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The Islamic State Threat to Afghanistan and Its Neighbours
On August 15th, 2021, the Taliban took over the Afghan capital, Kabul. Bagram Air Base was also captured that day, after which the Taliban proceeded to release prisoners held there. This included members of al-Qaeda and various other international terror groups. It is estimated that 5000-7000 prisoners were left without custody after the withdrawal. Another prison, Pul-E-Charkih, was also captured. Pul-E-Charkih was the largest prison in Afghanistan and had a maximum-security bloc for al-Qaeda terrorists. It held 2500 prisoners, all of whom were also released. Foreign fighters from among 14 countries were let free—many of them aligned with the Islamic State (IS). However, not all militants were so lucky. The Taliban executed Abu Omar Khorasani, the leader of the Islamic State’s Khurasan Province (ISKP) affiliate, captured a year before.
The Taliban pledged not to allow foreign terrorists in the country, but have not kept their word. They have also failed to contain the Islamic State threat to Afghanistan and spillover to its neighbours.
The Islamic State stopped its operations for eleven days when Kabul fell to the Taliban. Then, they reappeared to give a violent farewell to US troops, killing 13 of them, along with 169 Afghans and Taliban fighters in a suicide bombing operation.
The UN reports that the Islamic State has been present in every province of Afghanistan since the return of the Taliban, with their numbers of fighters increasing from an estimated 2000 to 3500 after the Afghan government’s collapse. Khalil Hamraz, a spokesman for the Taliban Directorate of Intelligence, acknowledged that the Taliban’s takeover of Afghanistan inadvertently helped ISKP and that many IS fighters escaped from prison. In 2021, ISKP carried out 365 attacks, in which 2,210 people were killed.
Since the withdrawal of coalition forces from Afghanistan, the Islamic State has placed a great deal of focus on attacking the Hazara community, a Persian-speaking ethnic group that professes the Shia version of Islam. In October 2021, the group carried out two high-profile attacks against Hazara mosques in Kunduz and Kandahar.
Another target of the Islamic State has been Afghanistan’s infrastructure, in order to undermine Taliban legitimacy. An estimated 100 out of 127 of the attacks the group carried out targeted the Taliban since mid-September. In September 2021, the group bombed seven Taliban positions in Jalalabad. A total of 136 operations have been carried out between September and January — 96 of them targeting the Taliban. This includes checkpoints, security convoys, and military personnel. These attacks have occurred on a regular basis, at least since the West’s withdrawal. The head of security for the Islamic Emirate of Afghanistan and a special unit commander was murdered back in October 2021 while responding to an Islamic State attack on a hospital in Kabul.
ISKP has already shown its international ambitions. For instance, on April 18th, 2022, Islamic State militants launched ten rockets from Afghanistan to an Uzbek base in Termez, as a part of the “Revenge for the Two Sheikhs Campaign”, marking the first time they targeted the Central Asian country. They soon followed up with a rocket attack targeting Tajikistan on May 7th.
Similar to their operations against Hazaras in Afghanistan, ISKP has also targeted Shia mosques in neighbouring Pakistan. In April, they carried out attacks in Afghanistan that targeted mosques and schools.
The Taliban has consistently downplayed the ISKP threat, while also carrying out crackdowns and reprisals against communities accused of supporting the Islamic State. Heavy-handed counterinsurgency tactics have alienated locals. The government has taken various measures to control the Islamic State, including mediation and the mobilization of 1,000 members of their security personnel. Currently, the Taliban have failed with this approach. They are also failing to reconcile with the former Afghan security forces and intelligence services. The Islamic State, on the other hand, may provide some of them with a rare mechanism for survival. The numbers are currently small, but former intelligence officers and analysts have fighting tactics and intel that they could use against the Taliban.
