The Islamic State of Khorasan Expands in Afghanistan
Photo Credit: AP
By Abdul Basit

The Islamic State of Khorasan Expands in Afghanistan

Jan. 03, 2019  |     |  0 comments


Following the Islamic State’s (IS) battlefield and territorial losses in the Middle East, its franchise in the Afghanistan-Pakistan (Af-Pak) region — the Islamic State of Khorasan — has emerged as the group’s most brutal iteration. Since its emergence in February 2015, the Islamic State of Khorasan has entrenched itself in Af-Pak’s competitive jihadist landscape and earned the notoriety of an urban terrorist group with its signature high profile attacks. A recent UN report indicates that between December 2017 and March 2018, around 69 members of IS-core and 300 to 400 fighters from Iraq and Syria have moved to Afghanistan and the trend is likely to continue.


As of 2018, the Islamic State of Khorasan has 4,000 to 6,000 members present in small clusters and cells in different parts of Afghanistan. Of these, 3,500 to 4,000 are in the east and 1,500 to 2,000 are in the north. Presently, the Islamic State of Khorasan is headquartered in the strategically located eastern Nangarhar province, the transit route of lucrative drug and mineral trade, near Pakistan’s border.


Reasons of the Islamic State of Khorasan’s Growth in the Af-Pak Region


Three factors have contributed to the Islamic State of Khorasan’s phenomenal growth in the Af-Pak region.


First is the political instability and volatile security situation in Afghanistan. Since the drawdown of the US forces from Afghanistan in December 2014, the situation in Afghanistan has gone from bad to worse. The Islamic State of Khorasan has optimally utilized this chaos to increase its footprint in the Af-Pak region. In 2018, according to Global Terrorism Index, Afghanistan has overtaken Iraq as the worst affected country by terrorism. As the control of the Kabul government has shrunk, the Islamic State of Khorasan has exploited the ungoverned spaces in the peripheral and porous border regions to grow.


The second factor that has augmented the Islamic State of Khorasan’s operational strength in the Af-Pak region is its strategic, operational and tactical alliances with like-minded militant groups in the region. The ability of a terrorist group to strike alliances with other terrorist groups is directly proportional to its longevity and lethality. The more a group is allied and networked, the greater its ability to survive and strike terror. The Islamic State of Khorasan has engaged in various forms of cooperation and alliances with at least 11 militant groups in Pakistan and Afghanistan. Of these, the most prominent are the Islamic Movement of Uzbekistan (IMU), Jandullah, Lashkar-e-Jhangvi (LeJ) and some dissident factions of the Pakistani Taliban. The geographical distribution of the Islamic State of Khorasan’s attacks from Kabul to Jalalabad in Afghanistan and from Quetta to Peshawar in Pakistan is an indication of group’s geographical outreach.


The third factor that has aided the Islamic State of Khorasan’s expansion in the Af-Pak region is its reconciliation with the Afghan Taliban. The new Taliban supremo Haibatullah Akhundzada has been soft on the Islamic State of Khorasan unlike his predecessor Mullah Akhtar Mansoor who engaged in a fierce turf-war with it. This has allowed the Islamic State of Khorasan to mount large-scale attacks both in Pakistan and Afghanistan. So far, the Islamic State of Khorasan has carried out 83 terrorist attacks in Pakistan killing 706 people and wounding 1,120 others, while in Afghanistan 211 (including 52 in capital Kabul) attacks have claimed 1,511 lives and caused injuries to 3,220 people. In these attacks, the Islamic State of Khorasan has exploited the communal and sectarian fault lines in both countries. For instance, in Pakistan most of its attacks have targeted the Sufi Muslim community, while in Afghanistan the Shiite community has borne the brunt of the Islamic State of Khorasan’s violence.


The Islamic State of Khorasan’s Factions in Afghanistan


The Islamic State of Khorasan has two main factions: the Pakistani faction primarily comprising former Tehrik-e-Taliban Pakistan (TTP) militants residing in eastern and north-eastern Afghanistan, and the Uzbek faction based in northern Afghanistan.



