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Wednesday, February 8, 2023

COLUMN: ISIS-K and the Fight Between the Ears

They have fewer than 2,000 men. We can limit their ability to draw recruits and gain support by undermining the foundational narrative.

As a “Province” of the core “Islamic State,” the Khorasan group aims to take control of parts of Central and South Asia under the Khorasan Province black banner of the self-declared caliphate. It is important to note that this is not a reference to the present-day Iranian Khorasan; rather, the Khorasan reference for the jihadi group is a reference to the notion – a myth, an ideal – of a golden age of Islam of the past that will rise again. A map published by IS-K propaganda efforts shows the mythological Khorasan area stretching from Kazakhstan to Sri Lanka to the Maldives to China.

Established with a new label in 2015, after the late ISIS leader Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi chose Pakistani national Hafiz Saeed Khan as the group’s first emir, according to a 2018 report by the Center for Strategic and International Studies, IS-K’s ranks swelled to an all-time high of between 3,000 and 4,000 in 2016 but by October 2018, following the U.S.-led campaign to dismantle the ISIS caliphate, IS-K’s fighting force was minimized to between 1,500 and 2,000, according to CSIS. It still retains a core force of about 1,500 to 2,200 fighters in Kunar and Nangarhar provinces east of Kabul after suffering losses of territory, leadership, and financing.

ISIS-K’s first leader, Khan, was killed by a U.S. drone strike in July 2015 in Nangarhar Province’s southern Achin district, which borders Pakistan. He was replaced by Abdul Hasib, who was taken out by U.S. and Afghan special forces in April 2017. He was replaced by Abdul Hasib in April 2017. Hasib’s successor, Abu Sayed, was killed in a strike on the group’s headquarters in Kunar province. Since June 2020, ISIS-K has been led by Shahab al-Muhajir, also known as “Sanaullah,” who took over after Afghan special forces captured his predecessor, Aslam Farooqi.

This November (Nov 22, 2021) the State Department noted:

  • Sanaullah Ghafari, also known as Shahab al-Muhajir, is ISIS-K’s current overall emir.  He was appointed by the ISIS core to lead ISIS-K in June 2020.  Ghafari is responsible for approving all ISIS-K operations throughout Afghanistan and arranging funding to conduct operations.
  • Sultan Aziz Azam, also known as Sultan Aziz, has held the position of ISIS-K spokesperson since ISIS-K first came to Afghanistan.
  • Maulawi Rajab, also known as Maulawi Rajab Salahudin, is a senior leader of ISIS-K in Kabul Province, Afghanistan. Rajab plans ISIS-K’s attacks and operations and commands ISIS-K groups conducting attacks in Kabul.

Additionally, the U.S. Department of the Treasury identified Ismatullah Khalozai as providing financial support to IS-K. Khalozai is an international financial facilitator for IS-K senior leadership.

So what kind of threat does this group pose to U.S. national security? And what are potential avenues of engagement consistent with the Interim National Security Strategy?

There are several:

One possibility is that the U.S. government work with the Taliban for joint targeting of IS-K. This would involve intelligence sharing. In addition to the risks of intelligence sharing, such cooperation would carry the risk of causing Taliban fragmentation and the formation of splinter cells. The appearance of joint U.S.-Taliban operations against IS-K could also be confusing for our already confused international allies.

Another option is for the U.S. government to do nothing and let local dynamics play out. No one is as threatened by IS-K as the Taliban and the latter are likely to continue a military campaign against ISIS-K without American support.

This do-nothing approach comes with its own risks:

  1. A) IS-K could make gains against the Taliban, which would improve the group’s ability to project threats beyond the immediate region.
  2. B) If the fighting escalates, either group could turn to transnational violence to establish their status as “the” leading jihadi movement. The Soufan Center released a report last month detailing fears that IS-K may develop the capacity to conduct external operations in as little as 6 months and emphasized that the group has already been linked to a transnational plot targeting NATO and U.S. bases in Germany.
  3. C) The Taliban could form an alliance with other militant groups thereby increasing the threat capacity of each.

A third option, the “Over-the-Horizon” (air attacks) approach to counterterrorism, may be more palatable to the American public than boots on the ground warfare but the ease of killing remotely should not be confused with precision. We have repeatedly seen evidence of second- and third-order effects of our misguided drone attacks. We have also learned that groups like this are not only prepared to lose their leaders but they are organized with the expectation of leadership loss. Decapitation of the organizational structure could be effective if the organization was centralized and organized linearly. This is not the case with jihadi groups, and attacking them as though they were is consistent with an old playbook that our adversaries are using against us.

Whatever approach we take we ought to depend upon the nature of the threat and how that threat is contextualized in our National Security Strategy. Western scholars have argued that the group may have the capacity to hit the west in as little as 6 to 12 months, depending on who one talks to. But the kinetic threat is much more of a threat for the region than for the west.

The threat to the U.S. will depend upon the success or failure of the motivational narrative, more than kinetic capacity. Put another way, the kinetic capacity of the group, like many other groups of this type, will depend upon the power of its motivational narrative to draw recruits and embolden fighters. If it cannot draw recruits or at least garner civil support, the group is doomed. Like all Narrative Warfare, this fight is taking place between the ears.

There is, therefore, a fourth option: Undermine the adversary’s real seat of power. That seat of power is ultimately not kinetic. They have fewer than 2,000 men. We can limit their ability to draw recruits and gain support by undermining the foundational narrative. This is Narrative Warfare. We need only to observe the successes of our weaker adversaries (both near-peer and non-state) as evidence of its potential.

