The Islamic State Threat in Taliban Afghanistan: Tracing the Resurgence of Islamic State Khorasan —

Combating Terrorism Center at West Point

Abstract: Although the Islamic State’s official affiliate in Afghanistan, Islamic State Khorasan (ISK), first emerged as a threat in 2015, its global notoriety was heightened when it struck the Kabul airport during the Taliban takeover of the city in August 2021, leading to questions about the future stability of the country and the Taliban’s ability to contain the revived terrorist threat. The Taliban’s takeover of Kabul, combined with an unconditional U.S. withdrawal and a collapsed Afghan government, generated new opportunities for ISK to reinvigorate its violent campaign following years of significant manpower and territorial losses. Given the absence of multilateral counterterrorism pressure, the Taliban’s limited capacity to govern, and a worsening humanitarian crisis in Afghanistan, ISK now finds itself perhaps in the most permissive environment yet to rebuild, rally, and expand. As the Taliban continue to struggle with their transition to a state actor, ISK enjoys unprecedented opportunities to forge opportunistic ties with local militant groups in need of jihadi alliances and to recruit from communities dissatisfied with the Taliban’s rule. If regional powers do not engage in a coordinated security strategy with the Taliban, they may bear the consequences of the growing ISK-Taliban conflict.

The suicide bombing that struck the Kabul airport in August 2021 not only shocked the world due to the hundreds it left dead or wounded, 1it also refocused attention on the threat of the Islamic State Khorasan Province (often abbreviated to ISIS-K or ISK). The attack ushered in urgent questions about the implications of the ISK threat on the remainder of U.S. withdrawal efforts, the stability of a Taliban-controlled Afghanistan, and the security of the country’s neighbors. While the spectacular nature of the Kabul airport attack led many to view ISK as a renewed threat in the country, warning signs of a resurgent ISK had actually started to permeate in the preceding year. The Taliban’s swift takeover of Afghanistan, along with an abysmal collapse of the Afghan government, 2created new opportunities for ISK to undermine the legitimacy and control of an internationally isolated Taliban. ISK is now present in almost every province of Afghanistan, according to the United Nations, 3as Taliban forces engage in a deadly counterinsurgency campaign against their jihadi rivals with limited measurable success reported thus far. 4Understanding the future trajectory of ISK, its rivalry with the Taliban, and the regional security risks it poses requires tracing the adaptation of the group’s violent strategies in various periods of its existence: the early period of its emergence, years of intense U.S. and Afghan forces-led military operations, and finally, the period of its intensified battle with the Taliban after the U.S. withdrawal.

In 2015, while U.S. and Afghan forces were still battling the Taliban insurgency, Islamic State-Khorasan, the Islamic State’s official affiliate in the Afghanistan region, began to create space for itself by adopting a strategy that focused on coopting opportunistic militant organizations, 5while differentiating itself from the other dominant groups. 6On one hand, cooption of groups such as Lashkar-e-Jhangvi and the Islamic Movement of Uzbekistan provided ISK with expanded expertise and regional geographical knowledge, and curtailed competition for recruits. On the other hand, differentiation from other groups, most prominently the Afghan Taliban-but also groups such as Lashkar-e-Taiba-created opportunities for ISK to persuade militants to switch allegiances for both practical and ideological reasons.

In early 2022, only three years away from marking a decade of formal existence in the region, ISK has shown itself to be a persistent threat to the stability of Afghanistan and its neighbors. In this article, the authors draw on original data on ISK-claimed attacks; propaganda releases by ISK and its competitors (including radio broadcasts); captured internal documents, which reveal communication between Islamic State-Central (ISC) and ISK; and finally, the authors’ discussions with former Afghan government members, Taliban officials, and tribal elders in Nangarhar and Kunar. 7To trace ISK’s pathway to its present state, this article unfolds in four main parts. The first traces the evolution of the group from 2015 to 2019, including the nature of ISC’s engagement with ISK during its earlier years. 8The second focuses on ISK’s resurgence in 2020 and 2021, and highlights its efforts to rebuild its militant base through multiple channels. The third section outlines ISK’s relationship with three groups in the region that are likely to remain its key challengers-Tehrik-e-Taliban Pakistan, al-Qa`ida, and the Afghan Taliban. Finally, the authors conclude the article by highlighting some of the regional security implications associated with a resurgent ISK.

The Evolution of Islamic State Khorasan (2015–2019)
The official announcement of ISK’s formation was made in January 2015 via an audio recording by the Islamic State’s then spokesman Abu Muhammad al-Adnani. However, efforts to set up the affiliate materialized prior to this announcement. Early defections to ISK through public pledges to Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi included nine former members of al-Qa`ida in March 2014, 9as well as six Tehrik-i-Taliban Pakistan (TTP) commanders joining the nascent Islamic State Khorasan in October 2014. 10Hafiz Saeed Khan’s (a former TTP commander) appointment to the top leadership position of the group in 2015 was an early indication that the affiliate was going to draw heavily from the local militant infrastructure.

Since ISK’s emergence in 2015, the group’s operational activity has spanned virtually every province in Afghanistan and Pakistan. At various points, this included the consolidation and governing of territory in parts of northern and northeast Afghanistan, especially in Nangarhar province. Elsewhere in Afghanistan in 2015, fledgling ISK nodes, mostly the product of breakaway Taliban or Taliban-aligned groups, were contained by the Taliban and/or U.S. airstrikes and Afghan ground force interventions. 11But it was in Nangarhar’s southern districts that ISK enjoyed numerous advantages to support its initial territorial project. 12Reporting on the group’s early expansion efforts indicated that ISK, at its height, controlled eight districts across southern Nangarhar, 13amassing operational resources and personnel around its de facto headquarters in the valleys of Achin district. It was not until 2016 that a number of convening factors initiated the gradual decline in ISK’s territorial control: The Taliban mobilized ground forces to limit ISK’s expansion in and around Nangarhar; 14the Obama White House granted expanded ISK targeting authorization authorities to the Pentagon; 15a U.S. and Afghan-allied coalition ground offensive backed by U.S. airpower killed or captured hundreds of ISK rank-and-file and leadership; 16and additional Afghan units arrived to help clear and hold territory regained from ISK control. 17

