Is Daesh really in Afghanistan?

As the militant group steps up its attacks in the country, Afghans still see Daesh as a mysterious foreign entity whose makeup and intentions remain unclear to both officials and locals living under the group’s rule.

Photo by: AP
Photo by: AP

There is little proof that members claiming allegiance to Daesh in Afghanistan have a connection to Syria and Iraq. (AP)

Updated Nov 22, 2016

The question of a Daesh presence in Afghanistan has been a source of doubt.

The first signs of their presence  — black flags and men claiming allegiance to the group — came in 2014, but for nearly a year the Afghan government made little official mention of the militant group’s existence.

Even US officials brushed the reports off as little more than “rumours.”

The first high-level confirmation of Daesh’s existence in Afghanistan came in March 2015. At the time, Abdul Salam Rahimi, chief of staff to Afghan President Ashraf Ghani, said: “Daesh is here, they do exist.”

The acknowledgement came after months of reports that pockets of men claiming allegiance to the group, which had risen initially as a force in Syria and Iraq, had been spotted in Afghanistan.

Are they tied to Syria and Iraq?

Not exactly.

In June 2015, a Daesh website claimed Afghanistan as part of what they referred to as Khorasan province, which is a reference to a term used centuries ago to define the landmass spanning from Afghanistan into Central and South Asia.

But Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi, the self-proclaimed leader of Daesh in the Middle East, has never outright addressed his group’s ties to the forces in Afghanistan.

The closest that Baghdadi — who took part in the fight against the Soviet occupation of Afghanistan in the 1980s — came to acknowledging the Afghan members was in a December 2016 audio recording.

“They do not dare come here because their hearts are filled with terror of confronting the Mujahideen ... and because they learned their lesson in Afghanistan and Iraq," he said.

Baghdadi warned the US against trying to send ground troops to Syria by invoking the wars in Afghanistan and Iraq, where they faced fierce and ongoing armed resistance.

Prior to that, Baghdadi’s only other mention of Afghanistan was in a letter to Ayman al-Zawahiri, the al-Qaeda leader who had forced Baghdadi out of al-Qaeda because of the brutality of his forces.

In the letter, Baghdadi tried to convince al-Zawahiri to backtrack from his decade-long oath of allegiance to Mullah Mohammad Omar, the founder of the Afghan Taliban, who had proclaimed himself commander of the faithful, in 1996.

So who are they really?

All signs point to the members adopting the Daesh moniker as, essentially, a branding opportunity; a way to instil fear and notoriety in both rival armed groups, and in Afghan civilians.

Borhan Osman, a Kabul-based analyst at the Afghanistan Analyst Network, said there is no “hard evidence” to show operational links between the members in Afghanistan and Baghdadi’s group in the Middle East.

“The Daesh name became an easy cover for those dissatisfied with the Taliban, both in Afghanistan and Pakistan, to settle scores with their ex-comrades,” Osman said.

A radio station broadcasting Daesh propaganda has been setup and shut down several times over the last year. (AP)

However, groups of Pakistani fighters belonging to other armed groups – namely, Lashkar-e Jhangvi and Ahl-e-Sunnat Wali Jamat — were reportedly courted by Daesh as far back as 2014. Some were even sent to fight in Syria. Among those who returned alive, many moved into areas in Afghanistan and Pakistan.

Additionally, not all those claiming to be Daesh were compelled by ideology.

“Some with long criminal records were driven to brand themselves as Daesh by criminal-economic motives,” Osman said.

Residents in Logar province, an hour south of Kabul, said the men claiming to be Daesh in their areas were nothing but bandits looking for paydays.

Until this point, Daesh was largely restricted to the Levant. This rebranding of local groups in Afghanistan came at the same time as a similar phenomenon was taking place in Libya. In early March 2015, Daesh elements took control of the Libyan port city of Sirte. Then came a series of international attacks: Tunisia in June and November 2015, Paris also in November 2015 , Brussels in March 2016 and Istanbul in June 2016.

The group was moving well outside its original territory and morphing into something quite different.

Where did the Afghan branch of 'Daesh' come from?

Most reports claim the Afghan branch of the group began with disgruntled members of the Tehrik-e Taliban Pakistan (TTP), the Pakistani Taliban. Infighting among the TTP in Pakistan led these men to cross over to Afghanistan.

They settled in Nangarhar province, which borders Pakistan.

Osman said various armed Pakistani groups began relocating to Nangarhar as far back as 2010. Some were TTP-aligned. Others were not.

In a report released earlier this year, the analyst said, the Afghan government, who sought to use the groups as a pressure tactic on Pakistan, initially welcomed them.

Kabul has long accused Islamabad of aiding and abetting the armed opposition in Afghanistan.

Do they have a base of operations?

Nangarhar province is considered their stronghold. They have a presence in the districts of Achin, Nazian, Bati Kot, Kot and Mohmand Valley.

By September 2015, their numbers in Nangarhar had climbed to more than 1,000.

Tensions then surfaced between the TTP and the competing stray men as they were allegedly kidnapping and extorting money and belongings from the villagers.

It was then that they began to openly wave the black flag of Daesh.

Are they spreading?

A top security official said Daesh has failed to gain popularity due to their tactics and ideology.

“The people have begun to see that Daesh’s behaviour is against the core value of our culture,” said the Kabul-based official, who could not be named.

Hundreds of families in the districts of Nangarhar province have been displaced due to the presence of Daesh [AP]

He was referring to the highly sectarianist nature of Daesh’s recent activities, which have repeatedly targeted Afghanistan’s Shia minority.

