While organised, armed opposition to Taliban rule in Afghanistan has largely ceased, the one exception is the local affiliate of the so-called Islamic State.
Since the Taliban takeover in August, Islamic State-Khorasan (Daesh) has claimed responsibility for a series of high-profile terror attacks, including the suicide bombing near the Kabul airport.
What is striking about IS-K is not just that it appears to be the sole major armed opposition group in an ethnically and tribally divided, heavily armed country, but also that some of its claimed attacks since the reimposition of Taliban rule seem motivated by broader strategic aims.
Indeed, IS-K — or those using the brand — appears intent on manipulating the region’s geopolitical fault lines and jeopardising Afghanistan’s only real path to fiscal viability: connectivity and extractives.
Luring In Iran
The assault on Shias is unsurprising. IS-K is a takfiri group with an established sectarian agenda. It has relentlessly targeted Shia communities — especially in Kabul’s Dasht-e-Barchi neighborhood — during the previous Afghan government. Both recent attacks, especially the one in Kandahar – the Taliban’s base – are also likely intended to undermine perceptions of Taliban control and authority.
There are also evident geopolitical dimensions to these attacks claimed by IS-K, as was the case with some early attacks attributed to the group.
Firstly, these attacks complicate the Taliban’s relations with Iran. Now in power, the Taliban bears the burden of protecting the population, including the Shia. But Tehran also sees itself as the defender of the world’s Shias, including in Afghanistan. And it has a proven willingness to resort to extraterritorial action.
Both factors when combined with sectarian attacks by IS-K will reinforce the need for the Taliban to publicly position itself as defenders of Shia lives.
Should the Taliban fail to curb attacks on Afghan Shias, Iran could bolster armed Shia groups in Afghanistan, including the Quds Force-run international Afghan Shia militia, the Fatemiyoun. At the same time, Taliban outreach to Shias provides material for IS-K propaganda, potentially enabling the latter to absorb disgruntled anti-Shia hardliners.
While sectarianism is not as pervasive in Afghanistan as compared to some other Muslim countries, IS-K — or those using the IS-K brand — could find that targeting the Shia compels the Taliban to perform a difficult balancing act between defending Afghan Shias and staving off Iran, while also placating anti-Shia hardliners.
IS-K has little to lose by continuing to kill innocent Shias. But if it manages to draw Iran into the fray, it could Syrianise the Afghanistan conflict and benefit from the resultant realignment of jihadist forces in the region.
The purported use of ethnic Baloch and Uyghur suicide bombers in the Kandahar and Kunduz attacks claimed by IS-K suggests a message is being sent to two other neighbours of Afghanistan: China and Pakistan.
Beijing is already alarmed by the rise in attacks on Chinese nationals in Pakistan, which has impacted its risk appetite for infrastructure construction and investment in Pakistan. IS-K may be signalling that, like other militant outfits in the region, it could leverage marginalised ethnic groups to exert veto power over the shaping of the region’s economic geography.
Afghanistan is a resource-rich, conflict-ravaged, and infrastructure-poor country. It is highly dependent on foreign aid to finance its massive budget and trade deficits. These needs will become more acute as Afghanistan’s economy contracts dramatically this year.
The only real path toward financial solvency and sustainable economic growth is through extractives and transit trade. Chinese aid and investment would have to be an important part of this mix, though attracting inflows from Beijing will be a hard sell.
China is pulling back from high-risk markets. And the risk that its nationals will be targeted by IS-K will force it to maintain a distance from Afghanistan. Efforts by the Taliban to address Beijing’s security concerns may inadvertently compound the problem for the former insurgent group, if it is seen as having conceded too much.
Through targeted terrorist strikes, IS-K — or those wielding the IS-K brand — has the potential to develop a veto power over China’s economic presence in Afghanistan, much like ethnic separatist groups in Pakistan have demonstrated. And in doing so, IS-K would jeopardise not just prospects for regional connectivity and trade, but also the very viability of the Taliban state.
What is IS-K?
Finally, when discussing IS-K, it is vital to recognise the uncertainty that surrounds the exact nature of the organisation, its connections to the parent group, and its own internal coherence as an affiliate.
It is clear that IS-K began as a collective of local Salafists who had been aligned with the Afghan Taliban and disgruntled Tehreek-e Taliban Pakistan fighters who were hosted by the previous Afghan regime. And it is geographically rooted in what has historically been a Salafi stronghold in eastern Afghanistan. (Abdur Rahim Muslim Dost, among the first Afghan militants who joined IS, was once an advisor to Jameel ur-Rehman, leader of a Salafi Afghan mujahideen faction that formed an “emirate” in Kunar in 1991.)
But the group’s purported leader today, who goes by the nom de guerre Shahab al-Muhajir, is a man of mystery. There is very little reliable public information on him. IS-K has yet to release a biography of him, an image revealing his face, or a recording of his voice. Statements written in his name are read by a deputy. And while his nisbah, al-Muhajir, triggered speculation that he was possibly an Arab “migrant” from Iraq or Syria, some claim that he is actually a local.
In fact, a recent report by CBS News, citing unnamed security officials with the previous Afghan government, claims that al-Muhajir is not only an Afghan, but also a graduate of Kabul Polytechnic University. The report states that a raid by the previous regime’s security forces indicated that al-Muhajir had been in possession of a card “identifying him as a member of the Afghan army.”
The CBS News report, which has yet to be corroborated by other sources, also claims that al-Muhajir is actually operating clandestinely within the Taliban as an “imposter,” and even met with the Taliban’s deputy head of intelligence, who was unaware of his true identity. The deception allegedly extends to within IS-K ranks with the group’s own members meeting imposters purporting to be al-Muhajir.
Now, these claims could be entirely concocted. And the general secrecy surrounding al-Muhajir could simply reflect a battered group practicing good security tradecraft. But what we don’t know is the effect of such secrecy on the integrity of IS-K’s internal operations. How do its cells communicate with one another? How sound is the affiliate’s command and control? How is ISIS central able to confirm claims made by ISIS-K? And can ISIS central be aware of whether the local affiliate has been penetrated by outside forces?
Oft-cited reports by the United Nations (UN), upon closer inspection, do not yield greater confidence in answering these questions. Judgments in these UN reports are sometimes based on the questionable claims of a single member country and can be contradicted by reports issued just months later.
For example, in August 2019, the UN described ties between ISIS core and IS-K as a “direct relationship.” Six months later, it assessed that ISIS core no longer plays a key role in the “internal decision-making” of IS-K, providing no explanation for the reversal. And then less than a year after that, in February 2021, the UN claimed that al-Muhajir was appointed by ISIS core to lead IS-K.
UN assessments also offer an incoherent picture of IS-K’s internal operations. This February, the UN — citing the claims of a single member state — described al-Muhajir as a former “mid-level commander in the Haqqani Network” who still “maintained close cooperation with the entity.” And then in June, the UN after receiving pushback from one or more member states, clarified that it was “unable to confirm” this claim, and stated that IS-K has actually been “forced to decentralize and consists primarily of cells and small groups across the country, acting in an autonomous manner while sharing the same ideology.”
So while it is clear that there is consistency and even a strategic logic behind the violence attributed to IS-K, what remains uncertain is who exactly is in the driver’s seat. And that lack of clarity only deepens the challenge for the Taliban, as well as other entities that would like to see IS-K neutralised.
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