IS-Khorasan enterprise: the agent of chaos


Naveed Hussain


December 05, 2021


The so-called Khorasan chapter of the Islamic State group was initially written off by the Taliban as a nuisance. But they had been unsuitable. A string of horrific mass-casualty assaults after the autumn of Kabul confirmed that IS-Khorasan (IS-Okay) could possibly be essentially the most formidable problem to the Taliban’s fledgling rule in Afghanistan. The realisation seems to have sunk in because the Taliban are actually sizing up the menace.

IS-Okay was diminished from its zenith as a consequence of a collection of army defeats starting in 2018. But the exit of international forces has resurrected the group. Its ranks swelled in a single day as lots of of its prisoners returned to the combat after fleeing from Afghan prisons through the Taliban’s chaotic march on Kabul. The Taliban are actually morphing right into a authorities from insurgency, however they lack the required sources and experience. This scenario has been exacerbated by a digital diplomatic boycott by the worldwide neighborhood and a brewing humanitarian disaster at home. IS-Okay would possibly reap the benefits of the scenario, challenge itself as an anti-government resistance drive and encourage different teams to unleash chaos within the nation.

The Islamic State, or Da’ish as it’s known as in Arabic, got here to prominence in June 2014 when a former al Qaeda commander Abu Bakr al Baghdadi introduced a self-styled caliphate on giant swathes of land in Iraq and Syria and anointed himself its caliph. The lure of caliphate backed by subtle propaganda helped the group mint 1000’s of recruits, particularly younger radicals within the West. It commandeered international highlight with grisly violence, together with barbaric executions and beheadings.

The Islamic State is “one manifestation of a global jihadist enterprise”, says Brian Michael Jenkins, Senior Adviser to the President of RAND Corporation. “This was never a single organisation, but a broad movement that has coalesced and fragmented over the past four decades,” he says. “Islamic State is the successor to a one-time affiliate of al Qaeda, although even then there were tensions between the commander of the Iraqi front and al Qaeda’s central leadership over tactics and targeting.”

Al Qaeda and the Islamic State of Iraq and Syria (ISIS), the predecessor of IS, break up in 2014 in a dispute about who would lead the marketing campaign in Syria. The two teams additionally differed on the declaration of a caliphate by the chief of ISIS, which al Qaeda, for doctrinal causes opposed, in line with Jenkins. By declaring a caliphate, the IS chief was asserting his declare to the allegiance of all Muslims all through the world, one thing al Qaeda’s former chief Osama bin Laden by no means did. Nor have the Taliban, who’ve all the time regarded their jihad as native, restricted to Afghanistan, declared a caliphate.

But Dr Michael Barak, Senior Researcher at International Institute for Counter-Terrorism (ICT), says IS and al Qaeda are lower from the identical material as each belong to the Salafi-Jihadist college and each goal to ascertain a transnational caliphate. They solely differ on three points: 1) Al Qaeda focuses on “Dawah among Muslim communities” for now and is keen to postpone the institution of a caliphate to a later interval. IS, nonetheless, needs a caliphate now; 2) Da’ish adheres to a strict interpretation and implementation of the thought of Takfir, declaring an individual infidel. Al Qaeda could be very cautious with the utilization of Takfir not solely in direction of Muslims but additionally in direction of non-Muslims; 3) The Islamic State intends to beat territories to arrange a caliphate. Al Qaeda prefers to not take over lands and apply governance to them.

The gorgeous rise of IS led many students and politicians – particularly within the Muslim world – to suspect that the group was created by Western powers as a part of their political recalibration efforts within the Middle East. Da’ish was facilitated to take management of huge swathes of land in Syria and Iraq, says Prof Dr Mehmet Seyfettin, President of Ankara Center for Crisis and Policy Studies (ANKASAM). “Then the West tried to legitimise the terrorist organisation PYD, or Kurdish Democratic Union Party [Syrian affiliate of the Kurdistan Workers’ Party] on the pretext of fighting Da’ish. [Simply put] the group was brought in for a specific mission, which it has accomplished,” he says.

