Animesh Roul, executive director of the New Delhi-based policy research group Society for the Study of Peace and Conflict. He specializes in counterterrorism, radical Islam, terror financing, and armed conflict and violence in South Asia.
Although the so-called Islamic State (IS) Caliphate crumbled and disintegrated in the Middle East, the group’s most potent branch, the IS-Khorasan Province (IS-KP) remains resilient. It continues to display its violent presence in Afghanistan and Pakistan, fiercely withstanding the unremitting onslaughts from government and rival Taliban forces. The group demonstratively retains the ability to carry out gruesome attacks at will in the capital Kabul and its traditional strongholds in Eastern Afghanistan’s Nangarhar province. Two recent attacks suggest IS-KP’s undiminishing firepower and violent jihadi intent. It claimed responsibility for an attack on a Kabul university killing at least 22 people early in November 2020. In a similar attack on October 24, 2020, IS-KP targeted a private education center, killing nearly 20 students mostly belonging to the ethnic Hazara Shia community in the Dasht-e-Barchi neighborhood in Kabul.
The group reiterated its allegiance to present IS leader Abu Ibrahim al-Hashimi al-Qurashi, following the death of Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi in October 2019. This article aims to evaluate the violent sectarian campaigns of IS Khorasan province and the group’s capacity to withstand leadership loss and armed offensives.
The Emergence of IS-Khorasan Province
The broader support base for IS in Afghanistan and Pakistan emerged primarily due to the existing pro-Islamist political and social environment and infighting between different Taliban factions. In January 2015, IS announced Khorasan Wilayat (province) together with disgruntled defectors from the Pakistan Taliban (Tehrik-e Taliban) and independent militant commanders. The announcement coincided with IS spokesman Abu Muhammad al-Adnani’s audio speech regarding the group’s geographical expansion into areas of Afghanistan and Pakistan. This famed audio speech was released by the group’s al-Furqan media wing on January 26, 2015, and was titled “Say, Die in Your Rage!”. Al-Adnani stated that the new IS province would be headed by former Pakistani Taliban commander Hafiz Saeed Khan, who had reportedly fulfilled the necessary conditions to become the governor of the so-called Khorasan province. IS propaganda materials, notably an article entitled “Wilayat Khurasan and the Bay’at from Qawqaz” in the seventh edition of Dabiq in February 2015, mentioned that militants from Nuristan, Kunar, Kandahar, Khost, Ghazni, Wardak, Helmand, Kunduz, Logar and, of course, Nangarhar, joined the IS bandwagon in Afghanistan. Many others from the Bajaur, Orakzai, Kurram, Waziristan and Khyber region of Pakistan came under the IS-K banner.
IS-KP aims to spread monotheism and demolish polytheism along with its violent campaigns to dominate jihad in Afghanistan and Pakistan. It spread its tentacles by entering into alliances or co-opting local militant groups and their leaders. In Pakistan, it garnered the support of sectarian factions such as Lashkar-e-Jhangvi al-Alami, Jundullah and Lashkar-e Islam (LeI). Earlier, IS-KP also galvanized grassroot militant support mostly from fringe and lesser-known groups like the Sa’ad bin Abi Waqas Front (Logar, Afghanistan) and Tawad al-Jihad (Peshawar). IS has also exploited the infighting within the Taliban-led Islamic Emirate of Afghanistan. The crisis within the Taliban created an opportunity for IS to rebuild and expand its network in the region. Even though these militant alliances remain sketchy, IS-KP has undoubtedly exploited existing internecine rivalries, using firepower and co-opting local networks.
In a show of force, IS-KP perpetrated its first attacks in Jalalabad, the provincial capital of the Nangarhar province in Afghanistan, on April 18, killing more than 33 people and injuring over 100 outside a bank when government workers were collecting their salaries. For the first time in over a decade, the monopoly of the Taliban in waging violence and conflict was challenged by IS forces in Afghanistan under Hafiz Saeed Khan. Fearing it would lose ground, and its soldiers would defect, the Taliban attempted to fight back against IS expansion, growing military stature and ideological traction. Starting with the April 2015 attack in Jalalabad, IS-KP continued to carry out indiscriminate mass fatality attacks in Kabul, Afghanistan and Quetta and Peshawar in Pakistan. It also claimed a few attacks in Indian administered Jammu and Kashmir, such as the attacks on police officers, before the trifurcation of Khorasan province in May 2019.
Deeply Sectarian at Core
IS-KP’s core ideology is deeply sectarian, and the group has charted an aggressive campaign in Afghanistan, turning its guns on minority groups — particularly Hazara Shia Muslims and their institutions. In November 2015, seven Hazara Shia, including two women and a child, were abducted from the Gilan district of Ghazni province and their dead bodies found in the Khak-e-Afghan district of the southern Zabul province. Although IS-KP were believed to be behind the attack, the group did not claim responsibility.