From 2015 to 2019, state-led operations captured, killed, or forced the surrender of over 10,000 of the group’s affiliated members in Afghanistan and Pakistan combined, including hundreds of upper- and lower-level leadership. 18As the end of the decade approached, ISK’s territorial holdings in Nangarhar were depleted, and the group’s remaining forces had either surrendered en masse to the previous government or relocated north to neighboring Kunar province or into major urban areas. 19

Over the same period from 2015 to 2019, ISK’s attack operations followed a trajectory of rise and decline. As Figure 1 shows, athe total number of ISK’s attacks (in Afghanistan and Pakistan combined) rose each year from 2015 to 2017 before falling from 2017 to 2019, and as Figure 2 shows, its average casualty count (the number it killed and wounded per attack) rose from 2015 to 2018 before declining in 2019. ISK conducted attacks in over 25 provinces across Afghanistan and Pakistan from 2015 to 2019, inflicting almost 6,800 casualties (killed and wounded) in the former and 2,073 casualties in the latter. By far, the hardest hit city during this period was Kabul (nearly 3,900 casualties), followed by Jalalabad (over 1,000 casualties) in Afghanistan and Quetta in Pakistan (over 750 casualties). In both countries, the majority of ISK’s attacks have targeted the state, including infrastructure and/or security and government personnel, but especially police forces. 20Prior to 2020, various soft targets, such as religious institutions and public spaces, had also consistently been targeted, with Afghanistan’s Shi`a and Pakistan’s Sufi communities frequently attacked, including with suicide attacks. 21

The ISK Relationship with Islamic State Central
Despite periods of intense targeting pressure, however, internal ISK documents 22reveal an organization very much dedicated to the method of Islamic State Central (ISC) in Iraq and Syria. The documents also shed light on ISK’s initial goals. For example, the authors reviewed a memo dated July 2016 from ISK that appeared to be penned after the death of ISK’s first emir, 23Hafiz Saeed Khan. The memo presented a status update from ISK, appearing to be intended for ISC. The letter states:

We appointed an Emir of War for the Khurasan province, and we formed a military shura for the province as well … The brothers of the Khurasan province were relieved by the establishment of a Sharia committee for disputed issues, and for that reason, application of the Islamic State’s methodology has been much easier.

Even in the face of reported significant manpower and leadership losses in the first half of 2016, ISK appeared to have prioritized multiple lines of organizational development and administrative expansions. Various reports about ISK’s losses provide details about the wide-ranging activities of its members; these reports indicate that targeted ISK members were performing duties across several administrative bodies with comparative structures in ISC’s bureaucratic protostate. 24These included military training, battlefield operations, and martyrdom operations; judicial and religious matters; media, proselytization, and recruitment; and logistics, information technologies, and financial bodies. 25

While there is much uncertainty surrounding the links between ISC and ISK, open-source reports as well as captured materials from Afghanistan indicate that ISC played an important role in facilitating the establishment of ISK, at least in its early years. Ranging from facilitation of meetings to provision of general guidance on governance, as well as dispute resolution, ISC helped ISK build its roots in the region.

To understand the level of engagement between ISK and ISC in its early years, the authors reviewed a sample of captured materials from Afghanistan (in Dari, Pashto, and Urdu) to highlight the nature of guidance provided to ISK as well as the types of communication between the two entities. From the set of documents that appear to be intended to provide the Islamic State’s provinces with advice, bone document stamped with an “Al-Hisbah” logo, which refers to the Islamic State’s religious enforcement police, outlines a request to all emirs to report Al-Hisbah activities conducted between October 2014 and January 2015, and then on a monthly basis thereafter. The memo requests information regarding the settlement of issues, cases forwarded to courts, propaganda distributed to the public, lectures delivered, material possessions confiscated, and disciplinary measures taken. Other documents with the Islamic State’s Al-Hisbah logo outline general rules on various other topics, including the sharing and publishing of photos of female ‘sex slaves’ on social media, use of satellite receivers, and dealing with ‘inappropriate’ books, audio, and video. While these documents appear to be generic guidance by ISC for its ‘provinces’ around the world rather than for ISK specifically, their existence indicates that ISC generally had an interest in shaping ISK’s behavior on the ground. 26

ISK also appears to have had strict requirements on the frequency of communication with ISC, especially in reporting their military operations and achievements. A collection of documents suggest that ISC was regularly requesting military reports, and evidence of ISK’s achievements. Details within the documents reveal that ISK was reporting figures on membership, factions that had pledged allegiance, appointment of leaders, outcomes of clashes with the Taliban, and operations in Pakistan. While these documents are not explicitly addressed to anyone by name, they appear to be updates intended for ISC. In addition to general guidance documents, and ISK’s status updates, the documents also indicate that ISK was relaying their problems to ISC during times of difficulty, especially when the group suffered losses or needed money. Related documents suggest that ISC was indeed transferring funds to ISK, at least during its earlier years.

Collectively, the sample of documents reviewed sheds light on how ISC was involved in various ways in the set-up of ISK in its early years, possibly channeling funds and also monitoring ISK’s strategy and tactics to some extent. While today these links between ISC and ISK remain unclear, more recently, ISK has been regularly featured as a high-performing province in ISC’s propaganda and received direct praise for some of its high-profile attacks, such as its prison siege in Jalalabad City in 2020 and the attack on Kabul airport in August 2021. 27

By the end of 2019, declines in territory, manpower, and overall capacity left ISK significantly weakened and forced it to focus operations predominantly in urban centers. 28Although the group’s broader operational activity was markedly declined in 2019 from previous years, its continued dedication to intermittently launch attacks signaled the potential for a resurgence in 2020, especially in the absence of multilateral counterterrorism efforts.

A Resurgent ISK (2020–2021)
This section focuses on ISK’s resurgence starting in 2020 and carrying into 2021. Leveraging an original database that captures ISK-claimed attacks, as well as the group’s own propaganda, this section traces changes in ISK’s operational behavior, the role of its new leader in its revival, and finally the group’s attempts to rebuild its militant base.

