This Is Not The Last Time We Will Hear About The Islamic State In Khorasan

The Islamic State in Khorasan, or IS-K, is an offshoot organization that has grown stronger in recent years and more brazen in its attacks. Umer Farooq evaluates the group's position in Afghanistan's complex security landscape.

This Is Not The Last Time We Will Hear About The Islamic State In Khorasan

IS-K now poses a regional security threat to all of Afghanistan’s neighbors, including Pakistan, Iran, the Central Asian States and China. This is also a threat which each of these countries is fully cognizant of. They consult, collate information and coordinate their effects against IS-K in the region. Experts believe that the fact that IS-K has claimed responsibility for the terror attack in Moscow’s concert hall last week will add urgency to these countries’ efforts to pursue this terror outfit at the regional level. During the past two years, IS-K has carried out terror attacks against, or done at least something against the interests of these regional countries, to attract the attention of regional security apparatuses, as well as intelligence agencies in the region. It is also a well-known fact that all these regional countries perceive the Afghan Taliban as a counterweight to the rise of IS-K in Afghanistan and in the region more broadly. The Russians and Iranians for example, have been cooperating with the Afghan Taliban against IS-K since 2016.

For Pakistan, the situation is much more complex than simply pursuing IS-K headlong without taking into consideration the complex terror landscape in the region. There are western security experts who think that the Afghan Taliban and Tehrik-e-Taliban Pakistan have done considerable work to weaken IS-K in the region and in the opinion of these experts, if TTP is gradually dismantled through Pakistani military operations, it will automatically strengthen IS-K.

TTP itself is not local player anymore. Firstly, it has been reported in the media that TTP, in talks with the Afghan Taliban, have informed the latter that in case they are pushed to the wall inside Afghanistan, they would be forced to join hands with IS-K or that there may take place a large-scale defection from TTP ranks to the IS-K fold. Remember that IS-K started its career in the region when a Salafist group in Eastern Afghanistan previously associated with the Afghan Taliban parted company with the mother organization and joined the ranks of IS-K, which had just started recruitment in 2014.

The Iranian Revolutionary Guards and Afghan Taliban, on the other hand, conducted joint operations against IS-K in central Afghanistan in 2016. The ISIS led suicide attack in Iran in January 2024 killed hundreds of people. The Central Asian States and Russia see IS-K as a grave threat, with Russia providing real time intelligence to Afghan Taliban against IS-K. However, some Central Asia states like Tajikistan are equally wary of the Afghan Taliban.

Before the Moscow attack raised its profile, IS-K was laying low in Afghanistan—bombing by the Americans and erstwhile Afghan National Army in its Eastern Afghanistan’s stronghold had deprived the group of its territory in Eastern Afghanistan. Afterwards, they shifted to urban terrorism. The past six months have witnessed IS-K’s activities receding in Afghanistan and in the region. Some international experts attribute this to the Afghan Taliban’s repression of ISIS’s organization in Afghan cities and partly attribute this to financial problems the organization was facing. It seems IS-K is emerging out of its low-profile once again.

There is a body of opinion which says that IS-K’s future in the region depends on how tactfully Pakistan and the Afghan Taliban tackle the problem of TTP.

Will TTP join IS-K or Afghan Taliban?

The Tehreek-e-Taliban Pakistan (TTP), as a terror and militant organization, seems to be standing at a crossroads, where it will have to decide whether to join hands with IS-K against the Pakistani military and Afghan Taliban, or to clash with IS-K as a proxy of the Afghan Taliban.

TTP leaders are said to have conveyed to the Afghan Taliban government their warning that in case they are pushed to the walls inside Afghanistan and if they have to tone down their attacks on Pakistani security forces in the Pak-Afghan border areas, there may emerge a large-scale defection in its ranks towards IS-K.

Analysts are pondering what exactly triggered the IS-K propaganda campaign against TTP? Whether it is the result of a tussle over the recruitment of fighters from social groups which are traditionally loyal to TTP? No final answer exists on this issue. On its part, the TTP is no less aggressive towards IS-K. A recent UNSC monitoring report hinted at the Taliban assigning TTP the tasks of assassination of defectors to IS-K.

Meanwhile, Pakistani security forces reported successful operations against high-value IS-K targets, having links in Afghanistan. Notably, Surat Gul, a prominent IS-K commander, featured in their videos on Afghan soil, was eliminated in a tribal district by Pakistani security forces. Another significant operation reported by Pakistani security forces against IS-K was the elimination of Abu Hamza Khurasani in Balochistan, who reportedly returned to Qila Saifullah after spending years in Zabul, Afghanistan.

