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Monday, June 24, 2024

Islamic State Khorasan Within Taliban-Ruled Afghanistan: Dynamics and Synergies with Allies and Enemies

Although the ISIS “Caliphate” had been crippled, the ideology continues to perpetuate itself beyond its original geographic territory.

Despite two decades of U.S.-led counterterrorism efforts since 9/11, terrorism has continued to spread globally and adapt to ever-changing circumstances. Yet as the world shifts once again towards competition between the U.S. and revisionist powers such as China and Russia, and Afghanistan is once again in the hands of the Taliban, there appears to be a form of tunnel-vision taking place regarding global terrorism, as though the problems that have shaped the beginning of the 21st century that gave rise to much of it have been solved, when clearly they have not. This is a grave strategic error; the fight against terrorism is far from over and while harder to visualize now didn’t end on the day the U.S. withdrew from Afghanistan. What is ignored today will almost certainly become tomorrow’s problem once again. While the “Islamic State” that originated in Iraq and Syria had its roots in al-Qaeda, it went far beyond its origins and ISIS now has affiliates in multiple countries throughout the world that threaten to again create an international terrorist hub. Among these, the greatest strategic threat at present comes from ISIS’s quasi-independent affiliate Islamic State Khorasan (IS-K), rapidly rising in the highly unstable post-U.S. withdrawal from Afghanistan.

This article examines IS-K’ structure, history, goals, targeting, attack, and recruitment strategies. In addition, it gives an overview of IS-K’s relationship/interaction with its parent organization ISIS, as well as its complex relationship with other entities in the region and global actors such as the Taliban and al-Qaeda, Pakistan, and the United States.

Islamic State Khorasan (IS-K)

IS-K was founded in 2015 as the Afghan affiliate of ISIS. It is primarily composed of militants of Afghan, Pakistani, and Central Asian origin who defected from the Pakistani segment of al-Qaeda, the Taliban, and the Haqqani Network, which is a criminal group affiliated with the Taliban. IS-K has shown hostile intentions toward many of its neighbors, promoting mass-casualty attacks against civilians and governments, with the group even threatening to topple the Pakistani government.  Additionally, it seeks to “punish the Iranian government for being a ‘vanguard’ of Shias, and ‘purify’ Afghanistan — both by dislodging the Afghan Taliban as the main jihadi movement in Afghanistan and punishing minority groups.”

According to a recent study, the structure of IS-K is twofold; composed of an inner “core” of foreign fighters and an outer ring of local fighters, with the two operating and relating to the Taliban in a different manner within Afghanistan. The Taliban doesn’t seem to be as threatened by IS-K’s foreign fighters as they are by its local fighters who are in a better position to question and challenge the authority and legitimacy of the Taliban regime among the Afghan population.

Foreign fighters comprise up to half of IS-K’s militants. Just as was the case in Syria and Iraq, the use of foreign fighters has the potential to greatly expand the group’s capabilities as they can increase its longevity and geographic reach, as well as find eager suicide bomber recruits. Foreign fighter recruitment also strengthens the caliphate narrative that ISIS as a whole seeks to ingrain into the minds of jihadists worldwide – that the diverse ummah should unite under the ISIS flag. In this way they share the same larger ideological goal as the Taliban, which also envisions a worldwide Islamic Caliphate.

Through waging a brutal warfare against the Afghan elements of IS-K that pose a direct threat to its power, the Taliban could theoretically be employing a divide-and-conquer strategy targeting the Afghan “outer local ring” of IS-K but leaving the inner “core” of foreign fighters largely intact, as providing refuge to foreign elements within Afghanistan is also advantageous to the Taliban as they work toward the shared goal of a worldwide Islamic Caliphate.

Despite numerous attempts by coalition forces to decapitate the organization, IS-K isn’t as personality-centric as its predecessor al-Qaeda was under Osama bin Laden. Despite losing its leaders four times within the first four years of its existence, IS-K nevertheless survived.