Revamping Operations
Warning signs of ISK’s resurgence began to surface around mid-2020, while the United States continued to engage in peace talks with the Taliban. Starting in June 2020, ISK attacks in Afghanistan steadily rose month after month all the way through to June 2021, surging from just three attacks in June 2020 to 41 attacks in June 2021. 29Highly lethal, sectarian attacks against vulnerable minorities such as Afghanistan’s Hazara communities continued throughout, including a horrific attack against a Hazara girls’ school in Kabul in May 2021 that killed or wounded well over 200 girls and teachers. 30After the devastating August 2021 attack at the Kabul airport killed or wounded hundreds of Afghan civilians-in addition to 13 U.S. service members 31-ISK showed no signs of halting its campaign of violence. Attacks targeting houses of worship in Kunduz and Kandahar in October 2021 left hundreds more dead or wounded, 32and additional attacks have since hit Kabul. 33

Overall, however, ISK’s average casualty per attack is dramatically lower than in previous years. As Figure 2 shows, in 2021 the group averaged around 5.5 casualties per attack; however, the lower number is the result of a massive surge in the volume of attacks perpetrated by ISK in the year 2021. Including clashes initiated against the Taliban in years past, ISK’s total number of attacks in 2021 is more than double that of the next highest year on record since its formation in 2015, surpassing 340 attacks by the end of December. cThe nature of ISK’s attack strategy has shifted, too. In addition to more complex attacks such as the Jalalabad prison break operation in 2020, 34ISK also began attacking infrastructure targets in the spring and summer of 2021, claiming responsibility for three-dozen attacks on electricity pylons and oil tankers, 35advancing a strategy of “economic warfare” designed to challenge the former government and the Taliban’s legitimacy as a state actor. 36

Rallying Under New Leadership
ISK credits its current governor or top leader, Shahab al-Muhajir, for the group’s resurgence. 42Al-Muhajir, whose real name is Sanaullah Ghafari, hails from the district of Shakardara just north of Kabul and holds an engineering degree from Kabul University. 43He adhered to the salafi ideology in Kabul University under the influence of faculty member and Afghan salafi scholar Abu Obaidullah Mutawakil. 44Al-Muhajir’s dfamily belonged to a major Afghan jihadi party-Hizbi Islami Gulbadin Hekmatyar (HIG) e-that formed during the pre-Taliban era and participated in fighting the U.S.-allied forces in Afghanistan. 45Al-Muhajir joined the jihadi war in Afghanistan through the same party platform, later joining Taliban factions affiliated with the Haqqani network. 46He had close links to the Haqqani network’s senior commanders, Taj Mir Jawad and Qari Baryal, who ran terrorist networks in the capital. When ISK emerged in Afghanistan, al-Muhajir switched loyalties and eventually rose to the position of deputy head of ISK’s Kabul network. 47Upon his appointment as the new ISK governor in 2020, al-Muhajir was touted as an urban warfare expert, who would avenge “group martyrs” by targeting the Afghan government in urban areas and also pursue the release of ISK imprisoned members. 48According to two senior security officials of the former Afghan government, 49al-Muhajir had an extensive social network in Kabul city that helped his recruitment pipeline. This included young individuals from influential political and warlord families who facilitated ISK activities, at times unknowingly. 50Such personal networks helped al-Muhajir logistically, such as acquiring special security cards and weaponry licenses from senior Afghan government officials, including one issued by the office of the former Afghan vice president Abdul Rashid Dostum. 51

ISK’s propaganda generally praises al-Muhajir for three major contributions to the organization. 52First, he is credited with reinvigorating ISK when it was struggling to survive post-2019 after major territorial, leadership, and rank-and-file losses. Secondly, the August 2020 Jalalabad prison break and ISK’s new economic warfare strategy, alluded to above, are attributed to al-Muhajir’s leadership skills. fFinally, al-Muhajir is credited with the high-profile attack in August 2021 on the Kabul airport, which was conducted by Abdul Rahman al-Logari, a member of ISK’s Kabul cell, who had been released from a high-security prison after the Taliban seized control in August 2021. 53

Reuniting, Reinforcing, and Diversifying the Ranks
One of al-Muhajir’s major challenges at the helm of an organization faced with territorial and manpower losses was reuniting ISK’s dispersed members and reinforcing and diversifying the group’s ranks to help kick-start its new strategy of urban warfare. To do so, he led ISK on a three-pronged strategy: planned prison breaks, providing amnesty to the more than 1,400 members who surrendered to the previous government, 54and advertising a diverse militant base to cast a wide recruitment net.

In his first public communication to ISK members in early July 2020, 55al-Muhajir called on dispersed members to participate in ISK’s new strategy: guerrilla warfare and urban terrorism. Group members languishing in prisons were also promised rescue. A month later, ISK conducted a highly sophisticated attack on Nangarhar central prisons in Jalalabad city, resulting in the release of over 1,000 prisoners, including 280 ISK inmates. This coordinated assault-the first of its kind for ISK-greatly bolstered al-Muhajir’s burgeoning reputation, as noted above. 56

Similarly, other prison breaks that followed soon after the collapse of the former Afghan government allowed hundreds of freed prisoners to rejoin ISK’s ranks. According to various estimates, 57around 2,000–3,000 ISK inmates escaped during and after the fall of the former government, which included senior leaders, commanders, and media propagandists. For example, al-Muhajir’s predecessor, Aslam Farooqi, influential senior ideologue Abu Yazid Abdul Qahir Khurasani, 58gand the Islamic State Jammu and Kashmir branch founder, Aijaz Ahmad Ahangar, 59hwere among those freed. A critical aspect of these prison breaks was the release of foreign fighters. The former Afghan government held 400-plus ISK members from 14 countries who escaped during the jailbreaks a day prior to the Taliban’s takeover. 60iGiven that these fighters would have been unlikely to return to their home countries (where they would likely be prosecuted), their release from prison has likely provided a boost to ISK’s cadres.

