ISIS (Islamic State in Khorasan Province) Uzbek, Tajik and Uighur militants from Central Asian post-Soviet countries and China’s province of Xinjiang have become distinguished from other foreign fighters by their sophisticated jihadi tactics challenging the Afghan Taliban regime and its northern neighbors. Following the U.S. military withdrawal from Afghanistan, the Uighur- and Tajik-speaking fighters of the Islamic State carried out several high-profile suicide attacks on Taliban forces, a Hazaras Shiite minority and a tiny Sikh community, quickly transforming them into a growing power of the jihadi landscape in the region. Thanks to the involvement of Muhajireens (foreign fighters) in suicide bombings, ISKP’s modus operandi evolved both in terms of local propaganda and recruitment aiming to expand the geography of cross-border jihadi attacks beyond Afghanistan. Along with the first attempts of cross-border rocket attacks on Uzbekistan and Tajikistan in April and May 2022, the ISKP Tajik fighters successfully adopted for the first time in Afghanistan a little known al-Qaeda suicide bombing tactic known as Inghimasi, distinguished from common suicide attacks in its sophistication and fury of execution, which leads to a large number of enemy casualties. An Inghimasi fighter is defined by the Combating Terrorism Center at West Point as a “suicide fighter” or “those who submerse in enemy’s line with no intent to come back alive.”
On June 18, 2022, an ISKP Tajik Inghimasi fighter carried out a suicide bombing attack on a “temple of Hindus and Sikhs” in Kabul, which was described by local jihadi media as “a new jihadi tactic first used by Muhajireen from Mawarannahr (Transoxiana or modern Central Asia).” According to IS-Central media outlets, the Nasher and Amaq news agencies, around 50 Sikhs and Hindus and Taliban were killed or injured during a “sophisticated attack” carried out by its Tajik Inghimasi fighter.
An encrypted Telegram channel of Nasher News Agency, citing “ISIS military sources,” reported that the Inghimasi fighter named Abu Muhammad al-Tajiki entered the Sikh temple after killing a guard at the entrance. Armed with a rifle, handgun and hand grenades, al-Tajiki opened fire on the “pagan worshipers of the two sects” inside the temple. During the Inghimasi attack, other ISKP militants outside the temple detonated several improvised explosive devices and a car bomb on the enemy positions, preventing Taliban security forces from entering the temple. The Taliban soldiers repeatedly tried unsuccessfully to break into the temple and take out the Tajik Inghimasi fighter who fought with enemy forces for more than three hours until he eventually blew himself up.
According to the Amaq News Agency, the ISKP Tajik Inghimasi fighter killed or wounded around “30 Sikh and Hindi infidels” and the temple was significantly damaged. During clashes with the Taliban forces that arrived in time for the temple, the “Lion of Allah” managed to kill and wound another 20 Taliban members and blow up several of their cars.
The Inghimasi operation, according to IS-Central media, was in response to derogatory comments against the Prophet Muhammad made by two Indian government members. It is worth noting that on May 26, during a TV debate, Nupur Sharma, the spokesperson of India’s BJP ruling party, made derogatory comments about Muslim worshipers and the Prophet Muhammad and mocked her Muslim rival.
Also, Islamic State has repeatedly condemned the Taliban government for its collaboration and meetings with Indian government officials, whom ISKP’s local Al-Azaim Media Foundation and “Voice of Khurasan” magazine often mocked as “Descendants of Cows,” “Cow Pagans,” “Sikh and Hindu Mushrikin (polytheist)” and “Enemies of Islam.” Notably, the ISKP Inghimasi sophisticated attack on the Sikh temple followed the bilateral meeting between Taliban’s acting foreign minister Mawlawi Amir Khan Muttaqi and Indian foreign ministry Joint Secretary JP Singh in Kabul on June 2.