Although the group is twofold in nature, the primary leadership apparently remains in the hands of Afghans themselves. In particular, leadership consists of local operatives mainly from the Pashtun belt from both sides of the border between Afghanistan and Pakistan. The current head of IS-K is Sanaullah Ghafari (also known as Shahab al-Muhajir), an Afghan national from a prominent political family. Al-Muhajir uses his extensive social networks among influential Salafists, including the Haqqani Network (a U.S. State Department-designated terrorist group since 2012) and members of political and warlord families, to strengthen IS-K. In addition, “some former members of the Afghan military and Afghanistan’s intelligence agency, the National Directorate for Security, have joined IS-K because it is the most active opposition group to the Taliban in Afghanistan.”

IS-K’s organization has gone through periods of contraction followed by expansion. By 2019, IS-K was weakened by loss of territory, troops, and capacity, which forced it to concentrate its operations within urban areas. The organization was, however, able to sustain itself. In 2020, the organization started to rebound in strength, particularly with the decline of multilateral counterterrorism operations. Like a virus, the organization has continuously displayed an ability to mutate, adapting to its environment.

Despite the fact that it is led by Afghans themselves, IS-K doesn’t spare its own people. If a terrorist group can be compared to a virus, then the society in which it exists can be compared to the body of its host. In the case of IS-K, it has ravaged Afghanistan and its people through its use of indiscriminate violence and bloodshed in its attempt to gain power.

The most infamous example of IS-K’s brutality came in August 2021, when IS-K suicide bomber Abdulrahman Logari killed 169 Afghans and 13 U.S. soldiers at Kabul Airport as they desperately tried to escape the Taliban as it took control of the country. While this was what cast a light upon IS-K internationally, it was merely one of hundreds of attacks that IS-K has carried out within Afghanistan.

Between the U.S. withdrawal in August 2021 and 2022 alone, IS-K carried out 224 attacks. IS-K’s brutality is particularly vicious. Their targets have included a maternity ward, where IS-K members opened fire on pregnant women before blowing themselves up with suicide vests, while the same day attacking a funeral procession and killing 32 people. The group targeted a Hazara minority girls’ school on May 8, 2022. The attack killed 90 people and injured 240, many of whom were schoolgirls between 11-15 years old.

Other locations targeted include schools, buses, and even mosques spread across Afghanistan. Individuals have also been subject to terror attacks utilizing “firearms, beheadings, and violent abductions.” Afghan politicians and ministries, as well as Afghan Security Forces, have also been targeted. Sufi and Shia religious minorities are likewise attacked. The idea behind the broad range of attacks and targets seems to be to ensure that no one feels safe, and to convince the public that they can strike anyone at any time.

IS-K has also begun targeting infrastructure since the spring of 2021, conducting three dozen attacks on electricity pylons and oil tankers. This “economic warfare” strategy undermines the legitimacy of the Taliban as a genuine state actor and these attacks serve to exacerbate the already dire Afghan economic situation.

Although current focus, particularly among Afghan fighters, is on wresting control from the Taliban, that does not mean that IS-K is not a global threat. Per a March 2022 U.S. assessment, IS-K “could establish an external attack capability against the United States or its allies in twelve to eighteen months.”

IS-K and ISIS

Although the ISIS “Caliphate” had been crippled, the ideology continues to perpetuate itself beyond its original geographic territory. Afghanistan was already devastated by decades of chaos by the time ISIS emerged, making it particularly vulnerable.

From the beginning, IS-K has answered to ISIS. ISIS provided IS-K with its original blueprint for structure and operations but also provides IS-K with propaganda and ideological support. ISIS also exerts control over its subsidiary through financing. Following more than a year of no funding, IS-K received more than $500,000 from ISIS as it sought to capitalize on the rapidly changing political landscape following the U.S. withdrawal.