To attract those who had previously surrendered to the government, ISK also announced an amnesty policy that may have lured hundreds of militants back into the ISK fold. 61The issue of the 1,400-plus ISK members who surrendered to the previous government in Kunar in early 2020 was discussed in ISK’s radio broadcasts; according to ISK’s religious edict, some ISK commanders betrayed their fighters, and compelled them to surrender. 62ISK encouraged such fighters to appear before ISK courts and renew their pledges of loyalty to the group. 63

Another segment of population for whom joining ISK may appear to be the only feasible way to survive are former Afghan security force members at risk of being persecuted by the Taliban; although reported numbers remain small, developments in late 2021 indicated that some former Afghan forces members had joined ISK in order to resist the Taliban, bringing with them useful intelligence-gathering and fighting techniques. 68As long as the Taliban fail to devise an effective mechanism to reconcile with former Afghan forces, the pool of thousands of former Afghan security officers, fearful and without any future prospects, represents an untapped opportunity for ISK to rebuild itself stronger than ever before.

ISK’s Relationship with its Local Competitors
ISK’s relationships, to include both alliances and rivalries, have been key in its emergence and survival. While much research has examined how ISK’s alliances facilitated its upward trajectory, 74this section focuses on ISK’s competitors in the region, which serve as its direct or indirect challengers: the Tehrik-i-Taliban Pakistan (TTP), al-Qa`ida and its South Asian affiliate (al-Qa`ida in the Indian Subcontinent, or AQIS), and the Afghan Taliban. kUnderstanding ISK’s relationships with these three organizations can provide insights into ISK’s current and future behavior.

Tehrik-i-Taliban Pakistan
Upon its formation, ISK labeled all other Islamist groups religiously illegitimate and declared itself to be the sole legitimate leader of the global ummah and caliphate movement. 75One of ISK’s main target audiences has been the TTP, given TTP’s anti-Pakistan agenda and ISK founding leadership’s strong ties with various TTP groups. 76ISK formed at a time when TTP was splintered and suffering from several internal disputes; this resulted in the defection of TTP members to ISK, including the entire TTP Orakzai chapter and part of its Bajaur chapter (according to the TTP itself). 77ISK founding governor and former TTP commander, Hafiz Saeed Khan, was optimistic of TTP being subsumed by ISK, as evident from a letter from Khan to ISC, dated June 22, 2016, that the TTP would not be able to survive the rise of ISK. 78In his words:

As for the TTP, headed by Mulla Fadlallah [Fadlullah], it is on the verge of collapsing because of the conflicts that have taken place within it. Praise to Allah. We know that it had tried to smooth out some conflicts inside the governorate, but the state of its personnel became such that they are accusing one another of being spies and agents. This is a victory Allah granted the soldiers of the Caliphate.

While ISK’s strong anti-Pakistan narrative appealed to TTP fighters, its brutal war with the Afghan Taliban became an obstacle for TTP to cooperate with ISK, given TTP’s loyalty to the Afghan Taliban. To stem the flow of member defections to ISK, the TTP published a detailed religious edict in 2015 criticizing and nullifying the Islamic State’s caliphate. 79Interestingly, although the TTP maintained bases in ISK’s strongholds in Kunar and Nangarhar, reports about ISK-TTP clashes have been largely nonexistent. ISK’s decline in 2019, however, was paralleled by TTP’s own resurgence, 80and for the first time, in July 2020, the TTP declared ISK to be a tool of the Pakistani establishment, set out to destroy jihadi movements. 81Overall, given the Afghan Taliban’s ascendancy to power and the TTP’s reinvigorated operations and celebration of the former’s victory, it is possible that the relationship between the TTP and ISK becomes more hostile in the future.

As ISK intensified its battle with the Afghan Taliban in 2020 and the TTP publicly renewed its pledge of allegiance to the Afghan Taliban, 82ISK turned to disparaging the TTP as well. In August 2021, ISK published a book authored by ideologue Abu Saad Muhammad al-Khurasani in which he declared the TTP leadership to be apostates. 83Within the publication, he accused the TTP of being a puppet of the former Afghan government and seeking external support from Indian intelligence agencies. 84The book discussed the potential of the TTP striking a deal with the Pakistani state for their own worldly interests, and encouraged TTP fighters to join ISK’s “true” jihad. A similar publication was released by the Islamic State’s Pakistani chapter in December 2021, 85which urged TTP fighters to revolt against their leadership in light of the group’s recent but no longer ongoing negotiations with the Pakistani state. These changing dynamics between ISK and the TTP suggest rising tensions between the two groups in the future, as ISK seems intent on luring TTP members to its own fold for its long war against Afghan Taliban rule.

The Afghan Taliban, however, have been proactive in their efforts to prevent ISK or any other rival group from exploiting fractures within the regional jihadi landscape. For example, according to sources within Afghanistan, the Afghan Taliban held a secret meeting of all allied jihadis near Kandahar to discuss ISK shortly before its February 2020 Doha deal with the United States. 86The Afghan Taliban asked all gathered militants to join one of the Afghan Taliban’s vetted groups if they wanted to remain in Afghanistan. Later that year, a series of mergers saw 10 anti-state Pakistani militant groups, including all TTP splinters, rejoining the TTP to merge into a single entity. 87What remains unclear, however, is the extent to which such efforts will garner success in the long-term in containing ISK’s recruitment drive.

