The rise of the Taliban to power did not bring peace to Afghanistan. Quite the reverse, different forms of political violence have either continued or emerged, including the Taliban regime’s extrajudicial executions, the anti-Taliban armed resistance, and the indiscriminate and targeted violence of the Islamic State-Khorasan Province (ISKP). The latter is a cross-regional subsidiary of the previously Iraq and Syria-based Islamic State in the broader historical Khorasan region, which encompasses parts of modern Western, South, and Central Asia. Despite expanding the scope of its operations in these regions since the fall of Kabul in 2021, much information about ISKP is contradictory.
The Taliban regime has continued to downplay the threat of ISKP and claim that they have rooted the organization out in Afghanistan. Similarly, some Western experts assert that the threat of ISKP is modest or is in decline. Regional and global actors, such as Russia, China, and India, as well as U.S. intelligence sources, on the other hand, warn about the growing tentacles of ISKP in the surrounding regions. The striking contrast in insights about the capabilities and potential of ISKP has been persistent. In addition, each stance assumes the truth of the conclusion.
A few fundamental questions need an in-depth probe: Why is ISKP shrouded in secrecy? What are the strengths and weaknesses of the organization? And what potentials could transform it into a regional and global threat?
The discrepancies in information about ISKP stem from various avenues. Some of these are related to uninvestigated aspects of ISKP, including its organizational structure, its ideological convergence with the Taliban, as well as the emerging opportunities for ISKP in the northern regions of Afghanistan. As such factors have remained unexplored, they have shrouded the organization in secrecy.
Beyond what is known about the organization as being composed of local Pashtun fighters from Afghanistan and Pakistan, ISKP is a transnational group with fighters from Central and South Asia and the Middle East. What continues to be overlooked about the group is its local-foreign structural duality. Given the nature of the organization’s origin and the ensuing challenges to its existence since 2014, ISKP has adopted a pragmatic structure of unfused outer and inner layers. While the local elements (Afghan and Pakistani Pashtun fighters) serve as the public face of the group, the core is a loosely connected network of foreign elements composed of foreign militants from the aforementioned regions.
The fragmented origin of ISKP in late 2014 facilitated the future duality of its structure. Initially, the organization came into being as the result of three separate processes of recruitment, resettlement, and repositioning. In 2014, local and foreign terrorist groups dispersed from northern Waziristan due to a military operation by the Pakistan Army. Some high-level operatives of the Tehrik-e-Taliban Pakistan (TTP) reemerged in Northwestern Pakistan, namely the Tirah Valley, pledged allegiance to the then newly created Islamic State, and recruited thousands of local Pashtun tribesmen.
In a parallel move right before the operation, the Taliban resettled hundreds of foreign fighters, including those related to the Islamic Movement of Uzbekistan (IMU) and the East Turkistan Islamic Movement (ETIM), into eastern and southern Afghanistan. Soon after the establishment of ISKP, the Islamic State repositioned some of its operatives from the Middle East into the Afghanistan-Pakistan region. Eventually, all three groups reconvened in the southern districts of Nangarhar province.
It is worth mentioning that in these districts, ISKP fighters were reorganized in small groups composed of both local (Pashtun) and foreign elements. While the Pashtun militants were the public face of the group, its foreign fighters mostly remained stationed deep in the valleys, unengaged with the local population, and protected by the local fighters.
Strategically, the duality in the organizational structure provided ISKP with resilience, survival capacity, and the ability to quickly adapt. The group has survived the parallel wars waged by the U.S., the former Afghan Republic government, and the Taliban insurgency against it from 2018-2020. It has reemerged quickly every time it was declared defeated. Soon after rising to power in Kabul, the Taliban regime instigated a brutal campaign against the organization. However, while the outer layer of ISKP has remained the exclusive target, the Taliban has persistently denied the existence of foreign elements within ISKP.
For the Taliban, the brutal campaign against ISKP’s local elements is not ideological but strategic. By liquidating hundreds of local ISKP militants, the Taliban regime aims to eliminate domestic challengers to their extremist Islamic rule in the country. The Taliban knows that the foreign elements of ISKP do not have the political ambitions to gain or claim authority in the country. Furthermore, the ideological convergence between ISKP and the Taliban drives the latter to protect the core of the former in Afghanistan.
Ideological Convergence with the Taliban
Unlike the dominant assertion about an ideological divergence between the Taliban and ISKP, Taliban literature actually reveals a convergence between the two organizations. First and foremost, the Taliban neither opposed the creation of the Islamic State nor its subsidiary in the region. On the contrary, the initial rapport between the two was cooperative. The Taliban welcomed the creation of the Islamic State and instructed Afghan media to avoid disseminating damaging materials on the group. Reciprocally, the Islamic State allocated a section of its global media outlet for reports and news on the Taliban insurgency.