Daesh did try to gain support in urban centres, but the official said that too was unsuccessful.

“At first, they appealed to the university-educated youth, but as time went on, their popularity has completely declined.”

Who is their leadership?

Their leaders are mainly foreigners.

“The Pakistanis are in leadership positions,” Osman said.

In January, Abu Muhammad al Adnani, a spokesman for Daesh, named commander Hafez Saeed Khan as the “governor” of their forces in Afghanistan and Pakistan. Khan was formerly a prominent leader of the TTP and initially was part of the Afghan Taliban.

Khan first joined Daesh after the leadership in Syria and Iraq sent representatives to Pakistan in September 2014. At the time, the leaders in the Middle East, who had criticised the Afghan Taliban, were actively pursuing the TTP fighters.

In an article in their online magazine, Dabiq, Daesh referred to the TTP as a group that could “carry the Salafi creed and hope and strive to establish the laws of Islam in their region.”

Khan’s deputy, Mullah Abdul Rauf Khadim, was an influential member of the Afghan Taliban in the southern province of Helmand.

That announcement was preceded by a video that showed high-level leaders of different TTP-affiliated groups in Pakistan and Afghanistan, including former TTP spokesman Shahidullah Shahid, swearing allegiance to Daesh. These men would be known as the Khorasan Shura.

By August 2016, both Khan and his deputy Khadim would be killed by US aerial operations.

Nathaniel Barr, a researcher at Valens Global, a DC-based private counter-terrorism consultancy firm, says one reason why Daesh leadership in Afghanistan is dominated by Pakistanis is that the group failed to woo Afghan Taliban.

Part of that failure has to do with ideology. The Taliban has condemned Daesh-claimed attacks on the Shia as a bid by the group to sow divisions among the Afghan people.

Khan, the former leader of Daesh forces in Afghanistan and Pakistan, also “alienated key Afghan constituencies through his excessive violence against Afghan civilians,” said Barr.

The other reason is simply a matter of numbers.

“The Taliban remains the stronger player on the ground in Afghanistan … So foot soldiers looking to align with the stronger horse would likely pick the Taliban over Daesh.”

Claiming the central government was not doing enough to fight Daesh presence in Nangarhar, residents of the province began to take up arms against the group themselves. (AP)

Nangarhar residents who fled Daesh-controlled areas describe life under the group as one full of intimidation and threats.

“They burned people who tried to escape alive … They closed and burnt all of the schools and madrassas (educational institutions),” said Mujahid, a resident of the Shinwar district.

As with other armed groups in the nation, Daesh has forced young men in areas under their control to join their ranks.

But it was reports of the group’s unprecedented tactics that led to the greatest fear among the people.

In August 2015, Daesh members executed 11 people, including several elderly tribal leaders in Nangarhar, by planting explosives beneath them. Video footage later released by the group showed body parts of the victims flying into pieces.

Shortly after came reports that Daesh forces approached locals in Nangarhar and asked them to hand over widows in their communities.

It has never been proven if Daesh members in Afghanistan took local brides as they have in the Middle East, but the request, coupled with reports of their brutality, only compounded the Afghan people’s fears of the group.

What have they done?

Over the last year-and-a-half, Daesh has either been accused by officials or claimed responsibility for several high-profile attacks.

Daesh has been involved in several major attacks and incidents in Afghanistan since 2015. [TRT]

Do they get along with other armed groups?

In July of 2015, the leader of Hezb-e Islami, which until recently was the second-largest armed opposition movement in Afghanistan, said he supported those Daesh members who were fighting Taliban. That statement was seen as an affront to the Taliban.

When they first appeared in Nangarhar, men claiming to be allied with Daesh expressed their open contempt for the Taliban. The two groups have been at odds ever since. 

In October 2015, the Taliban dispatched 1,000 fighters to take on Daesh in four provinces. Recent Taliban visits to neighbouring Iran are believed to have focused on the fight against Daesh.

This is different from the Taliban’s relationship with al Qaeda, whom they had accepted and reportedly coordinated with in the past.

Daesh claimed responsibility for an attack on a Kabul shrine that targeted Shia worshippers on the Muslim holy day of Ashura. (AP)

What is being done?

In October 2015, locals gathered by Haji Abdul Zaher Qadir, a Nangarhar parliamentarian, began to take on Daesh in the Achin and Shinwar districts of the eastern province.

Qadir said his "people's uprising" isolated Daesh and cut off their supply lines. However, a lack of government support for his efforts have led to the Daesh forces spreading to several other areas.

By January 2016, Kabul and its allies in Washington stepped up efforts to target Daesh in Afghanistan.

It was then that the Pentagon authorised US forces to specifically target Daesh-aligned men in aerial strikes.

"We will bury Daesh. We are not going to sacrifice our prospects for other peoples' sake. They have now confronted the wrong people and they need to know the consequences," he said in an interview with CNN.

In July 2016, Washington announced that an operation by Afghan and US forces led to the death of Hafiz Saeed Khan, believed to be the leader of a Daesh faction in Afghanistan and Pakistan.

President Ghani credited such strikes, as well as renewed efforts by the Afghan security forces, with putting Daesh on the run.

What does this mean for Afghanistan?

They may not be a central player in the decades-long conflict, but they are a new player in an already crowded battlefield.

Most importantly, what Daesh means for Afghanistan is more civilian casualties, the group has claimed responsibility for some of the deadliest attacks over the last year-and-a-half in the country.

Author:  Ali M Latifi
TRTWorld and agencies