his extensive theological acumen, Central Asian jihadi jamaats conferred upon Abu Saloh the honorific title of “Sheikh,” a designation reserved for authoritative Islamic scholars in the Fergana Valley. In contrast, his successor is merely referred to as “Ustoz” or “Damlo.” Abu Saloh’s profound religious scholarship is evidenced by his studies in Fiqh (Islamic jurisprudence) and Hadith at the Al-Fatih al-Islamiya Institute in Damascus during the 2000s. Moreover, he possessed an almost eidetic memory, allowing him to recite the Quran from memory, earning him the status of a Hafiz (an individual who has committed the Quran to memory in its entirety).
In contrast to his predecessor, Abdul Aziz lacks specialized religious training, and his proficiency in the Arabic language is notably suboptimal. His initial foray into Quranic studies took place in Afghanistan and Pakistani North Waziristan, where he initially served as a combatant for the Islamic Movement of Uzbekistan (IMU) before becoming the deputy emir of the Islamic Jihad Union (IJU), a breakaway faction of the IMU, from 2008 to 2018. It was during this period that he became fluent in the Pashtu language and augmented his theological knowledge through the delivery of Jumu’ah Khutbah sermons.
The public confrontation between the new and old KTJ leadership was interrupted by the Russian Defense Ministry statement, which noted that “as a result of the strike by the Russian Aerospace Forces on a militant camp in Syria’s Idlib province on September 8, Abu Saloh and 20 high-ranking HTS members were eliminated.” It is known that Russian and Kyrgyz authorities blamed the KTJ jihadi group for the 2017 St. Petersburg metro terror attack and the 2016 suicide bombing of the Chinese embassy in Bishkek. At that time, not KTJ but some Chechen jihadists of Ajnad al-Kavkaz in Idlib denied the assertion of the Russian military about the death of Abu Saloh, who, however, disappeared from public space after that.
KTJ’s Pragmatic Strategy?
Whereas Abu Saloh was a devout adherent of al-Qaeda’s concept of holy jihad and advocated for the forcible removal of Taghut (idolatrous or tyrannical) rulers in Central Asia, Abdul Aziz adopts a more pragmatic approach to jihadi strategy. In accordance with the revised tactical doctrine of KTJ, the group’s operations are circumscribed to the Syrian territory, reflective of a discreet shift away from global jihadism, in line with the operational paradigms of both the Taliban and HTS. The emir persistently underscores that the KTJ faction refrains from conducting terrorist activities beyond the borders of Syria.
Remarkably, after the State Department designated KTJ as a global terrorist organization in March 2022, Abdul Aziz again sang his old ditty that “the group does not carry out terrorist attacks outside Syria and was not involved in the St. Petersburg subway bombings and the Chinese Embassy suicide attacks in Bishkek.” The State Department indicated that “al Qaeda-affiliated KTJ operates in Syria’s Idlib Province alongside HTS and cooperates with other designated terrorist groups such as Katibat al-Imam al-Bukhari (KIB) and Islamic Jihad Union (IJU)” from post-Soviet Central Asia. In response, the KTJ emir questioned the greatness of the United States, since their decision was unfair, and stated that the group never belonged to al-Qaeda, which is an absolute lie.
Another element of KTJ’s new strategy is its commitment to comply with the socio-economic and local religious observance of the Syrian Salvation Government (SSG) set up by HTS. Abdul Aziz demanded his militants not enter domestic conflicts with Ansars (locals) following the sensational incident involving KTJ members. For instance, on June 11, 2021, Uzbek Salafists stormed the Syrian National Museum in Idlib, destroying seven frescoes on the UNESCO World Heritage List that they categorized as “idols.” Then the KTJ emir was forced to settle this scandal casting a shadow on HTS with the SSG leadership.
In his Khutbah orations, Abdul Aziz portrays himself as an integral component of al-Julani’s combatant command, while simultaneously characterizing KTJ as an autonomous jihadi entity sharing overarching strategic objectives with HTS. Indeed, KTJ’s pragmatic tactical framework is designed to eschew actions that might undermine HTS’s endeavors to secure international recognition as a legitimate opposition force with the potential to supplant the regime of Bashar al-Assad. It is known that al-Julani has appealed to the U.S. to remove its terrorist designations of him and HTS. Therefore, KTJ’s last statements that its fighters are not engaged in terrorist activities abroad and do not pose any threat to other countries, except for the bloody al-Assad regime, are dictated primarily by the desire of its parent organization to get off the U.S. blacklist.
