Abdul Basit, a research fellow at the S. Rajaratnam School of International Studies, Singapore, where he focuses on religious extremism and militancy in South Asia. He is on Twitter: @basitresearcher.
Following the US withdrawal and the Taliban’s return to power in Afghanistan, the Islamic State Khorasan (ISK) — the Islamic State’s Afghan affiliate — has been targeting Taliban fighters in different parts of the country. (The term Khorasan refers to a region encompassing South and Central Asia, as well as China’s Xinjiang province and parts of Iran.) For instance, on September 25, ISK claimed responsibility for the killing of six Taliban fighters in eastern Afghanistan’s Jalalabad city. Arguably, ISK’s August 26 suicide attack targeting the Kabul Airport — killing 180 people, including 13 US marines, 28 Taliban and 139 Afghan civilians — marked the beginning of a new phase of the Taliban-ISK conflict in Afghanistan. However, it is important to mention that both militant groups have been at loggerheads since late-2014. After the Taliban signed the Doha Agreement with the US in March 2020, ISK announced a protracted violent campaign against the former for compromising on jihadist principles to regain power. In fact, ISK considers fighting the Taliban a more important “religious duty” than attacking the Western forces.
ISK: A Taliban Rejectionist Group
After the restoration of the Taliban’s power in Afghanistan, ISK has positioned itself as a Taliban rejectionist group to attract hardline Taliban factions into its fold. ISK also has its eyes on 10,000 foreign jihadists in Afghanistan including the Pakistani Taliban, Central Asian jihadists and Uyghur militants, among others. ISK is aware of the Taliban’s sharp internal divisions between its military commission, the ideological purists, its political office and the moderate pragmatists, over the distribution of power, leadership disputes and the long-term political vision to run the country. The military commission represented by the acting Defense Minister Mullah Yaqub, son of movement’s founder Mullah Omar, supports restoration of the so-called Islamic Emirate and opposes sharing power with other non-Taliban factions. Meanwhile, the pragmatists, spearheaded by Deputy Prime Minister Mullah Abdul Ghani Baradar — the movement’s co-founder and the chief negotiator who signed the Doha agreement with the US in Qatar — favors a flexible political approach to form a broad-based government which should be politically inclusive and ethnically diverse.
ISK is exerting extreme pressure on the Taliban through physical and verbal attacks, making it difficult for the latter to show any ideological flexibility and political leniency. In doing so, ISK is trying to discredit the Taliban’s claims of stabilizing Afghanistan, make it difficult for the group to honor its counterterrorism commitments under the Doha Agreement and further exacerbate intra-Taliban divisions. Hence, the Taliban’s announcement on September 7 of an all-male, Taliban-only and Pashtun-dominated caretaker cabinet — much to the disappointment of the international community — is not surprising. ISK’s anti-Taliban militant campaign in Afghanistan has left the Taliban in a catch-22 situation, trying to balance between two impossible positions: being politically accommodative and inclusive to ensure international recognition and economic assistance, while retaining its ideological purity through hardline policies.
This paper aims to situate the ISK-Taliban rivalry in post-US Afghanistan and explain why this phase of hostilities will be different from the past. Then, it will examine the major ideological and doctrinal differences between the two militant groups. Furthermore, it will explain the factors which account for ISK’s resilience in Afghanistan’s hostile environment and the broader implications of the ISK-Taliban dispute for the global jihadist movement, Afghanistan and beyond.
ISK emerged on the Afghan scene in late 2014 and it comprised of dissident factions and commanders of the Afghan and the Pakistani Taliban, also known as the Tehreek-e-Taliban Pakistan (TTP). During this period, both the Afghan and Pakistani Taliban were witnessing splintering and factionalism emanating from leadership disputes in both organizations, to the benefit of ISK. The Pakistani Taliban fractured into several factions following the killing of its then-leader Hakeemullah Mehsud in a US drone strike in November 2013. Meanwhile, the Afghan Taliban suffered from internecine fighting after the disclosure of their founder Mullah Omar’s death in 2015 and disputes over his successor Mullah Akhtar Mansoor’s leadership. ISK attracted some disgruntled factions of both militant groups into its fold, as well as Central Asian jihadists belonging to the Islamic Movement of Uzbekistan. ISK also reaped the benefits of the territorial conquests of Islamic State — its parent group based in Iraq and Syria. At the time, IS eclipsed al-Qaeda as the leader of the global jihadist movement, working in favor of ISK in Afghanistan.
ISK’s initial focus was on gaining a territorial foothold by imitating the operational strategy of IS in Iraq and Syria. ISK carved out territorial space for itself in eastern Afghanistan’s Kunar and Nangarhar provinces where Salafist influence was quite strong. The group also attracted Afghan and some Pakistani Salafists living in the Pashtun belt to its Afghan-controlled territories. The Salafists joined with the hope of ISK’s expansion in Afghanistan, similar to IS’s success in Iraq and Syria.
