Fahad Ali mentions the relevance of terrorist presence in ISIS-K and Afghanistan
Though the Taliban regime consistently maintains that they have no connection with any terrorist outfit in ISIS-K and Afghanistan yet there are reportedly clear signs of them not only holed up in the country but are also operating causing mayhem in not only Afghanistan but also some countries of the region. Lately it was reported that a bomb blast that killed at least 21 worshippers, including an influential cleric, and injured more than 30 others in Afghanistan’s capital during evening prayers, according to Taliban officials and residents, has renewed focus on the threat to the Taliban posed by Afghanistan’s Islamic State affiliate. Apparently, no group claimed responsibility for the blast but it came a week after the Islamic State-Khorasan (ISIS-K), a rival of the Taliban, claimed responsibility for a bombing that killed Rahimullah Haqqani, a prominent Taliban-linked cleric. It is reported that this was the latest in a string of attacks, many of which have been attributed to ISIS-K.
It is more than obvious that ISIS-K is a credible and dangerous threat to the Taliban regime that it finds difficult to handle. The ISIS-K is generally known to be most active in Iraq and Syria, where some years before it controlled large tracts of land and ran affairs under the banner of so-called caliphate that ran riot till 2014. ISIS-K was notorious for its penchant for violence and its dogmatic approach to political affairs. It claimed that its functionaries were recruited from all over the world that were committed to bring about Islamic revolution. Though the outfit was cornered and finally driven out of its territory by the US-coalition in 2019 but its tentacles continued to carry out attacks fuelling violence throughout the Middle East, South Asia and Africa.
It was widely known that ISIS-K began operating in Afghanistan in 2015 apparently by Hafiz Saeed who was committed to ISIS leader Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi in 2014 bringing in his functionaries in the outfit providing it with quite a good deal of strength. It was then reported that this faction mostly consisted of Pakistani militants and based largely in the eastern Afghan province of Nangahar and was also successful in recruiting its cadres from the Taliban and other extremist groups. The ground realities in Afghanistan were ripe for recruiting extremist cadres and ISIS succeeded in getting the much needed manpower. Some segments of population are committed to religious extremism and are prepared to fight for their belief systems.
ISIS professed its own version of Salafism known to be an ultraconservative movement in Sunni Islam mostly originating from the puritan segments of Islamists following the lead given by the particular creed propagated by Wahabism often mentioned as the dominant pattern followed in Saudi Arabia. Their hardline belief system was deeply and violently opposed to the heterodox Shi’ite minority group comprising mostly of Hazaras in Afghanistan and ISIS was very severe on them attacking them indiscriminately not only in Afghanistan but also in Balochistan, the border province of Pakistan where Hazaras are mostly settled and had to bear the brunt of ISIS’ savagery. Moreover, ISIS is also very severe on Sufis that constitutes a sizeable segment of population claiming to work for amity and affection between people of diverse beliefs. Pakistan has for long ascribed to the tenets of Sufism and people throng the Sufi shrines in many parts of the country becoming easy targets of ISIS-K.
It is reported that ISIS-K is led by Sanaullah Ghafari who is reported to be based in eastern Afghanistan. In this context it was reported that the terrorist attacks declined after US-led counterterrorism operations in the group’s stronghold in eastern Afghanistan between 2018 and 2020 but ISIS-K continued to launch attacks on civilian targets such as schools and weddings. An Islamic State-claimed attack on Kabul’s international airport during the US withdrawal last year killed 13 US troops and an estimated 170 Afghans and caused widespread condemnation globally. The most worrying aspect is that the Taliban regime in Afghanistan has developed close ties with the ISIS-K and this fraternity has extended to forming familial relations with each other that they are not willing to sever.
It is quite intriguing to mention that though Taliban leaders pledged in a 2020 agreement with the United States to prevent Afghanistan from becoming a haven for terrorist groups but the drone attack that killed Al-Qaeda primary leader Ayman al-Zawahiri in Kabul in open daylight reportedly standing in the gallery of his hiding place clearly points out that there is a lot more than meets the eye. Despite such surreptitious collaboration with the Al-Qaeda, the Taliban have openly clashed with ISIS-K virtually since the Islamic State offshoot first cropped up in Afghanistan. Before the Taliban takeover, the United Nations estimated that ISIS-K had some 2,000 fighters in Kunar and Nangahar provinces, along with smaller cells in other parts of the country. On their part, Islamic State leaders, who think the Taliban are not sufficiently extreme, denounced their victory last year and did not hide their intention to continue their struggle against them.
ISIS-K became a problem for Taliban when soon after their take-over of Kabul as it expanded its reach to nearly all of Afghanistan’s provinces stepping up the tempo of its attacks, carrying out suicide bombings, ambushes and assassinations. For some time the Taliban appeared unnerved by the sudden outrage caused by ISIS-K but then they gradually regrouped. In the process, however, ISIS-K claimed 224 attacks in Afghanistan since August 2021, 30 of which were considered significant with most of them targeting Taliban gatherings that caused widespread damage and created terror across the country. Interestingly, late last year, the core Islamic State group gave $500,000 in new funding to ISIS-K and the offshoot of such encouragement was that the Taliban were compelled to acknowledge that ISIS-K’s was up to overthrow them.
The Taliban reacted in the only way they know and their brutal retaliation somewhat made the ISIS-K to hold its horses. The Taliban in Jalalabad killed accused Islamic State collaborators and hung their bodies at busy intersections with hundreds of suspected ISIS-K members disappearing or turning up dead. There is hardly any doubt that security situation in Afghanistan has improved after the Taliban takeover but it is currently reported increase in violence indicated the renewal of ISIS-K violent activities. It was also reported that not only the group launched a fresh series of attacks in Afghanistan but has also claimed firing rockets into neighbouring Uzbekistan and Tajikistan. ISIS-K rolled out a multilingual media operation over the past year to attract recruits but the tough response of the Taliban has hampered their recruitment activity.
The ISIS-K threat to the Taliban regime is indeed credible as it was reported that some lower-level Taliban commanders, mainly from Tajik and Uzbek communities in the north, have defected to ISIS-K though the Taliban’s hardline approach to handling the terrorists has prevented them to jump in the fray on a wider level. On the ideological front the Taliban have also launched a campaign declaring ISIS-K as a corrupt sect and have banned Afghans from interacting with it at all levels. It is pointed out that the scorched-earth strategy of the Taliban regime may finally reduce the effectivity of the ISIS-K in the country. TW