BISHKEK (TCA) — Reports say that Islamic State militants are fleeing Iraq and Syria and establishing new strongholds in the war-torn Afghanistan. This poses a security threat to the country’s northern neighbors in Central Asia, and the Taliban seems to be the only real force capable of resisting IS expansion in Afghanistan now. We are republishing this article by Animesh Roul on the issue, originally published by The Jamestown Foundation’s Terrorism Monitor:
Wilayat-e-Khorasan, the Islamic State (IS) affiliate in the borderlands of Afghanistan and Pakistan, is one of the terrorist group’s strongest franchises. Bolstered by defections from the Taliban and boosted further in recent months by an influx of foreign fighters fleeing defeat in Iraq and Syria, IS Khorasan Province (ISK-P) is growing in strength and influence.
IS in Afghanistan
ISK-P came into existence in early 2015, and it has since expanded its influence beyond its operational headquarters in Afghanistan’s Nangarhar province, which borders Pakistan’s tribal regions. The group, which is mostly comprised of fighters who defected from the Pakistani Taliban in Orakzai and Mohmand agencies, has perpetrated indiscriminate mass-fatality attacks in cities from Jalalabad and Kabul in Afghanistan, to Quetta and Lahore in Pakistan. Alarmingly, in September last year, an IS flag bearing the message “The khilafat (caliphate) is coming” was even seen hoisted on a pedestrian bridge near Iqbal town in Islamabad, the Pakistani capital (Express Tribune, September 24, 2017).
ISK-P has extended its influence through alliances with, or simply by co-opting, local militant groups and their leaders. In Pakistan, it has gained the support of sectarian factions such as Lashkar-e-Jhangvi al-Alami, Jundullah and Jamaat-ul-Ahrar, the most powerful faction of the Tehrik-e Taliban (TTP) movement. It also has ties to Lashkar-e Islam (LeI), led by Mangal Bagh Afridi, and Lashkar-e-Khorasan.
In July, ISK-P’s image was boosted further, at the expense of the Pakistani Taliban, when Haji Daud Mehsud, the former chief of TTP-Karachi, declared allegiance to IS (The News, July 30, 2017).
In Afghanistan, ISK-P’s growing influence over the last few years has come from the support of Pakistani militant factions such LeI and factions of the Afghan Taliban movement, such as the Mullah Rasool group and the Islamic Movement of Uzbekistan (IMU), which has sworn allegiance to IS.
Although these alliances remain somewhat imprecise as they cross the Durand Line, the historical but largely imaginary border demarcation between Afghanistan and Pakistan, ISK-P has used the firepower and local networks of these groups in order to carry out its attacks on Christians and Shias, as well as government and military targets.
The group has claimed responsibility for several sectarian attacks in the region in the last six months or so, with Shia and Sufi places of worship and Christian churches the main targets.
In Pakistan, a deadly sectarian attack on December 17 last year in Balochistan was attributed to ISK-P and allied factions. Two armed militants with suicide vests and assault rifles stormed the Bethel Memorial Methodist Church in Quetta, leaving at least nine Christian worshipers dead and more than 50 people seriously wounded (The Nation, December 17, 2017). Although a heightened security presence meant that the death toll was much lower, the attack was reminiscent of ISK-P’s March 2016 Lahore park bombing, in which more than 70 people, mostly Christian women and children, were killed. A similar attack was carried out in the Fatehpur area of Jhal Magsi district, Balochistan, on October 5, when an ISK-P suicide bomber targeted the famous Sufi shrine of Pir Rakhyal Shah and killed nearly 20 worshippers (The Express Tribune, October 5, 2017).
ISK-P has carried out similar attacks in Afghanistan, targeting vulnerable minority groups, especially Shia Muslims and their institutions. On December 28, an apparent suicide attack was carried out at the Shia cultural center in Kabul, leaving over 40 people dead and many more injured (Pajhwok Afghan News, December 28, 2017). The IS Amaq news agency, while claiming responsibility for the attack, argued that the facility is a prominent Shia center and was being sponsored by Iranian agencies that used it as a recruitment center for the Fatemiyoun Division, an Afghan Shia militia engaged in the Syrian civil war.
In October last year, ISK-P militants also targeted the Imam Zaman Mosque, a Shia place of worship located in the western Dashte-e-Barchi neighborhood of Kabul. The suicide attack killed nearly 30 people (Khaama Press, October 20, 2017).