ISKP local media praises Inghimasi attack
Predictably, in accordance with the Islamic State’s strategy for media coordination between IS-Central and its Khorasan Province’s media outlets, ISKP-linked Movarounnahr Telegram channel provided more details on the Tajik Inghimasi suicide attacker in the Tajik language. Noteworthy, Movarounnahr is a pro-IS multifaceted local media that produces propaganda content in Tajik Cyrillic exclusively aimed at the Tajik Jamaat in Central Asia and Tajik labor migrants in Russia.
On June 22, Movarounnahr Telegram channel published a 12-minute audio message from Yusuf Tajiki, a notorious propaganda voice of ISKP Tajik jihadists who regularly eulogizes Islamic State’s jihadi operations in Central Asia, distributes Islamic lectures and administers multiple jihadi media channels under IS-Khorasan’s umbrella. In his speech, Yusuf Tajiki noted that “the famous and fearless lion of Allah Almighty, Tajik commander Abdullah Abu-Muhammad al-Tajiki carried out an Istishhadi (martyrdom) attack on the Sikh Temple in Kabul and sacrificed himself to protect the values of Islam.” The narrator further described Abu Muhammad al-Tajiki as the most authoritative scholar on the Quran and Hadiths, who mentored many Tajik jihadists, Shaheed (suicide bomber or martyr) and Inghimasi fighters to serve in al-Dawla al-Islamiya (Islamic State). Given his deep Islamic knowledge and combat experience, after the Hijrat (migration) to the Khorasan land, the ISKP leaders immediately appointed him the Tajik battalion commander. Under his leadership many Muhajireen achieved the sacred goals of Jihad becoming Shaheed in the path of Allah, and one of them killed 250 Rafidah (Shia Muslim) pagans, as claimed by Yusuf Tajiki.
When Abu-Muhammad al-Tajiki asked his Amirs (military commander) for permission for doing Istishhadi (suicide) operation as an Inghimasi fighter in order to become a Shaheed, the Wali (governor) of Khurasan Shahab al-Muhajir was against it at first, reported Movarounnahr. Because ISKP leaders did not want to lose the famous Muhajir and leave Tajik Muhajireen without leadership. But his love for the Almighty was so strong that he again and again asked for permission from his Amirs to realize his dream and to do Istishhadi, said the report. Because he dreamed of sacrificing himself in defense of Islam and was in a hurry to meet with Allah Almighty in Jannat al-Firdaous (highest gardens of heaven) in Paradise. Finally, the Wali of Khurasan accepted his request. As a result of the Istishhadi operation on Sikh temple, he killed more than 50 infidels. At the end of his speech, Yusuf Tojiki called on Central Asian Muslims to embark on the true path of Allah and join IS-Khorasan.
How Voice of Khorasan magazine assessed Inghimasi Operation
Following Yusuf Tojiki’s audio address in Telegram, the ISKP’s Voice of Khorasan magazine in English published a long editorial glorifying the Istishhadi attack on the Sikh Temple, its performer Abu-Muhammad al-Tajiki and his dying interview. The heightened media attention of IS-Central and its Khorasan Province to the latest Istishhadi attack indicates the global terrorist group attaches great ideological importance to sensitize the Inghimasi tactics to its members. For instance, the editorial claimed that “Abu-Muhammad prepared, trained, and taught practical plans to hundreds of brothers [Inghimasi] willing to do Istishhadi [attack]. His students were the Istishhadi heroes. They pledged each other to do Istishhadi [attack].”
According to the Inghimasi operation tactics, al-Tajiki’s sophisticated attack was assisted by “his students named Julaibib, Mu’adh, and Shahram,” the Voice of Khorasan said. ISKP praised young Inghimasi fighters, judging by their photos looking like schoolchildren, as “Istishhadis heroes.” According to the IS-local media arm, they covered al-Tajiki from outside the temple and clashed with the Taliban patrol force that reached the gate of the temple. After the Taliban brought forces into the area, they activated a car bomb and three IEDs against them. As a result, about 30 Hindus and Sikhs and at least 20 Taliban operatives were killed in the sophisticated attack, the Voice of Khorasan reported.