Al-Qa`ida
The formation of an Islamic State province in the Afghanistan-Pakistan region extended the Islamic State-al-Qa`ida rivalry into South and Central Asia. Yet that rivalry is a nuanced one given the presence of the Taliban and its status as ISK’s primary local adversary. One of ISK’s justifications for its war with the Taliban is the latter’s professed attempts to distance themselves from al-Qa`ida and terrorist groups in general. 88An examination of ISK’s published propaganda shows criticism largely directed toward al-Qa`ida’s current emir, Ayman al-Zawahiri, who is labeled an apostate for his obedience to the Afghan Taliban. 89At the same time, in a fashion similar to ISC, ISK propaganda frequently praises al-Qa`ida’s previous head and founder, Usama bin Ladin, and paints the Islamic State as the rightful inheritor of bin Ladin’s jihadi legacy and al-Zawahiri as an errant and illegitimate successor. 90Like ISC, the focus of ISK’s propaganda on al-Zawahiri in particular could partially be the result of the influence of Afghanistan-Pakistan region-based Arab leaders of al-Qa`ida who pledged allegiance to ISK, in addition to the fact that al-Zawahiri is the leader of ISC’s main rival group that has been in an open conflict with ISC since its early years. Several of the initial al-Qa`ida defectors to ISK swapped alliances due to differences over ideological and organizational matters with al-Zawahiri and his son-in-law, Abu Dujjana al-Basha, who held an influential position in the al-Qa`ida central leadership. l

Intense counterterrorism pressure against al-Qa`ida in Afghanistan and Pakistan since 9/11 resulted in the death of bin Ladin 91and the appointment of al-Zawahiri as al-Qa`ida’s leader. Subsequently, senior al-Qa`ida defectors to the Islamic State encouraged hundreds of local Afghan and Pakistani cadres to also join ISK to continue their global jihad. 92According to former Afghan government senior security officials, 93ma large number of ISK’s founding cadres were former al-Qa`ida members, which provided ISK with highly skilled trainers and experts. 94 n

AQIS’ founding leaders, Ahmad Farooq and Usama Mahmood, 95have attributed the loss of al-Qa`ida members to ISK to the Islamic State’s flashy, ‘Hollywood-style’ propaganda and territorial captures in Iraq and Syria, among other factors. 96Against the backdrop of al-Qa`ida members joining ISK, al-Zawahiri announced the establishment of AQIS around September 2014. oWhile some view the formation of AQIS as a reaction to the Islamic State’s announcement of a caliphate, especially due to defections of al-Qa`ida members in early 2014, in its first edition of its Resurgence magazine, al-Qa`ida relayed the message that the “establishment of this organization is a direct result of the merger of several groups that have been engaged in Jihad in this region for several years.” 97In another edition of the magazine released the following year (mid-2015), a well-known al-Qa`ida member-Adam Yahiye Gadahn-directly refuted accusations that AQIS had been created to counter the growing influence of the Islamic State. Per Gadahn, plans for AQIS were long in the making and finalized in mid-2013, and as such, “the founding of the new branch [AQIS] had absolutely nothing to do with any perceived or presumed rivalry between al-Qa`ida and Islamic State.” 98p

With the U.S. operation that resulted in the death of al-Baghdadi and ISK’s territorial collapse in 2019, AQIS announced an amnesty for al-Qa`ida cadres who joined ISK, 99although it remains unclear how many reverted back. Looking forward, AQIS and ISK are likely to continue their rivalry in South and Central Asia, which may intensify as the two compete for recruits and their parent organizations (ISC and al-Qa`ida) compete to be the legitimate leaders of global jihad. On one hand, given al-Qa`ida and AQIS’ limited observable reach and activity in the current environment, ISK may continue to dominate the regional militant landscape as the ascendent transnational jihadi brand. On the other hand, given al-Qa`ida’s close historical relationship with the Taliban, the latter’s takeover in Afghanistan may allow AQIS greater opportunities to increase its own influence. How the rivalry between the two groups plays out will ultimately be influenced by the Taliban’s ability to constrain ISK and reinforce their control within Afghanistan.

The Afghan Taliban
Since its inception, ISK has viewed the Afghan Taliban as its main strategic rival in the region. 100In a quest to outbid and outcompete its rival, ISK has not only attacked Afghan Taliban targets regularly since 2015, but also recruited heavily from the organization’s ranks and leadership, which ISK has categorized into three general groups: first, the ‘sincere Taliban jihadis’ who defected to join ISK; second, those who kept a neutral stance toward ISK; and third, the ones who are the puppets of regional governments and motivated by personal interests. 101ISK has made delegitimizing the Afghan Taliban’s purity as a jihadi movement one of its main messaging priorities. This is reflected in ISK’s media campaigns for the last several years, which consistently highlight idolatrous Afghan Taliban-supported or tacitly approved religious and cultural practices, as well as relationships with foreign states that ISK views as heretical. Undermining the Afghan Taliban’s legitimacy as a jihadi movement is a key pillar to ISK’s organizational identity that is unlikely to change. 102Since the former took power, ISK’s strategy has evolved not only to challenge the Afghan Taliban’s legitimacy as the predominant jihadi force in the region (given their negotiations with the United States, and links to Pakistan, China, and Iran), but also their competency as a governing actor. 103

ISK’s two-pronged attack on the Afghan Taliban’s legitimacy 104is likely to persist as long as the Taliban remain in power. Early assessments of the Taliban’s governance efforts suggest ISK’s strategy is paying dividends, as the Taliban remain more preoccupied with maintaining the organization’s internal cohesion, reverting to their “default wartime style and operational mode,” and relying on harsh restrictions, extrajudicial raids, and violence to establish some semblance of control. 105Such oppressive tactics, and a failure to provide human security, are likely to increase discontent with the Taliban’s rule, which can play into ISK’s hands, given the latter’s anti-Taliban stance.

Within the ISK-Taliban rivalry, ISK’s strategy to poach Taliban members and gain recruits in Afghanistan has centered on exploiting the Taliban’s tense relationship with salafis, a factor often overlooked. 111Tensions between ISK and the Taliban intensified after the salafis rose to key leadership positions within ISK in the wake of the killing of ISK’s founding governor. 112Abdul Haseeb Logari, ISK’s second governor, was a salafi scholar, and Sheikh Jalaluddin, an influential salafi scholar in the Pashtun belt of Afghanistan and Pakistan, became the group’s chief ideologue. qThis framed ISK’s battle with the Taliban more than before as a fight between the salafis’ version of the sharia and that of the “ideologically corrupt Hanfists Muslims.” 113rAs Logari implemented a salafi-interpreted, sharia-based system in ISK-controlled territories in Afghanistan, a large number of Afghan salafis joined ISK’s ranks. 114As such, whether opportunistically or by design, ISK became an armed platform for salafi supremacy, which has now developed into a core vector of ISK’s insurgency efforts in northeastern Afghanistan as outlined above. 115