The Khorasan franchise

Qari Hekmat, the commander of IS-K in the northern Afghan province of Jowzjan before his death in a US airstrike in April 2018

Qari Hekmat, the commander of IS-Okay within the northern Afghan province of Jowzjan earlier than his loss of life in a US airstrike in April 2018

The institution of a “mini caliphate” in Iraq and Syria inspired IS to pursue its dream of a transnational empire. Accordingly, the group determined to arrange 35 Wilayats (provinces), together with the one in Khorasan, an space that traditionally encompassed components of Afghanistan, Iran, and Central Asia. “Riding on the crest of its victories in Syria and Iraq and its reputation for uncompromising ideology and unending warfare against infidels and apostates, IS attracted professions of loyalties from local jihadists and Muslim insurgent groups around the world, enabling it to establish provinces in many countries,” says Jenkins, who has authored quite a few books and articles on terrorism-related subjects.

Initially, defectors from al Qaeda, Tehreek-e-Taliban Afghanistan (TTA), and Tehreek-e-Taliban Pakistan (TTP) joined IS-Okay. Its power regularly rose from preliminary 2,000-2,500 fighters to five,500 in 2019 earlier than lastly settling at 3,000-3,500 in August 2021 when about 1,000 of its prisoners escaped from Afghan jails. IS-Okay failed to ascertain a foothold in Pakistan as a consequence of sustained army and intelligence operations by Pakistan Army, however the group efficiently arrange bases in Afghanistan: in Nangarhar and Kunar within the east, in Badakhshan within the north-east, and in Jowzjan within the north.

The Taliban decisively defeated IS-Okay in its strongholds of Nangarhar and Kunar in 2019-20. After their rout, Da’ish fighters fled to Helmand, Kandahar, Balkh, Kunduz, Jowzjan, Faryab, and Baghlan provinces, in line with intelligence officers. Some of them moved to Laghman and Kabul to arrange sleeper cells for future assaults within the city centres.

The defeat of its caliphate in Iraq and Syria triggered a change within the IS technique because the group set sights on different areas. India was recognized as a fertile floor because of the simmering tensions among the many marginalised and alienated Muslim communities. IS-Okay simply discovered recruits within the states of Kerala, Karnataka, Maharashtra, Talangana, and West Bengal who later shifted to Afghanistan with their households.

The 2020 assault on Sikh Gurdwara in Kabul and the jailbreak in Nangarhar the identical yr concerned Indian Muslims from Kerala, in line with officers. The mastermind of Sri Lanka’s Easter assault in 2019 – Zahran Hashim and his affiliate Mohammad Mubarak Azaan – had additionally travelled to Karnataka earlier than finishing up the atrocity. In 2020-21 National Investigation Agency of India arrested 49 Indians for conspiring with IS.

IS-Okay reportedly had 112 Indians in its ranks – 26 males, 13 girls and 21 youngsters – who travelled to Afghanistan from Kerala in 2016. Around 24 of them had been killed, whereas 10 girls and 21 youngsters surrendered in November 2019. In April 2017, the US army dropped MOAB (Mother of All Bombs) towards the IS-Okay bases within the Achin district of Nangarhar. Among the casualties had been 13 Indians.

In the disputed state of Jammu and Kashmir, IS-Okay was reportedly proliferated in a managed method by Indian spy company RAW in an try and discredit and muddle the indigenous combat towards Delhi’s rule. But the plan seems to have gone awry. IS-JK has extensively chronicled its varied elements on social media and in its journal “Saut-ul-Hind (Voice of Hind)”, which has revealed 20 points so far.

IS established the Khorasan entrance in a direct problem to the Taliban. “The name is a clue to its broader ambitions, which the Taliban do not share, and which could cause problems for Afghanistan’s new rulers,” says Jenkins, who has previously served as chair of the Political Science Department on the American international coverage think-tank RAND. “The Taliban immediately reacted to the IS challenge, which led to fighting between Taliban and IS formations. The two groups declared war on each other in January 2015.”

The IS-Okay emergence underneath the total presence, surveillance, and intelligence of US-led Nato forces had raised suspicions. In a 2017 interview with Al Jazeerah, former Afghan president Hamid Karzai accused the US of permitting IS-Okay to flourish inside Afghanistan. Regional nations, Russia and Iran particularly, have additionally accused the US of aiding IS-Okay extremists – a cost Washington denies. Some students additionally see IS-Okay as a Western “agent of chaos”.