Drawing lessons from the tragic mistakes of Abu Saloh’s leadership, Abdul Aziz has adopted a stance of unswerving loyalty to HTS, the most powerful jihadi organization in Idlib that has increasingly tightened the screws on foreign fighters who are not allied with it. This steadfast allegiance from prominent Central Asian terrorist organizations, such as Uyghur’s Turkistan Islamic Party (TIP) and Uzbek’s KTJ, has enabled HTS to suppress its most significant rivals, specifically Faylaq al-Sham, Ahrar al-Sham and Hurras al-Din. As a result, the KTJ emir has evolved into a convenient tool for the formidable HTS military machinery, which is driven by a wider strategic objective of neutralizing its jihadi rivals and establishing its dominance in the region.
Abdul Aziz frequently disseminates his ideological discourses and Islamic homilies via the Telegram platform. In his effort to position himself as a contemporary religious strategist and jihadi tactician, he employs various visual aids, including diagrams and tables, in his presentations. These aids elucidate historical conflicts between Muslims and non-believers, articulate the Quranic obligations and entitlements of the Mujahideen, and emphasize the theological imperative for Muslims to endure hardship to merit divine favor from Allah.
As Abdul Aziz became notorious in Russia and the FSB stepped up its harassment and arrests of Central Asian migrants accusing them of alleged ties to the KTJ, he denounced Russian President Vladimir Putin himself for trying to divide the Muslim Ummah into Kharijites (early Islamic extremists) and “traditional Islam.” According to him, kafir Putin has no right to divide the Muslim Ummah into several sects, since it can resolve the internal conflict on its own without his prompting.
In his Khutbah sermons and public pronouncements, Abdul Aziz exhibits a dual persona. While in official statements the KTJ emir seeks to placate Western nations by asserting that his combatants do not engage in attacks beyond the borders of Syria, within the context of his Khutbah sermons he exhorts Central Asian Islamists to partake in a global holy jihad. This dichotomy underscores a complex and potentially contradictory set of messages that appear designed to serve differing audiences and objectives.
In a recent Khutbah sermon, Abdul Aziz cited the Islamic Emirate of the Taliban as an exemplary paradigm for instituting Sharia governance in post-Soviet Central Asia. He also commended Taliban Interior Minister Siraj Haqqani for his supportive stance toward the Central Asian Muhajireen. Abdul Aziz posits jihad as an indispensable pillar of Islam, essential for safeguarding Allah’s religion. He contends that the realization of an Islamic Emirate and the preservation of the Ummah are unattainable without a global commitment to holy jihad. He asserts that the mere rhetoric of organizations like Hizb ut-Tahrir, the Muslim Brotherhood, or Tablighi Jamaat is insufficient for the establishment of Sharia rule. In his conclusion, he argues that the construction of an Islamic Emirate requires engagement in armed jihad akin to the approach adopted by the Taliban, necessitating personal sacrifice and bloodshed, coupled with patient anticipation for the divine support, or Nusrat, of Allah.
Contrary to Abdul Aziz’s assertions that KTJ restricts its operations to Syria and does not engage in acts of terrorism beyond its borders or pursue objectives aligned with the global jihad, recent occurrences of terrorist activities involving KTJ supporters in disparate global locations suggest an expansion of the group’s jihadi endeavors well beyond the confines of the Middle East and Central Asia. This incongruence between public pronouncements and observable actions underscores the complexities and potential duplicities embedded within the group’s strategic orientation.
Thus, about 10 natives of Central Asian states were arrested and deported from South Korea for violating the country’s anti-terrorism funding laws by using cryptocurrency to fund the KTJ over the past two years. In March 2023, the Indonesian National Police’s Antiterror Force Densus arrested four Uzbek nationals in Jakarta who reportedly fought alongside KTJ, and while trying to escape from the Immigration Center in April one of the suspects and two immigration officers were killed, and two security guards were injured. On August 11, 2023, the FBI arrested a 17-year-old Philadelphia teen, allegedly communicating with the KTJ, and accused him of stockpiling materials used to construct explosive devices aiming to use in attacks on unspecified American targets. According to the Philadelphia District Attorney’s Office, the teen received “guidance” on how to construct bombs and “appeared to be taking steps” to travel overseas to join or support the terrorist organization.
The chronology of these terrorist incidents suggests that Abdul Aziz is engaged in a policy of duplicity, wherein his public assurances are incongruent with the group’s actual operations. On the surface, a cursory evaluation of KTJ activities, strategic postures, and online discourses appears to construct the image of an organization focused solely on insurgency within the context of Syria, devoid of global ambitions or intentions of executing terrorist activities abroad. Concurrently, however, the KTJ emir is evidently intent on expanding the organization’s operational reach on a global scale, promulgating an aggressive al-Qaeda-centric ideology with the objective of recruiting new adherents from Russia and Central Asia. This duality reflects a complex and potentially misleading strategic framework that serves divergent goals and audiences.