By Adelaide Martelli, Francesco Bruno, and Zachariah Parcels
Proceeding the culmination of the Taliban’s 20-year insurgency, complete withdrawal of NATO forces, and reinstatement of the Taliban’s repressive policies reminiscent of their harsh rule in the late 1990s, domestic actors have emerged to question the Taliban’s renewed governance. Amidst the frantic evacuations of foreigners and vulnerable Afghans, Islamic State Khorasan Province (ISKP; aka ISIS-K) or Wilayat Khorasan emerged in our public consciousness with their horrific attack on 26 August at Kabul’s International Airport. This attack seemingly inaugurated ISKP’s ongoing suicide bombing campaign currently inflicting Afghanistan. ISKP appears to represent the most significant threat to the Taliban’s already teetering “domestic sovereignty” and internal integrity. Thus, to understand the potential security threats emanating to and from the new Afghanistan, it is essential to understand ISKP’s history, operational capabilities, and radical ideology.
The Beginning of the Islamic State Khorasan Province (ISKP)
ISKP was formed in 2014 by defecting Tehrik-e-Taliban (TTP; Pakistani Taliban), Afghan Taliban, Lashkar-e-Islam, and disenfranchised al Qaeda fighters active in Pakistan and Afghanistan. These defections were welcomed later by representatives from Iraq and Syria of the Islamic State (IS), corresponding with IS 2015 announcement of a “Khorasan” province. Among the TTP defectors were high ranked commanders previously active in Pakistan and its Federally Administered Tribal Areas (FATA), including ISKP’s first wali (governor), Hafez Sayed Khan.
Under Sayed Khan, ISKP successfully infiltrated Afghanistan’s eastern Nangarhar Province in 2015, conquering eight Taliban districts and displacing thousands who did not conform to the group’s apocalyptic ideology. According to Lushenko et al. (2019), contradicting the Taliban’s aspirations to “Talibanize” Afghanistan and effectively counteracting the latter’s opposition to government and coalition forces, acute disagreements between the two groups has resulted in increasing violence plaguing Afghanistan and bogging of Taliban forces. The looming expansionist threat of IS, at that time, caused coalition forces and Kabul to redirect resources to eradicate ISKP from Afghanistan. This campaignseemingly alleviated and unintentionally strengthened Afghan Taliban forces.
Under Khan, ISKP rapidly consolidated territory – predominantly from the Taliban. Albeit thousands of ground and air operations against ISKP by coalition and Afghan forces – including the deployment of the Massive Ordnance Air Blast (MOAB) munition – fighting with the Taliban, and the death of Khan in 2016, ISKP continued to make gains. This includes ISKP nearly capturing the infamous Tora Bora cave complex from the Taliban in June 2017.
However, by 2017, Wilayat Khorasan (ISKP) had suffered heavy casualties, including the loss of three walis, half its fighters, and two-thirds of its territory. Notwithstanding, ISKP still maintained the capability to launch consecutive terrorist attacks in Kabul in 2017, predominantly against Shi’a mosques and cultural sites to spark sectarian divisions. Nevertheless, after a sustained campaign, ISKP surrendered to the Taliban in the summer of 2018. Though, Taliban-IS relations reportedly have not been fully hostile, as parts of the Haqqani Network have coordinated with ISKP. ISKP faced further setbacks in 2019 when more than 600 fighters surrendered to Afghan forces.
These setbacks drove the Islamic State (IS) Core to make internal transformations. IS founded new provinces in India and Pakistan in May 2019, territory formerly under ISKP’s purview; and, in June 2020, appointed the zealous Shahab al-Muhajir – who was previously associated with the Haqqani Network and planned urban attacks in Kabul for ISKP – as ISKP’s new wali, as the incumbent Aslam Farooqi was captured.
ISKP’s Contemporary Operational Capabilities
Contemporarily, the organisation can count on a number of foreign fighters who have been smuggled into the country. The organisation has a strength of between 2000 and 4000 fighters spread across the provinces of Kabul, Nangahar, Kunar, Jowzjan, Paktia, Kunduz, and Herat, areas in which the organisation has claimed attacks.
Though when analysing ISKP’s current capabilities and operational organisation, it is possible to argue that ISKP is going towards a period development and readjustment due to Afghanistan’s changing landscape amidst the withdrawal of the US-led coalition. These changes can be both an opportunity and a risk for the organisation. Until 2020 (and illustrated above), ISKP was threatened by the Afghan Taliban and al-Qaeda based in the Afghanistan-Pakistan border, the US-led coalition, and the now-defunct Afghan government. By a tacit consensus, the three were able to repress the group and dislodge it from their main areas of influence which worked as a catalytic for fundraising.
Since the US withdrawal and the Taliban takeover, the landscape has profoundly changed. There are two key elements to consider. First, Afghanistan remains one of the most prominent theatres of jihad, disproportionately increasing the number of foreign fighters moving to the country. For instance, al-Qaeda has encouraged its members to relocate to Afghanistan from Syria and Iraq, while IS has smuggled key leaders into the country. Secondly, the power and security vacuum left will consequently cause instability that ISKP aims to capitalise on. This has resulted in an increased number of attacks since the beginning of 2021. ISKP conducted 77 attacks only in the first 4 months of the year, with the most known being the attack at the airport in Kabul, which killed 170 civilians and 13 US Marines. Similarly, it is unclear if the Taliban will be able to stabilise the country and provide basic necessities to the population. This instability provides ISKP with an opportunity to gain more traction among the population, gain more recruits in their fight against the Taliban, and plan new international attacks from Afghanistan – as they have done until recently.
ISKP’s Ideological Threat
Islamic State Khorasan Province’s (ISKP’s) security threat – both to the Taliban’s governance and internal integrity and to the international community – is not only manifested in their capabilities but also their ideology. ISKP is a Salafi-jihadistmovement whose goal is to establish a global Caliphate through armed struggle. With this purpose, ISKP follows the teaching of two Salafi scholars, Ibn Taymiyyah and Muhammad Ibn Abdul Wahab, who supported purist visions of Islam and the necessity of Sharia law. Takfiri strategy is their modus operandi that, similarly to other jihadist groups, allows them to kill all those Muslims declared as kafir, meaning “apostate”. Not accepting their same extremist ideology is enough to be labelled as such. Considering this, ISKP rejects the Taliban government and its rules.
ISKP has a transnational and all-encompassing goal, unlike the Taliban which they consider as a “nationalist movement” with an “impure” ideology. The latter is a pivotal factor when considering its success over the larger audience. This group does not only focus on the region – the “Near Enemy” – but adopts a global jihad mentality in which the West is seen as an urgent target to destroy. Another difference with the Taliban, which is consequential to the first, relies on its relationship with the United States (US). ISKP has always condemned the presence of this foreign power on Afghan territory while the 2020 US-Taliban peace deal represented a huge occasion for this faction to delegitimise its counterpart.
ISKP is a threat not only to the Taliban’s renewed governance in Afghanistan but its internal integrity. ISKP is very effective in winning the “hearts and minds” of its followers because of a variety factors. Furthermore, it takes advantage of the fractures inside other jihadist groups, awards compensations to its followers, and employs several platforms to spread its propaganda, such as through Facebook, Twitter, Telegram, and its radio channel, “The Voice of the Khilafat”. These virtual channels are fundamental when waging global jihad, they are the main, and sometimes also the only means to incite and attract recruiters abroad.