The rise and consolidation of ISK-P in Afghanistan and Pakistan has been aided by intra-Taliban rivalry triggered by the death of Taliban leader Mullah Omar. Recruitment has been aided elsewhere by the Deobandi seminaries, which have for decades propagated sectarian ideals in the tribal regions. Further, ISK-P—like its parent organization in Syria and Iraq—has gone beyond these more traditional support structures, using social media to attract more educated and tech-savvy city dwellers. The cases of the medical student Noreen Leghari, and of the student named Muhammad from the elite Aitcheson College in Lahore, bear testimony to ISK-P’s appeal among educated youth. Muhammad (media reports give only his first name) had even studied and worked in the United States as an information technology professional.
If Pakistani law enforcement sources are to be believed, in May 2017, security forces in Karachi arrested three students from Lahore’s University of Engineering and Technology, along with their teacher for facilitating IS recruitment and activities (Express Tribune, May 22, 2017). Meanwhile, there are nearly a dozen female students from high-profile educational institutions who, like Noreen Leghari, are missing from different areas of Sindh province and are believed to have joined militant groups (Express Tribune, September 14, 2017; The News, March 18. 2017).
In early 2017, Pakistani agencies uncovered IS recruitment networks in Punjab and Lahore. The case of militant recruiter Ghulam Ghous Kumar showed how IS’ extremist propaganda enticed Pakistani youth to join the so-called caliphate. Under interrogation, Ghous said he had facilitated at least five recruitment networks using social media, and had managed to recruit more than 130 people for IS. He was in contact with a Syria-based IS commander, Qari Abid, and an Afghanistan-based commander, Nabeel Ahmed (a.k.a. Abu Abdullah) (The News, March 3, 2017).
Similar developments can be seen in Afghanistan, where observers say that ISK-P has a successful ongoing recruitment process through social media and is active in universities, schools and mosques throughout the country (Pakistan Today, January 8). In March 2017, it was reported ISK-P had distributed leaflets in central Logar province calling on local youth to join the group, resist the Taliban and take control of the province (Pajhwok, March 12, 2017).
In the Darzab district of northwestern Jowzjan province, around 300 young people, most of them under 20, have reportedly been recruited into ISK-P and received training. The group has established training centers in the villages of Moghul and Sar Dara, and there are even reports an ISK-P commander named Umar Mohajir successfully recruited several local Taliban fighters in Jowzjan and Sar-i-Pul provinces (Pajhwok, December 7, 2017; Pajhwok, December 7, 2017).
ISK-P’s rank and file has been constantly replenished through volunteers, as well as sympathizers who are lured by its ideals. Separately, a number of foreign fighters, mostly identified as French and Algerians, have recently joined its ranks in northern Afghanistan (Dawn, December 12, 2017). These war returnees, who include female jihadists from the Syria conflict, are establishing new bases in the ISK-P-controlled districts of Darzab and Qosh Tepa in northern Jowzjan province. According to Mohammad Reza Ghafoori, a spokesman for the governor of Jowzjan, there are “more than 40 foreign Islamic State fighters, mostly Uzbeks” who have begun to recruit locals “and train them to become fighters” (Dawn, December 12, 2017). Nearly 200 foreign fighters are camping near Bibi Mariam village in Darzab, according to local media reports (DID Press Agency [Afghanistan], December 10, 2017).
ISK-P’s foreign militant contingent has been targeted for airstrikes. In early January, at least seven foreign fighters—three French and four Uzbek militants— were killed in an airstrike in Alkhani village, in Darzab (MENAFN – Afghanistan Times, January 2).
In September 2017, ISK-P released a video entitled “The Atmosphere of Eid in Khorasan Province,” which showed Eid ul-Adha festivities in its territories, underscoring the presence of Indians, Russians and Tajiks among its ranks. In just over six minutes of footage, the group stressed that “all are united one Islam, and our goal is to bring sharia, to bring the laws of Allah, to all the world.” Media reports corroborated that Qari Hekmat, a prominent Taliban leader in Jowzjan, has recently switched allegiance to the IS, raising the ISK-P banner in the province (AAN, November 11, 2017).
Since the death of Abdul Haseeb Logari in April 2017, it has been unclear who is in charge of ISK-P —a militant named Abu Sayed possibly briefly succeeded him, but he too was killed in July 2017 (Daily Times, July 16, 2017). It is equally ambiguous if Qari Hekmat, or any senior militant commander, is guiding the foreign fighters who might be preparing for armed operations beyond Afghanistan and Pakistan.
It is, however, certain that a safe haven for ISK-P militants has developed in the tribal lands of Afghanistan and Pakistan. The present situation suggests fleeing militants could find a new lease on life and win further sympathizers to the crumbling caliphate, allowing ISK-P to grow in stature in the region.