On July 23, 2016, over 80 people were killed, and many more maimed, in a brazen double suicide attack on the Hazara community in Deh Mazang Square in Kabul, the capital city of Afghanistan. For the first time, IS claimed responsibility for the attack, highlighting the group’s consolidation and stature in the country. Abu Omar Khorasani, one of the leading IS-KP commanders in Afghanistan, termed the Kabul attack as retribution against the support of some Afghan Shias to the Bashar al-Assad regime in Syria, ostensibly with the help of Iran. Speaking to the media, Khorasani threatened further attacks stating that “unless they (Hazaras) stop going to Syria and stop being slaves of Iran, [we] will definitely continue such attacks.”
In late December 2017, an apparent suicide bomb attack on the Shia cultural center in Kabul left nearly 40 people dead and many injured. IS, through its Amaq news agency, claimed responsibility for the attack. It argued that the facility was a prominent Shia center sponsored by Iranian agencies and used as a recruitment center of Afghan Shias for the Fatemiyoun Division (part of Hezbollah Afghanistan) engaged in the Syrian civil war against the Islamic State. Earlier in October that year, IS-Khorasan militants also targeted the shia Imam Zaman Mosque, located in the western Dashte-e-Barchi neighborhood of Kabul. The suicide attack killed nearly 30 Hazara Shias. After a few months of a lull, IS-KP carried out more suicide bombings targeting Hazara Shias, again in Kabul. On March 22, 2018, an IS-KP bomber killed over 30 people near a Shia shrine in Kabul during the Persian new year day (Nowruz). The United Nations vehemently condemned the deadly attack terming it as “reprehensible”. Again in August that year, IS-KP struck at Sahib-ul-Zaman Mosque in the Khwaja Hassan area in the town of Gardez (Paktia province), killing over 25 people, mostly Shias. Besides its consistent focus on anti-Shia violence in Afghanistan, IS-KP also targeted Taliban forces, government forces, election rallies, educational institutions and sports complexes in and around the Khost, Nangarhar and Kabul provinces in 2018.
In 2019, despite several setbacks IS-KP suffered in terms of mass surrenders and leadership decapitations, the group carried out yet another deadly attack. On August 17, an IS-KP suicide bomber targeted a wedding hall in a Shia neighborhood in Kabul killing 63 people and injuring over 150.
Government Campaign Launched
Following the attack, the government began a concerted campaign against IS-KP in Afghanistan, in an effort to clip its violent wings. The offensive, coupled with violent confrontations with the Taliban in its traditional strongholds in the Nangarhar and Kunar provinces, disrupted the command and control structure of the group to some extent. That prompted Afghan President Ashraf Ghani to announce the defeat of IS-KP in Afghanistan in November 2019. Even IS central spokesman Abu Hamza al-Qurashi admitted the reversals in Afghanistan in late January 2020. In his audio speech distributed by IS’s al-Furqan Media, Abu Hamza said, “We beseech you to seek patience and perseverance on this path and in enduring its pains, particularly our brothers in Wilayah Khorasan. Persevere in patience and constancy, vie in such perseverance, strengthen each other, and fear Allah that may prosper.”
However, the premature celebration of IS-Khorasan’s imminent decimation was short-lived. The group sprang into action with several surprise attacks in the country in March and May 2020, targeting civilians and security forces. On May 12, an IS-KP suicide attack at a funeral ceremony in the eastern province of Nangarhar killed at least 32 people with more than 60 others were injured. Another purported IS-KP suicide attack at a maternity hospital in the Dasht-e-Barchi area of Kabul on May 12 killed at least 24 civilians, including children. Earlier, in March 2020, IS-KP orchestrated a coordinated attack on a Sikh place of worship in Kabul’s Shor Bazar area, killing over 25 worshippers.
IS-KP also unleashed a prolonged assault on the Jalalabad prison to liberate around 300 IS-KP inmates in early August 2020. Similar to the March 2020 Sikh Gurdwara assault, the prison attack involved three Indian-origin militants, including Abu Rawaha al-Muhajir-al-Hindi, the suicide bomber who struck the main gate of Jalalabad prison in an explosive-laden vehicle. IS media documented the assault in its weekly Arabic bulletin Al Naba (No. 246) with minute details of the operation. According to Afghan media sources, 29 people died and around 50 were injured in the attack. Surprisingly, the prison attack came at the same time the group lost its head of intelligence, Asadullah Orakzai, who was killed in an operation by Afghan special forces in Nangarhar.