This is not the first time that ISKP Central Asian jihadists carried out an Istishhadi attack against the religious minorities in Afghanistan challenging the Taliban’s legitimacy. Since the takeover of Afghanistan by the Taliban, ISKP has claimed 52 attacks, including 6 suicide attacks, in the country, which has resulted in over 600 casualties. Many of these suicide attacks were carried out by ISKP Central Asian jihadists. Here is some of them:
– ISKP Tajik fighter Abu Bakr al-Tajiki conducted a suicide bombing outside the Afghan Supreme Court in Kabul in February 2017, killing at least 20 people, including women and children.
– IS-Khorasan’s Tajik militants Abu Abd al-Rahman al-Tajiki and Ibrahim al-Tajiki assaulted the Daud Khan Hospital in Kabul in March 2017, killing at least 38 people and injuring dozens
– Another ISKP Tajik jihadist, Abu Aisha al-Tajiki, attacked Afghanistan’s most popular Pashto-language Shamshad TV station in Kabul in November 2017. He fought to the death during clashes with Afghan security forces that left at least four people dead and more than 20 wounded.
– In March 2020, ISKP Tajik militant Ahmad al-Tajiki carried out a suicide attack on a commemoration of late Hazara Hezb-e Wahdat party leader Abdul Ali Mazari in Kabul, killing 32 people and injuring 8 others.
But the most high-profile sophisticated suicide bombings, which had a great propaganda effect, was the last Inghimasi operation in June 2022, which attracted a big media attention from both ISIS-Central and IS-Khorasan.
Anatomy of the Inghimasi Tactics
The praising and coordinated coverage of this event by IS-Central propaganda apparatus and its branch of ISKP local media outlet indicates that the Islamic State strategists attach importance to the methods and tactics of Inghimasi operation. Indeed, Inghimasi, also called Istishhadi, are suicide attack shock troops utilized by several Sunni Salafi-Jihadi groups such as al-Qaeda and Hayat Tahrir al-Sham (HTS) in the Middle East. In a switch from the usual Shaheed tactics, Inghimasi fighters deliberately plunge into the enemy crowd, killing enemies with firearms as much as possible and turning them into a bloody mess before blowing up their explosive belts when overwhelmed. Inghimasi fighters agree to a ‘no-return’ jihadi operation inflicting the highest amount of damage on the enemy.
In 2014, ISIS borrowed the concept of Inghimasi from al Qaeda and its Syrian branch of Jabhat al-Nusra (now Hayat Tahrir al-Sham) who introduced it to the Jihadi world. ISIS deployed Inghimasi attacks on the battlefields of Iraq, Syria and Libya, with considerable success. During its rise, ISIS offered its new recruits three options to choose between being a normal fighter, an Istishhadi (suicide bomber) or an Inghimasi, according to the Bellingcat Investigation group. Among them, Inghimasi is the most revered and sophisticated operations attracting considerable admiration and praise from other jihadists. According to the religious faith of the Salafi jihadists, Inghimasiyun striving in the path of God after Judgment Day will go to the “highest rooms of Jannat (paradise).” The tactics employed by Inghimasi fighters and suicide bombers differ. The Inghimasi often operate in a group and are usually on foot, armed with light weapons and grenades, while suicide bombers are usually believed to operate alone in vehicles packed with explosives.
Al Qaeda-affiliated Central Asian groups Katibat al Tawhid wal Jihad (KTJ), Katibat Imam al Bukhari (KIB) and Uighur’s Turkestan Islamic Party (TIP) often admired the Inghimasi operations of HTS in Idlib province. Thus, judging by the nature of Abu Muhammad al-Tajiki’s attack on the Sikh temple and Taliban forces, the Inghimasi tactics have successfully begun to be used by ISKP foreign fighters in Afghanistan.
Implications of Inghimasi Operation
The attack on the Sikh temple was intended to portray ISIS as the “only protector of Islam” and defender of the honor of the Prophet, while its main rivals in the jihadi world, “the Taliban and al Qaeda, have long since departed from the true path of Allah.”
