The ideology and evolution of Islamic State-Khorasan
Six years after its expansion into Khorasan, the historic name for the area encompassing Afghanistan, Pakistan and parts of India, the Islamic State (IS) affiliate in Afghanistan has proved it continues to have the ability to carry out devastating terrorist assaults with the suicide attack at Kabul airport.
The Islamic State-Khorasan (IS-K) claimed responsibility for the complex assault near the airport on Thursday that has so far killed over 100 people, including 13 American military personnel.
The attack also proved the group has the capability to challenge the Taliban, which was being seen as the effective rulers of Afghanistan after their lightning blitz that carried them into the capital city on August 15.
Since the beginning, IS has had a complicated relationship with the Taliban, though both comprise Sunni Muslim fighters.
The first man named as the head of the Khorasan unit in January 2015 was a breakaway Tehrik-e-Taliban Pakistan (TTP) commander named Hafiz Saeed Khan. Around that time, several Pakistani Taliban leaders, including Shahidullah Shahid, Daulat Khan, Fateh Gul Zaman and Mufti Hassan, also pledged allegiance to IS.
Many of these commanders broke away from the Pakistani Taliban, which has close links with the Afghan Taliban, after the Pakistan Army launched a massive military operation against TTP in the northwestern tribal regions. They fled across the border to Afghanistan’s eastern provinces and joined forces with IS.
IS-K also attracted commanders from Lashkar-e-Taiba (LeT), such as Aslam Farooqi alias Abdullah Orakzai, who became the affiliate’s chief in July 2019 and was captured in an operation by the National Directorate of Security and Afghan special forces in Kandahar in April 2020.
The group often used the ploy of projecting a more hardline version of Islam to wean away disaffected fighters from the Taliban and other terror groups operating in Afghanistan. Besides Afghans and Pakistanis, the IS-K also attracted fighters from Tajikistan, Uzbekistan, Kyrgyzstan, Indonesia, Iran, Russia, the Maldives and India. It is believed that dozens of men from Kerala and their families joined the group.
Afghan officials, such as former spy chief Amrullah Saleh, have repeatedly contended that Pakistan had a hand in the creation of IS-K to carry out attacks in Afghanistan with an element of deniability.
Over the past six years, IS and the Taliban have clashed frequently, especially in the eastern provinces Kunar, Nangarhar and Nuristan provinces, where IS established an early presence. More significantly, it was able to establish sleeper cells with Kabul that were used to carry out a string of deadly suicide attacks, mostly targeting the Shia Hazara minority.
In November, some 600 IS-K fighters surrendered along with hundreds of family members in Nangarhar after a prolonged campaign by the Afghan security forces backed by US troops. At the time, reports had suggested the Taliban had helped government forces in squeezing out the IS fighters.
The campaign showed that IS-K was largely incapable of holding territory, unlike the Taliban. However, it still retained the ability to carry out brutal suicide attacks and bombings in cities across Afghanistan. It carried out six major attacks in Kabul in 2016, 18 in 2017, and 24 in 2018. In May this year, a suicide bombing outside a girls’ school in a Shia Hazara neighbourhood of Kabul killed 68 and injured nearly 170 more.
The Taliban’s recent victory in Afghanistan was celebrated by al-Qaeda and other terror groups, with experts warning that the development would energise militants and extremists across South Asia and beyond.
The Global Islamic Media Front, an al-Qaeda linked news outlet, issued a “statement of congratulations” that noted the 20-year war had “ended with the Islamic Emirate triumphantly returning to Kabul, and the Americans and Afghan stooges hastily running away”. The statement also noted the Taliban’s victory was possible because of its “firmness on religious principles and its dedication to Shariah judgements”, a reference to the Taliban’s pledge to implement Islamic law in Afghanistan.
IS, on the other hand, was derisive in its response to the Taliban victory. An editorial in Arabic in its weekly newsletter al-Naba dismissed the conquest of Kabul as a takeover coordinated with the US in line with the peace deal signed by the two sides in Qatar in February 2020. The editorial said that after the Taliban pledged it would not repeat the mistakes of the past, the US “restored rule to the Taliban and granted it Kabul without firing a shot”.
The editorial also espoused the “soundness of the path” adopted by the IS to establish Shariah, saying that “supporting Islam does not pass through the hotels of Qatar nor the embassies of Russia, China and Iran” – an obvious reference to the Taliban’s ongoing discussions with key regional powers.
Experts now believe IS-K will continue to challenge the Taliban as it tries to form the next administration in Kabul and takes steps to gain legitimacy in the eyes of the world community.
Douglas London, a former senior CIA operations officer whose last position was serving as chief of counterterrorism for South and Southwest Asia, told USA Today that said the threat posed by IS-K is now higher because of the vacuum created by the Taliban takeover. It maintains its capabilities to launch deadly attacks, and “those are the reasons they and the Taliban are mortal enemies – because ISIS-K represents a competitor. They represent a competitor for resources, materials and power, even though they’re relatively small,” he said.