WITH rapid pace, the Islamic State Khorasan Province (ISKP) is trying to fill the vacuum created by a fading Al Qaeda. ISKP’s increased presence in Afghanistan and its claiming responsibility for some terrorist acts, the declaration of allegiance to it by some Tehreek-i-Taliban Pakistan (TTP) dissidents and the reported collaboration between ISKP and a few terrorist groups have increased insecurity.
In the presence of the Tehreek-i-Taliban Afghanistan (Afghan Taliban), the Jamaatul Ahrar (JuA), the Tariq Geedar Group and the Lashkar-i-Islam (LI), how did ISKP manage to attract militants into its fold and capture operational space? Why is this region a magnet for external narratives?
Over the last few months, ISKP has increased its influence in Afghanistan and has been trying to develop a nexus with the JuA, the Lashkar-i-Jhangvi al-Alami (LJA), and the Jaishul Adal. The JuA cultivated a good rapport with ISKP. While shuttling between Nangarhar and Kunar, ISKP fighters pass through Chaknawar, Goshta and Shonkray — JuA strongholds. Apart from being provided safe passage by the JuA, several rounds of negotiation have been held for possible merger between the groups though these ended without results.
During the last few months, the group has increased its influence in Afghanistan.
Unlike the Afghan Taliban and TTP, so far ISKP is not facing factionalism. But in the near future, inner wrangling for the slot of ISKP emir may take place amongst the Bajauri, Swati, Orakzai and Uzbek factions. In the case of further weakening of the militant Islamic State group in Syria, those elements may also aspire for space in the command structure.
The death of Mullah Omar and the 10-month tenure of his successor Mullah Akhtar Mansour was a serious blow to the Afghan Taliban. The hasty elevation of Mansour to the coveted slot of emir had caused a split. One faction leaned towards Mullah Yaqoob (son of Mullah Omar) and another was led by Akhtar Mansour. Annoyed elements looked for space in new berths, eg ISKP. In 2015-16, massive changes among the Afghan Taliban’s field commanders were observed. The unsatisfactory conduct of a few new commanders created a negative impression. Further, the majority of the newly appointed commanders did not have a ‘jihadi’ background. Such factors provided space to ISKP. Then, since the group advocates the Salafi school of thought, in the presence of the majority of the population affiliated with the Ahle Hadith in Nangarhar, Nuristan and Kunar, it did not face any hurdles.
In Afghanistan, in the Nazian, Achin, Kot, Deh Bala and Speen Ghar districts of Nangarhar, ISKP is striving to introduce an ‘operational caliphate’. The group’s presence in Nuristan, Kunar and Nangarhar may affect security and peace in the adjoining areas of Dir, Chitral, Bajaur, Mohmand and Khyber agencies in Pakistan. Operations Zarb-i-Azb and Khyber-IV effectively contained the influence of the militants. With the collaboration of the JuA, LJA and Jaishul Islam, ISKP may stage a sectarian regrouping. The situation warrants the prevention of a formal nexus between ISKP, the JuA and LJA.
If ISKP establishes its hold in Afghanistan, it may also attract the attention of Pakistan-based Salafi seminaries. Owing to its sectarian bias, its linkages with Sipah-i-Sahaba Pakistan and Lashkar-e-Jhangvi cannot be ruled out. Its presence in Nangarhar may affect peace in Khyber and Kurram agencies.
In its formative phase, ISKP tried to establish itself in the northern parts of Afghanistan. Balkh lies between the Kunduz and Jowzjan provinces that provide land access to Badakhshan. If ISKP succeeds in gaining a foothold in Kunduz, it may jeopardise Chinese interests in the region. Chitral and Gilgit-Baltistan are areas adjoining Nuristan and Badakhshan; in such a scenario, the security of these areas requires more intensified patrolling and the procurement of intelligence and strict border management.
In the present scenario, the possibility of a nexus between Mullah Fazlullah’s TTP and ISKP does not seem to be a practical option. In case the TTP joins ISKP, this may undermine the justification for the former’s existence.
The LI seems to be warming towards ISKP, as it is vigorously opposed by Nangarhar-based local militants loyal to Zahir Qadeer. Given a history of friction with the Afghan Taliban and the animosity vis-à-vis local Afghan militants, the LI is left with limited choices. The dilemma it faces is that by moving closer to ISKP, it may seriously antagonise the Afghan government.
For ISKP, the major concern is its short-lived command. The loss of two emirs within less than a year is a serious blow. Even so, in the presence of an effective shura, no significant change in its policy and strategy was noticed. Although ISKP is in contact with the core IS group, in operational matters it seems autonomous.
For ISKP to establish itself in Afghanistan requires simultaneous combat with the Afghan Taliban and the Afghan security forces. After facing the onslaught of US and allied forces in Syria and Iraq, ISKP was in search of safe havens in Afghanistan. After the anticipated demise of the IS ‘caliphate’ in Iraq and Syria, ISKP may make another effort in parts of what is referred to as Khorasan. For Afghan forces, the real challenge is to prevent such a transit.
According to the Story Maps website, during 2017 in Afghanistan, ISKP carried out 16 attacks, killing 276 persons. Eight attacks were carried out in Kabul and six in Jalalabad. In Pakistan, ISKP targeted the shrine in Sehwan and the police training college in Quetta, resulting in the death of 150 people. It would appear that ISKP primarily selects soft targets. It uses the social media for inspiration, propaganda, and connectivity. The group is a phenomenon that hounds the entire region, eclipsing all other militant groups in brutality and ambition. It is high time the region realised that ISKP cannot be defeated in isolation. Hence the gravity of the threat needs to be reassessed and responded to accordingly.