“It would not be surprising to see that the organisation [Da’ish] which played the role imperialism has set for itself in Syria and Iraq is used as an element of instability in various geographies, especially in Afghanistan, because big powers carry out their proxy wars through terrorist organisations,” says Prof Mehmet. “In the New Great Game, the stage has been set for sowing chaos. The objective is to destabilise the Turkish world, Russia and China via Afghanistan. And Da’ish can play an extremely useful function [in this game]”.

How huge is the IS-Okay menace?

The exit of international forces has been celebrated by the Taliban as a army victory. This immensely contributed to their self-confidence – one thing which may assist them vanquish rival teams in Afghanistan, together with Da’ish. According to Prof Mehmet, the Taliban have a robust ideological assist base within the form of madrassahs, which offer a gradual stream of recent ideologues. Da’ish, then again, espouses an ideology almost alien to Afghanistan. Hence it might be troublesome for the group to seek out new recruits.

IS-Okay might not discover new recruits, however it may encourage defections inside the Taliban. “The threat it [IS-K] poses is more insidious. A continued IS-K terrorist campaign will impede Taliban efforts to restore normality and could complicate the country’s future foreign relations,” says Jenkins. “There are already reports of complaints among the Taliban’s more extreme elements that the group’s leaders are behaving more like politicians and making too many compromises. IS-K could attract the hardliners as well as those who have been fighting for years and have no desires to lay down their arms and have few prospects in civilian life.”

Dr Barak concurs. “IS-K has been de-legitimising the Taliban calling it a fake Jihadist organisation. IS-K has criticised the Taliban ‘victory’ in Afghanistan, claiming that the American withdrawal was achieved only because the Taliban had agreed to serve the American interest in Afghanistan,” says Dr Barak, who additionally serves because the staff chief of the Global Jihad & Jihadi Websites Monitoring Group on the ICT. “IS-K has criticised the peace talks in Doha claiming that while Muslims were killed by America in Afghanistan the Taliban were ready to sit in hotels, eat good food and negotiate with the Americans.”

He referred to the current high-casualty violence and stated these “attacks aim to embarrass the Taliban in the eyes of the Afghan people and the international community and to recruit people to IS-K ranks such as former Taliban members who are not satisfied with the Taliban’s new way”.

By these terrorist assaults, IS-Okay can be making an attempt to recruit international fighters in Afghanistan and overseas, particularly the Chinese Uyghur Muslims. When the Taliban relocated the Uyghur fighters who had been stationed on the Afghan-Chinese border to the western a part of Afghanistan following an settlement between China and the Taliban, IS-Okay launched a terrorist assault towards the Hazara minority in Afghanistan saying that this was a message to the Taliban to not mistreat the Uyghur fighters, claims Dr Barak. “In Afghanistan today there are about 8,000 foreign fighters whom IS-K is trying to recruit.”

Prof Mehmet doesn’t assume Da’ish, a radical Salafi group, would be capable of recruit among the many Afghan folks, who predominantly belong to the Hanafi college of Sunnis. “Da’ish may use [individual] legionnaires in its plan to disrupt the establishment of stability in Afghanistan. However, as it is known, the West sees the right to intervene in various ways on the grounds of fight against terrorism which means violent attacks in Afghanistan will continue,” he says.

Dr Barak believes so long as the financial and safety scenario retains deteriorating, IS-Okay will recruit extra fighters and supporters and can broaden its affect and skill to problem the Taliban’s authority. “There is [also] a fear that the Taliban will use the IS-K card to extort the West and force it to invest in Afghanistan in order to let the Taliban fight more efficiently against IS-K,” he provides.

But Jenkins foresees fragmentations within the Taliban, if their authorities comes down arduous on IS-Okay. “A Taliban crackdown on IS-K and the implacable elements in its own ranks could be portrayed as a betrayal of the cause — turning one’s back on God – prompting further defections”.

However, senior Pakistani safety analyst Maj Gen (retd) Inamul Haq doesn’t agree with these dire predictions. “The Taliban are taking it as a localised issue. It’s not an existential threat because they know that an insurgency cannot survive without popular public support which, unlike the Taliban, IS-K doesn’t have,” he says.

