WITH the Afghan Taliban takeover of Kabul, the militant Islamic State group’s Khorasan chapter (IS-K) has also come under the global radar after its horrific recent bombing in the Afghan capital. Many experts are projecting the terrorist group as a major threat to the Taliban regime as well as to regional peace and security. The terrorist attack in the high security zone of the Kabul airport during the evacuation of foreigners and under-threat Afghans have strengthened perceptions that IS-K will become a major factor of instability in Afghanistan and beyond.
However, the potential threat posed by IS-K must be assessed objectively and scientifically without falling for any vague ‘evidence’. The Taliban may also tend to exaggerate the threat with a view to winning the support of the regional powers especially Russia, China and the Central Asian states, which are concerned about the terrorist group. IS-K may also want to make Afghanistan a launching base in its efforts to restore its lost ‘caliphate’ of Iraq and Syria. But does it have the potential to convert Afghanistan into a new battlefront?
First, one must investigate the strengths of the terrorist group. After taking over power in Afghanistan, the status of the Taliban has apparently changed from a non-state to a state actor. That has ‘elevated’ the status of IS-K as a major violent non-state actor in Afghanistan. Now the group can use all those strategic and propaganda tactics against the Taliban regime, which the Taliban once used against the outgoing regime. IS-K has a history of effective use of its propaganda capabilities. After the Kabul attack, it fed the media with the propaganda it had long been desiring to unleash in Afghanistan. The group conveyed a message that besides being “filthy nationalists”, the Taliban were merely America’s puppets like their predecessors in Kabul, and were not capable of bringing peace to the country. Most importantly, it has challenged the ideological credentials of the Taliban while declaring them apostates and companions of the ‘Crusaders’. IS-K has also claimed that it is the sole custodian of the ideology of an ‘Islamic state’.
The potential threat posed by IS-K must be assessed objectively and scientifically.
In recent years, IS-K has managed to survive in Afghanistan in the form of small cells, which were also found involved in sporadic high-impact terrorist attacks. Some reports suggested these cells were used as proxies in many instances. After the Taliban takeover of Kabul, IS-K can make a global call for intensifying its violent campaign. There is no demonstrable evidence available that the group can survive long if it changes its strategy and launches big-scale guerrilla operations. According to the group’s own accounts, the current head Shahab al-Muhajir is considered a great strategist and expert in urban warfare, and he will continue relying on his terrorist strategies. The Islamic State of Iraq and Syria, the central body of the terrorist group, is also focusing on the restoration of its image and glory and has ordered its chapters all over the world to raid prisons to release its detained members. Hundreds of IS-K prisoners were among those recently freed from Afghan jails and are reportedly being hunted by the Taliban.
Even before the Taliban takeover, the IS-K was creating new pockets in Afghanistan, especially along the borders of Tajikistan and Uzbekistan. These border areas have large Salafi populations that suits IS-K because of their sectarian affinity. Also, apart from Afghan and Pakistani members, several IS-K fighters come from Central Asia and China’s Xinjiang region. If the group succeeds in its relocation plan, it could hit several targets. One of the reasons for Russia’s engagement with the Taliban was to seek assurances against the IS-K’s march towards northern Afghanistan and further to Central Asia. The Taliban have taken over the northern regions first, not only to reduce the prospects of any local uprising but also to eliminate the chances of IS-K’s advance. However, IS-K will continue focusing on these areas, as unlike the border with Pakistan, even a smaller resistance by IS-K can create problems for the Taliban regime and can disturb their relations with China and Russia.
The IS-K will also be of advantage to the Taliban regime to get legitimacy through acting against it and winning the support of its regional allies. Meanwhile, it will be a major security concern, and IS-K will remain a big ideological challenge as well.
The real potential of the IS-K will be determined by its ability to survive in Afghanistan including through displaying political and ideological flexibility. Since its inception in January 2015, the group’s ideological differences with the Taliban have remained a major bone of contention. It is less likely that the terrorist group will show any flexibility in that regard in the future and allow the entry of recruits from either the ranks of Taliban rebels or from the TTP without their conversion to their brand of Salafism. A recent IS-K statement reflects that the group will not amend its ideologically oriented policy just to gain more recruits. Rather, the group is focusing on expanding its urban network and is hunting for educated youth which was alienated after the Taliban victory and become prone to ideological radicalism.
It is interesting that the IS-K and TTP have survived long while living together in the same vicinity in the Kunar and Nangarhar provinces. Neither have challenged the other and even when the Haqqani Network expelled IS-K fighters from some areas of Kunar, the TTP remained a silent spectator. The TTP might have avoided confrontation with IS-K because many of its former commanders are now in the group. Thus, despite having ideological differences both have tried to keep their human resources intact. There are few chances that the TTP will join hands with IS-K as it is an ally of Al Qaeda with allegiance to Mullah Haibatullah, the Taliban’s supreme leader.
The probability is also very low that the defeated Afghan army and police will join IS-K ranks as happened in Iraq. Unlike the Iraqi army, the Afghan army was demoralised and was not ready to fight. Secondly, the IS-K is an external and weak terrorist outfit, which cannot manage massive inclusions.
The IS-K is a potential terrorist threat, but not beyond being controlled. If the Taliban and regional actors craft better strategies and the ‘drone support’ from the US remains intact, the IS-K can be neutralised effectively.
The writer is a security analyst.
Published in Dawn, September 5th, 2021