Rise, Fall, and Comeback
However, ISK’s brutal methods and over-the-top violent tactics soon alienated local communities, forcing some Salafists to rethink their decision and leave ISK. Subsequently, ISK lost its territorial holdings in Kunar and Afghanistan after US air strikes and ground offensives by Taliban and Afghan forces, which contributed to the decentralization of the group’s organizational structure in the form of small cells. ISK also shifted its focus from occupying territories to attacking the Taliban, Afghan forces and religious minorities in Afghanistan, in order to stay relevant.
Between 2018 and mid-2020, ISK went through a lean period. Not only did the group lose territories and top leaders, but its fighters either surrendered to the Afghan security forces or reverse migrated to their old organizations. However, following the appointment of its current leader Dr. Shabab al-Muhajir — a former mid-level commander of the Haqqani Network — in mid-2020, ISK staged a comeback by launching low-intensity, urban warfare centered on inflicting mass casualties through high-impact attacks. For instance, during this period, ISK freed hundreds of its fighters jailed in Nangarhar, targeted a Sikh temple in Kabul and attacked a maternity hospital and a girls’ school, among others.
Following the Doha Agreement reached between the US and the Taliban in 2020, ISK declared a long war against the Taliban for compromising on sharia principles to regain power and hurting the cause of jihadism. By taking this antagonist position, ISK is trying to portray itself as the “true global jihadist group” in Afghanistan to fuel its recruitment campaign and attract funding and militants from existing jihadist groups. ISK’s August 26 attack which killed 13 US marines has left the Taliban, al-Qaeda and other militant groups under tremendous pressure. It was the deadliest attack on US troops since 2011.
Unlike the past, the current phase of the ISK-Taliban conflict is qualitatively different as it is taking place in an environment free of US presence in Afghanistan. Furthermore, ISK will now be facing the Taliban as a state actor that is transitioning from insurgent to political life. Now the Taliban will not only have to defend itself as a group against ISK but secure the Afghan masses, religious minorities and public infrastructure as well. Given its position as a state actor, the Taliban will be responding to ISK attacks from a defensive position. The Taliban’s failure to keep ISK attacks under check will not only dent their credibility as Afghanistan’s new rulers but also create doubts about their counterterrorism commitments to the US under the Doha agreement.
Hence, the asymmetric-offensive advantage lies with ISK which will attack the Taliban as, when and how it chooses and the meltaway in the population. ISK will use both its physical and verbal attacks to discredit the Taliban and showcase itself as the “true jihadist group” in Afghanistan. At the same time, the Taliban does not have the same advantage it did when the group functioned as an insurgent group against successive US-backed Afghan governments in Afghanistan. The Taliban, as a state actor, must maintain a permanent and visible presence in Afghanistan, further exposing them to ISK attacks. The withdrawal of US troops and the collapse of Afghan forces has provided ISK with a less hostile and more permissible environment to regroup, recuperate and grow. The Bagram and Pul-e-Charkhi prison breaks, freeing around 5,000 jihadist prisoners, included hundreds of ISK fighters who are ready for this renewed phase of conflict with the Taliban.
Ideological and Tactical Differences
Although both the Taliban and ISK are Sunni jihadist groups, they are each other’s sworn enemies on account of irreconcilable doctrinal, ideological and strategic differences. The Taliban want to create an Islamic Emirate (sharia state) in Afghanistan, as opposed to ISK’s goal of creating a global Sunni Caliphate. The Taliban belong to the Sunni-Hanafi school of thought, while ISK hails from the Takfiri-Salafist tradition. The Taliban are an Afghan-centric militant group which espouses both Islamism and Afghan nationalism. Furthermore, the Taliban, at least in rhetoric, are tolerant of the Shiite community and other religious minorities in Afghanistan. The Taliban’s operational tactics deploy discriminate violence, while ISK is indiscriminate in its targeting strategy, which has earned it a notoriety for over-the-top brutal violence.
ISK’s philosophy is, in fact, antithetical to the notion of nationalism, and it espouses transnational jihadism with a long-term view to establish a so-called global Sunni Caliphate. The Taliban are also closely allied with al-Qaeda. Furthermore, ISK apostatizes the Shia community, ex-communicates Sufi Muslim practices and is highly intolerant of other religious minorities. In other words, the Taliban is a Sunni militant group, but they do not have a sectarian bend, while ISK is a full-fledged sectarian group.
Both ISK and the Taliban will now compete over a scarce pool of resources in Afghanistan to win loyalties of the jihadist groups operating both inside and outside of Afghanistan. The ISK-Taliban renewed conflict in Afghanistan will have implications for global jihadist movements as well, keeping in view that al-Qaeda still has substantive presence in Afghanistan, and is still closely allied to the Taliban.
ISK has a small but dangerous footprint in Afghanistan. Currently, its operational strength is between 4,000 to 5,000 fighters with no territorial strongholds. ISK has a decentralized presence in eastern and urban Afghanistan in the form of small cells. The cell structure allows ISK operational autonomy and physical mobility to plan and execute high profile attacks without being detected, and then fade away in the population.
Since its emergence in late-2014, ISK, in the face of all odds, has shown resilience with tremendous regenerative capacity. ISK’s operational and tactical alliances with like-minded jihadist groups in the Af-Pak region, such as Lashkar-e-Jhangvi, Jandullah, some factions of IMU and the Pakistani Taliban, has enabled it to stand up to US and Afghan forces counterterrorism pressure and the Taliban’s animosity.
