Alwaght- After withdrawal of the US troops from Afghanistan, one of the highly important issues about the country's future is the presence and activity of ISIS terrorist group. Afghanistan's ISIS branch, calling itself ISIS of Khorasan, in recent years has launched a massive effort to recruit takfiri elements in Afghanistan, posing a security challenge not just to previous Kabul government but also to Taliban which seized the power in the Central Asian country in early August. Where are the concentration centers of the terrorist group in Afghanistan? How strong is ISIS of Khorasan? How did Taliban confront ISIS during its struggle against Kabul government and now that it is ruling the country?
In 2015, at the height of ISIS's territorial development in Iraq and Syria, the terrorist group announced that it had accepted new allegiance from a branch in parts of Afghanistan and Pakistan, which it calls the "Khorasan region." At the same time, Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi, its self-proclaimed caliph, appointed Hafez Khan Saeed as the first ISIS emir for Khorasan region. Saeed was previously recognized as the commander of the Tahreek-e-Taliban Pakistan (TTP), Taliban's Pakistan branch. Upon declaration of ISIS, leaders of the group tasked several TTP commanders with recruiting from tribal regions of Pakistan. Soon, ISIS ranks became full of militants frustrated with the Taliban. The group also recruited militants from India and former Soviet republics.
Although it is difficult to estimate the number of ISIS militants in Afghanistan, analysts estimate that in 2016, a year after its establishment, at its peak Khorasan branch had between 3,000 and 4,000 fighters. Its main concentration spots have been eastern provinces of Nangarhar and Kunar along the Pakistani borders.
Given the assassinations, bombings, and suicide attacks, it can be said that ISIS has a considerable capacity to threaten Afghanistan and neighboring countries' security.
According to the UN data published in June, ISIS with a group of 1,500-2,200 fighters in eastern Afghanistan carried out 115 attacks from April 2020 to March 2021.
In June 2020, ISIS appointed Shahab al-Muhajir as the new emir of Khorasan after the arrest of Abdullah Orakzai, who goes by Islam Farooqi. Al-Muhajir previously planned attacks in urban areas in Kabul and is said to have once been a mid-level commander in Haqqani network.
Although Khorasan affiliate lost the simultaneous war against the Taliban and the central government and was unable to maintain its base in Nangarhar and Kunar for long, the group managed to strengthen its foothold in urban areas. This is especially true in cities such as Kabul and Kandahar, where takfiris have proven that they can carry out attacks without the need to control the territory. During 2020, ISIS successfully carried out large-scale attacks despite controlling a small area, including a May 2020 attack on a Kabul maternity hospital that killed 24 people and an attack on Kabul University in November 2020 that took 22 lives.
By early 2020, the number of ISIS members in Afghanistan had been reduced to 1,500 to 2,200, but new operations, like the attack in Jalalabad and jailbreak that led to escape of hundreds of terrorists, under new command gave new life to the group.
What are its funding sources?
Funds are one of the main reasons ISIS expanded in Afghanistan and other critical regions. Haji Abdulkhan, a tribal leader from Achin district south of Nangarhar, told Reuters in 2015 that unlike the Taliban, ISIS do not force the villagers to provide food for them or harbor them. "Instead, ISIS have very much cash in pockets and spend it on food and tricking the youth into joining them," he continued.
The US government's assessments of fundraising for the Khorasan branch show that the group's income comes from the extraction of natural resources, including talc, in tribal areas on the Pakistan-Afghanistan border.
In addition, the group benefits from smuggling, local fundraising, taxation, extortion, and some external financial support, especially funding from its parent organization. The group's operatives make money through tobacco black markets in Afghanistan and Pakistan, a Wall Street Journal report claimed in September 2020.
How did ISIS emerge is Afghanistan?
Before his death, al-Baghdadi gave his subordinates ample opportunity for action. ISIS encouraged its members to act alone or in small local groups. Hassan Abu Haniyeh, a Jordanian researcher of extremist organizations, told New York Times that ISIS "created a new structure that is less concentrated and will live on even without al-Baghdadi."
The core of ISIS Khorasan was established by dissident elements of the TTP . The TTP are less restricted to local, ethnic, and tribal ideology and focus on universal aims and establishment of a global caliphate. This thought makes highly radical elements of the group easily attracted to fundamentalist ideology of ISIS.