Afghanistan’s stabilization through a politically negotiated settlement of the conflict and a regional consensus to uproot the Islamic State of Khorasan’s infrastructure in Afghanistan are needed to avert another country turning into a hub of the so-called caliphate.



The Nangarhar Faction


The Nangarhar faction of the Islamic State of Khorasan primarily comprises of Pashtun fighters and is led by a former Lashkar-e-Taiba (LeT) commander Sheikh Aslam Farooqi. The rise of Farooqi has been a stabilizing factor for the Islamic State of Khorasan. He has not only evaded the US drone attacks unlike his predecessors but has managed to plan and execute high profile attacks as well. Since its formation, the Islamic State of Khorasan has lost three leaders, Hafiz Saeed Khan Orakzai in July 2016, Abdul Hasib Logari in April 2017 and Abu Saeed Bajauri in July 2017.


In eastern and northeastern Afghanistan, the Islamic State of Khorasan has a presence in Nangarhar, Kunar, Paktika, Paktia, Logar and Khost provinces, and its command and control remains within the southern belt of Nangarhar. Along with recruiting fighters from other militant groups in Pakistan and Afghanistan, the Islamic State of Khorasan has also attracted self-radicalized youth through different social media platforms. This year, the Islamic State of Khorasan also benefited from inclusion of two defecting factions of LeT and Jasih-e-Muhammad (JeM).


The Uzbek Faction


Farooqi’s appointment also created a split between the Pakistani and Uzbek factions of the Islamic State of Khorasan. Following his appointment, an IMU commander Moawiya Uzbekistani relocated to northern Afghanistan with most of the Central Asian militants and operates independently of the Nangarhar faction. In northern Afghanistan, the Islamic State of Khorasan has cultivated its presence in Jawzjan, Faryab, Sar-i Pul, Samangan, Badghis, Baghlan, Kunduz, and Badakhshan provinces. The Islamic State of Khorasan’s sanctuaries in northern Afghanistan have served as a conduit to attract foreign militants from Central Asia and the North Caucasus. According to Afghan Vice President Rashid Dostum, “there are nearly 7,500 foreign IS fighters, including Chechens, Uzbeks, Tajiks, Iraqis, Syrians, Lebanese and Libyans who are waiting to enter into northern Afghanistan.


The Islamic State of Khorasan’ Finances in the Af-Pak Region


The Islamic State of Khorasan is a well-funded terrorist group and has both local and external sources of income. The group pays USD 800 to 1,200 per month to its militant commanders and fighters. Overall, its revenue consists of taxation on illegal timber and mineral exploitation by organized criminal networks, extortion, and kidnapping for ransom. The group also receives donations from Middle Eastern countries through hawala and courier networks.


The Islamic State of Khorasan taxes criminal networks engaged in production, processing and smuggling of drugs. Under the Islamic State of Khorasan’s control, the production of opium in Jawzjan province has increased manifold, particularly in the districts of Darzab and Qush Tepah. In 2017, Jawzjan had the single-largest increase in poppy cultivation of any Afghan Province in 2016–2017.


Timber in the Kunar province has traditionally been a motivating factor for the terrorism, and previous attempts by the Afghan government to regulate the industry have failed, leaving only an illicit economy exploited by the Taliban, and now the Islamic State of Khorasan. From timber smuggling, the Islamic State of Khorasan earns approximately USD 85,600 per month.


The Islamic State of Khorasan also earns profits from illicit mining industry in Afghanistan. The most prominent mineral mined in areas under the Islamic State of Khorasan’s control in Nangarhar is talc, which brings a retail value of roughly USD 9.50 per metric ton. Kabul loses USD 1.46 million per annum in revenue from those mining areas outside its control in Nangarhar. The Islamic State of Khorasan also levies taxes on the various smuggling networks engaged in extraction and transportation of talc across lines of government and insurgent control.


Continued chaos in Afghanistan will allow IS to relocate and reorganize in Afghanistan. IS poses a direct threat to Iran, Russia, China and Pakistan along with undermining the US interests in the region. Afghanistan’s stabilization through a politically negotiated settlement of the conflict and a regional consensus to uproot the Islamic State of Khorasan’s infrastructure in Afghanistan are needed to avert another country turning into a hub of the so-called caliphate.



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