On Oct. 24, a video surfaced on Afghan social media, showing a former fighter of the Islamic State surrendering to the Afghan government. The man, who claimed to be Jordanian, says that he came to this country looking for jihad. “On the internet, they told us there is jihad here, but I came here I see [no jihad], Muslims with Muslims, fighting together,” he tells Shah Mahmood Miakhel, the governor of the Afghan province of Nangarhar.
This fighter didn’t find the glorified battle he was promised, but that hasn’t stopped hundreds of others who are making this trip each year in search of the jihad being promoted by Islamic State leadership.
Two days later, on Oct. 26, the world woke up to the news of the death of the notorious Islamic State leader, Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi, killed during a U.S. army raid on his compound in Syria. Mr. al-Baghdadi had gained notoriety since taking on the reins of the group in 2014 and has been blamed for many brutal atrocities committed by the group in Syria, Iraq and elsewhere.
His death is being hailed as major victory for the U.S.’s war against the group and is likely to weaken the many factions of the group in the Middle East. However, the fight against the Islamic State is far from over. Like the man interviewed by Mr. Maikhel, many IS fighters are now turning eastward to this region in central and south Asia to join the Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant – Khorasan Province (ISKP). Despite Mr. al-Baghdadi’s death, there is real concern that ISKP could grow into a formidable insurgency in the region.
The ISKP has increased its recruiting and attacks in Afghanistan. Of the 5,117 civilian casualties reported by the United Nations Assistance Mission in Afghanistan in the first nine months of this year, 1,013 were attributed to ISKP, including the horrific suicide bombing at a Hazara Shia wedding ceremony in August in Kabul.
While the estimated population of foreign ISKP fighters remains relatively low, there have been several reports of many fighters travelling to Afghanistan from Pakistan, India, Central Asia and the Middle East. Unable to find their place in the losing war in the Middle East, they come to Afghanistan with their families to seek battle gratification.
If the much-delayed peace talks with the Taliban reach a fruitful conclusion, experts such as Hekmat Azamy, director at Centre for Conflict and Peace Studies, who has been closely observing the developments, foresee the possibility of Taliban fighters shifting camps to join the ISKP.
ISKP is not organically linked to the group in the Middle East. In fact, the leadership of the Islamic State has remained decentralized for many years now, and nearly all attacks conducted by the group outside the Middle East region have been planned and executed by affiliated groups that claim allegiance to the mother organization, but receive little in support, training or funding from them. In Afghanistan, intelligence officials, including the former chief of intelligence and current vice-presidential candidate Amrullah Saleh, have accused the Pakistani spy agency, Inter-Services Intelligence, of manufacturing and supporting the ISKP, among other insurgencies in a bid to destabilize the political system within their country.
Those in the Afghan academic and intelligence circles such as Omar Sadr, political professor at American University of Afghanistan, and Hussain Ehsani, a senior researcher at the Kabul-based Afghan Institute of Strategic Studies, have expressed cautious optimism over the death of Mr. al-Baghdadi.
While the Afghan government and its foreign allies have increased their efforts against the ISKP, the current gap in an already decentralized leadership offers a moment of chaos that can be exploited to ensure the influence of the group is restricted and eventually eliminated.
The solutions, though, need to go beyond military operations and take stock of the radicalization within Afghanistan. Afghan government structures need to be strengthened and supported to allow for community-level engagement that not only helps understand how and why fighters join insurgencies but also prevents recruitment.
There is an urgent need to address the nature of the peace talks with the Taliban, which currently excludes the Afghan government. An inclusive intra-Afghan negotiation can help ensure the Taliban fighters are integrated into the society. There is potential to mobilize the strong nationalist sentiments among local fighters to dissuade their shift to the Islamic State.
Most of all, foreign allies need to recognize the threats posed by ISKP along with other insurgencies in destabilizing the region, in case of their sudden and complete withdrawal, as demanded by the Taliban. Afghan forces are going to need all the support they can get, as the Islamic State reorganizes and mobilizes in the coming months. To quote the Nangarhar governor fighting the ISKP influence in his region, “Afghans sacrifice for [the] world’s problems. [The] world needs to support us in this fight.”