However, an important part of the ISIS Afghanistan presence is connected to the American plans for Central Asia, including creating security challenges in Afghanistan to threaten interests of rivals like China, Russia, and Iran. The US has a long record of planning such policy. The Taliban, for example, is a product of the US during the Cold War, mobilizing the military potentials of militant fighters against the Soviet Red Army in Afghanistan.
Many believe that the sudden withdrawal of the US from Afghanistan is based on such a scenario. In recent years, ISIS of Khorasan has focused on carrying out terrorist attacks on the Hazara Shiite minority in order to spur a sectarian war. Hazara schools and mosques in Kabul have been the main target. This operational orientation carries signs of trying to create sectarian war in the region.
Taliban in the face of ISIS: Past and future
The rivalry between the Taliban and ISIS in Afghanistan is quite obvious. ISIS leaders have condemned the Taliban's takeover of Afghanistan, saying the "Islamic State version" of the group is not strict enough to comply with religious principles.
The Taliban follow the Hanafi school of Sunni Islam, many of whom practice Sufi rites. In contrast, ISIS embraces purely Salafist ideology that has taken root in some parts of eastern Afghanistan, such as Nangarhar, as a result of Arab jahadis propagating their thought in the 1980s and 1990s.
ISIS uses a multifaceted strategy to discredit the Taliban. First, the group seeks to differentiate itself from the Taliban by launching violent attacks, especially against the Hazara Shiite minority, and to challenge the new rulers' ability to run the country. "The more concessions the newly formed Taliban government offers to sections of Afghan society, the more opportunities ISIS has for new propaganda against them," said Ricardo Vale, a Venice-based independent researcher of takfiri groups.
He adds that those members of the Taliban who are skeptical of the Taliban's conciliatory decisions both at home and abroad may join ISIS, which today claims to be the true heir of Osama bin Laden and Mullah Omar, the late founder of the Taliban."
ISIL has also sought to tarnish the Taliban's religious image by accusing them of being "American allies" as part of its bid to recruit dissent members of the Taliban. Security experts believe that it seeks to discredit the Taliban in any way and by any means.
In March 2020, ISIS propaganda organ Al-Naba called the Taliban the "allies of the crusaders", in a reference to the two-century Christian-Muslim wars. ISIS also reject to recognize the Taliban as a legitimate Islamic leadership body and calls its members "dirty nationalists" because instead of fighting for a global Islamic rule they limit their struggle to gaining a nationalist and sectarian base.
Additionally, after the US withdrawal, Al-Naba outlet mocked the Taliban victory and claimed that the group did not fight in a "real jihad" and that it owes its seizure of power to a "global conspiracy."
The Taliban say they want friendly relations with all countries, including the US, and have recently named a UN envoy. ISIS, however, does not recognize the idea of a modern nation-state and seeks a global caliphate. Its has a long history of propaganda, accusing the Taliban of being "puppets" of Pakistan and the US.
Some suggest that it is difficult for Taliban to persuade its elements who fought the West for decades to shift their thought and ISIS is ready to exploit this situation.
Driven by this conflict of views, the Taliban have long suppressed ISIS elements and their supporters in Afghanistan's eastern provinces. Mullah Neda Mohammad, the Taliban governor in Nangarhar province, recently told the media that more than 80 people had been arrested in Nangarhar province on charges of having links to ISIS. The Taliban also assassinated Farooq Bangalzi, the leader of ISIS in Pakistan's Balochistan province, while he was in Afghanistan's Nimruz province. The Taliban have also reportedly killed Abu Omar Khorasani, a former ISIS commander. The Taliban also closed down most of pro-ISIS mosques and religious schools across the country.
Although Taliban's anti-ISIS crackdowns downsized the spheres of influence of the terrorist organization, it lacks counterterrorism experience to neutralize ISIS sleeper cells across the country. The current instability creates the necessary vacuum for ISIS operations. Also, it is unlikely that the Taliban can cut financial arteries of ISIS in the short terms. Moreover, Taliban's capabilities and willingness for governance remain unknown. They now control the central bank and the Financial Intelligence Unit (FIU) in Kabul, but it is unclear how firmly it cam throttle the ISIS lifelines, especially that the Taliban by end of 2020 used the same way ISIS used to make payments to its militants.