The Afghan Taliban have been making efforts to wean Pakistani Taliban away from IS-K after tensions developed between the two groups over recruitment of fighters back in 2015-2016. For their part, Afghan Taliban are engaged in a full-fledged military campaign against IS-K fighters in Afghanistan. Many of the military experts say that Afghan Taliban have been quite successful in crushing IS-K organizationally on Afghan soil. Pakistani observers believe that whatever might be the outcome of this situation, Pakistani security forces will be compelled to fight both the terror organization for bringing normalcy to its territory.

Why do the Russian and Iranians want to use the Afghan Taliban against IS-K?

The Russians and Iranians have been pursuing strong relations with the Afghan Taliban and have been ready to provide them with real time intelligence since 2016 in order to strengthen them in the fight against IS-Khorasan.

Regional military and security experts told this scribe that Russian intelligence, Iranian Revolutionary Guards and Afghan Taliban carried out joint operations against IS-K in Western and Northern Afghanistan in 2016.

IS-K grew particularly stronger and stronger with the passage of time in Eastern Afghanistan—close to the border with Pakistan, and in Northern Afghanistan, in proximity to the border with the Central Asian states.

The Russians even expressed their doubts about the role of US military forces in bringing IS-K into Afghan territory. This happened when the then Pakistani Defence Minister Khawaja Asif visited Moscow in 2017 and was told by his Russian counterpart that Pakistan should keep a check on the Americans, as they are bringing IS-K into Afghanistan. Pakistani officials said that at that time that they ignored the Russian warning.

In the time following the Taliban takeover of Kabul, Pakistani intelligence has twice hosted Russian and Central Asian states’ intelligence chiefs in Islamabad to chalk out a strategy for countering the rise of IS-K in Afghanistan.

In a meeting of intelligence chiefs from eight regional intelligence agencies, including Russia, Iran, China and several Central Asian states, it was decided that they would collectively build the capacity of Afghan Taliban so that it could act as a counter to IS-K in Afghanistan.

The Afghan Taliban brutally suppressed IS-K and their followers in Afghanistan over the last three years. Hundreds of suspected ISIS foot soldiers have been killed in military operations in north, western and eastern Afghanistan since the Taliban took Kabul.

Earlier, IS-K had focused on holding territory which they did by consolidating their position in Eastern Afghanistan.

However, pressure from the Taliban forced them to change their strategy from holding territory to urban terrorism. ISIS carried out several lethal attacks on the Afghan Taliban and its leaders in the last three years. For the past six months IS-K was laying low in Afghanistan, and was involved only in minor attacks on Taliban and their government installations.

The Taliban claim that they have broken the back of IS-K in Afghanistan should be taken with a pinch of salt. In other words, this is a doubtful claim in the face of growing defection within the ranks of Afghan Taliban and Tehrik-e-Taliban Pakistan (TTP) towards IS-K ranks.

International and Pakistani experts believe that the fact that IS-K was laying low in the region could possibly be the result of financial difficulties IS-K is reportedly facing since the start of 2023. Some of the reports indicate that IS-K was successful, “to re-establish some financial flows in the latter part of 2023.”

The fact that Afghan Taliban ranks continue to face defections, as its fighters continue to leave their mother organization in order to join IS-K has been a persistent reminder that IS-K has been far from defeated in Afghanistan.

A key indicator of this phenomenon could be witnessed in Northern Afghanistan where Taliban Intelligence continued to pick up their own fighters for interrogation for their suspected links with IS-K. This situation is given further credence by the fact that palpable tensions exist between the central Taliban leadership and Tajik members of the Taliban in the north east of the country. Experts point out that “this confirms IS-K might just be starting to make some inroads into Taliban ranks. Disgruntled Tajik Taliban, therefore, could offer some opportunity for the terrorist group.”

Tajiks are a Persian speaking ethnic group in the north east of Afghanistan which have started joining Taliban ranks in 2021.

Taliban intelligence has been actively trying to shut down IS-K cells in Afghan Universities where most of the recruitments by IS-K have taken place. Taliban Intelligence claims that it has turned university campuses around the country into a less permissive environment for IS-K recruitment. Pakistani experts say that the Taliban might have succeeded in making Afghan university campuses into significantly less permissive environments for IS-K to operate in, thanks to a mix of intensified intelligence operations targeting what they call Kharijites and takfiris on campus, strict control over the campus environment, and effective Taliban deterrence against any form of dissent.

