IS-KP: Potent challenger in Afghanistan

At the domestic level, IS-KP has increased its operational capabilities inside Afghanistan, with the total number of fighters and family members associated with the group estimated at 4,000 to 6,000

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Afghan security force members destroy a poppy field during an anti-poppy farms campaign in Herat province, Afghanistan, April 4, 2023. (Photo by Mashal/Xinhua)

On April 29, 2024, Islamic State-Khorasan Province (IS-KP) terrorists attacked the Shia Imam Zaman Mosque in the Andisheh town of Guzra District in Herat Province, killing seven worshippers, including the prayer leader of the mosque, two women and a child. The attack took place during the evening (between Maghrib and Isha) prayers. Iran’s Embassy in Kabul strongly condemned the attack.

On October 14, 2023, seven people were killed in an IS-KP suicide attack at the Shia Imam Zaman Mosque in the Pul-e-Khumri District of Baghlan Province. However, in a statement, IS-KP claimed that one of their suicide bombers killed “50 Shia and wounded dozens more” by detonating an explosive vest.

On August 5, 2023, IS-KP terrorists shot dead a civilian accusing him of espionage for the Taliban in the Sarkani District of Kunar Province. No information about the victim’s identity was disclosed.

On June 6, 2023, Taliban ‘acting governor’ Mawlavi Nisar Ahmad Ahmadi and his driver were killed and six others were injured in an IS-KP orchestrated suicide bomb blast in Badakhshan Province. The blast occurred at 8:15 am [AST] when Ahmadi’s vehicle was on its way to a court in Faiz Abad, the provincial capital.

On March 9, 2023, an IS-KP suicide bomber, armed with explosives, blew himself up near the Governor of Balkh Province, Mohammad Dawood Muzamil, killing him along with two civilians, in Mazar-e Sharif, the capital city of the province. In addition, four other people were injured, including three military personnel and one civilian.

On April 19, 2022, a series of bomb blasts in Abdul Rahim Shaheed High School and near the Mumtaz Education Center, both of which are located within the predominately Hazara Shiite neighbourhood of Dasht-e-Barchi in West Kabul, killed six and injured at least 11. IS-KP took responsibility for the attack.

According to data collated by Institute for Conflict Management, a total of 429 persons, including 136 IS-KP cadres, 58 Taliban, 220 civilians, and 15 persons whose identities were not specified, have been killed in 73 IS-KP linked incidents since August 15, 2021, when the Taliban seized power in Afghanistan (data till May 3, 2024).

IS-KP was formed in 2015, during the Islamic State’s second wave of expansion outside the Levant. The group takes its name from an old Persian term for the region, Khorasan, that included parts of Iran, Turkmenistan and Afghanistan, as well as areas of Tajikistan and Uzbekistan. Its propaganda, translated into regional languages as well as English, vows to establish a caliphate spanning this area. Since the Taliban takeover of Afghanistan in 2021, IS-KP has been resilient and continuing to inflict violence, across the region. The ethnic composition of the group is an added point of difference. While the Taliban is largely Pashtun-led, IS-KP draws on a diverse cohort of jihadists, which is often more inclusive.

IS-KP’s media operations and narratives have gone through three stages since 2015, showcasing its changing priorities. The first phase (2015-19) focused on anti-Taliban sentiment and rosy narratives about life under the so-called ‘caliphate’, in an attempt to recruit followers. The second phase (2020-21) focused on instilling fear and highlighting the group’s resolve to survive amid significant territorial losses. The current phase is IS-KP’s most aggressive and sophisticated propaganda and outreach campaign yet, unprecedented in its form, quantity, and number of languages used – a worrisome sign of the group’s aim to reach recruits and sympathizers well outside its immediate region of activity.

While the Taliban and IS-KP share some ideological similarities, they are ‘doctrinally distinct’ given the Taliban’s close relationship with IS’s rival Al Qaeda, and IS-KP’s view of the Taliban’s Afghanistan-focused nationalist political project as counter to the IS vision of a global caliphate. As is made evident from IS-KP’s March 25, 2024, ‘official’ statement following its March 22, attack at a concert in Moscow, reprimanding the ruling Afghan Taliban for seeking relations with the United States, Russia, China and other countries. The 30-page statement focused on criticizing and mocking the Taliban in Afghanistan, long an enemy of the IS-KP group.

There is also widespread apprehension among Taliban officials, of surprise attacks by IS-KP.On March 27, 2024, Plan and Operation Management, Kabul Province Police Command, the Ministry of Interior Affairs of the Islamic Emirate of Afghanistan, published a letter in Dari, numbered 2905, on the IS-KP threat:

Information of the new tactic of the enemy (Khawarij) today is as follows:

Attention Mujahideen!.

Especially to the officials of the Emirate such as district governors, commanders, governors, and heads of courts.

The tunnel is strategically located – it’s almost equidistant (35km-40km) from Dantewada and Bijapur, and a mere 10km from Bhairamgarh Police Station. It gives Maoists easy passage near Indravati river. Tactically, Indravati river is a geographical hurdle for security forces.

Khawarij [IS-KP] has started another new tactic and trick, which is that they write false petitions and make fake lawsuits and make friends with mujahideen and other officials at checkpoints through forgery. In this way, the enemy is trying to harm the mujahideen and make them martyrs. So, all the mujahideen should know that the enemy should not achieve their evil goals. Share it on your [social media] groups so that all the mujahideen will be informed…

Mentioning Afghanistan as a significant IS-KP coordination hub, a report dated April 23, 2023, stated that IS-KP was planning attacks across Europe and Asia and was engaged in “aspirational plotting” against the United States. IS-KP has been developing a cost-effective model for external operations that relies on resources from outside Afghanistan, operatives in target countries, and extensive facilitation networks. The model will likely enable IS-KP to overcome obstacles, such as competent security services, and reduce some plot timelines, minimizing opportunities for detection and disruption.

Furthermore, a March 26, 2024, report claimed that Iraqi security agencies believed that IS-KP was working to establish a regional network of jihadi fighter cells that could help execute international attacks, based on information from dozens of senior ISIS operators detained over the preceding two years. Also, 90 per cent of IS-KP’s cadre was now non-Pashtun, the report added.

At the domestic level, IS-KP has increased its operational capabilities inside Afghanistan, with the total number of fighters and family members associated with the group estimated at 4,000 to 6,000, as reported in August, 2023. The group has also become more sophisticated in its attacks against both the Taliban and international targets. On July 11, 2023, Taliban’s spokesperson for the Interior Ministry, Abdul Mateen Qaneh, confirmed that a letter was delivered on July 9 to the Taliban’s Police command throughout Afghanistan, stating that IS-KP operatives would target Provincial Governors, chiefs and civilian leaders in their offices and residences houses by means of suicide bombings, a threat that was subsequently realized in several cases.

Following their ‘coming to power’, the Taliban has been striving to gain international recognition and establish relations with governments that IS-KP vilifies and frames as authoritarian or repressive to Muslims. The Taliban’s international outlook has helped IS-KP present itself as a more uncompromising and dedicated Islamic force in the region. Following the Doha Accord of 2020, IS-KP blamed Taliban for abandoning jihad by signing a deal with the United States, and portrayed itself as the true jihadist group in Afghanistan. This narrative not only helped IS-KP maintain relevance but also gave it an edge in the propaganda war against the Taliban. In its quest to prove itself as the truest champion of jihad, IS-KP presents itself as a relentless challenger to the Taliban in Afghanistan.

Sanchita Bhattacharya

Sanchita Bhattacharya is a Research Fellow at Institute for Conflict Management in New Delhi, India

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