ISKP has declared its strategy to infiltrate Central Asia aiming to bomb and sabotage operations against Chinese oil and gas pipelines in the region. In this way, the Islamic State Khorasan openly called on the Muslims of Uzbekistan, Tajikistan and Kyrgyzstan to open a jihadi front within the Central Asian region.
ISKP hunts Taliban Islamic clerics
The Taliban’s pragmatic efforts to achieve international recognition for their Islamic Emirate after a forceful takeover of power in Afghanistan a year ago and their gradual retreat from hardline jihadi principles are fiercely criticized by the Islamic State of Khorasan Province (ISKP), their archenemy. Ironically, ISKP, the Taliban’s rival in the Sunni jihadi world, has benefited more from the Taliban’s yearlong rule. Indeed, ISKP has a well-defined strategy to capitalize on the new reality in Afghanistan, portraying itself as the only hardline jihadi alternative to the Taliban, labeling the latter as Murtad (apostate), Munafiq (hypocrite) and Defender of the Rafidahs [i.e., Shia].
Along with sharp criticism of the Taliban interim government’s efforts to build cooperation with Central Asian states, India, China and Russia, ISKP has turned post-American Afghanistan into a bloodbath over the past year. As part of the Islamic State’s ‘Revenge for the Two Sheikhs’ campaign, IS-Khorasan jihadists have carried out 1 Inghimasi attack, 6 assassinations, 8 explosions, 1 Katuysha rocket attack, 6 armed clashes in the month of Dhu al-Hijja (June 30 – July 29, 2022), as a result of which 59 members of the Taliban security forces were killed, according to the 11th edition of the Voice of Khurasan magazine, ISKP’s official media arm, the Al Azaim Foundation.
As the ISKP activity grows, its attacks have shifted from “quantity to quality,” targeting senior Taliban military and religious figures, Hazara Shia and Sikh religious minorities, and foreign diplomats in Kabul. Thus, a prominent Taliban religious leader, Sheikh Maulavi Rahimullah Haqqani, was killed in a ISKP bombing attack in Kabul on August 11. Undoubtedly, the killing of Maulavi Haqqani has weakened the Taliban from within, as his connection with the Taliban military was well institutionalized. His killing also represents a bloody ideological struggle between the local Deobandi Hanafi jurisprudence and the Salafi school of thought, which permeates ISIS.
The next high-profile victim was Mawlawi Mujeeb Rahman Ansari, 38, a famous pro-Taliban Islamic cleric and imam of Guzargah mosque in Herat province. The strike took place when a suicide bomber blew himself up after kissing Maulvi Ansari’s hand at the Guzargah mosque during Jummah prayer on September 2. The cleric was well-known in Afghanistan for his support of the Taliban’s rule and repeatedly called for beheading Kharijites (or Khawarij, the first deviant sect in Islam), implicitly referring to ISIS operatives. He last made such an appeal at a vast conference of Taliban, “akin to” the Loya Jirga on August 18 in Kandahar, in the presence of top Taliban officials and 3,000 members of “religious scholars, politicians and tribal leaders.”
The Taliban received another painful blow when Mullah Amir Mohammad Kabuli, a prominent Hanafi cleric and member of the Taliban’s Islamic Jurisprudence Authority, was killed in an ISKP bombing at a mosque in Kabul on August 17. Thus, the recent waves of killings of high-ranking pro-Taliban Hanafi clerics signal not only the brutal ideological war between the Taliban and the Islamic State, but also the helplessness of the new Kabul regime in the face of the ISKP’s grand bloody strategy.
Central Asian Footprint in Russian Embassy Suicide Bombing
ISKP’s grand strategy aims to undermine the Taliban’s religious and international legitimacy as puppets of regional governments, primarily Russia, Pakistan, India, China, Uzbekistan and Iran, which the Islamic State considers heretical. For ISKP, targeting top Taliban military and religious figures serves multiple goals, but perhaps most importantly it could undermine the Taliban’s reputation as a regional security guarantor preventing international terrorist attacks from Afghan soil.