Afghanistan is the original battleground for the 21st century “War on Terror,” making IS-K the most valuable subsidiary of ISIS, both within Afghanistan and abroad, with capability to “inspire, enable, and direct attacks beyond Afghanistan.” The ISIS dream expressed in Syria and Iraq lives on, now transplanted into Afghanistan. To depose the Taliban and gain control of Afghanistan in the wake of the U.S. withdrawal would enable IS-K to declare itself as the new dominant face of global jihadism. ISIS may have lost much of its former territory in Syria and Iraq, but the shifting of focus to a different region doesn’t mean that their dream of a caliphate has diminished, and many believe it to be worth dying for. Certainly, ISIS learned the value of controlling territory and calling tens of thousands of foreign fighters to come and fight for it. That being said, there are still other equally dangerous contenders for this territory, and they won’t let it go easily.

IS-K, the Taliban, and al-Qaeda

While there are other ISIS affiliates now scattered throughout the world, including Africa where ISIS currently has 8 different affiliate organizations, IS-K takes us back to the beginning of the “War on Terror” in Afghanistan following U.S. withdrawal and the subsequent return of the Taliban to power. Yet now that the U.S. is out of the way, IS-K seeks to dethrone the Taliban and seize control for itself, putting it into confrontation with not only the Taliban, but also with al-Qaeda, which remains a close ally of the Taliban.

Despite the passage of time, the Taliban and al-Qaeda maintain a symbiotic relationship. The presence of Ayman al-Zawahiri (one of the chief orchestrators of the 9/11 attacks) who was killed in Kabul via a U.S. strike in August 2022, along with the recent efforts to re-establish and build new terrorist training camps in Afghanistan, demonstrates that the relationship and shared vision remains strong.

It is more difficult to discern the dynamics between al-Qaeda and the Taliban’s rival IS-K. While the roots of ISIS came from al-Qaeda in Iraq (AQI), before al-Qaeda officially condemned and broke ties with ISIS in 2014, the present relationship between al-Qaeda and IS-K in Afghanistan is unclear. How it may develop over time in such an unstable environment remains to be seen.

Al-Qaeda is presently composed of “disparate networks around the globe with uneven centralized control” with affiliates across the Middle East including Syria and Yemen, Africa’s Sahel and Somalia, and India. The roots of al-Qaeda, however, remain in the Federally Administered Tribal Area (FATA), the volatile area located between Afghanistan and Pakistan where al-Qaeda, along with other terrorist groups, maintains a stronghold.

The Taliban is ruthless. While the Pakistani branch of the Taliban is listed by the U.S. State Department as a Foreign Terrorist Organization, it is only political considerations that keep the Afghan Taliban off the list of official terrorist organizations. Likewise, with the shift in politics, the Taliban in Afghanistan now run the government. The official U.S. line is that it does not negotiate with terrorists, yet it had no choice but to negotiate with the Afghan Taliban, which it labeled an “insurgency” group, prior to withdrawal.

Initially, relations between the Taliban and ISIS were good, but when the Taliban leadership sent correspondence to ISIS leadership in Syria in 2015 requesting that they not create a “parallel” jihadi network in Afghanistan, this request was denied by ISIS. This ignited conflict between the two groups, and by the time the Afghan government fell in 2021, IS-K and the Taliban had clashed in 16 Afghan provinces. This fighting resulted in hundreds of casualties for both organizations, and also inflicted suffering upon the civilian population leaving tens of thousands killed or displaced.

The relationship between IS-K and the Taliban is so full of animosity that they were called “sworn enemies” by President Biden. Yet the reality on the ground is more nuanced due to close proximity and overlapping alliances. According to the UN, any close alignment is unlikely between IS-K and the Taliban but there is still the possibility of local collaboration between members of the two groups: “Some analysts believe that IS-K’s cooptation of Taliban defectors — specifically from the Haqqani Network — contributes to this conflation.”

