The Presence of Islamic State-Khurasan Province in Taliban-Controlled Afghanistan
Anurag Sharma, Senior Research Associate, VIF

नाततायिवधे दोषो हन्तुर्भवति कश्चन ।
प्रकाशं वाप्रकाशं वा मन्युस्तं मन्युमृच्छति ॥

[Translation: No evil of any kind accrues to the slayer for killing a desperado, either openly or secretly; as it is only Fury recoiling upon Fury.]

                                                                                      - Manusmriti Verse 8.351

In 2017, the Islamic State (IS), aka Islamic State of Iraq and Syria (ISIS), had a significant territorial loss in Iraq and Syria. However, the terror organisation [IS] maintained its vision of the so-called ‘Caliphate’ and began expanding towards the Sahel region in Africa, Central Asia, and South Asia through its affiliated groups/modules. In 2015, the Islamic State (IS) established a branch known as the Islamic State-Khurasan Province (IS-KP), which is based in Afghanistan and conducts terrorist activities in Pakistan, Tajikistan, Sri Lanka, the Maldives, Bangladesh, and China, where sympathisers or lone terrorists have pledged allegiance to the group.

According to the Armed Conflict Location & Event Data (ACLED) project, Afghanistan recorded 269 security-related incidents from September to December 2021, compared to 3,133 incidents recorded during the same period in 2020. Out of 269 incidents, 44 incidents occurred in Kabul, whereas 66 incidents were recorded in Nangarhar province, which is considered an IS-KP stronghold. [1] Concerning the recent attacks carried out by the IS-KP, the article analyses the group’s activities in Afghanistan amidst its rivalry with the Taliban. The author attempts to highlight that despite the Taliban's de-facto control of the country, the IS-KP managed to sustain a strong presence in Nangarhar province in north-eastern Afghanistan.

Formation of the Wilayah-e-Khurasan

Despite initial assumptions, Islamic State (IS) failed to create a much significant influence in India regarding its vision of a global caliphate covering entire South Asia. However, the story of Afghanistan is unlike India. In November 2013, following the death of then-TTP leader Hakimullah Mehsud, the TTP group fragmented, and several of its members splintered into smaller factions and began operating in Nangarhar. In the following year, 2014, the Islamic State (IS) began disseminating its propaganda throughout Afghanistan-Pakistan. Several leaflets—encouraging TTP terrorists to defect to IS were found in larger cities, including Kabul (Afghanistan) and Jalalabad (Pakistan). [2] As part of the initial success, in March 2014, nine former Yemini and Saudi Arabian leaders of al-Qa’ida joined IS, followed by several terrorists from other groups, including al-Tawhid brigade, Ansar ul-Khilafat wal-Jihad (AuKWJ), and Jundullah. From mid-2014 to early 2015, several terrorists declared allegiance to IS, further strengthening the expansion of IS’s Khurasan chapter in Nangarhar province. In January 2015, Hafiz Saeed and the other four former TTP chiefs of the Federally Administered Tribal Area (FATA) paid allegiance to former IS chief Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi, and declared themselves as the new administrators of the official IS province— Khurasan province, in Afghanistan.[3]

In January 2015, the Islamic State (IS) announced its branch for the South Asia region— Wilayat Khurasan (Khurasan Province), based in Afghanistan. The Islamic State-Khurasan Province (IS-KP) was formed with former operatives from Tehrik-e-Taliban Pakistan (TTP) and made a core presence in the eastern Afghan region, mainly Nangarhar province and its Chaprarhar, Nazyan and Deh Bala districts, including border areas Federally Administered Tribal Areas (FATA) in Pakistan.[4] In response to the IS’s announcement, then-Afghan Taliban’s key leader— Akhtar Mohammad Mansour, wrote a letter to Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi, former leader of the Islamic State (IS), to stop the recruitment of Afghans for his organisation and interference in Afghanistan’s internal affairs.[5]

On 18 April 2015, IS-KP carried out its first attack— a suicide bombing outside a bank in Jalalabad in Nangarhar province, in which at least 33 people were killed, including the bomber, and over 100 were injured. [6] From 2015 to the present day, the IS-KP continues to have a strong presence in the north-eastern region of Afghanistan. The group lured several sympathisers from South, West, and Central Asia to join at different ranks. To the question asked by CNN’s Farid Zakaria on the rise of IS in Afghanistan, then-Afghan President Ashraf Ghani informed that the “collapse of Yemen, Syria, and Iraq has created an environment where instead of one weak link in the interrelated system of states, now there are wider gaps.”[7]

In 2021, Afghanistan experienced 1,237 terrorist attacks, with 365 attacks (about 29.5 per cent) carried out by IS-KP, killing 2,210 people.[8] However, post-mid-August 2021, the IS-KP has intensified the attacks in the country. Merely after 11 days of the Taliban’s capture of Kabul city, on 26 August 2021, an IS-KP suicide bomber — Abdul Rahman al-Logari, carried out a suicide bombing at Hamid Karzai International Airport, Kabul, killing at least 182 people, including 169 Afghans nationals and 13 US service members. [9] The rivalry between the Taliban and the IS-KP kept terror incidents in Afghanistan at a high level. The IS-KP publicly questioned the Taliban’s Islamist validity on ideological differences, accusing the Taliban of colluding with the United States (US).

