PESHAWAR, Pakistan – Uzbek jihadists teamed up with the Pakistani Taliban for the audacious armed assault on Karachi airport that left at least 36 dead, militant commanders said Wednesday.
Attackers brandishing machine guns and rocket launchers stormed Pakistan’s busiest airport Sunday night, setting off explosions and starting a gunbattle. Ten suicide bombers were among the dead.
Pakistan's Taliban - a collection of militant groups trying to topple the government and create a Shariah state – quickly claimed responsibility for the atrocity.
However, a senior Pakistani Taliban commander said Wednesday that it was a joint operation with the Islamic Movement of Uzbekistan (IMU).
"It was a joint operation in which our Uzbek brothers played an important role,” Abdullah Bahar Mehsud, a spokesman for the Pakistan Taliban’s Sheharyar Mehsud faction told NBC News. "I cannot tell you about the nature of support they provided us but in operations like the Karachi airport, one group provides fighters, another arranges finances for weapons and explosives."
Uzbekistan lies to the north of Afghanistan and does not share any borders with Pakistan, but its small band of militants have bases dotted around the lawless areas straddling Pakistan's border with Afghanistan.
The IMU was driven underground when its leader, Qari Tahir Yaldshve, was killed in a U.S. drone attack in Pakistan’s south Waziristan in 2009. The militants suffered another loss when their patron - and leader of the Pakistani Taliban - Baitullah Mehsud was also killed in drone attack in the same year.
However, they have recently regrouped and helped the Pakistani Taliban during its attack on Peshawar airport last year.
A smaller force of Chinese Uighur fighters also operates in the region, usually in conjunction with the Uzbeks with whom they share a similar Turkic language and culture, officials say.
"Uzbeks and Chinese Uighurs are holed up in the mountains between South and North Waziristan," Pakistan security expert Imtiaz Gul told Reuters. "Because they enjoy the [Taliban's] social and political shelter they have become instrumental in what [the Taliban] are carrying out. Many of them have become foot soldiers for the missions of the [Taliban]."
The existence of the different radical factions underlines the complexity of the militant threat in the region.
The IMU was created in the early 1990s with the aim of toppling Uzbek President Islam Karimov and setting up a Sharia state in the former Soviet Central Asian state.
Squeezed out of Uzbekistan by Karimov's increasingly hardline tactics, IMU militants trickled out of the country throughout the 1990s and eventually joined forces with the Taliban -- fighting U.S.-led forces in neighboring Afghanistan.
Reuters and Wajahat S. Khan of NBC News contributed to this report. Alastair Jamieson reported from London.