“Moreover, the Taliban are now better armed to fight, and better equipped to snoop, surveil, and eavesdrop on IS-K. I think the Taliban would easily deal with this threat once they have tackled the most pressing economic issues,” provides Gen Inam who has written extensively on the Taliban insurgency.

Should Pakistan be fearful?

IS-Okay has emerged as essentially the most deadly worldwide terrorist organisation in Afghanistan which has claimed over 270 operations to this point in 2021 leading to over 1,600 casualties. These embrace over 50 assaults perpetrated after the Taliban takeover of Kabul on August 15, 2021. The group is now reaching out to different worldwide terrorist organisations, together with TTP, to coalesce a joint entrance after the Taliban assured its neighbours that the Afghan soil wouldn’t be used towards any nation.

Prof Mehmet sees the Khorasan enterprise as an agent of chaos aided by those that wish to destabilise China’s Belt and Road Initiative. “Pakistan desires a stable Afghanistan and a stable Central Asia-South Asia line in the context of the China-Pakistan Economic Corridor, part of the BRI project, as well as projects such as TAPI and TAP,” he says whereas referring to transnational gasoline pipeline tasks. “For this purpose, it is developing de facto cooperation with the Taliban. But sinister efforts are being made to create instability in Pakistan through various terrorist organisations, especially the TTP.”

Pakistan has already engaged the TTP in negotiations – due to mediation from Kabul – in an effort to preempt any alliance between TTP and IS-Okay. “The IS-K resurgence should be worrisome for Pakistan, but I don’t think it could be a threat bigger than TTP,” says Gen Inam. “Peace negotiations are already ongoing with TTP. However, if the talks fail, then there could be a remote possibility of some disillusioned cadres from the two groups making localised alliances. Yet an alliance between the TTP and IS-K at the organisational level may not happen, given that TTP has already pledged allegiance to TTA,” he provides.

The Taliban-led authorities in Kabul is facilitating the TTP talks. Jenkins says the Taliban can not coerce TTP to chop a peace deal. “Pakistan can pressure the Afghan Taliban to persuade TTP to lay down their arms – or at the least – to lower the level of violence. However, if the Taliban act with too heavy a hand, they risk a reaction by TTP hardliners,” he says. “IS-K has no interest in any settlement and therefore could become the natural allies of TTP irreconcilables.”

Dr Barak, nonetheless, is satisfied the Taliban would use their affect on TTP to cease it from stoking violence in Pakistan. “IS-K and other terrorist organisations interpret it [Taliban-Pakistan relations] in a negative way, perceiving the Taliban as a tool in the hands of Pakistan. This alleged alliance can fuel the motivation of terrorist organisations to cooperate against Pakistan,” he says. “But I’m not sure TTP will be part of this axis because the Taliban have become an important actor who has the ability to restrain TTP from taking action against Pakistan.”

Should China be fearful?

At least two of the current lethal assaults claimed by IS-Okay purportedly concerned fighters of the East Turkestan Islamic Movement (ETIM), a gaggle blamed by China for unrest in its Uyghur-majority Xinjiang province. China fears IS-Okay may type an alliance with ETIM to encourage and recruit Uyghur youth to stoke unrest in its gentle Muslim underbelly.

Such fears should not unfounded. “IS-K’s horizons extend beyond the borders of Afghanistan. Angry Muslims in surrounding countries are potential reservoirs of IS-K recruits while groups like the ETIM can see benefits in allying themselves with IS-K,” says Jenkins.

Dr Barak has a distinct take. He claims the Taliban have already lower a cope with China to take away ETIM fighters from the world bordering China. “The fact that the Taliban [have] reached an agreement with China to relocate the Uyghur fighters from the Chinese-Afghan border to western Afghanistan may fuel anger and disappointment and the Taliban may be perceived as willing to scarify the Uyghur cause for economic benefits from China,” he says.

Inam doesn’t assume a long-term alliance between IS-Okay and ETIM could possibly be attainable given the jarring distinction of their worldviews and targets. “ETIM has limited objectives. It claims to be fighting for the rights of the Uyghur Muslim minority in Xinjiang. IS-K, on the other hand, is more global in its outlook. Its violent campaign is for a transnational Islamic caliphate,” he says, although he doesn’t rule out a short lived “marriage of convenience” between the 2.