IS-K started the recruitment of young students in university campuses around Afghanistan long before Taliban victory in August 2021. Some experts believe IS-K had succeeded in recruiting hundreds of thousands of members during Ashraf Ghani’s government.

Experts say that IS-K cells still exist in Afghan universities, despite the Taliban claim that they have eradicated this menace from the campuses. The Afghan Taliban also claims to have killed at least 12 leading IS-K commanders, leaders and officials working in various fields inside Afghanistan during the past one year. Most significant of those killed included Kotar aka Qari Musa, Qari Fateh.

Notably, one of the eliminated leaders was Abbas Omari, originally from the Dago village of the Chaparhar district of Nangarhar province, who was the Military and Intelligence head of IS-K. He was killed on February 26, 2023, in the Khairkhana area of Kabul city in an overnight operation. The Afghan Taliban also claims to have killed Ijaz Amin Ahangar aka Abu Usman al-Kashmiri, originally from the Srinagar district of Kashmir, who was the leader of Islamic State Hind Province (ISHP) or Da’esh India. He was killed on February 13, 2023, in the Kart-e-Naw area of Police District Kabul City, in an overnight operation conducted by the Taliban intelligence.

Ziauddin Hakeem, originally from the Nangalam village of Pech Valley of the Manogay district, Kunar province, was the Justice and Media head of ISKP and was also the ex-interim leader of IS-K. He was killed on March 17, 2023, in Mazar-e-Sharif city of Balkh province, in an overnight operation. Abu Omar Afridi, originally from the Khyber district of Khyber Pakhtunkhwa province, Pakistan, was an IS-K leadership council member. He was killed on March 17, 2023, in Mazar-e-Sharif city of Balkh province, also in an overnight operation. Asad Laghmani aka Qais originally from Laghman province, was the IS-K head of operations for Kabul city. He was killed on March 21, 2023, in Batkhak village near PD12, Kabul City. Doctor Hussain, originally from Herat province, was an IS-K leadership council member and IS-K head of military for Herat province. He was killed on April 5, 2023, in the Mashwanian area of Herat City, the capital of Herat province. Taliban intelligence, according to experts, says that the operation against IS-K is an ongoing operation, which will continue till the time IS-K ceases to exist in Afghanistan.

Why has IS-K violence has been declining in Afghanistan during the past six months?

The last six months have witnessed a decline in Da;esh led terror activities in Afghanistan, with security analysts ascribing the decline either to repressive tactics used by Taliban regime to the emergence of reports about emptying of coffers of IS-K.

Some of the experts point out that Taliban intelligence has squeezed private non-banking channels of money transfer based in Kabul and other major cities not to get involved in money transactions for dubious persons. These money changers have also been asked to keep track of people who receive or transfer big amounts of money through them. These measures have greatly affected Da’esh's operations in Afghanistan at the financial level.

Many international experts have been pointing out that ISIS is in a very poor condition financially back in Syria, from where IS-Khorasan gets its finances. These experts quoting western governmental sources point out that IS-K in Afghanistan is also in pretty bad condition financially.

Afghan media has been reporting Taliban security forces operations and raids against ISIS fighters on a daily basis since August 2021 Taliban victory.

Sometime, media reports claim hundreds of fighters killed in a single operation. There are also reports about Da’esh fighters fleeing Afghanistan to take refuge in Pak-Afghan border areas. This seems to be a repeat of the situation which emerged in the wake of the American invasion of Afghanistan back in October 2001, when al-Qaeda fighters fled Afghanistan for refuge in Pakistan tribal areas.

There has been a corresponding increase in number of ISIS led violence in Afghanistan when Da’esh claimed responsibility of at least two suicide attacks in Pakistan's provinces which border Afghanistan.

The Afghan Taliban leadership presents their operations against Daesh fighters as a success story. They claim that they have broken the back of ISIS in Afghanistan. Security experts, however, point out that this is not true. Experts say that using coercion against mere sympathizers of ISIS is one thing, and breaking the back of a terror organization is another task entirely.

Pakistan military experts say that Taliban doesn’t have the kind of expertise, weapons and training to go after a terror organization as sophisticated as ISIS.

Pakistan and other regional countries in the initial years did provide real time intelligence to Taliban security forces for going after ISIS inside Afghanistan. But this channel is not operational any longer.

