The Islamic State Khorasan (ISK) has carved out a resilient position as the only wholly rejectionist Sunni militant group in Afghanistan and Pakistan. No other Sunni jihadist group simultaneously opposes the Pakistani government, the Afghan Taliban, and al-Qaida, not to mention also being avowedly sectarian and having multi-national membership.[i] Thus, ISK occupies a distinctive space in the competitive jihadist environment in Afghanistan and Pakistan that simultaneously brings significant disadvantages and important advantages to the group.
On the one hand, there is a ceiling to the group’s growth and strength because of its opposition to all the major players in the region, particularly both the Pakistani government and the de facto Afghan Taliban regime. Consequently, ISK has more enemies than any other organization in the region. By violently opposing both the Pakistani government and Afghan Taliban, ISK will experience pressure from both sides, rather than being able to exploit a relationship with one or both of those governments to find safe haven and breathing room, as many, if not all, other militant groups operating in the region do.
In addition, ISK will probably continue to struggle to balance the demands of the varying nationalities and ethnicities within the organization. In particular, competition between Afghans, Pakistanis, and Uzbeks for power within the organization and debate about the direction of the group will probably persist, damaging its internal cohesion.[ii] These tensions become more heightened after leadership losses.
On the other hand, ISK will almost certainly continue to be highly resilient because it offers an outlet for militants dissatisfied in some way with the status quo. Members of other Sunni extremist groups will almost certainly continue to defect to ISK when they are frustrated with their organizations’ level of violence or even seek to improve their individual standing. By acting as such an outlet and because of its multi-national/multi-ethnic composition, ISK puts pressure on the unity of both local and foreign militant organizations operating in Afghanistan and Pakistan. Given the abundance of other Sunni militant groups and the internal fractures within them, ISK will almost certainly have a flow of members joining the group sufficient to survive despite pressure and losses.
ISK does not pose less of a threat when it is weakened; indeed, it actually becomes more dangerous because it signals its continuing resolve after losses by conducting mass casualty attacks on soft targets. Over the course of its existence, ISK has conducted some of its most lethal attacks after significant setbacks. Overall, it is willing to strike indiscriminately against targets that most groups eschew, such as a maternity ward in a hospital, a willingness that seems to heighten when it is weakened.[iii] While some other groups in the region, perhaps most notably the Pakistani Taliban, have also conducted indiscriminate operations against soft targets, most have at least partially restrained their actions in the face of significant public backlash.[iv] In contrast, ISK is unbowed and has conducted multiple mass-casualty attacks against soft targets in relatively short succession, despite public outcry.
ISK’s Threat to the Taliban
Since the U.S. withdrawal and Afghan republic’s collapse, ISK no longer has to divide its attention and resources between multiple adversaries in Afghanistan, thereby significantly increasing its threat to the Afghan Taliban.[v] In its indoctrination and internal discussions, the group has focused on its opposition to the Taliban, even when international forces were present.[vi] In the absence of pressure from international forces and the Afghan republic, ISK has deployed more of its capability against the Taliban, expanded its reach across Afghanistan, and increased its tempo of attacks.[vii] Importantly, ISK enjoys a stronger following in urban areas, whereas the Taliban’s support base is primarily in rural areas. Prior to the Taliban’s takeover, ISK was attempting to leverage its urban presence to covertly infiltrate more areas and thereby; increase its attack capabilities and better target the Taliban while avoiding the losses that came with open affiliation.[viii] Indeed, ISK has subsequently demonstrated an ability to target Taliban members and even to strike within the Taliban’s heartland of Kandahar, suggesting that this effort provided at least some groundwork for its current capability.[ix]
In addition to direct attacks, ISK seeks to undermine the Taliban through operations that portray the Taliban as unable to provide security. Striking religious minorities in particular both satisfies ISK’s sectarian streak and exposes the Taliban as unwilling or unable to protect these communities. Indeed, the frequency and size of such attacks since last August have stoked a belief among some in the Hazara community that the Taliban is complicit in ISK’s attacks on Hazaras and other religious minorities.[x]
Moreover, ISK threatens the Taliban by providing an outlet for disaffected Afghan Taliban members, particularly hardliners and ethnic minorities. Since taking power, the Afghan Taliban’s leadership has focused on securing internal unity, even at the expense of better governance, international recognition, or greater acceptance from Afghan society.[xi] One important reason for the Taliban leaders’ protective posture is concerns about its members defecting to ISK. The ISK outlet is one factor, though certainly not the only one, that prevents the Taliban from compromising on areas of concern to the international community. There is the risk of defection to ISK if the Taliban is seen as capitulating to pressure to moderate its positions. ISK is also an alternative for those whose ambitions are not being met under the Taliban regime. This dynamic probably contributed to the Taliban’s decision to largely limit appointments within its regime to existing members. In addition, non-Pashtun members of the Taliban are likely at higher risk of defection to ISK because of their frustrations that the Taliban has once again given prominence to Pashtuns in its regime, whereas ISK already has a robust multi-ethnic composition.