The Taliban government´s current primary interest is to maintain the organization´s internal cohesion. They are relying on harsh restrictions and authoritarian measures. This may provide the Islamic State with more recruits as it exploits negative sentiments toward the Taliban. Extrajudicial killings of supposed ISKP members and crackdowns worsen the problem. Many of the arrested have disappeared or shown up dead. Taliban intelligence has carried out night raids, arresting a number of suspects. The Islamic State has responded by calling residents of Nangarhar Province to resist the Taliban.
It is important to note that the Islamic State has transnational ambitions and has its eyes set on Afghanistan’s neighbours.
Since August 2021, large numbers of foreign fighters have travelled to Afghanistan. In February 2022, the Taliban arrested two British citizens who tried to cross the border to join the Islamic State via Uzbekistan. There are reportedly 400 ISKP foreign fighters from various source countries currently in Afghanistan.
A risk element for the region is the foreign fighter presence within ISKP. Some of the fighters there are from the Middle East, Central Asia, India, Kashmir and China. The suicide bomber who carried out one of the October 2021 attacks on a Hazara mosque was an ethnic Uyghur, for instance. These foreign fighters, along with ISKP’s campaign to delegitimize the Taliban, create a regional problem. The Taliban aims to be recognized as a legitimate state. Therefore, it must keep in check groups like Lashkar-e-Jhangvi and the Turkistan Islamic Party, among several others. Given this reality, ISKP proves to be a viable option for dissatisfied members of these groups.
In this sense, China faces security challenges with reports that Turkistan Islamic Party members are aiming to return to Xinjiang and carry out attacks. ISKP already has China in its sights, so their Uyghur recruits pose a potential threat to Chinese interests. The group may try and recruit disaffected Turkistan Islamic Party members, which could increase the risk for Beijing.
Targeting China provides a twofold advantage to the Islamic State. First, such attacks confront the Asian giant and position the Islamic State as the defender of oppressed Muslims, such as the Uyghurs. At the same time, attacks on China planned and conducted from within Afghanistan would be detrimental to the Taliban as they would demonstrate the latter’s inability to guarantee security in its own territory and consequently for its neighbours, which in the case of China would cost the Taliban their good relations with Beijing and deprive them of badly needed resources.
Additionally, ISKP was hostile towards Uzbekistan prior to recent events, and the group has sought to capitalize on the Taliban persecution of ethnic Uzbeks. The group seeks to appeal to local Uzbeks as well as Uzbek nationals. The April attack against the Termez base in Uzbekistan back in April was a wake-up call not only for Uzbekistan but for neighbouring countries. The group has also targeted Central Asian power lines carrying electricity to Kabul as part of the Islamic State’s “economic war”.
If ISKP succeeds in undermining the Taliban’s reputation, it may then strengthen its position in the region. Local groups then would look to the group as a potential ally.
The possibility of economic collapse in Afghanistan is also dangerous. If the Taliban fails to pay fighters, they too could turn to the Islamic State. Such a collapse would also deprive the Taliban of the ability to control its borders, which in the region would present a host of geopolitical as well as security issues.
If the aforementioned conditions prevail, then Afghanistan would appropriately be considered a “ticking time bomb”.
Islamic State activity increased after the withdrawal of US troops from Afghanistan in August 2021. Their common targets have so far included the Taliban, the Hazaras, and more.
Repressive methods by the Taliban to contain the Islamic State are not working. Their counterinsurgency strategy has so far only alienated the population, consequently giving the Islamic State a pool of potential recruits.
Finally, the Islamic State has demonstrated the danger they pose to the region. They will likely try to further target Uzbekistan and strike other Central Asian countries. Likewise, India faces a long-term threat with its citizens fighting in the ranks of ISKP as does Pakistan. China’s concerns over ISKP activities will extend to both their Belt and Road Initiative projects in Pakistan and Central Asia, as well as domestic concerns over the radicalization of Uyghur elements.
Any hardening bastion of Islamic State activity will of course also pose a long-term threat to Europe as well. Similarly, South Asian countries face a threat from returning foreign fighters currently enlisted in the Islamic State. If the Taliban fail to control the Islamic State, the region could see intensified Islamic State-fueled turmoil in the future.