In a series of explosions, on 21 April 2022, IS-KP attacked a Shiite Mosque in Mazar-e-Sharif, in which 11 people were killed. On the same day, another explosion caused 11 more deaths in Kunduz province.[10] On 22 April 2022, during Friday prayer, a blast at a Sunni Mosque killed at least 33 individuals. In a tweet, the Taliban’s spokesman— Zabihullah Mujahid, confirmed the death toll and added that other 43 people had also been wounded in the attack.[11] According to an estimate by the UN report, since the fall of Kabul, the number of IS-KP terrorists has increased from 2,000 to 3,500.[12] The Taliban will try to restrict IS-KP’s expansion and operational capabilities; however, the Taliban may have to abandon some of its extremist ideas to gain legitimacy on the international platform, which could further result in another wave of defectors joining the ranks of IS-KP.

Concerns for India— “Indians in IS-KP”

During its peak time in 2014-2016, Islamic State (IS) made the call to Muslims worldwide to perform hijra (emigration) to IS-controlled territories in Iraq and Syria, and several Muslims heeded that call and joined IS as foreign (terrorist) fighters [FTFs]. According to an estimate, less than 200 Indian Muslims joined IS as foreign fighters on various occasions, which turned out to be minute participation compared to the influx from populous Islamic countries, such as Indonesia and Pakistan, and the European Union (EU).

Within a month of its formation, on 16 February 2015, India proscribed “Islamic State/Islamic State of Iraq and Levant (ISIL)/Islamic State of Iraq and Syria (ISIS)/Daish/Islamic State in Khurasan Province (IS-KP)/ISIS Wilayat Khurasan/Islamic State of Iraq and the Sham-Khurasan (ISIS-K) and all its manifestations, under the First Schedule to the Unlawful Activities (Prevention) Act [UA(P)A], 1967. [13] On the other hand, the US Department of State designated the Islamic State of Iraq and Levant-Khurasan (ISIL-K) as a Foreign Terrorist Organisation (FTO) on 29 September 2015[14], after eight months of IS-KP’s inception.

Earlier in 2016, around 21 people from the Malappuram, Kasaragod, and Kannur districts of Kerala travelled to Nangarhar and joined IS-KP.[15] As per the figures presented by the Government of India in the Lok Sabha (the Lower House of the Parliament) in July 2019, India’s National Investigation Agency (NIA), along with State Police, arrested 160 IS sympathisers/operatives from various parts of India.[16] As the Islamic State has the ambition to establish a global Caliphate, it has set its vision on Afghanistan’s neighbouring countries.

On 25 March 2020, IS-KP’s terrorists and suicide bombers attacked a Gurudwara (Sikh temple)— Gurudwara Har Rai Sahib, in Kabul, and killed around 25 people, including women and children. [17] Two days later, the IS’s Amaq Agency released a statement claiming responsibility for the attack and justifying the attack as an act of vengeance against ‘so-called’ oppression of the Muslim population in Jammu's Union Territory Kashmir (UT of J&K). In the same statement, the terror group identified the primary perpetrator of the Kabul Gurudwara attack as— Abu Khalid al-Hindi. The family members of Abu Khalid al-Hindi identified him as Mohammed Muhsin, a resident of Trikkarippur in Kasaragod district in Kerala who reportedly went to Dubai in quest of work in 2018 and travelled to IS-KP controlled territory in Nangarhar province in Afghanistan. [18] Another aspect of the 2020 Kabul Gurudwara attack, shared by an Indian intelligence officer, was that “initially the target was the Indian High Commission in Kabul, but IS-KP diverted the target to Sikh temple (Gurudwara) due to tight security deployed at the Indian High Commission in Kabul. There is strong evidence that many former SIMI terrorists linked to Azamgarh and Bhatkal brothers may have joined IS-KP.” [19]

In March 2022, the IS-KP released its publication— “Voice of Khurasan”, in which an article mentioned one of its members— Najeeb al-Hindi (nom de guerre), an Indian national, who got killed in a suicide attack.[20] The article did not provide further details about Najeeb or the timeline and circumstances of his death. The write-up compared Najeeb and Hanzala Ibn Abi Amir— one of the cohorts of Prophet Mohammad. Hanzala was killed in the Battle of Uhud when he was 24 years old, leaving for the battlefield just after his wedding. Despite Islamic State’s less traction among Indian Muslim youth, the threat posed by the group cannot be ignored. Pakistan’s ISI Directorate may utilise the nexus among Lashkar-e-Taiba, IS-KP, and themselves as the medium to target Indian interests in the region, mainly in Afghanistan.