The cordial relationship deteriorated when the Islamic State rejected the Taliban leader’s plea for the allegiance of ISKP to the Taliban Amir al-Mu’minin, instead of Al-Baghdadi. They claimed that such a courtesy would keep the jihad front united in Afghanistan. In response, the Islamic State not only rejected the plea but belittled the Taliban’s leader. The deteriorating relationship, however, did not stop the Taliban ideologues and clergy from revealing their convergence with the Islamic State on the issues of global jihad and the significance of an overarching political authority for the Muslims (the caliphate).
On the issue of global jihad, the ideological sources of the Taliban acknowledge its sanctity, moral imperative, and strategic necessity. However, unlike the Islamic State, the Taliban strategize and prioritize different fronts of global jihad at various times. They assert that while there are no boundaries for global jihad, there are for its various battle fronts. In response to ISKP’s harsh criticism of the Taliban’s truce with the U.S. in Doha, the Taliban justify it as a tactical move within the larger jihad. They argue that both Hanafi and Shafii schools of Islamic jurisprudence legitimize truces with infidels for broader and strategic jihadi goals.
Another area of ideological convergence between ISKP and the Taliban is the creation of an overarching political authority or caliphate for the Muslim community. The Taliban acknowledge the moral and ideological imperatives of this vision. They, however, diverge with ISKP on the unsystematic and drastic approach of the Islamic State in proclaiming the caliphate. On the same page as al-Qaida, the Taliban do not consider the Islamic State caliphate illegitimate, but instead premature and counterproductive. They assert that there is always a proper time for the realization of such a sacred dream. The Taliban’s vision of either being part of a caliphate or establishing one of their own is clear based on their enduring relationships with regional and terrorist organizations, including al-Qaida, TTP, and the foreign operatives of ISKP.
In general, the ideological convergence between ISKP and the Taliban on global jihad and the re-establishment of an overarching caliphate have led to an ambiguous relationship between them. The Taliban regime, acting strategically to eliminate potential domestic rivals, has instigated a low-profile war exclusively against ISKP’s outer layer – its local fighters. In a broader context, the Taliban knows that ISKP’s objective is to infiltrate the surrounding regions, including Central, South, and Western Asia. Such a goal does not contradict the Taliban regime’s internal legitimacy or strategic imperatives, at least in principle. On the contrary, there is a moral imperative for the Taliban to be at least an indirect part of ISKP’s broader global ideological scheme.
Realizing its strategic vision of expanding to the surrounding regions, ISKP has systematically shifted out of Eastern Afghanistan and infiltrated the Northern and Western provinces of the country. In these regions, the organization is morphing its outer layer by replacing Pashtun militants with Tajik and Uzbek recruits from Afghanistan and across the border from the Central Asian republics. In addition, the shift has also brought ISKP into strategic proximity to the Central Asian republics and Iran – two targets for the Islamic State.
The ideological, ethnolinguistic, and political factors of contemporary Afghanistan serve ISKP with the potential for expansion and growth. The Taliban regime’s continued oppression of ethnic and religious minorities instigates dissension. As such, ISKP can be a relevant avenue to channel dissent into active resistance. In addition, the ongoing anti-Taliban armed resistance in northern Afghanistan has the potential to facilitate an environment for ISKP militancy to grow.
Ideologically, Salafism has had a relatively visible presence in the northern region of Afghanistan, mainly in Takhar and Badakhshan provinces, since the Afghan jihad years in the 1980s. Thousands of kids from these provinces enrolled in Salafi madrasas in Pakistan. Upon their return, they planted the seed of Salafism by establishing new madrasas or sending more kids to their alma maters in Pakistan. The shift of ISKP to northern Afghanistan can attract many local Salafists. That said, the brutal crackdown of the Taliban on the Pashtun fighters of ISKP seems to be a blessing in disguise for the organization. Ever since the fall of Kabul to the Taliban, ISKP has reemerged and has been evolving systematically.
Early in 2022, ISKP warned of a new era of global jihad. In the following months, it not only expanded its operation across the Amu Darya in Uzbekistan and Tajikistan, but it also targeted the Russian embassy in Kabul, liquidated several leading Taliban clerks and ideologues, and carried indiscriminate violence against civilians in Pakistan and Afghanistan. In its September issue, the Voice of Khurasan, ISKP’s online magazine, reported statistics on a month of operations, including killing 53 Taliban fighters, 15 rafida (a pejorative term used for Shi’a Muslims by the Salafis), 12 Pakistani soldiers, and two Russian diplomats.
In assessing the potential of ISKP, the need is to acknowledge that the organization is not an insurgency seeking territorial gains. On the contrary, ISKP is the transregional subsidiary of the Islamic State that is steadfast in its determination to proliferate its ideological, strategic, and tactical reach to the surrounding regions. Evidence suggests that the group has managed to move toward realizing its mission; its tentacles have begun spreading across Khorasan.