There are many different facets of Afghan society vulnerable to IS-K recruitment due to their animosity toward the Taliban, along with their need to survive. To replenish its numbers, IS-K has developed multiple recruitment tactics. “The group has recruited fighters through coercion, the threat of violence and by the promise of high wages that never materialized…while raising funds through extortion, taxation and ‘likely timber and mineral exploitation.’” They also rely on close socio-cultural ties with other Central Asian states to the north of Afghanistan for recruitment. This is partly done by utilizing small bands of IS-K “guerrillas,” through which IS-K has absorbed other local groups, (such as Lashkar-e-Jhangvi and the Islamic Movement of Uzbekistan) some with whom they had previously been in competition, in order to make IS-K ideology and their own Caliphate goals the dominant “regional narrative.” In doing so, IS-K not only “expanded expertise and regional geographical knowledge,” but also “curtailed competition for recruits.”

IS-K and Pakistan

Neighboring countries are increasingly concerned about their own safety and welfare. From 2015-2019 IS-K carried out attacks killing and wounding 2,073 people in Pakistan. Thus far, IS-K has claimed responsibility for cross-border attacks in Pakistan, Uzbekistan and Tajikistan.

Having a common threat necessitates cooperation between friends as well enemies. The official Taliban line is that leadership denies any need for outside assistance against IS-K, with the official Taliban stance being that IS-K “is not a serious threat to the Islamic Emirate. We don’t see it as a major challenge, so we don’t need any outside support to tackle this issue.” It is highly likely, however, that the Taliban cannot handle the threat of IS-K on its own and lacks the capacity.

Unofficially, an anonymous Taliban senior leader and others have admitted this. According to these sources, “Pakistan is passing the group raw information as well as helping it monitor phone and Internet communication to identify Islamic State members and operational hubs.”

Pakistani officials meanwhile have intimated an unofficial relationship between the countries with the two sides conducting “informal discussions, rather than an established intelligence-sharing partnership.” In a statement given by the Pakistani foreign ministry following a recent visit by Pakistan’s intelligence chief and foreign minister to Kabul, “Pakistan did discuss counterterrorism cooperation with the Afghan Taliban,” adding, “It’s a bit early to say information sharing [or] intelligence cooperation is ongoing.”

According to Pakistani officials, “Any cooperation with Kabul can’t be ruled out. Not only Pakistan but other regional states like Russia and Iran are concerned about ISIS. So, there could be a counterterrorism understanding at the regional level.”

U.S. and Coalition Forces

Responding to the ISIS threat has required a worldwide coalition of forces acting in partnership. As tense as the situation is between the U.S. and the Taliban, it is in neither party’s interest for ISIS’ affiliate IS-K to come to power. In Afghanistan, coalition efforts to combat IS-K have ranged from dropping the largest non-nuclear bomb ever used in a combat operation against IS-K headquarters in Nangarhar, to “decapitating” the organization [four] times, killing thousands of foreign fighters, driving them out of territory, interrupting foreign donations, and isolating key leaders. However, following U.S. withdrawal there is a great deal of difficulty in “over the horizon” missions. There are “ears” on the ground, in the form of signals intelligence, but no “eyes” after troops departed.

Meanwhile, the Taliban has rebuffed U.S. attempts to share what intelligence they do have on IS-K. According to a U.S. official, “Intelligence agencies have maintained an array of formal and informal links to the Taliban since the departure of U.S. forces in August, and Americans have routinely sought to share information about Islamic State operations with Taliban counterparts. But, in many cases, the Taliban has appeared uninterested, apparently distrustful of the data or unsure of how to take action on it.”

The Taliban has few friends and many enemies, so it will be difficult for them to decide who they will trust in their battle against IS-K.