Despite numerous announcements of its demise, ISK has staged comebacks from impossible situations and kept itself relevant in Afghanistan’s hostile operational environment and competitive landscape. Because of its resilience, ISK has established itself as a potent actor and a group to be reckoned with in Afghanistan. In the coming weeks and months, if chaos and instability increase in Afghanistan, ISK will benefit from it to the Taliban’s detriment.
A Counterterrorism Vacuum
At this juncture — beyond vague commitments of not allowing Afghan soil to be used as a base to launch attacks against any other country — there is no robust counterterrorism policy in place to keep the terrorist threat in Afghanistan under check. The ISK-Taliban conflict would deviate the latter’s attention from physically securing Afghanistan. This would allow existing groups in Afghanistan to regroup, recuperate and rebuild their organizational structures, as well as reestablish their sanctuaries. According to US intelligence estimates, al-Qaeda will revive its transnational threat if the Taliban-led Afghanistan descends into chaos, in 18 months to two years. This situation will have far-reaching implications, both for regional and global peace.
So far, US efforts to secure a military base in Afghanistan’s immediate neighborhood to station drones for reconnaissance and targeted strikes in Afghanistan against terrorist groups have borne no fruit. The huge intelligence vacuum, due to the absence of a regional base for the US, can result in blind spots in Afghanistan. At the same time, ISK’s ideological pressure on the Taliban, by portraying them as pro-US (pro-crusader) entity, has left no room for the Taliban regime to cooperate with the US on counterterrorism. At this juncture, Washington’s counterterrorism capabilities in Afghanistan are quite limited.
Epicenter for Global Jihadism?
The Taliban’s, and by extension al-Qaeda, victory against the US has revived Afghanistan’s mythical significance as the Land of Khorasan. Al-Qaeda-affiliated groups around the world feel energized by the Taliban’s victory as it has vindicated their belief in the jihadist doctrine of strategic patience, i.e., the creation of a sharia state through persistence and perseverance, ultimately paving the way for a global Islamic Caliphate. Various jihadists around the world are, once again, expressing their desire to return to Afghanistan.
Against this backdrop, the ISK-Taliban rivalry would possibly attract foreign jihadists both from al-Qaeda and IS camps to Afghanistan. Al-Qaeda jihadists would possibly return to Afghanistan to relive the victory and help the transnational militant group revive its organizational infrastructure. At the same time, ISK militants would possibly come to Afghanistan to benefit from the chaos in the country, in order to revive its global jihadist brand. Strides in Afghanistan would feed into ISK’s propaganda warfare, as well as its efforts to create a foothold in the country.
Following their return to power in Afghanistan, the Taliban are cracking down on Salafist scholars, their mosques and madrassa networks on suspicions of helping ISK. Since August 2021, the Taliban has shut down around three dozen Salafist mosques and madrassas in 16 different provinces across Afghanistan. The August 28 abduction of an influential Afghan Salafist scholar, Shaikh Abu Obaidullah Mutawakil, by the Taliban and his subsequent brutal killing has created fear amongst Afghan Salafists that they will face reprisal attacks on suspicions of supporting ISK. Several Afghan Salafist scholars have gone into hiding after Mutawakil’s killing, fearing for their lives. These kind of heavy-handed policies by the Taliban helps ISK portray itself as the defender of Salafist Islam in Afghanistan.
Additionally, ISK’s avowed anti-Shia ideological stance and brutal attacks would encourage the Iran-backed Shia militia, Liwa al-Fatimiyoun (the Brigade of Fatima, the youngest daughter of Prophet Muhammad), to militarily defend the Hazara Shia community. The battle-hardened Liwa al-Fatimiyoun is well trained and combat-ready due to its participation in the Syrian civil war. There are 10,000 to 15,000 Afghan Shia volunteers who could start their own insurgency in retaliation to ISK attacks. If this happened, Afghanistan could go down the Syria path where a global jihadist struggle between ISK and the Taliban-al-Qaeda duo, would change the existing dynamics in the Afghan conflict.
Developments in Afghanistan will have far-reaching implications for regional and global peace. The ISK-Taliban rivalry would exacerbate existing sectarian fault-lines and attract foreign jihadists from rival camps at the expense of Afghan masses and its religious minorities. At this juncture, the US has very little counterterrorism footing in Afghanistan. In the absence of secure regional base in Afghanistan’s immediate neighborhood, intelligence blind spots would emerge to the detriment of global peace and security.
For now, ISK is trying to get political mileage out of its violent attacks in Afghanistan to bolster its signal warfare instead of material gains. The group is increasing its propaganda assaults and verbal attacks on the Taliban in an attempt to force them to adopt hardline policies, depriving their regime of international recognition and financial assistance. A cash-deprived Afghanistan, with an economy on the verge of collapse, would keep ISK violently invested in attacking the Taliban to force an implosion of Afghanistan, in order to benefit from the ensuing chaos and anarchy.
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