Since the February agreement between the US and the Taliban, the Islamic State of Khorasan Province (ISKP) has unleashed a string of high-profile attacks in Kabul and other Afghan cities to derail the intra-Afghan peace process.
The ISKP is projecting itself as the only defiant jihadist group committed to jihad in the hope of attracting hardline factions of the Taliban and Al-Qaeda opposed to the peace agreement.
At the same time, the ISKP, through these attacks, is pitching itself to 8,000 foreign jihadists in Afghanistan, 6,500 of whom are Pakistanis, who are looking for new organisational platforms to continue their militant careers. The terror group is also aware of the existing divisions between the Taliban’s political and military commissions. Fighting and ousting the US from Afghanistan has kept the Taliban’s organisational coherence intact. Once the US exits from Afghanistan, the military and political commissions’ divisions will come under a lot of strain. Outside of Afghanistan, some dissident Taliban leaders opposed to the US-Taliban deal have already created a new group Hizb-e-Wilayat-e-Islami.
The ISKP has exploited the vacuum created by the Taliban’s commitment to reduce violence in Afghanistan’s urban areas, particularly Kabul, to create a conducive environment for intra-Afghan negotiations. Some of the ISKP’s devastating attacks include the May 30 roadside bombing that killed a broadcast journalist and his driver, the June 2 attack on the Akbar Wazir Khan mosque assassinating the influential religious cleric Maulana Mohammed Ayaz Niazi.
Similarly, on May 12, the terror group targeted a funeral in the Nangarhar province killing 24 mourners. On the same day, a devastating assault on a maternity hospital in Kabul claimed 24 lives, mostly mothers and their newborns. Though the ISKP did not claim the attack, it bore all the hallmarks of its violence – attacking noncombatants of ethnic Hazara Shia minority in a city. Prior to this, the terror group hit a Sikh temple in Kabul with a suicide bomber killing 25 members of the Sikh community.
Notwithstanding the arrests of two of its top leaders, Emir of Khorasan Sheikh Aslam Farooqi and leader for South Asia and the Far East Zia-ul-Haq, coupled with territorial and organisational setbacks, the terror group has shown unmistakable resilience, regenerative capacity and the capability to mount attention-grabbing attacks in Kabul. A recent UN report has put the residual numerical strength of the ISKP around 2,200 fighters clustered in small cells in and around Kunar, Nuristan and adjoining areas.
So far, most of the research on the ISKP has focused on the strength or weakness of the group by examining its organisational capabilities, quality of the leadership and financial resources, while ignoring two critical factors: a) ideological appeal of Jihadi-Salafism in Afghanistan’s urban, educated youth; and b) and its ability to form alliances with like-minded militant groups.
The traction of Jihadi-Salafism among Afghanistan’s educated youth of urban middle and upper-middle class lies at the heart of the ISKP’s remarkable resilience and regenerative capacity. A recent report of the United State Institute of Peace observes that the majority of the ISKP’s recruits in Afghanistan’s urban areas are non-Pashtuns, mostly ethnic Tajik. They are mainly drawn from Afghanistan’s three universities: Kabul University, Al-Biruni University and Nangarhar university.
Unlike Afghanistan’s rural hinterland, where the Taliban have consolidated their control, educated youth of the urban areas have been torn between the democratic practices introduced after the 2001 US intervention and the Islamist model introduced by different modern Islamic evangelical outfits like Hizb-ut-Tahrir. This has resulted in an identity crisis among the educated youth of urban areas.
In this identity vacuum, these youth were looking for a meaning, purpose and a sense of belonging in life. This search for identity pushed them towards the ISKP which offered them a strong in-group solidarity, ideological purity and a greater cause – the Caliphate to serve, live and die for.
Second, the ISKP’s ability to strike alliances and cooperative arrangements with like-minded extremist groups such as Lashkar-e-Jhangvi, Jundullah and the Islamic Movement of Uzbekistan in addition to attracting some factions of the Afghan and Pakistani Taliban has also added to its resilience and longevity. The greater the number of alliances and forms of cooperation, the larger is the resilience and longevity of a terrorist group.
Moreover, the group operates in Afghanistan’s urban landscape in the form of discreet cells making its detection and complete elimination a daunting task. These cells are scattered throughout Kabul, Kapisa, Panjshir and Parwan. The cell structures have enabled the ISKP to survive, plot and execute attacks. Post-attack arrests and investigation of different ISKP members in Kabul have revealed that members involved in logistical operations and execution of the same attack neither knew each other, nor were they aware of each other’s presence.
It is important to mention that both IS central and the ISKP have been unforgivingly critical of the Taliban for striking a deal with the US. The IS spokesperson Abu Hamza al-Qurashi has termed the Taliban as “apostates” for signing a deal with the “Crusader” America and launching a campaign against ISKP in Nangarhar. This statement is a clear gibe at the Taliban and an attempt to paint them as a nationalist group masquerading as a jihadist entity.
Even if the Taliban and Kabul reach a political compromise, long-term peace in Afghanistan would remain elusive as long as structural causes of violence in the country are not addressed comprehensively. The single most important demographic factor critical to Afghanistan’s peaceful and stable future is its youth. Constructively engaging the Afghan youth in the nation building by moving beyond the securitised kill and capture approach is urgently needed.
This approach will also be an effective neutraliser of the ISKP’s ideological appeal among the Afghan educated, urban youth.
The writer is a research fellow at the S Rajaratnam School of International Studies, Singapore.
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