The Islamic State vs. Russia in Afghanistan

Recent Features

Features | Security | Central Asia | South Asia

The Islamic State vs. Russia in Afghanistan

The Islamic State movement — including its Afghanistan iteration — is vehemently anti-Russia in orientation, criticizing its foreign and domestic policies.

The Islamic State vs. Russia in Afghanistan
Credit: Screenshot

On September 5, an Islamic State Khorasan Province (ISKP) suicide bomber hit the Russian embassy in Afghanistan’s capital city, Kabul. The explosion killed two Russian embassy staff and at least six other people. Just as ISKP did with earlier rocket attacks on Uzbekistan in April and Tajikistan in May, the militants followed through on their increased threats to target Russian interests, only this time the operation produced deadly results. 

ISKP’s successful strike on the diplomatic mission of the leading power of the “Crusader East” and the killing of its citizens is a significant operational achievement as well as a powerful propaganda and morale booster for both the international Islamic State movement and the regional branch in Af-Pak.

The Islamic State’s Media Warfare Against Russia

In Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi’s first speech following the declaration of the caliphate in 2014, he described the world as being divided into “two camps” in irreconcilable opposition to each other: the “Muslims and the mujahideen” and the “Jews, the crusaders, [and] their allies.” The latter, he declared, is “led by America and Russia, and being mobilized by the Jews.” This designation as a very top enemy of the Islamic State — on a level with the U.S. — put a sizable target on Russia’s back that would grow considerably with the official September 2015 intervention in Syria to support Bashar al-Assad’s government. This was evidenced when, in stated retaliation to Russia’s military campaign, the Islamic State’s official Sinai branch blew a Russian passenger plane out of the skies above Egypt in October 2015.

The Islamic State (IS) movement is vehemently anti-Russia in orientation and criticizes both the country’s foreign and domestic policy actions. Russia’s military presence in Muslim lands and role in Syria, its role as a permanent member of the United Nations Security Council, its support of the Central Asian “regimes,” its ties with Iran, China, Israel, and more are listed as fueling such animosity. Domestically, Russia is accused of oppressing and committing violence toward Muslims and is lambasted for its raids on and imprisonment of IS supporters.

There are also historical grievances at play, with IS propaganda reminding its followers of the Soviet invasion of Afghanistan and the wars in Chechnya as evidence of Russia’s inherently aggressive nature against Islam and its tendency to invade and occupy Muslim lands.

ISKP’s Increased Anti-Russia Propaganda Since the Taliban Takeover of Afghanistan

Islamic State Khorasan Province has been ardently opposed to Russia as well and had issued threats in the years since its founding in 2014-15. The network markedly increased its hostile rhetoric after the Taliban took power in mid-August 2021. This has to do with both ISKP’s ramped up media warfare campaign against the Taliban and the group’s expanded regional and international scope.

ISKP has zeroed in on the Islamic Emirate of Afghanistan’s (IEA) cordial diplomatic relations with Moscow as a tactic to discredit the Taliban as a religious authority and Islamic governing body, referring to “numerous meetings and visits … to the biggest enemies of Islam such as China, Iran, and Russia” and, in another instance, scorning them for “befriending Russians, the murderers of Chechen Muslims.” The Taliban are impugned as puppets of and proxies for the great powers Russia, China, and the U.S., with one pro-Islamic State Hind Province (ISHP) magazine (which was circulated throughout ISKP channels) saying the “murtad [apostate] Taliban … lick the boots of the crusaders and now Russia and China as well.”

ISKP posits that true representatives of Islam could in no way deal with Russia in good faith given that it is a country perceived as waging war on Muslims abroad, seeking to destroy Islam, and committing “mass murders” with its military in Syria. Additionally, Russia is viewed as a global power supporting anti-Islamic State blocs in the Middle East and Central Asia alike. An early August article in ISKP’s Voice of Khorasan magazine celebrated the damage inflicted on Russia during its military invasion of Ukraine and referred to the country as “Crusaders,” a “furious enemy of Islam throughout the last century,” and referenced its military interventions in Afghanistan, Chechnya, and Syria. ISKP’s “Eid Message” called upon supporters to “cast fear into the hearts of the sons of Putin and Russia, kill them with cars and knives.”

Russian Embassy Attack and Future Threats to International Interests

The September 5 embassy attack is a manifestation of said hostile sentiments and also quite clearly an attempt to create discord between the IEA and Russia, draw increased external pressure on Kabul, and erode regional and international confidence in the Taliban’s ability to provide security. The attack serves as a message and reminder to other governments, commercial entities, and organizations that their interests are not safe in Afghanistan as ISKP is able to strike at will.

The suicide bombing comes at a time when the Taliban are pushing hard for international recognition. Doing immediate damage control after the incident, IEA Foreign Minister Amir Khan Muttaqi urged countries to reopen or keep their embassies operational.

It is an embarrassment for the IEA, as shortly before the attack, Taliban spokesman Zabihullah Mujahid declared that ISKP had been contained and specifically assured Russia that it faces no IS threat from Afghan territory. Making their strategy clear, IS’ central media organ referenced the Taliban spokesman’s recent public security assurances, and, in claiming the attack, gloated about killing “Crusader employees” and Russian “contractors” and “spies” at the entrance of the embassy. Further evidence of this spoiler approach was revealed in the wake of an earlier rocket attack on Tajikistan, in which ISKP said it “[forced] the murtad Taliban regime [to beg] for forgiveness for their failure to protect the border and to fulfill their void promise of ensuring no harm for their Russian, American, Chinese, and other international masters from the soil of Afghanistan.”

ISKP will almost certainly continue to target international interests in Afghanistan and the region as part of its running strategy to create various types of difficulties for the already-struggling Taliban government. The IEA is facing a dire humanitarian crisis and deep economic troubles, leaving it in desperate need of foreign investment and aid. Accordingly, ISKP has explicitly stated its intent to strike foreign nationals, economic and infrastructure development projects, as well as humanitarian organizations. The group looks to create a chill effect for foreign assistance and disrupt anything that would improve the Taliban’s position.

It is possible that foreign diplomatic missions will continue to be targeted as they have high symbolic value and, in addition to the September 5 operation, there seems to be precedence in the reported August 2021 ISKP plot to bomb the Turkmenistan embassy in Kabul.

Finally, Russian nationals and interests in the area will remain at risk given the country’s status as a priority target for the global IS movement and the increased hostile rhetorical, and now operational, attention devoted to it by ISKP.