Ever since the Islamic State in Khorasan Province emerged in Afghanistan in 2015, policymakers and security forces have regarded it as an “imported” group that can be defeated militarily. This approach, however, fails to take into account the long-standing and complex historical and sociological factors that make the group’s ideology appealing to young, urban Afghan men and women. Based on interviews with current and former members of ISKP, this report documents the push and pull factors prompting a steady stream of young Afghans to join and support ISKP.
The Islamic State in Khorasan Province (ISKP) has carried out some of the deadliest attacks in Kabul in recent years. The group recruits members of its Kabul cell predominantly from the city’s own young population; it is not, as is commonly assumed, made up chiefly of foreigners who have infiltrated into Afghanistan. Unlike the country’s principal insurgent group, the Taliban—which typically recruits young men who are from rural communities, unemployed, educated in madrassas, and ethnically Pashtun—ISKP cells in urban centers tend to recruit men and women from middle-class families, many of whom are non-Pashtun university students.
These recruits are drawn to ISKP for a variety of reasons, chief among which is frustration with the status quo, the “purity” of ISKP’s ideology, and its determination to put its uncompromising version of Islam into practice. Other factors pulling recruits to ISKP are its internal egalitarianism, the prospect of marriage to other Salafi-jihadists, and the possibility of living in “the land of the caliphate.” At an even more fundamental level, however, the roots of the Salafi-jihadist surge lie in the breakdown of traditional society, a process that began in the 1970s in rural Afghanistan and has intensified as sweeping urbanization has created a generation of rootless urban settlers.