Jamshid Muhtorov, the Islamic Jihad Union, and Joshua Foust
As regular Gunpowder & Lead readers will know, one of my preferred genres of writing is known informally as the “evisceration.” My recent piece on Fawaz Gerges’s proclamation that al Qaeda has died is one example of this genre (the thrust of which is probably evident from its rather descriptive name). So over the weekend, I mentioned on Twitter that if I had time to eviscerate one piece written during the previous week, it would be an offering at Registan by Joshua Foust– my friend and frequent sparring partner — about the indictment of Jamshid Muhtorov, an Uzbek man living in Colorado, on terrorism charges (material support for the Islamic Jihad Union). Alas, I felt that I had no time to do such a thing: before I leave the continental U.S. on Thursday, I need to finish a major study on the tactical and strategic use of small arms by terrorist groups, finish editing a book on terrorism in Canada for which I am volume editor, write an academic piece on jihadi perceptions of the Arab Spring, write a book review, and teach my weekly course at the Catholic University of America.
When pressed by Foust on the fact that my tweet offered no actual refutation of his work, I demurred that I utterly lacked the time to get into a debate, but urged Foust to consider himself “THEORETICALLY EVISCERATED.” Not seeing the humor in such a concept (humor that I thought was obvious from the use of ALL CAPS), Foust insisted that theoretical eviscerations were “weak sauce,” and repeatedly goaded me for my unwillingness to write an actual refutation of his work. This prompted Lauren Morgan, who is sometimes known as my female alter-ego, to offer to assist me in writing a response to Foust, and give him the intellectual beat-down he was apparently pining for. Thus, I bring you…
The Evisceration of Joshua Foust
by Daveed Gartenstein-Ross & Lauren Morgan
Jamshid Muhtorov was arrested last week for allegedly providing and attempting to provide material support to a foreign terrorist organization, the Islamic Jihad Union (IJU). Immediately after the arrest, Joshua Foust wrote a rather unsubtly titled Registan entry, “The Crazy, Trumped Up Uzbek Hype.” In it, Foust argues that the case against Muhtorov is based upon weak evidence, and argues that the group Muhtorov allegedly supported in fact “doesn’t exist outside of some Internet chat rooms.”
The major problem with Foust’s piece is that it is an epistemological wreck, littered with claims that either he has no way of knowing or are simply unproven, while employing a style that smacks of absolute certitude. This is not the first time one of us has called Foust out for an article that makes epistemological errors; and doing so may in some small way enhance the public sphere. As C.J. Chivers wrote in his excellent review of Foust’s book Afghanistan Journal: “The collection bluntly challenges many of the people, in and out of the military, organizing or speaking for the war, and submits their assumptions to a determined inquiry…. If Mr. Foust were to have a slogan, it might be this: ‘What’s your evidence?'” In our view, it is important for Foust to apply that same standard — one demanding evidence for all assertions — to his own work outside the context of Afghanistan. Our critique of Foust’s contribution to the debate over the Muhtorov case is just that that: “What’s your evidence?”
Criminalizing Participation in a Chat Room?
Foust argues that the facts alleged in the arrest affidavit represent “awfully thin stuff for a terrorism investigation — essentially criminalizing participation in a chat room.” Taking the affidavit at face value (which one must do in determining whether its allegations are “thin stuff”), it is a remarkable exaggeration to say that it amounts to the criminalization of participation in a chat room. Beside the rather obvious problem that the complaint never once mentions chat rooms, the allegations show that this is not a case about freedom of expression. According to the indictment:
- Muhtorov began e-mail correspondence with the administrator (named Muhammad) of the IJU-affiliated website http://www.sodiqlar.com on February 5, 2011.
- In a phone call on March 8, 2011, Muhtorov informed an associate that the IJU (“our guys over there”) is in need of support. He specifically referenced Juma Namangani, one of the founders of the Islamic Movement of Uzbekistan (IMU), before being warned by his associate that he shouldn’t mention Namangani because the call may be subjected to surveillance.