The Khorasan narrative is their true base of power. The mythical nature of the narrative does not diminish its power, but the important thing is they think it does. And that is their strategic narrative mistake. That is the hole in their foundational narrative. And it should be exploited. Myths don’t need to be factually based to be powerfully motivational but IS-K, and groups like it, undermine the power of their own narrative by insisting on the connection. In this case it is the connection to hadiths on Khorasan.

Like Daesh, IS-K avoids the pitfalls of having their myth disproved by regularly altering pieces of the narrative as to perpetuate the power. Remember Dabiq? Dabiq wasn’t important to Daesh strategically but, rather, symbolically. It featured heavily in apocalyptic prophecies of an end-of-time confrontation. When the reality on the ground did not support the prophecy, they altered the temporal orientation. Some true believers still believe, but the persuasive power of the symbolic reference was greatly diminished and notice that there is little reference to Dabiq in Daesh rhetoric now.

The way to undermine such mythology is for legitimate scholars of Islamic jurisprudence to offer a more compelling narrative. The Khorasan myth has long been disputed by an endless stream of jurisprudence scholars. One such scholar and historian, Aslam Syed, maintains, “These are weak traditions and cannot be verified. Over the years, the Muslim rulers have manufactured them to justify their invasions to foreign lands.”

Mythological references being used to further modern-day political agendas are an old trick and one certainly not confined to “Muslim rulers” – consider, for example, the antisemitic agenda of “The Protocols of the Elders of Zion” or the role “The Turner Diaries” plays in white-supremacist mythology.

The attempt to tie the myth to historical fact in order to legitimate and bolster the myth can be partially undermined by questioning the authenticity of that connection as long as the questioning comes in the form of a more compelling narrative by an authoritative narrator and is then perpetuated by many dynamic narrators. The more compelling narrative should not “counter” the problematic one; rather, it should encompass and swallow up the problematic narrative thereby giving it new (diminished) meaning in a larger context.

To be clear, the power of narrative does not begin with messaging or communication. Narrative is more basic than that. Narratives provide a cognitive framework, a meaning map in the head, that will determine what meaning will be assigned to events and experiences. Strategic narratives provide an intentional frame for incoming information. Human experience of events, and the meaning we assign to them, are determined by the narratives we live by. And the way incoming information is processed can be altered by altering the meaning map: the narrative.

Our adversaries understand this concept, have embraced it, and have incorporated strategic narratives across their operations. AQAP, ISIS, the Taliban, al-Qaeda, and IS-K effectively disseminate their brand and reinforce their ideologies through broad information operations to control the strategic narrative.

It is imperative that our National Security Strategy should encompass the narratives of our adversaries. I am not suggesting that the National Security Strategy should be a counter-narrative. Our strategy should not be a rebuttal. Just the opposite. A strategic narrative will not be successful if it is limited to the narrative terrain established by extremists and should certainly not be focused on responding to their messaging. We must tell our own narrative in a way that re-frames the opposition’s narrative (without direct reference) and co-opts their meaning map.

Ajit Maan
Ajit Maan, Ph.D. writes the Narrative & National Security column for Homeland Security Today featuring her original work and work by guest experts in narrative strategy focused on identifying active narratives, who is behind them, and what strategies they are deploying to manipulate and muddy facts to the detriment of America. She is founder and CEO of the award-winning think-and-do-tank, Narrative Strategies LLC, Adjunct Professor at Joint Special Operations University, Professor of Politics and Global Security, Faculty at the Center for the Future of War, and member of the Brain Trust of the Weaponized Narrative Initiative at Arizona State University. She is also author of seven books including Internarrative Identity: Placing the Self, Counter-Terrorism: Narrative Strategies, Narrative Warfare, and Plato’s Fear. Maan's breakthrough theory of internarrative identity came in 1997; she published a book by the same name in 1999 which was released in its second edition in 2010 (with the addition of the subtitle Placing the Self). Internarrative identity deals with one’s sense of identity as expressed in personal narrative, connecting the formation of identity with one assigns meaning to one’s life experiences. Maan’s theories are influenced by Paul Ricoeur’s writings in narrative identity theory, and she cites several of his works in her book (Maan, Internarrative Identity: Placing the Self 90). The connection between the interpretation of personal narrative in relation to the larger social group seems to be a key factor in the work of both Maan and Ricoeur. She states that “Following Ricoeur, I’ve argued that who one is and what one will do will be determined by the story one sees oneself as a part of. Going further than Ricoeur, I have suggested that a genuinely imaginative theory of narrative identity would be inclusive of alternatively structured narratives” (Maan, Internarrative Identity: Placing the Self 71-72). This seems to indicate that Maan believes that identity influences behavior, but she also recognizes that one can be constrained by society to accept a self-narrative that fits within existing cultural norms. After establishing herself through her work on Internarrative Identity, Maan has now turned her attention to the analysis of narrative as a means of understanding (and combating) terrorist recruitment tactics. Her 2014 book, Counter-Terrorism: Narrative Strategies, examines the scripts perpetuated by a wide range of terrorist organizations while also making important interdisciplinary connections between studies in the humanities and current world events (a workbook companion to the text was published in 2018). She collaborated with the late Brigadier General Amar Cheema on the edited volume titled Soft Power on Hard Problems: Strategic Influence in Irregular Warfare, published in 2016. Maan's 2018 book, titled Narrative Warfare, is a collection of articles examining the topic of weaponized narrative; her 2020 book, Plato's Fear, examines the relationship between narrative and power. Her work was the focus of Representations of Internarrative Identity, a 2014 multi-authored scholarly monograph dedicated to the exploration of Internarrative Identity through diverse fields of study and from international perspectives. In addition to her contributions to academia, Maan has been active in sharing her knowledge with a wider audience thereby uniting military and academic experts in the cause of eradicating violent extremism around the world.

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