There is a possibility that Russian and Chinese intelligence might still be helping the Taliban in chasing ISIS.

ISIS attacks inside Afghanistan have been reduced to a couple dozen during the past three month. Some of these attacks are merely gun attacks on Taliban convoys. Experts, however, point out that IS-Khorasan is very active on social media, which may indicate that it is not dead yet.

Secondly, the Afghan Taliban still fear that their campaign against foreign militant organizations like TTP and Chinese separatist groups might lead to the swelling of the ranks of IS-K.  In this situation, the Afghan Taliban are faced with a dilemma: on the one hand, they will face the wrath of the international community if they don't launch a campaign against terror groups which are based on its soil. While on the other hand, if they do move against terror groups, they will be strengthening the hands of IS-K.

Why is IS-K targeting Pakistani religious parties?

On July 31, 2023, the fatalities from a suicide bombing at a Jamiat Ulema-i-Islam-Fazl (JUI-F) election rally in Khyber Pakhtunkhwa’s Bajaur district rose to 54 when a bomber sent by IS-K detonated himself in the midst of the crowd.

IS-K immediately claimed responsibility, giving rise to an avalanche of speculation as to why an international terror organization is specifically targeting a local unit of one of Pakistan’s religious-political parties, the Jamiat-e-Ulema Islam (Fazal group) in Bajaur district.

It was not for the first time that IS-K was targeting JUI-F and its leadership in Bajaur district. In those days, the chief of JUI-F, Maulana Fazlur Rehman told a press briefing in Peshawar that 18 of his party workers have been killed in Bajaur in recent years. He, however, refrained from identifying the perpetrators responsible for these killings. Those monitoring the activities of IS-K have claimed responsibility for at least 23 attacks in which JUI leaders in Bajaur were specifically targeted.

In 2022, the IS-K issued a series of fatwas (Islamic rulings) allowing the assassinations of JUI-F religious scholars and activists.

Maulana Fazlur Rehman is the quintessential opportunist of Pakistani politics. His opportunism fits ideally with the pragmatism of Pakistan’s part modernist, part-Islamist state machinery, which changes colors like a chameleon according to the situation. Fazl is trained in the politics of Deobandi tradition, which in its original form was deeply pragmatic as it took birth during the British colonial era and the colonial regime in British India was known for its liberal attitude towards allowing every religious denomination to flourish without much restrictions.

So undoubtedly influenced by British liberal traditions in the matters of religions and politics, the forefathers of Deobandi political traditions joined hands with the secular Congress party in the anti-colonial struggle. Fazl followed the footsteps of his predecessors and was a partner of Benazir Bhutto in the 1990s, when more traditionalist elements of Pakistan clergy were shouting slogans on the top of their lungs against female political leadership as “haram.”

But the Maulana has particular advantage in dealing with Taliban and other militant elements in Pakistan and Afghanistan—he is presiding over a large network of Deobandi seminaries in Pakistan society, where most of Afghan Taliban leaders studied as part of their educational careers in Dars-e-Nizami, a common medium of education in Pakistani conservative madrassas.

In the academic literature, it still remains a mystery how the Deobandi revivalist tradition—which was born in the Uttar Pradesh province of British India, a land far away from Afghanistan and Pak-Afghan border areas - spread and merged with the Pashtun culture in the north west of Pakistan. What is more clearly known is the fact that the US backed military government of General Zia-ul-Haq used the Deobandi religious tradition as a greenhouse for constructing a Jihadi network in their struggle against Soviet Occupation of Afghanistan in the 1980s. Fazl, although, leads the political trend in Deobandi tradition, but nevertheless the organizational structure he presides over is at the heart of the militancy problem in Pakistani society.

At the grassroot level, there exists no clearly demarcated line between the members of Fazl’s Jamiat-e-Ulema Islam and Tehrik-e-Taliban Pakistan in the Pak-Afghan border areas. Fazl’s hobnobbing with the power corridors in Islamabad has made him a specific target of suicide bombings at a time when Pakistani military launched military operations against TTP in the Pak-Afghan border areas. So, this much is clear that Fazl is on the wrong side of Pakistani Taliban - no matter how sumptuously he is welcomed in Kabul by Afghan Taliban leaders. This, however, was not always the situation—not long ago, Fazl’s JUI used to facilitate contact between the military regime of General Pervez Musharraf and TTP in the erstwhile tribal areas and some of the agreements between Pakistani Taliban and military government were mediated by JUI local leadership back in those days.

