The IMU has been active in Pakistan and Afghanistan for more than a decade. The U.S. State Department declared it a foreign terrorist organization in 2000. The group regularly makes international news for its attacks, including a claim of responsibility for a May 12 suicide bombing in Quetta, Pakistan, that killed eight people and injured dozens.
But what makes the Thursday arrest of Fazliddin Kurbanov in Boise unique is it is one of the first cases of federal terrorism charges brought against an alleged Islamic Movement of Uzbekistan member or supporter in the United States, said Bill Roggio, a former journalist who follows such groups for the Long War Journal, a project of the Washington, D.C., think tank Foundation for Defense of Democracies.
Kurbanov, 30, was charged Thursday during a federal raid of his apartment near Curtis Road and Cassia Street. He appeared in Boise federal court Friday where, via an interpreter on the telephone, he pleaded not guilty to three terrorism-related charges. Prosecutors allege Kurbanov provided material support and resources to the IMU.
Last year in Alabama, a 22-year-old Uzbek who entered the country in 2009 on a student visa - the same year as Kurbanov - was sentenced to 15 years in prison for his role in a terrorist plot to kill President Barack Obama. In a plea agreement, Ulugbek Kodirov admitted communicating with a member of the IMU who had urged him to assassinate the president, Roggio reported.
A MATTER OF WHEN, NOT IF
Kurbanov's case is different because he is accused of providing actual training to and support of IMU, which has close ties to al-Qaida, Roggio told the Statesman Friday. He's also accused of having bomb materials.
That the IMU may have some type of presence on U.S. soil doesn't surprise Roggio.
"I have been waiting for this," he said.
He also said he was not surprised the alleged activity occurred in Idaho and Utah, two relatively unpopulated and rural states.
"If I was al-Qaida, I would do a bunch of little things in the Midwest or in the Mountain states, in the heart of America, where people would not expect it," he said.
Federal officials have declined to offer many details about the attacks they say Kurbanov or the IMU may have been planning. U.S. Attorney Wendy Olson told the Statesman Friday she is still researching possible IMU cases in the U.S. She also has declined to say if Kurbanov is suspected of planning attacks in the U.S. or abroad, or whether the co-conspirators he is accused of training are Americans or foreigners.
Tahir Yuldashev formed the IMU in 1998 to overthrow the Uzbek government and establish an Islamic state. The organization set up operations in the South Waziristan region of Pakistan. Initially, most of its activity focused on attacks against Uzbekistan and its president, Islam Karimov.
CHANGE OF FOCUS
In the last several years, however, the U.S. State Department says the IMU has undergone a transformation, shifting its focus from Uzbek targets to attacking coalition forces in Afghanistan.
"In late 2009, NATO forces reported an increase in IMU-affiliated foreign fighters in Afghanistan," the State Department said in its most recent annual report on foreign terrorist organizations. "Top IMU leaders have integrated themselves into the Taliban's shadow government in the northern provinces. Operating in cooperation with each other, the Taliban and the IMU have expanded their presence throughout northern Afghanistan and have established training camps in the region."
The IMU has not staged any major attacks outside Asia, Roggio said, but he thinks it's just a matter of time.
An IMU leader urged attacks last year against Germany. And in 2010, a commander with the Islamic Jihad Group, a splinter faction of the IMU, was believed to have helped train and facilitate a failed European plot - Mumbai-like terror assaults of armed suicide bombers in major European cities, Roggio said.
The IMU has evolved into a more formidable threat and formed stronger ties with al-Qaida, the terrorism expert said. "I have been saying all along, 'They may not be important to you right now, but I guarantee they will show up and you are not going to like it when they do.'"
QUESTIONS ABOUT RADICALIZATION
One reason the IMU has become more active is its founder, Yuldashev, was killed in a U.S. drone strike in August 2009 in Pakistan. Its new leaders urged more aggressive actions, Roggio said.
"After Yuldashev dies, IMU activities really start spiking in Afghanistan," Roggio said.
Coincidentally, August 2009 is when Kurbanov arrived in Boise as a refugee from Uzbekistan.
Roggio said one thing federal investigators will be determining is if Kurbanov arrived in the United States already radicalized - which could mean he got through the stringent refugee screening process and came to the U.S. with ulterior motives - or if he became radicalized and aligned with IMU after his arrival in Boise, which could mean he connected with or was influenced by radicals here.
Olson and other federal authorities have declined to discuss or speculate about Kurbanov's background or motives.
"We'll see how the evidence plays out," Olson said.
Cynthia Sewell: 377-6428, Twitter: @CynthiaSewell