Finally, the challenge from ISK also restricts the Taliban’s ability to constrain resident foreign militant groups because if the Taliban acts too harshly towards its long-time foreign allies, they may defect to ISK or at least cooperate with it. As is well-established, there are varying views within the Taliban about how to handle the array of foreign militant groups that fought with it during the insurgency and that now find sanctuary under its rule. In the Doha agreement, the Taliban committed, albeit in vague terms, to preventing external attacks by these groups, which is likely to cause increasing tensions with its foreign allies in the future, if it has not already. With the exception of al-Qaida—ISK’s fiercest and staunchest rival—the Taliban faces a risk of driving resident foreign militants to ally with ISK if the Taliban is too restrictive in its treatment of them. ISK may also be enticing because the Taliban has undertaken a concerted effort for years to ensure that foreign militants are subordinate and do not have leadership over Afghans, whereas ISK allows foreign militants (or Afghans) to become leaders and commanders based on assessments of merit.[xii]
ISK has tested the Taliban’s counterterrorism capability in its first year controlling the country and has proven capable of exploiting the Taliban’s shortfalls to launch attacks in Afghanistan as well as threaten its neighbors.[xiii] In addition, ISK maintains a constant pressure on the Taliban’s unity, reinforcing the regime’s insularity and protectiveness of its cohesion above other governance considerations.[xiv] It has carved out a persistent position within the jihadist landscape in Afghanistan that will continue to pose a threat to religious minorities, neighboring states, the Taliban regime, and countries with a presence in Afghanistan.
[i] ISK is more multi-national than even al-Qaida Core because al-Qaida has generally been careful not to aggressively recruit Afghans to avoid competing with the Taliban and has generally been dominated by Arabs in its leadership.
[ii] Antonio Giustozzi, The Islamic State in Khorasan: Afghanistan, Pakistan and the New Central Asian Jihad (London: CHurst & CoPublishers Ltd, 2018).
[iii] Thomas Gibbons-Neff, Sami Sahak, and Taimoor Shah, “Dozens Killed in ISIS Attack on Military Hospital in Afghanistan’s Capital,” The New York Times, November 2, 2021, sec. World, https://www.nytimes.com/2021/11/02/world/asia/afghanistan-kabul-hospital-attack.html.
[iv] “Pakistan Taliban: Peshawar School Attack Leaves 141 Dead – BBC News,” accessed August 23, 2022, https://www.bbc.com/news/world-asia-30491435.
[v] Joshua T. White, “Nonstate Threats in the Taliban’s Afghanistan,” Brookings (blog), February 1, 2022, https://www.brookings.edu/blog/order-from-chaos/2022/02/01/nonstate-threats-in-the-talibans-afghanistan/; Abdul Sayed, “Why Islamic State Khurasan Poses an Indigenous Threat to the Afghan Taliban,” Nexus Article (Washington, D.C.: George Washington Program on Extremism, May 9, 2022), https://extremism.gwu.edu/ISK-poses-indigenous-threat-to-Afghan-Taliban.
[vi] This information is based on interviews with former ISK members in Afghanistan in 2019 and early 2020. They described the Taliban as being the primary actor that the group decried in its indoctrination and internal discussions about its agenda.
[vii] “How Strong Is the Islamic State in Taliban-Ruled Afghanistan?,” Washington Post, accessed August 23, 2022, https://www.washingtonpost.com/world/2022/08/18/faq-islamic-state-khorasan-afghanistan-taliban/.
[viii] According to interviews with former ISK members as well as a former HIG commander with extensive ties with ISK members. Interviews conducted in Afghanistan in 2019 and early 2020.
[ix] Ayaz Gul, “Islamic State Bomber Kills Top Taliban Cleric in Kabul,” VOA, accessed August 23, 2022, https://www.voanews.com/a/suicide-blast-in-afghan-capital-kills-top-taliban-cleric/6697574.html; “Afghanistan: Suicide Attack Hits Kandahar Mosque during Prayers,” BBC News, October 16, 2021, sec. Asia, https://www.bbc.com/news/world-asia-58925863.
[x] According to information from a Hazara researcher with extensive ties in the community. Discussion in 2022.
[xi] Hardliners in the Taliban have been emboldened by the group’s military victory and have been able to dominate in major decisions since the Taliban takeover, as evidenced by the Taliban’s recent backtracking on girls’ education.
[xii] This point was made by a former ISK member in an interview in late 2019.
[xiii] Bruce Pannier, “Northern Afghanistan and the New Threat to Central Asia” (Foreign Policy Research Institute, May 13, 2022), https://www.fpri.org/article/2022/05/northern-afghanistan-and-the-new-threat-to-central-asia/.
[xiv] Andrew Watkins, “The Taliban One Year On,” Combating Terrorism Center at West Point, August 9, 2022, https://ctc.westpoint.edu/the-taliban-one-year-on/.
Dr. Tricia Bacon is the Visiting Fellow at USI and is the Associate Professor at American University’s School of Public Affairs.
Article uploaded : 01-09-2022
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