Conclusion

Since its formation, the Islamic State’s branch for the South Asia region— IS-KP has been pursuing its objective of establishing a global caliphate through terrorism while opposing the Taliban's vision of an Islamic Emirate with geographical borders in Afghanistan. The religious and ideological orthodoxy of the Taliban will result in more human rights violations, mainly against women and children, and an increase in Islamic extremism in Taliban-controlled Afghanistan. After the Taliban took over Kabul in August 2021, several Afghan Intelligence Agency (AIA) and Afghan National Army (ANA) personnel shifted their allegiance to the IS-KP.[21]

Since the fall of Kabul in August 2021, IS-KP has carried out 32 attacks against the Taliban, resulting in 54 killings of Taliban terrorists. The arrest of Mawlawi Abdullah (Pakistani national), mastermind of the 2020 Kabul Gurdwara attack, on 04 April 2020, revealed the strong ties between IS-KP and “regional intelligence agency”, pointing to Pakistan’s Inter-Services Intelligence (ISI) Directorate.[22] On one side, the Taliban would actively engage in impressing the international community to secure international recognition and financial assistance in the future, on the other side IS-KP would take the opportunity to lure extremists to its ranks, including foreign (terrorist) fighters from Iraq and Syria, and conspire to carry out more widespread terrorist attacks in the region.

Endnotes :