Since the Taliban’s takeover of Afghanistan in 2021, ISK has remained relentlessly committed to targeting the Afghan Taliban, highlighting the latter’s inability to protect civilians at home or contain terrorism. Unlike during their previous years of rule, the Taliban are faced with tackling an enemy that has poached the Taliban’s own members as well as those of their allies, and that follows an even more radical interpretation of Islam for justifying its violence. Although many argue that ISK’s salafi ideology has a limited audience in Afghanistan, the Taliban do have a long list of enemies in Afghanistan, and some of them may be willing to cooperate with ISK to counter the Taliban’s influence, due to lack of other organized resistance efforts. While this is not a given, as opponents of the Taliban may seek out alternative courses of action, Afghan political history provides several instances of such pragmatism guiding cooperation and alliances, such as in the case of Gulbadin Hekmatyar, emir of Hizb-i-Islami (HIG). In a public statement issued in 2015, Hekmatyar urged his fighters to support ISK in the Taliban-ISK war, arguing that ISK had never transgressed against the HIG while the Taliban had oppressed HIG members on several occasions. 116sSimilarly, at a public gathering hosted in September 2021 in Paris by exiled Northern Resistance Front Afghan supporters, a speaker suggested to party members that ISK may be the best mechanism to counter the Taliban. 117

As noted above, the Taliban continue to be engaged in a counterinsurgency campaign against ISK, particularly in ISK’s former stronghold of Nangarhar. ISK’s attacks against Taliban checkpoints, security convoys, and personnel, designed to destabilize Taliban control, have exposed the weaknesses in the latter’s counterinsurgency approach, which Colin Clarke and Jonathan Schroden recently labeled “brutally ineffective.” 118As they rightly point out, night raids, 119extrajudicial killings of suspected ISK members, 120and indiscriminate crackdowns on locals, 121among other tactics, contribute to a broader strategy of counterinsurgency via brute force that empirically has been shown to be ill-suited to defeat insurgent groups. 122The combination of ISK’s history of resilience against immense targeting pressure (including airstrikes and ground operations), 123its ability to create pockets of territorial control in Afghanistan, 124and the Taliban’s oppressive counterinsurgency strategy bodes poorly for the security situation going forward. And a resurgent ISK not only challenges the Taliban’s legitimacy, it also depletes the group’s limited resources as the latter struggles to grapple with the growing humanitarian catastrophe at home. 125As Clarke and Schroden also contend, the resurgence of ISK also has the potential to multiply the number of armed resistance groups in Afghanistan, who may conclude that armed resistance is not only viable, but also necessary. 126

In sum, ISK and the Taliban’s rivalry is likely to intensify into the future given the divergence in their goals and ideologies, and competition for influence. For ISK, targeting the Taliban serves multiple goals, but perhaps most importantly, it allows ISK to simultaneously demonstrate its own resolve and operational capacity while undermining the Taliban’s reputation-allowing it to position itself as the dominant militant player in the region and the partner of choice for local groups seeking allies.

Regional Security Implications of a Resurgent ISK
With the Afghan Taliban now in power, the question that has come to be highly debated is whether they are capable of constraining ISK. But two associated issues are perhaps equally critical to consider; the first is the cost associated with the Taliban diverting resources to tackle a resurgent ISK rather than establishing basic governance, and the second is the implications for the broader region if the Taliban and ISK remain engaged in a prolonged battle that could potentially last for several years.

The debilitating human costs of a prolonged battle between ISK and the Taliban have been felt through the thousands of civilian casualties and tens of thousands more displaced over the past seven years. 127Additionally, the recent wave of attacks conducted by ISK, including the Kabul airport attack and attacks against the region’s Shi`a communities, have highlighted the severe implications of ISK’s resurgence and continued survival on the Taliban’s ability to govern as a state actor. But ISK is not just the Taliban’s problem. The group’s strategy of delegitimizing the Taliban, merging its transnational agenda with experienced regionally oriented groups, and building a diverse militant base of members with over a dozen nationalities and terrorist group affiliations creates a threat for all of Afghanistan’s neighbors. 128

One of the main manifestations of that threat is ISK’s ability to align its own agenda with the interests of numerous regionally oriented groups-something that nationalistic groups like the Afghan Taliban are growing increasingly ill-equipped to offer. Given the Taliban’s desire to be recognized as a legitimate entity by the international community and their professed inclination to distance themselves from terrorist groups, coupled with al-Qa`ida’s relatively weakened status, ISK has positioned itself as the most viable option for anti-state groups such as the Islamic Movement of Uzbekistan 129and East Turkistan Islamic Movement/Turkistan Islamic Party, 130which have suffered losses from counterterrorism operations and may be seeking to join an ascendant jihadi group that also meets their fundamental goals. Whether local groups’ primary motivations are to target the governments of Pakistan, India, China, Central Asian countries, and/or Muslim and non-Muslim minority populations, ISK has something to offer all of them.

ISK’s sources of strength are drawn from across the region, and its survival is likely to exacerbate violence across the region and disrupt any plans for Afghanistan’s stability rooted in geo-economics. 136It also opens up the country for renewed proxy warfare. 137Given that the Taliban have so far been incapable of delivering proper security to Afghan citizens and have yet to receive necessary levels of foreign assistance to stem the growing humanitarian crisis, the Taliban’s control and power may erode quickly.