In a show of strength, IS-KP issued several statements claiming attacks on the Bagram Airbase located in northern Kabul early 2020. On August 14 and 16, IS-KP targeted the airbase with IEDs and Katyusha rockets. It also claimed to have fired 16 Katyusha rockets on August 18, targeting the Afghan presidential palace and diplomatic areas of Kabul. Earlier, the Presidential Palace came under attack in March 2020 during the swearing-in of Ashraf Ghani. Similar attacks were carried out on November 21, when the group claimed it fired several rockets at Kabul’s Green Zone area, which housed the presidential palace, foreign embassies and the headquarters of Afghan security services.
Surviving Blows to Leadership
Since the establishment of IS-KP in early 2015, the group has lost at least five leaders who were either arrested or killed by government forces. Surprisingly, leadership losses had no significant impact on the group’s operations. IS-KP fighters in Afghanistan are a blend of local and foreign fighters. The leaders and masterminds are mostly foreign nationals and particularly of Pakistani origin, with the sole exception of Sheikh Abdul Haseeb Logari of Afghanistan.
Since March 2017, joint Afghan and US military units have launched a dedicated counter-offensive against IS-KP to eliminate or displace them from their sanctuaries in Nangarhar and adjacent regions. With the unrelenting offensive and ongoing turf war with the rival Taliban, IS-KP lost several top commanders such as Hafiz Saeed Khan, Saad Emarati, Abdur Rauf Khadim and Gul Zaman in the initial years. With the death of Abdul Haseeb Logari in April 2017, IS-KP suffered a setback at a time when the group was seemingly recovering from a leadership vacuum after a series of leadership decapitations. Logari, who was an inspiring Salafi-jihadist ideologue for IS-KP, was succeeded by leaders such as Abu Saeed Bajauri, Saad Arhabi (Abu Sayed Orakzai) and Aslam Farooqi (Abdullah Orakzai) — all from Pakistan. Similar to the 2017 situation following Logari’s death, the group faced a leadership crisis once again in April 2020 with the arrest of Aslam Farooqi.
However, despite the leadership vacuum, IS-KP succeeded in perpetrating several attacks in Kabul and elsewhere in Afghanistan, proving its robust operational capability and resilience. Since April 2020, two names have surfaced as present leaders of IS-KP: Sheikh Matiullah Kamawal and Shahab al-Muhajir. Afghan intelligence agencies have information about al-Muhajir’s role in recent high-profile attacks in Afghanistan and believe he is in charge of IS-KP in Afghanistan at the moment.
Afghan government forces and to a certain extent the Taliban, continue to carry out concerted efforts to defeat and decimate IS-KP’s networks in the country. Even US agencies have admitted the Taliban’s role in blocking IS-KP’s expansion in Afghanistan. However, IS-KP has garnered enormous power and influence in Afghanistan during its five years of existence in one of the most challenging turfs of transnational jihad, co-opting disgruntled Taliban militants and other sectarian fighters. Even after engaging in two front wars against the Taliban and government forces since its inception, IS-KP has carved a haven for itself in eastern Afghanistan bordering Pakistan. The group also proved its ideological traction and operational capabilities by replenishing its cadre strength and firepower without any significant roadblocks. Of course, the recent regrouping of the splintered Pakistani Taliban may dissuade low-ranking Taliban fighters from defecting for the time being. However, the future trajectory of IS-Khorasan province depends on its ability to maintain an alliance with regional sectarian groups like JuA or LeJ (Pakistan) to replenish its depleting cadre strength and firepower.
Some analysts have postulated that covert state support could be the reason behind the group’s resilience, however these allegations are difficult to prove. It is far-fetched to conclude that IS-KP is anywhere close to being eradicated in Afghanistan and Pakistan, as its roots are deeply embedded in local dynamics, rather than connected to causes in Syria or Iraq. Like the Taliban and various violent jihadi groups in the region, IS-KP’s ideological bases in Afghanistan and Pakistan are intact and cannot be easily destroyed by military offensives. Arguably, irrespective of mass surrenders, leadership losses and other military setbacks in the recent past, the substantial pool of foreign fighters and senior Taliban commanders defecting on its side from Pakistan and traction for core IS ideals in the region remain key to the group’s survival.
The author acknowledges the support of Government of the Netherlands and the Global Centre on Cooperative Security for an ongoing research project on Transnational Jihadist threat in South Asia. Views expressed in this article are those of the author alone, and do not necessarily reflect the views of the Global Centre or the Government of the Netherlands, nor of European Eye on Radicalization, which aims to publish a diversity of perspectives so readers can make informed conclusions, without endorsing the opinions expressed by contributors.