Indeed, in order to achieve that strategic objective, on September 5, ISKP carried out a high-profile suicide bombing near the entrance of the Russian Embassy in Kabul killing at least six people, including two embassy employees. The Russian Foreign Ministry acknowledged that top Russian diplomat Mikhail Shakh and security expert Kuzhuget Adygzhy were killed in the ISKP suicide attack. The Islamic State, as expected, claimed responsibility for the suicide attack by publishing its statement on its Amaq News Agency. According to the IS media arm, an ISKP operative by the name of “Waqas al-Muhajir” (judging by his name a foreign fighter) arrived at the entrance to the Russian embassy in Kabul and detonated his explosive vest among embassy employees, contractors, and “agents” of the Russian forces while they were waiting to receive permission to leave the country. But three days later, on September 8, the IS weekly newsletter al-Naba (issue 355) “corrected” the name of suicide bomber to “Waqas al-Waziristani”. He may be of Central Asian descent and, before joining ISIS, belonged to Uzbek’s Katibat Imam al-Bukhari, the Islamic Movement of Uzbekistan, or Tajik’s Jamaat Ansarullah, some Russian experts on Afghan jihadism suggested.
Notably, the suicide bombing at the Russian embassy was the first strike on a foreign diplomatic mission since the Taliban regained control. ISKP timed its attack to coincide with the anniversary of the Kabul airport attack. As known, on August 26, 2021, during a chaotic evacuation, ISKP attacked crowds of Afghans flocking to Kabul airport killing 183 people, including 13 U.S. troops.
On the Kabul airport attack’s anniversary, on August 26, ISKP dedicated its editorial titled “After a Year the U.S. Is Still Licking Its Wounds” in the 13th issue of the Voice of Khurasan magazine, produced by Al-Azaim Foundation. The editorial notes that ISKP’s “attack was a deadly blow to U.S. Pride, and the U.S. rulers learned very well that defeating the Islamic State is far beyond their scope.” ISKP then mocked President Joe Biden for crying after the incident. The Voice of Khurasan further stated that “Taliban’s takeover of Kabul was a staged drama, in which the fighters entered the capital in U.S. vehicles facing no resistance, while the leaders landed in Kandahar in a U.S. plane.” ISKP long seeks to delegitimize the Taliban’s religious purity portraying them as a “murtaddin” (apostate) and the “new U.S. puppets with beards and turbans.”
The ISKP further emphasizes its medium-term strategic objectives to expand the “flames of war” beyond a “nationalistic border” into the neighboring Taghut (idolaters) regimes of Pakistan, Tajikistan, Iran, China, and Uzbekistan, “to whom the impotent Talban regime has been giving fake security assurance repeatedly.” In this vein, ISKP mentioned its recent rocket salvo against Uzbekistan and Tajikistan and claimed to have carried out attacks on the “Rafidah pagans” (Shia) and Pakistani “murtad elements”. Thus, ISKP’s Russian embassy attack seriously undermined the Taliban’s competency as a governing actor capable of providing security guarantees to foreign diplomatic missions in the Afghan capital.
ISIS’ Next Target: Central Asia
Homeland Security Today (HSToday) has previously reviewed ISKP’s aggressive assessment of the Russian-Ukrainian war as Allah Almighty’s divine intervention and a “great sign” for the destruction of the Crusaders, which has become one of the main topics of the Voice of Khurasan. Following up on this subject, HSToday also analyzed ISKP’s highly critical reaction to the “fake holy Chechen jihad” in Ukraine exploiting by the head of Chechnya, Putin’s “foot soldier” Ramzan Kadyrov, as a religious tool to justify Moscow’s barbaric invasion.
In the same vein, IS-Khorasan’s Central Asian militants recently mocked a meeting of Afghanistan’s acting minister of commerce and trade Nooruddin Azizi and a notorious Chechen lawmaker in Russia’s State Duma, “occupier of Mariupol” Adam Delimkhanov, held on August 15 in Moscow. Information about the meeting was tweeted by Afghan minister Azizi and broadcasted by Chechen state Grozny TV, where Delimkhanov stated that the Taliban, who had successfully ousted the U.S. from Afghanistan and are now destroying ISIS terrorists, want to develop a close relationship with Kadyrov. In this regard, on August 30, Tawhid News, IS-Khorasan’s Uzbek-language media group, published 5 audio messages by Abu Muhammad al-Uzbeki titled “The status of Taliban”. Uzbek jihadi propagandist called it a “meeting of two Taghuts exterminating Chechen and Afghan Muslims.” Therefore, Allah’s warriors wage a holy jihad not only against the Taliban Murtaddin, but also their masters, infidel Russia, India, China and the U.S., al-Uzbeki said.