The ISKP also emphasized the fact that the main Inghimasi fighter who successfully carried out the sophisticated Istishhadi attack against the “polytheists and puppet forces of the Taliban” was “Abu Muhammad al-Tajiki, the lion of the Caliphate,” which clearly underlines his Tajik national identity. Apparently, ISIS’s objective is to encourage its Tajik, Uzbek and Kyrgyz supporters from the post-Soviet space to join its ranks.
It should be noted that ISIS’s attempt to exploit the Tajik suicide bomber against the Hindus as an act of revenge for insulting the Prophet is part of an ongoing effort by the Islamic State to expand its influence from Central Asia to the Indian subcontinent. Thus, IS-Khorasan has been attempting to establish itself as a key global Salafi-Jihadi movement operating across a large geographic area spanning Central, East and South Asia and not just a local element operating within Afghanistan.
A new report of the United Nations’ Analytical Support and Sanctions Monitoring Team confirms that ISKP seeks to strengthen its capabilities by recruiting new members from al Qaeda-linked Central Asian jihadi groups dissatisfied with the Taliban’s efforts to restrain their jihadi activities in Afghanistan. The UN reported “the defection of 50 Uighur fighters from al Qaeda-allied Turkestan Islamic Party (TIP) to ISKP.”
Recently, for the first time in its history, the ISKP managed to conduct cross-border rocket attacks on the territory of Uzbekistan and Tajikistan. It is worth noting, moreover, its activities against Central Asia’s neighboring countries indicate that the ISKP sees this region populated by Sunni Muslims as having high potential for expanding its influence and jihadi operation.
Obviously, in terms of the Inghimasi operation tactics, propaganda effectiveness and widespread media coverage, al-Tajiki’s recent sophisticated suicide attack on the Sikh Temple has exceeded all expectations of ISKP leaders. The point is not that the Inghimasi operation was carried out successfully from the point of view of the ISKP, but that these suicide attacks broke the red psychological line of the Central Asian Muhajireen in relation to the Taliban. Despite some ideological differences with the Taliban in the past and bloody clashes between them in the Zabul province in 2015, ISKP-aliened Central Asian Salafi jihadists have not openly taken up arms against the Taliban, mindful of their assistance in providing safe haven since the late ’90s.
Apparently, the more the Taliban deviate from the hardline jihadi concept in an effort to achieve international recognition of their political regime, the more Central Asian Muhajireen will defect from the Taliban to ISKP. There is a growing number of tough critics of the Taliban regime among Central Asian jihadists in Afghanistan, calling them ‘filthy nationalists’ for adopting a myopic nationalistic position instead of a global jihadist one. Obviously, as the Taliban continue to weaken in terms of hardline jihadi ideology, the ISKP grows stronger by expanding its local media resources in Uzbek, Tajik, Russian and Uighur targeting the Taliban as an “apostate regime.”
ISKP may target Uzbek, Turkmen and Russian governments interests in Afghanistan to undermine the Taliban’s efforts to boost diplomatic and economic ties with them. Subsequently, the next target for ISKP Uzbek and Tajik militants could be the embassies of those countries in Kabul, which the Taliban has promised to protect. Moreover, it is to be expected that the ISKP may leverage its supporters to repeat an external sophisticated Inghimasi operation within Central Asia in the future, as long as the attention of Russia and the U.S. is focused on the conflict in Ukraine.
The military-technical capabilities of Central Asian countries are very limited for successfully conducting counterterrorist operations against the ISKP in the region. The disunity of kinetic counterterrorist measures against ISKP and the absence of a unified security mechanism create favorable conditions for the rise of the ISKP in the region. Central Asia cannot rely on Russia to fight against ISIS. Despite a long-cultivated image as Central Asia’s security guarantor, Moscow never played a key role in the fall of the Islamic Caliphate in the Middle East, focusing more on limited counterterrorism activities in the North Caucasus. Russia doesn’t even have a comprehensive strategy to combat ISKP in Afghanistan.
Therefore, Central Asian governments should seriously consider developing a joint security mechanism and sharing intelligence on ISKP local fighter profiles with the Global Coalition to Defeat ISIS in order to undermine the terrorist group.