- On March 22-23, 2011, Muhtorov made bay’ah (an oath of allegiance) to the IJU, and told Muhammad that he was “ready for any task, even with the risk of dying.” Muhammad would later tell Muhtorov that the pledge of bay’ah had been passed on to the group’s leadership.
- Beginning in April 2011, Muhtorov repeatedly told Muhammad that an associate wanted to send along money for a “wedding gift” (the affidavit notes that the out-of-place reference to a “wedding” was likely “code for a terrorist event or attack”), and became agitated when he heard that the “master of ceremonies” was unable to communicate with him directly.
- Muhtorov began looking for one-way flights to Istanbul in May 2011, but instead of purchasing one immediately, he began working long hours.
- On July 25, 2011, Muhtorov spoke to his daughter on the phone, telling her he would never see her again, but that “if she was a good Muslim girl, he will see her in heaven.”
- Finally, in January 2012, Muhtorov quits his job and purchases a one-way ticket to Istanbul, scheduled to leave January 21, 2012 at 5:25 p.m. CST.
In other words, according to the arrest affidavit, it seems that Muhtorov opened up communications with the administrator of an IJU website, spoke favorably of Juma Namangani, committed himself to IJU in an electronic pledge of bay’at, wanted to send money to IJU, quit his job, and was preparing to travel abroad when he was arrested — after telling his daughter that she would only see him again in heaven. Unless there are some very bizarre circumstances that explain this behavior, it seems there was probable cause for the U.S. to arrest him. Foust can argue that Muhtorov’s situation should have played out longer, and investigators should have gathered more information, but given that he was actively preparing to leave the U.S., it’s uncertain what the authorities were supposed to do.
There is an obvious difference between an individual who expresses sympathy for a terrorist organization or creates Internet fodder promoting their ideologies (take, for example, the case of Youssef al Khattab) and an individual who has made bay’ah to an organization, and has purchased a one-way ticket to leave the U.S. and join said organization. The Constitution guarantees freedom of speech; it does not guarantee citizens the right to travel abroad to join a foreign terrorist organization.
Elsewhere, Foust asks if the current charges are trumped up. While this is a fair question, Foust would do a service to his readers — and best assist them in actually approaching the question — by fairly portraying the facts of the case rather than jumping to the most hyperbolic conclusion.
Does the Islamic Jihad Union Not Actually Exist?
Foust argues that the IJU “doesn’t exist outside of some Internet chat rooms,” stating that the IJU is only alleged to have ever done one thing, “some bombings in Tashkent in 2004,” and that this could have simply been made up by the Uzbek government. (For the record, we both agree with Foust that the Uzbek government’s claims should not be taken at face value — but that doesn’t settle the issue, as we will explain.) The 2004 Tashkent bombings are in fact the only thing the IJU is alleged to have done on page 2 of the arrest affidavit, but there is more on page 3:
- “In September 2007, German authorities arrested three IJU operatives, disrupting a plot against unidentified U.S. or Western facilities in Germany. The IJU operatives had acquired about 700 kg of hydrogen peroxide and an explosives precursor, which was enough raw material to make the equivalent about about 1,200 pounds of TNT. The IJU claimed responsibility for the foiled plot.”
- “The IJU has claimed responsibility for attacks on Coalition forces in Afghanistan in 2008, including a March 2008 suicide attack against a U.S. military post purportedly carried out by a German-born Turk.”
- “In April 2009, Turkish authorities seized weapons and detained extremists with ties to the IJU. The IJU has also claimed responsibility for a May 2009 attack in Uzbekistan and numerous attacks in Afghanistan against coalition forces.”
So it really cannot come down to security officials simply being duped by the Uzbekistan government; it is not just Uzbekistan that is trumping the IJU as a real thing, but also Germany, Turkey, and the IJU itself. They could all be wrong, of course, but we are talking about more than the U.S. just accepting Uzbekistan’s word. (Nor is it accurate to say, as Foust claims in this section, that the designation of the IJU “made it a crime to communicate with them” — the material support statute plainly does not prohibit communication with designated entities.)