According to him, nothing is sacred for the Taliban, they betrayed Islam and Holy Jihad, they betrayed Ayman al-Zawahiri, whom the U.S. military could not find for 20 years. Therefore, the Taliban did not declare a blood feud for the killing of the al-Qaeda leader, because they serve U.S. interests. He assured that the main enemy of the Islamic State is the U.S. Therefore, whomever is friends with the U.S., ISKP will wage jihad against them. Unlike the Taliban, advocating only for a Pashtun nationalist state, ISKP wages a holy jihad for establishing a global Islamic caliphate, al-Uzbeki said. At the end of his speech, he called on Central Asian IS supporters to change their jihadi status from “Muhajireen” (emigrants or foreign fighter) to “Ansar” (local fighters). That is, the ISKP openly called on the Muslims of Uzbekistan, Tajikistan and Kyrgyzstan to open a jihadi front within Central Asian region, and as the Ansar to welcome the Muhajireen around the world.
Continuing this topic, on September 9, IS-Khorasan’s Tawhid News published a statement about the expansion of the Islamic State’s holy jihad into Central Asia. In it, ISKP gave five arguments in favor of moving the theater of jihadi operations into Central Asia. According to Tawhid News, all five facts are aimed at curbing China’s global economic and military expansion as part of its ambitious One Belt and Road Initiative (BRI). IS media outlet further states that the spread of the holy jihadi fire into Central Asia is one of the greatest threats to China and its BRI ambitions across the region. ISKP has sketched out its strategy to infiltrate Central Asia aiming to bomb and sabotage operations against Chinese oil and gas pipelines in the region. In this case, Tawhid News mentioned Beijing’s crackdown on Uyghur Muslims in Xinjiang, which the Taliban prefer to keep quiet in exchange for Chinese money.
“This once again proves the corrupt nature of the Taliban serving the interests of Chinese Kafirs,” Abu Muhammad al-Uzbeki said by answering questions on another audio program regarding the expansion of holy jihad into Central Asia, on September 9, in the Tawhid News. In this sense, global Sunni jihadi organizations such as al-Qaeda, ISIS, and Hayat Tahrir al-Sham (HTS) and their Central Asian subsidiaries position themselves as defenders of the oppressed Muslim Uyghurs acquiring significant ideological dividends.
Conclusion: Resurgence of Islamic State Khorasan
The security situation in the region has shown that IS-Khorasan activity has increased over the past year carrying out more aggressive and more spectacular bloody attacks. Notably, ISKP already has China, Russia, India, and Uzbekistan in its sights, which the Taliban consider to be close economic allies in an attempt to gain international recognition. The suicide bombing on the Russian embassy already significantly damaged the Taliban’s power ambitions demonstrating the latter’s inability to guarantee security in its own territory and consequently for its neighbors.
Therefore, it is expected that buoyed by recent successes, ISKP would attempt to launch high-profile strikes against the interests of Taliban allies to attract international attention. Despite its limited capabilities, ISKP does not abandon its ambitions to attack the U.S. interests in the region considering them to be its main enemy. If ISKP succeeds in undermining the Taliban’s religious legacy and legitimacy, it could strengthen its position in the region. Many Central Asian jihadists, dissatisfied with the Taliban’s position toward the killing of al Qaeda leader Ayman al-Zawahiri, already look to ISKP as a potential ally. The UN reported “the defection of 50 Uyghur fighters from al Qaeda-allied Turkestan Islamic Party (TIP) to ISKP.”
Finally, the Islamic State of Khorasan has shown a willingness to expand the jihadi frontline further into Central Asia to destabilize the most populous Fergana Valley, sandwiched between Kyrgyzstan, Uzbekistan and Tajikistan. Therefore, one of the countries of this trio may become a preferred target of ISKP. If the Central Asian governments fail to confront ISKP, the region could see intensified Islamic State-fueled turmoil in the future.