Conclusion

The situation in Afghanistan since the U.S. withdrawal is dire. The Afghan economy has shrunk by over 40 percent, poverty rates could reach 97 percent, and Afghanistan topped the International Rescue Committee’s 2022 Emergency Watchlist due to the collapse of all basic services. A failed state ruled by well-funded extremist ideologues combined with a collapsing economy gives terrorist groups free reign to operate with impunity and recruit from an increasingly desperate and angry population.

The Taliban and IS-K keep fighting while Afghanistan continues to disintegrate. “The Taliban remain more preoccupied with maintaining the organization’s internal cohesion, reverting to their ‘default wartime style and operational mode,’ and relying on harsh restrictions, extrajudicial raids, and violence to establish some semblance of control.” This further exacerbates the situation and alienates the population, which will result in retaliation and an endless cycle of vendettas in coming years.

IS-K is not merely a local jihadi organization but a transnational group that is composed of Afghans, Pakistanis, Middle Easterners, Central Asians, and Indians. “The foreign elements, which compose the organization’s core, operate in the shadows of the outer layer. Such a structural duality has enabled IS-K to survive strategic blows and re-emerge quickly.” Afghanistan, once a stable country, is after 43 years of war now facing the long-term destruction of the foundations of its society, making it a “saturated militant landscape” that continues to grow increasingly worse.

“IS-K’s relationships, to include both alliances and rivalries, have been key in its emergence and survival.” By analyzing IS-K through its relationships with its allies and enemies, one can reverse-engineer information on the organization to discern the multiple types of synergies, power dynamics, and influences that will over time either lead to IS-K disintegrating or else destabilizing the Taliban’s hold on power. The results will have far-reaching consequences both for Afghanistan and worldwide.

Never forget that it was the Cold War Soviet invasion of Afghanistan and the subsequent American backing of mujahideen to act against them in a proxy war that first spawned what became al-Qaeda. Modern terrorism has always been linked directly to the consequences of state-to-state conflict and international power dynamics. The two elements are likely to converge once again in the near future. It is inevitable, so we must not allow ourselves to become complacent. The “War on Terror” didn’t truly end on the day the U.S. left Afghanistan, it has merely entered a new era.

We may be done with Afghanistan, but Afghanistan is not done with us.

 

Works Cited

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author avatar
Noellynn Slaughter
Noellynn Slaughter is a Research Fellow at ICSVE. She holds a master’s degree in Terrorism Studies from King’s College London, and a master’s degree in International Policy Studies from Middlebury Institute of International Studies. She is a military intelligence veteran, having served five years in the US Air Force as a Russian Cryptologic Linguist. She has studied Russian, Modern Standard Arabic, French, and Lebanese Arabic. Noellynn is a US Department of Defense contractor working in Security Cooperation at present, and has previously presented research on female terrorists to Counterterrorism experts from around the world. She has a background in Russian, Middle Eastern, Central, and South Asian studies, International Policy, Security, and Defense. Noellynn is currently assisting in research on US white supremacist organizations and also researching Islamic State Khorasan in Afghanistan and its relationship with ISIS, the Taliban and Al Qaeda, Pakistan, US and Coalition forces.
Noellynn Slaughter
Noellynn Slaughter
Noellynn Slaughter is a Research Fellow at ICSVE. She holds a master’s degree in Terrorism Studies from King’s College London, and a master’s degree in International Policy Studies from Middlebury Institute of International Studies. She is a military intelligence veteran, having served five years in the US Air Force as a Russian Cryptologic Linguist. She has studied Russian, Modern Standard Arabic, French, and Lebanese Arabic. Noellynn is a US Department of Defense contractor working in Security Cooperation at present, and has previously presented research on female terrorists to Counterterrorism experts from around the world. She has a background in Russian, Middle Eastern, Central, and South Asian studies, International Policy, Security, and Defense. Noellynn is currently assisting in research on US white supremacist organizations and also researching Islamic State Khorasan in Afghanistan and its relationship with ISIS, the Taliban and Al Qaeda, Pakistan, US and Coalition forces.

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