[1]United Kingdom. “Country policy and information note: security situation, Afghanistan, April 2022”, UK Home Office, 29 April 2022, Available from: https://www.gov.uk/government/publications/afghanistan-country-policy-and-information-notes/country-policy-and-information-note-security-situation-afghanistan-february-2022-accessible#security-situation-september-2021-to-january-2022 . Accessed on 05 May 2022.
[2]McNally, Lauren, Alex Amiral, Marvin Weinbaum, and Antoun Issa. “The Islamic State in Afghanistan: Examining Its Threat to Stability”, Middle East Institute Policy Focus Series 2016-11, May 2016, Available from: http://www.mei.edu/sites/default/files/publications/PF12_McNallyAmiral_ISISAfghan_web.pdf . Accessed on 18 May 2022.
[3] Ibid.
[4] United States Government. “Terrorist Groups in Afghanistan”, Congressional Research Service, 19 April 2022, Available from: https://sgp.fas.org/crs/row/IF10604.pdf . Accessed on 25 April 2022.
[5] Harooni, Mirwais and Kay Johnson. “Taliban urge Islamic State to stop ‘interference’ in Afghanistan”, Reuters, 16 June 2015, Available from: https://web.archive.org/web/20151128110558/https://www.reuters.com/article/2015/06/16/us-afghanistan-islamicstate-idUSKBN0OW19220150616 . Accessed on 23 April 2022.
[6] Popalzai, Masoud, Saleem Mehsud and CNN. “ISIS militant bomber on motorbike kills 33 at bank in Afghanistan”, CNN, 19 April 2015, Available from: https://edition.cnn.com/2015/04/18/asia/afghanistan-violence/index.html . Accessed on 25 April 2022.
[7] Zakaria, Fareed. “Exclusive interview with Afghan President Ashraf Ghani”, CNN Press Room, 22 March 2015, Available from: https://cnnpressroom.blogs.cnn.com/2015/03/22/exclusive-afghan-pres-on-fareed-zakaria-gps/ . Accessed on 15 May 2022.
[8] Lopez, Guillermo Calderon. “The Islamic State threat to Afghanistan and its neighbours”, Militant Wire, 09 May 2022, Available from: https://www.militantwire.com/p/the-islamic-state-threat-to-afghanistan?s=r. Accessed on 15 May 2022.
[9] Sharma, Anurag. “Global Terrorism Trends in 2021 and Projections for 2022”, Vivekananda International Foundation, 12 April 2022, Available from: https://www.vifindia.org/article/2022/april/12/global-terrorism-trends-in-2021%20#_ednref16 ; Hashemi, Sayed Ziarmal, Lolita C Baldor, Kathy Gannon and Ellen Knickmeyer. “American forces keep up airlift under high threat warnings”, Associated Press, 28 August 2021, Available from: https://apnews.com/article/bombings-evacuations-kabul-bb32ec2b65b54ec24323e021c9b4a553. Accessed on 23 April 2022.
[10] “Deadly blasts claimed by Islamic State hit northern Afghan cities”, Reuters, 22 April 2022, Available from: https://www.reuters.com/world/asia-pacific/blast-hits-shiite-mosque-northern-afghanistan-causing-multiple-casualties-2022-04-21/ . Accessed on 23 April 2022.
[11] “Blast tears through mosque in northern Afghan city Kunduz, killing 33”, Reuters, 22 April 2022, Available from: https://www.reuters.com/world/asia-pacific/blast-northern-afghan-city-kills-or-wounds-20-people-commander-2022-04-22/. Accessed on 23 April 2022.
[12] Jadoon, Amira, Abdul Sayed, Andrew Mines. “The Islamic State Threat in Taliban Afghanistan: Tracing the Resurgence of Islamic State Khorasan”, Combating Terrorism Centre-West Point, January 2022, Volume 15 Issue 1, Available from: https://ctc.westpoint.edu/the-islamic-state-threat-in-taliban-afghanistan-tracing-the-resurgence-of-islamic-state-khorasan/. Accessed on 20 May 2022.
[13] Government of India-Ministry of Home Affairs. “List of Banned Organisations” Unstarred Question no. 1887- Lok Sabha, 03 March 2020, Available from: https://www.mha.gov.in/MHA1/Par2017/pdfs/par2020-pdfs/ls-03032020/1887.pdf . Accessed on 25 April 2022.
[14] Sahay, C D, and Anurag Sharma. “Islamic State (IS) Activities in India— A Trend Analysis”, Vivekananda International Foundation, 20 March 2019, Available from: https://www.vifindia.org/article/2019/march/20/islamic-state-is-activities-in-india-a-trend-analysis . Accessed on 25 April 2022.
[15] Haider, Suhasini, and Vijaita Singh. “India unlikely to allow return of 4 Kerala women who joined Islamic State”, The Hindu, 12 June 2021, Available from: https://www.thehindu.com/news/national/india-unlikely-to-allow-4-kerala-women-who-joined-is-to-return/article60677651.ece . Accessed on 18 May 2022.
[16] Government of India-Ministry of Home Affairs. “Presence of IS Radicals and Sympathisers” Unstarred Question no. 1320- Rajya Sabha, 03 July 2019, Available from: https://pqars.nic.in/annex/249/Au1320.pdf. Accessed on 25 April 2022.
[17] “Kabul Sikh temple siege: dozens killed in attack claimed by ISIL”, Al-Jazeera, 25 March 2020, Available from: https://www.aljazeera.com/news/2020/3/25/kabul-sikh-temple-siege-dozens-killed-in-attack-claimed-by-isil. Accessed on 18 May 2022.
[18] Tiwary, Deeptiman. “Kabul gurudwara attacker from Kerala, left for Afghanistan in 2018”, Indian Express, 28 March 2020, Available from: https://indianexpress.com/article/india/kabul-gurdwara-attacker-kerala-mohammed-muhsin-6335210/ . Accessed on 20 May 2022.
[19] Anand, Arun. “Why ISKP, the group behind Kabul gurudwara attack, is threat to India and Indians abroad”, The Print, 01 April 2020, Available from: https://theprint.in/india/why-iskp-the-group-behind-kabul-gurdwara-attack-is-threat-to-india-and-indians-abroad/392322/. Accessed on 20 May 2022.
[20] Laskar, Rezaul H. “Islamic State-Khorasan Province member from Kerala killed in Afghanistan”, Hindustan Times, 11 March 2022, Available from: https://www.hindustantimes.com/india-news/islamic-state-member-from-kerala-killed-in-afghanistan-101646970411115.html. Accessed on 24 April 2022.
[21] Trofimov, Yaroslav. “Left behind after US withdrawal, some former Afghan spies and soldiers turn to Islamic State”, The Wall Street Journal, 31 October 2021, Available from: https://www.wsj.com/articles/left-behind-after-u-s-withdrawal-some-former-afghan-spies-and-soldiers-turn-to-islamic-state-11635691605 . Accessed on 20 May 2022.
[22] Sharma, Anurag. “Islamic State Attack on Kabul Gurudwara Raises Several Questions”, Vivekananda International Foundation, 13 April 2020, Available from: https://www.vifindia.org/article/2019/april/13/islamic-state-attack-on-kabul-gurdwara-raises-several-questions . Accessed on 20 May 2022.

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