However, Inam agrees China does have fears that ETIM may align itself with IS-Okay to foment unrest in Xinjiang. That is probably the rationale China isn’t speeding to formally recognise the Taliban authorities in Afghanistan. The Taliban, on their half, have repeatedly assured the Chinese aspect to not fear an excessive amount of about ETIM.

China’s overtures to the Taliban had been prompted by two causes: growth of the BRI challenge, and prevention of a spill-over of Jihadism into Xinjiang, in line with Prof Mehmet. “China provides aid to Afghanistan fearing a humanitarian crisis [which appears to be looming on the horizon] will trigger radicalisation. The main condition set by China for Afghanistan’s new rulers is that they will ensure their country doesn’t become a safe base for terrorist organisations,” he says. “And the Taliban have [already] given assurances to China in this regard.”

Regional stability and technique

Fears abound that an IS-Okay foothold in a Taliban-ruled Afghanistan may encourage terrorist teams energetic within the neighbouring nations and plunge your entire area into instability. Prof Mehmet warns that if Da’ish manages to perpetuate instability in Afghanistan, which it’ll attempt to do, then it’ll additionally spill into neighbouring nations within the area.

He recommends a realistic approach to sort out the IS-Okay menace to forestall regional chaos and instability. “Afghanistan should be included in regional projects through an approach that prioritises cooperation [for a win-win situation for all],” he says whereas opposing any effort to isolate the Taliban internationally.

Dr Barak agrees with Prof Mehmet in technique however differs on execution. “The regional countries should reach an agreement with the Taliban to form a joint operation room that will be responsible on monitoring the IS-K activity in Afghanistan and will have joint operations against it,” he says. If the Taliban don’t comply with this sort of cooperation, IS-Okay will proceed to change into stronger.

Jenkins believes a strategic re-calculation would possibly have already got been underway in Afghanistan’s neighbouring nations, although they could not attempt to intervene militarily. “IS-K poses the bigger threat and some of the external actors will see benefits in facilitating Taliban efforts to reduce IS-K while avoiding overt military involvement in those efforts,” he says. “At the same time, the surrounding countries will want to find ways of reducing the susceptibility of their own restive populations to extremist subversion, thereby denying IS-K potential footholds. How they achieve this lies beyond my pasture.”

Gen Inam, nonetheless, insists the IS-Okay menace is being extensively exaggerated. “I doubt IS-K could create a regional security situation. It will remain a localised threat,” he says. “IS-K’s funding sources have already dried up. Even if its financiers want to keep it alive, still the group will need popular public support which is possible only if the Afghan people become disillusioned with the Taliban,” he provides. “And I don’t see that happening. I feel the Taliban are delivering on their three key promises: security, justice, and end to endemic corruption – something every Afghan wants.”

According to intelligence assessments, after the lack of its strongholds in japanese Afghanistan, the IS-Okay management has reconfigured its technique which now includes strengthening its positions in northern Afghanistan, primarily in Badakhshan which can be utilized as a base for actions in Central Asia and China; avoiding direct fight with Taliban forces with the intention to preserve its power; and conducting high-profile assaults in city areas to empty the Taliban energies, overshadow their “victory”, and de-legitimise their rule.

With the Taliban on the helm in Kabul, IS-Okay may simply implement the brand new technique because the spectrum of targets and its anticipated resonance has elevated manifold, together with financial infrastructures, minorities, warlords, international missions and media homes. In the in the meantime, the group will attempt to reach out to different international terrorist organisations to broaden its marketing campaign.

If IS-Okay cobbles up such an unholy alliance of terrorist teams – one thing, safety officers say, could be very a lot doubtless – Afghanistan would possibly descend into chaos. And the provision of unregulated areas might be exploited by worldwide terrorist teams to show the nation into a brand new epicentre of terrorism, imperiling regional and international safety.

“The Da’ish threat won’t remain confined within the borders of Afghanistan. It would proliferate and jeopardise regional security,” says Prof Mehmet. “The fight against Da’ish offers an opportunity to the Taliban to increase own legitimacy.”

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