In short, ISK’s survival poses significant risks, which regional players will be ill-advised to tolerate. Instead of watching the Taliban continue to clash with ISK, countries looking to counter ISK may need to proactively develop a joint security mechanism that addresses ISK’s key sources of strength and ultimately help the Taliban constrain the group within Afghanistan. For example, identifying and sharing intelligence regarding inter-group activity related to ISK and its cross-border alliances could help dismantle ISK’s operational alliances, which are an important source of the group’s strength. Another area of coordination could be dismantling supply chains of smuggling and inter-group linkages within each country’s shadow economy, which facilitate ISK financing. Finally, sharing intelligence on the profiles of captured ISK militants, including their prior affiliations, could help identify channels of ISK recruitment. Such cooperation could go far to ensure that any kinetic counterterrorism measures against ISK contribute to undermining the group rather than simply resulting in its decentralization and dispersion across the region. CTC

Dr. Amira Jadoon is an assistant professor at the Combating Terrorism Center and the Department of Social Sciences at the U.S. Military Academy at West Point. She specializes in international security, economic statecraft, political violence, and terrorism. Twitter: @AmiraJadoon Abdul Sayed is an independent researcher on jihadism and the politics and security of the Afghanistan-Pakistan region. Sayed has a master’s degree in political science from Lund University, Sweden. He is currently working on projects related to violent extremist organizations and transnational jihadism in the Afghanistan-Pakistan region. Twitter: @abdsayedd Andrew Mines is a research fellow at the Program on Extremism at George Washington University, where he researches various extremist movements and organizations. Twitter: @mines_andrew © 2022 Amira Jadoon, Abdul Sayed, Andrew Mines

Substantive Notes
[a] The authors compiled ISK attacks data from January 2015 to December 2021 into an original database sourced from open source-news articles and attack claims issued by the Islamic State in its official weekly magazine, Al Naba, as well as through its central media channel, Amaq. Each attack is coded for date, location, casualties, and target.

[b] These documents were not specifically addressed to ISK, but appeared to be generic guidelines for Al-Hisbah members, which could potentially be based in Iraq and Syria or in other Islamic State’s provinces.

[c] It is possible that in later years, due to the growing attention on ISK’s operations, there was a greater level of reporting of all ISK-linked activity than in prior years, resulting in higher numbers. However, it could also be argued that reduced access and visibility by news organizations under the new Taliban regime may be leading to a slight under-reporting in ISK operations. Despite the possibility of over- and under-reporting, the authors do not believe that the increase in attacks can be entirely explained by the increased attention on ISK as ISK’s attacks claimed through the Amaq News Agency and Al Naba (the Islamic State’s weekly newsletter) reflect a similar pattern.

[d] The lack of details surrounding al-Muhajir’s appointment in 2020 and ISK’s internal operational challenges led to speculation initially that al-Muhajir was likely a foreign fighter formerly affiliated with al-Qa`ida in Afghanistan and Pakistan, but originally from the Middle East. This perception was compounded by the alias “al-Muhajir,” which literally means an emigrant in Arabic. However, it was revealed later when Afghan security forces arrested and interrogated his close family members and friends that al-Muhajir hailed from northern Kabul. In May 2021, al-Muhajir’s background was also confirmed when ISK published two large books of hundreds of pages authored by al-Muhajir in one of Afghanistan’s official Dari languages. For details on the earlier mystery over al-Muhajir’s identity, see Abdul Sayed, “Who Is the New Leader of Islamic State-Khorasan Province?” Lawfare, September 2, 2020.

[e] HIG is a Taliban political rival and a major Afghan jihadi party of the past. For details on HIG, see Chris Sands and Fazelminallah Qazizai, Night Letters (London: Hurst Publishers, 2019).

[f] ISK’s attacks on infrastructure, such as electricity transmission lines and oil tankers, are categorized as economic warfare, used to inflict damage and pressure on the government. ISK warned the former Afghan government of such economic attacks after a news report emerged about the government attempting to repatriate ISK-affiliated foreign fighters to their respective countries. See Sultan Aziz Azzam, “Warning,” al-Azaim Foundation, April-May 2021. See also “Lead Inspector General for Operation Freedom’s Sentinel, Quarterly Report, July 1, 2021 — September 30, 2021 to the United States Congress, released November 15, 2021.

[g] Khurasani hails from the northeastern Afghanistan province of Kunar and is a famous salafi-jihadi scholar in the Afghanistan and Pakistan Pashtun belt. He first publicly pledged allegiance to then Islamic State leader Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi on July 1, 2014, and became a founding member of ISK. However, due to his arrest by Afghan security forces soon after ISK’s inception, he was held in Kabul prisons for the last five years. For details of his pledge of allegiance to al-Baghdadi, see Zahidullah Zahid, “A group of the Tehreek-e-Taliban Pakistan led by Shaikh Abu Yazid Abdul Qahir Khurasani with mujahideen of the training camps in Khurasan pledged to the emir of the Faithfull, Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi,” July 1, 2014.

[h] According to the authors’ interviews in September-November 2021, both Khurasani and Ahangar were held at Afghan intelligence special prisons in Kabul until the former government collapse after which they escaped with thousands of other prisoners.

[i] Several sources confirmed all 400-plus ISK-affiliated foreign fighters escaped in prison breaks hours before the Taliban took over on August 15, 2021. These sources include Taliban and former Afghan government officials, as well as relatives and friends of released Afghan prisoners.

[j] Salafism started to spread in Afghanistan in the early 1980s with the arrival of foreign fighters in Afghanistan, and donations by wealthy Middle Easterners, particularly from Saudi Arabia and Kuwait, to support the fight against the Soviet invasion. The northeastern province of Kunar in Afghanistan became the first stronghold of the salafis under the leadership of Shaikh Jameel-ur-Rehman aka Mulawi Hussain who hailed from Kunar. The salafi community gradually spread into the adjacent Nuristan, Nangarhar, and Badakhshan provinces, and further into northern Afghanistan, particularly after the political liberalization in Afghanistan post-9/11. Although there are no official reported numbers on the salafi population in Afghanistan, it is widely understood that the salafis constitute a majority of the population in Kunar province, and have a sizable presence in Nangarhar and Nuristan provinces. The salafis also have considerable strength in Kabul and presence in its adjacent northern provinces-for example, in Parwan, Takhar, and Kunduz provinces. It is significant to add here that the senior most Afghanistan-based Afghan salafi scholar Shaikh Abu Obaidullah Mutawakil hailed from Parwan province, which borders Kabul. See Abdul Sayed, “The killing of pro-ISKP Salafist Shaikh Abu Obaidullah Mutawakil in Kabul,” BBC Urdu, September 7, 2021. For further readings on the historical role and influence of salafism in Afghanistan, especially in Kunar, see Vahid Brown, “The Salafi Emirate of Kunar: Between South Asia and the Arabian Peninsula” in Pan-Islamic Connections (New York: Oxford University Press, 2018), pp. 91–116 and Kevin Bell, “The First Islamic State: A Look Back at the Islamic Emirate of Kunar,” CTC Sentinel 9:2 (2016): pp. 9–14. For contemporary readings on the role of salafism and its connections to ISK, see Borhan Osman, “Bourgeois Jihad: Why Young, Middle-Class Afghans Join the Islamic State,” United State Institute of Peace, June 1, 2020, and Abdul Sayed, “The Taliban’s Persistent War on Salafists in Afghanistan,” Terrorism Monitor 19:8 (2021): pp. 9–13. For more on ISK’s relationship with the salafi communities in Nangarhar and Kunar, see Borhan Osman, “Descent into chaos: Why did Nangarhar turn into an IS hub?” Afghan Analysts Network, September 27, 2016, and Obaid Ali and Khalid Gharanai, “Hit from Many Sides (2): The demise of ISKP in Kunar,” Afghan Analysts Network, March 3, 2021.

