A deepening crisis

September 5, 2021

The ideological differences between the Afghan Taliban, IS-K and Al-Qaeda among others will make for a complicated power struggle

A deepening crisis

All the Western and Pakistani intelligence agencies and the Taliban are currently focusing on Islamic State of Khorasan (IS-K) as the potential challenger to whatever setup emerges in Afghanistan. The recent deadly bombing at the Kabul Airport, believed to be masterminded and conducted by a sleeper cell of the IS-K is likely to increase its presence in Afghanistan as several militants from Al Qaeda, the Islamic Movement of Uzbekistan and the Islamic Movement of Eastern Turkestan (Uighurs) and some factions of Tehrik-i-Taliban Pakistan may join the group on account of differences over ideology and agenda with the Taliban.

The ideological differences between the IS-K, Al Qaeda and other Islamic movements and the Afghan Taliban might lead to a stronger IS-K in Afghanistan, which is at the moment limited to small sleeper cells after being defeated by the Taliban on several fronts. The IS-K and Al Qaeda mainly depend on salafi operatives. A majority of the Afghan Taliban belong to the Deobandi school of thought.

Historical evidence of these differences is on record. When Mollah Omar announced his Emirate in Afghanistan in 1996 and asked Osama bin Laden and his operatives to swear allegiance to him, they refused and OBL and his top colleagues had left Afghanistan. Later, when OBL was left with no option, he returned to Afghanistan and swore allegiance to Mullah Omar.

“Most of the militants, who previously worked for both Al Qaeda and Taliban are confused at the moment. They don’t openly support IS-K but tilt towards its agenda. They may openly join the IS-K in future,” says a former militant, based in North Waziristan on condition of anonymity. “I read the pulse of several militants, who had initially vowed their support to IS Afghanistan and Pakistan and sensed that they are not happy with the truce between the US and the Taliban,” he adds. He is of the view that the IS-K will either become stronger or become a part of the Taliban movement to reorganize its ranks.

The IS-K was founded in 2014. Khorasan was supposed to include Afghanistan, Pakistan, India, Iran and Central Asian states. A three-member IS delegation led by Al Zubair Al-Kuwaiti had then visited Afghanistan and Pakistan. In Pakistan, Jundullah, Jaishul Adl, Jamaatul Ahrar, a splinter group of the TTP, TTP’s Shehryar Group and the then spokesman Shahidullah Shahid had announced their support for the ISAP. A spokesman for Jundullah, Fahad Marwat, had told this scribe in 2014, “We have announced our support for the IS and several other groups are with us.”

Haji Daud, a commander of the TTP’s Sheryar group had also announced his support for the IS. Daud had belonged to Karachi. Hafiz Saeed Orakzai, head of the TTP’s Orakzai group, was appointed as the IS chief for India and Pakistan. Saeed was killed in a drone strike.

According to recent reports, Omar Khorasani was killed after he attempted to escape during the Pul Charkhi jailbreak. 

The IS-K was active in Afghanistan and Pakistan until 2019 under the name of IS-Khorasan, but in May 2019, Pakistan was declared a separate zone.

Pakistan launched a tough crackdown against the IS-K and killed or arrested hundreds of its operatives on its soil. In 2018-19, the IS-K started mustering support in Afghanistan under the leadership of Abu Omar Khorasani. It set up sleeper cells in several parts of Afghanistan and Pakistan, including Kabul. Kunar and Nangarhar were its strongholds.

The Islamic State has vowed to continue fighting, criticising an agreement reached between the United States and the Taliban in February 2020. The UN Security Council estimates that the number of Islamic State fighters in Afghanistan now ranges between 500 and several thousand.

The IS-K suffered a terrible setback in 2018 at Darzab, Afghanistan, where the Taliban, under the leadership of Hibtullah Akhundzada moved against the IS-K and killed and arrested hundreds of IS-K operatives.

Before that, the IS-K’s influence in Afghanistan was strengthened following fierce skirmishes with the Taliban and the Afghan army and US military strikes, and its fighters had taken control of some districts in Kunar.

At the top of the list are Sokai, the home district of Sheikh Abu Omar Khorasani, the former head of the Islamic State of Khorasan, and the adjoining Pech Hills, which have become strongholds of the organisation in Kunar. However, the Taliban, Afghan security forces and US airstrikes soon followed, and the organisation was wiped out in February 2020.

The remaining Islamic State fighters surrendered to the Afghan government to avoid death at the hands of the Taliban. Most of them were transferred to Kabul’s Bagram and Pul Charkhi prisons.

Sheikh Abu Omar Khorasani was arrested along with some of his associates in Kabul in May 2020. According to recent reports, Omar Khorasani was killed after he attempted to escape during the Pul Charkhi jailbreak. He has been succeeded by Shahab al-Muhajir, a man from the Middle East who has been associated with Al Qaeda in the region in the past.

A security analyst from Afghanistan, who doesn’t want to reveal his name because of the security issues, tells this scribe, “The IS-K leaders believe that Taliban killed Omar and more than 200 other militants of IS-K after getting them out of Pul Charkhi jail. They have vowed revenge and are trying to muster support.”

The News on Sunday (TNS) tried to reach TTP’s spokesman Muhammad Khorasani for his comment about TTP’s Afghanistan based militant’s support to ISIS but did not get his response.

The writer is a senior journalist, teacher of journalism, writer and researcher. He tweets at @BukhariMubasher

A deepening crisis