Before 9/11, the primary challenge to Taliban rule in Afghanistan was the Northern Alliance (NA), led by the legendary Afghan commander Ahmad Shah Massoud which prevented the Taliban from taking control of the whole country.
The NA was an anti-Taliban military front of Afghan political groups dominated by non-Pashtuns who, among other reasons, was opposing the Taliban regime on a primarily ethnic basis. With the foreign troops’ withdrawal from Afghanistan and the collapse of the former Afghan democratic government, the NA was again seen as a possible challenger to Taliban rule in the country.
However, this week, the Taliban ended this threat after taking control of its traditional stronghold, Panjshir. But that doesn’t mean the Taliban is out of the woods. They now face an arguably more dangerous and brutal enemy — the Afghanistan chapter of the so-called Islamic State or Daesh-Khorasan (Daesh-K).
Daesh-K became a threat to the Taliban when its leadership and fighters moved from the Pakistani side into Afghanistan’s Eastern Nangarhar province in 2015. The Taliban approached Daesh-K’s central leadership in Syria, requesting them not to open a parallel front in Afghanistan, saying it would damage the jihadist war against the US and allies.
However, the Taliban’s request went unaddressed. Instead, Daesh-K soon took control of Taliban strongholds in the Nangarhar province and extended its hold into some valleys in the neighboring Kunar province.
The Afghan Salafi community became the Daesh-K’s support base in the country — which is against Hanafi Taliban dominance in Afghanistan. The Afghan Salafi community used the post-9/11 “greater jihad against the infidels” in Afghanistan as a golden opportunity for developing its military strength in the jihadist war against the invaders.
The Taliban did not let them run a parallel front in Afghanistan post-9/11, but accommodated them in its lower ranks and gradually marginalised them. Thus, Daesh-K provided a powerful platform to the Salafis to challenge the Taliban’s monopoly over the jihadist landscape in Afghanistan.
The founding leadership of Daesh-K consisted of anti-Pakistan militants — as the group splintered from the Tehreek e Taliban Pakistan (TTP) over leadership feuds and sectarian differences in late 2014. In his public statements to anti-Pakistan militants, its founding emir, Hafiz Saeed Khan, a former TTP senior commander, promised Daesh-K a new front against Pakistan.
The Pakistani Daesh-K leadership soon perished to US air strikes and raids in Nangarhar. Soon, hardcore Afghan Salafis took the reins of Daesh-K, who started a direct war against the Afghan Taliban.
Soon Daesh-K ended up taking large territories over five years in Salafi-dominated (Salafism was spread decades back in parts of the country by foreign Arab fighters) provinces of Nangarhar and Kunar. Afghan security forces, Taliban ground attacks, and intense US airstrikes destroyed all Daesh-K bases in Afghanistan after the US-Taliban Doha peace deal last year.
Hundreds of its members were killed, and thousands surrendered to the Afghan government. The US, Taliban, and Afghan government all celebrated the elimination of Daesh-K from Afghanistan.
But the collapse of its traditional strongholds in Kunar and Nangarhar did not mark its end. It made a quick resurgence after IS Central appointed Dr Shahab al-Muhajir, its new emir, in May 2020.
A former senior Afghan security official told me recently that al-Muhajir defected to Daesh-K from the Afghan Taliban and was part of the Haqqani group’s urban network in Kabul in the past. Mujahir then started a new brutal phase in the country — urban warfare. He quickly staged high-profile terrorist attacks, like the Nangarhar prison break in August 2020 and complex attacks in the Afghan capital against hospitals, educational institutions, and targeting minority communities like Shias, Hazaras and Sikhs. Daesh-K claimed around 300 attacks under al-Muhajir’s leadership.
Although most Afghan Salafis initially supported Daesh-K, they soon stepped back due to their brutality and other practices like excommunicating fellow Muslims for not joining the group.
Daesh-K also targeted several prominent Salafi religious figures who rejected their ideology and criticised them. On the other side, the Daesh-K and Taliban rivalry also turned against Afghan Salafis. As a result, the Taliban doubted all Salafis for supporting its arch-enemy — Daesh-K. Fearing repercussions, influential leaders under a senior Afghan Salafi scholar, Shaikh Abdul Aziz Nooristani, met Taliban leaders at the beginning of 2020. They pledged allegiance to the Taliban and requested them not to drag the Salafis in Afghanistan into its war with Daesh-K.
With the Taliban’s return to power in Afghanistan, there are reports that local Taliban fighters went after influential Salafi figures in Nangarhar and Kabul.
This month, one of these cases was the brutal killing of the leading Afghan Salafi scholar, Shaikh Abu Obaidullah Mutawakil. He was reportedly abducted by Taliban fighters, although the Taliban spokesman has denied its group’s involvement in his murder. The Salafis say that certain groups in the Taliban ranks target them due to past Daesh-K attacks against a sub-Hanafist sects now dominant in the Taliban.
This has resulted in fears among Salafi circles that if the new Taliban government does not provide them protection, this might push the Salafi youth back towards Daesh-K to ensure their survival, strengthening Daesh in its war against the Taliban.
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