JUI-F is also closely associated with the Afghan Taliban government in Kabul. According to experts, JUI-F local leadership often echoes the views of the Taliban in Afghanistan. Some experts believe that the IS-K has a long history of enmity towards JUI-F in Bajaur, which goes back to 2019 when it started systematically assassinating JUI-F activists in Khaar, the district’s main town.

Pakistani analysts believe that as a response to Afghan Taliban counter insurgency operations in Afghanistan, the IS-K targets JUI-F in Pakistan and in the process, it has killed hundreds of its workers and leaders.

Is IS-K primarily a Salafist group?

In September 2022, Afghanistan’s most prominent Salafist cleric, Abu Obaidullah Mutawakil, was kidnapped in Kabul by unknown assailants. A few days later, his mutilated and burned dead body was found lying on the outskirts of the city.

His followers accused the Taliban for carrying out the kidnapping and killing, an allegation which the Taliban government in Kabul denied. The year the Taliban came to power they jailed a cleric for alleged links to IS-K. But his supporters deny that he had any affiliation with the group. The Taliban denied it had killed Mutawakil and pledged to investigate his death.

This is not an isolated incident of killing of a Salafist cleric in Taliban’s Afghanistan—there have been hundreds of killings of Salafists in Afghanistan since the Taliban took over Kabul in August 2021.

In its counter terrorism campaign against IS-K in Afghan society, the Taliban feel no qualms targeting every civilian with religious inclinations towards the Salafist school of thought.

Human Rights groups have said that Salafist civilians, with no links to IS-K have been allegedly arrested, tortured, or killed by the Taliban.

In a July 2022 report by Human Rights Watch, it has been documented that the residents of Kunar and Nangarhar had discovered some 100 dead bodies in rivers and canals. Many of them were Salafists and alleged IS-K members who had been arrested by the Taliban.

Taliban intelligence have been actively pursuing IS-K sleeper cells in Afghan universities campuses where they don’t hesitate to arrest hundreds of ordinary students with Salafists inclinations.

The Salafists have started to think that if they fail to unite to put up resistance against the Taliban, the group will keep on killing its religious scholars, one after another.

In the last days of former President Ashraf Ghani’s tenure, the IS-K recruitment drive in Afghanistan’s university campuses proved to be highly successful. The Taliban, immediately after coming to power, started to perceive IS-K as a direct threat to its rule and legitimacy, leading it to deal ruthlessly with IS-K and Salafists more generally.

This is an unexpected turn in the thinking of Taliban leadership, as the Afghan Taliban has allied itself with Al-Qaeda and other Salafists groups in Pak-Afghan border areas, in the past. The Taliban has also absorbed smaller Salafist groups in the past.

But the Taliban, however, has opposed IS-K since its emergence in 2015, and an intense turf war erupted between the two groups since IS-K started its operations in Afghanistan. Since the Taliban takeover of Kabul, there has been a surge in IS-K attacks against the Taliban.

Initially, IS-K’s membership included a contingent of Pakistani militants who emerged in Afghanistan’s Nangarhar province around 2010, just across the border from the former Federally Administered Tribal Areas (FATA) of Pakistan.

According to experts, Taliban intelligence’s campaign against ordinary Salafists citizens of Afghanistan have made the job of IS-K very easy. Salafists accuse the Taliban of detaining and killing members of the community, and raiding and closing their mosques and religious seminaries. The Taliban’s crackdown against the Salafist community in Afghanistan has also coincided with the Afghan intelligence campaign against IS-K in Afghanistan.

In other words, the Taliban counter terrorism campaign against IS-K has become a witch hunt against the Salafist community of Afghanistan.

The Taliban themselves are an offshoot of the religious reformists movement that started in 18th century British Northern India. It was a reformists movement in the sense that it encouraged Muslim of India to move away from saint and shrine worship, which had been very common among Northern Indian Muslims and still is very common in the present.

The Afghan Taliban controlled media generally label IS-K as Kharijites - a sect from the early period of Islam. Taliban officials similarly label them Kharijites. Since coming to power, Taliban officials have been labelling the small Salafist community of Afghanistan as associates of IS-K. Taliban also label Salafists as Kharijites. Quite ironically in Pakistan, the government officials and intellectuals accuse the Taliban movement for being akin to Kharijites. However, neither Afghan Taliban nor Pakistani officials explain why they term their opponents in the counter terrorism operations Kharijites.


The writer is a journalist based in Islamabad.