Counter Terrorism Perspectives: CTP

EER: "Islamic State’s Khorasan Province: A Potent Force in Afghan Jihad"

December 28, 2020

Although the so-called Islamic State (IS) Caliphate crumbled and disintegrated in the Middle East, the group’s most potent branch, the IS-Khorasan Province (IS-KP) remains resilient. It continues to display its violent presence in Afghanistan and Pakistan, fiercely withstanding the unremitting onslaughts from government and rival Taliban forces. The group demonstratively retains the ability to carry out gruesome attacks at will in the capital Kabul and its traditional strongholds in Eastern Afghanistan’s Nangarhar province. Two recent attacks suggest IS-KP’s undiminishing firepower and violent jihadi intent. It claimed responsibility for an attack on a Kabul university killing at least 22 people early in November 2020. In a similar attack on October 24, 2020, IS-KP targeted a private education center, killing nearly 20 students mostly belonging to the ethnic Hazara Shia community in the Dasht-e-Barchi neighborhood in Kabul.

The group reiterated its allegiance to present IS leader Abu Ibrahim al-Hashimi al-Qurashi, following the death of Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi in October 2019. This article aims to evaluate the violent sectarian campaigns of IS Khorasan province and the group’s capacity to withstand leadership loss and armed offensives.

The Emergence of IS-Khorasan Province

The broader support base for IS in Afghanistan and Pakistan emerged primarily due to the existing pro-Islamist political and social environment and infighting between different Taliban factions. In January 2015, IS announced Khorasan Wilayat (province) together with disgruntled defectors from the Pakistan Taliban (Tehrik-e Taliban) and independent militant commanders. The announcement coincided with IS spokesman Abu Muhammad al-Adnani’s audio speech regarding the group’s geographical expansion into areas of Afghanistan and Pakistan. This famed audio speech was released by the group’s al-Furqan media wing on January 26, 2015, and was titled “Say, Die in Your Rage!”. Al-Adnani stated that the new IS province would be headed by former Pakistani Taliban commander Hafiz Saeed Khan, who had reportedly fulfilled the necessary conditions to become the governor of the so-called Khorasan province. IS propaganda materials, notably an article entitled “Wilayat Khurasan and the Bay’at from Qawqaz” in the seventh edition of Dabiq in February 2015, mentioned that militants from Nuristan, Kunar, Kandahar, Khost, Ghazni, Wardak, Helmand, Kunduz, Logar and, of course, Nangarhar, joined the IS bandwagon in Afghanistan. Many others from the Bajaur, Orakzai, Kurram, Waziristan and Khyber region of Pakistan came under the IS-K banner.

IS-KP aims to spread monotheism and demolish polytheism along with its violent campaigns to dominate jihad in Afghanistan and Pakistan. It spread its tentacles by entering into alliances or co-opting local militant groups and their leaders. In Pakistan, it garnered the support of sectarian factions such as Lashkar-e-Jhangvi al-Alami, Jundullah and Lashkar-e Islam (LeI). Earlier, IS-KP also galvanized grassroot militant support mostly from fringe and lesser-known groups like the Sa’ad bin Abi Waqas Front (Logar, Afghanistan) and Tawad al-Jihad (Peshawar). IS has also exploited the infighting within the Taliban-led Islamic Emirate of Afghanistan. The crisis within the Taliban created an opportunity for IS to rebuild and expand its network in the region. Even though these militant alliances remain sketchy, IS-KP has undoubtedly exploited existing internecine rivalries, using firepower and co-opting local networks.

In a show of force, IS-KP perpetrated its first attacks in Jalalabad, the provincial capital of the Nangarhar province in Afghanistan, on April 18, killing more than 33 people and injuring over 100 outside a bank when government workers were collecting their salaries. For the first time in over a decade, the monopoly of the Taliban in waging violence and conflict was challenged by IS forces in Afghanistan under Hafiz Saeed Khan. Fearing it would lose ground, and its soldiers would defect, the Taliban attempted to fight back against IS expansion, growing military stature and ideological traction. Starting with the April 2015 attack in Jalalabad, IS-KP continued to carry out indiscriminate mass fatality attacks in Kabul, Afghanistan and Quetta and Peshawar in Pakistan. It also claimed a few attacks in Indian administered Jammu and Kashmir, such as the attacks on police officers, before the trifurcation of Khorasan province in May 2019.

Deeply Sectarian at Core

IS-KP’s core ideology is deeply sectarian, and the group has charted an aggressive campaign in Afghanistan, turning its guns on minority groups — particularly Hazara Shia Muslims and their institutions. In November 2015, seven Hazara Shia, including two women and a child, were abducted from the Gilan district of Ghazni province and their dead bodies found in the Khak-e-Afghan district of the southern Zabul province. Although IS-KP were believed to be behind the attack, the group did not claim responsibility.

On July 23, 2016, over 80 people were killed, and many more maimed, in a brazen double suicide attack on the Hazara community in Deh Mazang Square in Kabul, the capital city of Afghanistan. For the first time, IS claimed responsibility for the attack, highlighting the group’s consolidation and stature in the country. Abu Omar Khorasani, one of the leading IS-KP commanders in Afghanistan, termed the Kabul attack as retribution against the support of some Afghan Shias to the Bashar al-Assad regime in Syria, ostensibly with the help of Iran. Speaking to the media, Khorasani threatened further attacks stating that “unless they (Hazaras) stop going to Syria and stop being slaves of Iran, [we] will definitely continue such attacks.”

In late December 2017, an apparent suicide bomb attack on the Shia cultural center in Kabul left nearly 40 people dead and many injured. IS, through its Amaq news agency, claimed responsibility for the attack. It argued that the facility was a prominent Shia center sponsored by Iranian agencies and used as a recruitment center of Afghan Shias for the Fatemiyoun Division (part of Hezbollah Afghanistan) engaged in the Syrian civil war against the Islamic State. Earlier in October that year, IS-Khorasan militants also targeted the shia Imam Zaman Mosque, located in the western Dashte-e-Barchi neighborhood of Kabul. The suicide attack killed nearly 30 Hazara Shias. After a few months of a lull, IS-KP carried out more suicide bombings targeting Hazara Shias, again in Kabul. On March 22, 2018, an IS-KP bomber killed over 30 people near a Shia shrine in Kabul during the Persian new year day (Nowruz). The United Nations vehemently condemned the deadly attack terming it as “reprehensible”. Again in August that year, IS-KP struck at Sahib-ul-Zaman Mosque in the Khwaja Hassan area in the town of Gardez (Paktia province), killing over 25 people, mostly Shias. Besides its consistent focus on anti-Shia violence in Afghanistan, IS-KP also targeted Taliban forces, government forces, election rallies, educational institutions and sports complexes in and around the Khost, Nangarhar and Kabul provinces in 2018.

In 2019, despite several setbacks IS-KP suffered in terms of mass surrenders and leadership decapitations, the group carried out yet another deadly attack. On August 17, an IS-KP suicide bomber targeted a wedding hall in a Shia neighborhood in Kabul killing 63 people and injuring over 150.

Read Complete Article Here: "Islamic State’s Khorasan Province: A Potent Force in Afghan Jihad," European Eye on Radicalization, December 14, 2020. Also read, Arabic Version of the piece at EER ‎@EuroEyeRad) portal.   

The author acknowledges the support of Government of the Netherlands and the Global Centre on Cooperative Security for an ongoing research project on Transnational Jihadist threat in South Asia. Views expressed in the paper are those of the author and do not necessarily reflect the views of the Global Centre or the Government of the Netherlands.