But Foust provides a link when he says that the IJU doesn’t exist — maybe it brings us to a piece that definitively shows that the IJU is a fiction? Clicking through, you get this analysis by Foust. Does it prove that the IJU isn’t a real thing? Well, let me quote: “None of this means the IJU is an actual hoax.” That’s right: Foust manages to misquote his own work in arguing that the IJU does not exist.
The other thing Foust takes issue with is the depiction of the IMU as being a “global jihadi movement” (something that JZ Adams claimed in the Asia Times). Adams wrote that the IMU “evolved from being a group focused on overthrowing the ‘apostate’ regime of Islam Karimov in Uzbekistan in the late 1990s and early 2000s into the global jihadi movement that it is now.” In response, Foust writes that it is “patently ridiculous to call the IMU a ‘global jihad threat.'” Now, if you compare those quotes carefully, you will see that Foust’s direct quote of Adams actually misquotes him. Adams didn’t write that the IMU is a “global jihad threat,” but rather that it had evolved from a regional focus into being part of the “global jihadi movement.” This misquotation is actually significant because the question of whether IMU is positioning itself as part of the global jihadi movement is separate from the question of whether it should be seen as a “global threat.”
Why are the IMU and IJU seen as being global in outlook? It is not because of “crazy, trumped up Uzbek hype” (though someone somewhere will certainly hype virtually any issue under the sun), but rather because both groups are actively portraying themselves that way, and reaching out to the global jihadi movement. Significant in this regard are the photos circulating on jihadi websites of IJU amir Abdullah Fatih meeting with high-level al Qaeda leader Abu Yahya al Libi.* In August 2011, the IJU claimed that three of their members were martyred by a drone strike in Pakistan. Then there’s this March 2011 statement from IJU expressing solidarity with the mujahedin in the Caucasus region.
Further, both the IJU and IMU have been actively seeking recruits in Europe, Germany in particular. (The IJU’s Eric Breininger hailed from Saarland, Germany.) Indeed, in the middle of this month German officials arrested a man of Afghan descent and charged him with recruiting for the IMU. In reaching European jihadists, Uzbek militant groups have emphasized the role the Khurasan region plays in Islamic end-times prophecy. This region comprises parts of modern-day Afghanistan, Iran, Turkmenistan, Tajikistan, and Uzbekistan, and is mentioned in multiple ahadith. The late Syed Saleem Shahzad opened his book Inside Al Qaeda and the Taliban by emphasizing the importance of this region to Islamic militant groups: “Khurasan was to be the first battleground for the End of Time battles, before a decisive confrontation against the West, with the last battle being fought in the Middle East for the liberation of Palestine and all occupied Muslim lands.”
The evidence goes on: the point is that the perception of these groups being global in outlook comes not from the Uzbek government, but from the groups themselves.
Foust has repeatedly criticized the idea that “Uzbeks are scary,” and on Twitter he commented to us, “I await hearing how the IJU is a threat to all peoples!” This is part of the problem when you are discussing a legal case, as Foust is here. Neither of us find the Irish to be scary, nor do we believe that the IRA is “a threat to all peoples” — but that doesn’t mean that Americans have the right to join the IRA and assist its militant activities. Nor is the idea that the IJU simply doesn’t exist self-evident when IJU leaders had met with Abu Yahya al Libi, and multiple governments have arrested its members. The least that can be said about Foust’s contribution is that it goes far, far beyond any conclusions that the evidence can sustain.
But the bigger, and far more important lesson is that you should never beg Daveed Gartenstein-Ross to eviscerate you over Twitter.
* Note: Previous version prior to correction said that Eric Breininger, and not Fatih, had met with al Libi. A video of the meeting had improperly been labeled “Eric Breininger und Abu Yahya al Libi,” but a subsequent archival search made clear that the meeting had featured Fatih rather than Breininger. Thanks to Kévin Jackson for pointing out the error.