The recent twin attacks outside Kabul Airport amidst the United States (US) withdrawal have shifted the international attention from the Taliban to the Islamic State Khorasan Province (ISKP), a terror group called by the acronyms IS-K or ISKP. The Islamic State officially announced its Khorasan expansion in 2015, comprising areas of Pakistan, Afghanistan, Iran, and Central Asia.
ISKP emerged from dismantled groups of AL Qaeda, Tehreek-e-Taliban Pakistan (TTP), and the Afghan Taliban. In 2014, the esteemed members of TTP like Hafiz Saeed Khan, Shahidullah Shahid and many others pledged their allegiance to Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi, striking a significant blow to TTP. As per the United Nations Security Council’s (UNSC) report, there have been 77 attacks in Afghanistan during the first four months of 2021, spearheaded by ISKP.
The situation has a massive tendency to instigate sectarian insurgency given ISKP’s ideology of a transnational caliphate system compared to the Taliban’s limited nationalist agenda.
With the recent jailbreaks by the Taliban, Pentagon has confirmed the release of thousands of ISKP prisoners. The estimated number of ISKP fighters varies from 500 to 1500, which may rise to 10,000 in the medium term. There is a foreseeable risk of ISKP-launched attacks globally by its minicells with recruits of five to dozen people, as seen in the past from the foiled assassination attempt against a top American Diplomat.
In Afghanistan, ISKP mainly remains clandestine. It has its sleeper cells that operate in densely urban areas like Kabul and Jalalabad. Thinly scattered around the border areas of East Nangarhar Province, close to the Pakistan border and Kunar, small hideouts are also their strength in avoiding aerial bombings and scrutiny. Dr Shahab al-Muhajir, the new emir of ISKP appointed in May 2020, a defector member of the Taliban’s Haqqani Network, is known for his expertise in Urban warfare with brutal attacks on soft targets like educational institutes, hospitals and minorities. Thus, ISKP seeks to establish an Islamic caliphate not just limited to Afghanistan, rather globally based on radicalised Salafist ideology.
However, ideological discourse is one of the resonating differences between ISKP and the Taliban. The fierce opposition to ISKP’s Salafist school of thought by the Taliban’s Hanafi sect remains a major bone of contention. The Taliban’s recent execution of Mawlawi Mutawakil, a pro-ISKP cleric, sparked an outrageous fear among other prominent Salafist religious preachers. After the incident, the cleric’s aides went underground.
Moreover, news has been circulating about the Taliban’s closure of dozens of Salafist mosques and seminaries in 16 northern Afghan provinces. Religious tenets imposed by the Taliban on the Salafist school of thought may entice young people back into the ISKP. The situation has a massive tendency to instigate sectarian insurgency given ISKP’s ideology of a transnational caliphate system compared to the Taliban’s limited nationalist agenda. With the changing dynamics of Afghanistan, different militant groups’ interests appear to be changing.
ISKP is capable of melange with regional and global jihadist groups. A former TTP leader said: “If the Afghan Taliban tried to force the TTP, then some of its commanders can join [Islamic State-Khorasan].” The history of longstanding animosity (based on ideology and objectives) between the Taliban and ISKP, and now the Taliban’s willingness to work with the international community, will further increase the resentment. The Taliban’s transition from offensive to defensive mode will face impendent ISKP assaults. The ISKP will do maximum damage to destabilise the region portraying the Taliban as an incompetent government. Taliban, who used to operationalise suicide attacks, will now fall victim to the same by ISKP cadre.
Similarly, there have been reports stating the possibility of the East Turkestan Islamic Movement’s (ETIM), now known as TIP, joining with ISKP. The Taliban and ETIM members have a history of joint operations under one umbrella. However, following the current unfolding of events – potential cooperation between the Taliban and China – ETIM is likely to shift its allegiance to ISKP. Their collaboration can lead to the sabotage of China’s future major projects in Afghanistan. The Taliban views China as its “most important partner’’ owing to Afghanistan’s developmental needs. This provides ISKP with possible ETIM’s support to its continuous attacks. Even a little resistance by ISKP can create problems for the Taliban regime and disturb its relations with China. As Biden has said, it was in the interest of the Taliban that ISKP does not “metastasize’’.
The ISKP will do maximum damage to destabilise the region portraying the Taliban as an incompetent government. Taliban, who used to operationalise suicide attacks, will now fall victim to the same by ISKP cadre.
Correspondingly, ISKP’s spill over into Afghanistan’s neighbouring countries, Pakistan, Russia, China, and Central Asia, is also expected to happen. Russia has already started to ramp up its military exercises in Tajikistan. Recently, hundreds of Tajiks have been prepared to join the anti-Taliban forces under the banner of Panjshir resistance. Russia is seeking dialogue with the Taliban to counter ISKP’s threat.
What could be gleaned from this is that despite being in limited numbers, the group has the potential to pose transnational threats. Therefore, it is in the best interest of the international community and the Taliban to not exclude the ISKP danger. Nevertheless, this imminent threat can turn into an opportunity for the Taliban to attract international partners and investment for the cause of counterterrorism.