[k] In addition to challenging local militant groups, ISK also threatens local regional state actors to include the Pakistani state. However, the authors focus their discussion here on ISK’s militant group competitors.

[l] According to the researcher Don Rassler, this group included: Abu `Ubayda al-Lubnani, Abu al-Muhannad al-Urduni, Abu Jarir al-Shimali (Abu Tha’ir), Abu al-Huda al-Sudani, `Abd-al-`Aziz al-Maqdisi, `Abdullah al-Banjabi, Abu Younis al-Kurdim, Abu `A’isha al-Qurtubi, and Abu Mus`ab al-Tadamuni. See Don Rassler, “Situating the Emergence of the Islamic State of Khorasan,” CTC Sentinel 8:3 (2015). Abu Jarir al-Shimali wrote a detailed account of these differences with Ayman al-Zawahiri and his son-in-law, Abu Dujjana al-Basha, in Islamic State Central’s Dabiq magazine, which according to him resulted in defections to the Islamic State. For details, see Abu Jarir ash-Shamali, “Al-Qa`idah of Waziristan,” Dabiq 6 (2015): pp. 40–55.

[m] According to these interviewees, al-Qa`ida members’ defections to ISK provided it with highly skilled trainers and experts who constituted a significant proportion (estimated to be one-third by the interviewees) of ISK’s founding military, explosive, media, and administrative officials and commanders.

[n] Pakistani journalist Faizullah Khan is an expert on the Pakistani militant landscape and al-Qa`ida in Pakistan, and has been reporting on the group since 9/11. Khan confirmed that a large number of al-Qa`ida members in Pakistan joined ISK at its founding. Based on several interactions with al-Qa`ida members, Khan claims that Pakistani cadres who witnessed these internal defections informed him that several influential Pakistani leaders in al-Qa`ida’s central council in the Khurasan region suggested to al-Qa`ida top leadership to pledge allegiance to al-Baghdadi and merge with the Islamic State. Based on these interactions, Khan claims that around 30–40 percent of al-Qa`ida Pakistani cadres defected to ISK when it emerged. According to Khan, this list included al-Qa`ida senior Pakistani commander Tahir Hussain Minhas (alias Sain) who planned ISK’s first-ever high-profile attack that massacred around four dozen people from the Shi`a Ismaili minority in Karachi in May 2015. For details, see Imtiaz Ali, “From poultry business to militancy: Safoora mastermind Tahir Minhas,” Dawn, May 14, 2016.

[o] Ayman al-Zawahiri announced the establishment of AQIS in September 2014 through a video released by al-Qa`ida’s official media arm, As-Sahab. Asim Umar was introduced as the AQIS emir, with Usama Mahmood as its spokesperson. Both individuals provided details about the process that resulted in the formation of AQIS. For more details, see “Unity of Ranks: Announcement of establishment of al-Qa`ida in the Indian Sub-continent,” As-Sahab, 2014.

[p] Adam Yahiye Gadahn, an American citizen, was killed in April 2015, and was a prominent member of al-Qa`ida. See Greg Botelho and Ralph Ellis, “Adam Gadahn, American Mouthpiece for al-Qaeda, killed,” CNN, April 23, 2015.

[q] Other Afghan salafi scholars who rose to prominent positions in the ISK ranks include Shaikh Maqbool, aka Shahidullah Shahid (ISK founding spokesperson), Shaikh Abu Saeed al-Muhajir (ISK third governor), Shaikh Abu Umar Khurasani (ISK’s fourth governor), Shaikh Abu Yazid Abdul Qahir Khurasani, Shaikh Qasim, and Shaikh Matiullah. For details, see Abu Saad Muhammad al-Khurasani, “Bright pages for understanding the nationalists Taliban,” al-Azaim Foundation, August 2021, pp. 757–759. See also Abu Saad al-Khurasani, “Khorasan: a graveyard for the crusades and a province of jihadists,” al-Azaim Foundation, August 29, 2021.

[r] The Taliban have links to the Hanafi school of thought.

[s] Former Afghan Taliban spokesperson Abdul Hai Mutmain provided details about Hekmatyar’s party members facilitating ISK’s efforts against the Taliban in his book on the Taliban’s history: Mullah Umar, Taliban and Afghanistan (Kabul: Afghan Publishing Association, 2017), pp. 361–362. Mutmain’s statements were confirmed by senior HIG cadres based in Kabul in interviews conducted in September-November 2021 by author Abdul Sayed. According to the interviewees, the Taliban’s actions forced Hekmatyar to support ISK in its war against the Taliban because the Taliban had restricted HIG members from running a parallel jihadi network against the U.S.-led coalition in Afghanistan since 2007. The interviewees added that Hekmatyar had advised his fighters to side with ISK in the Taliban-ISK war only if circumstances forced them to choose one of the two parties. See also Tahir Khan, “Enemy of enemy: Hikmatyar support for IS stuns observers,” Express Tribune, July 7, 2015. Overall, though, Hekmatyar’s stance toward the Taliban has remained unclear. Initially, Hekmatyar supported peace talks with the Taliban when he returned to Afghanistan in 2017; he remained a supporter when the United States and the Taliban signed a peace deal in February 2020, blaming the former Afghan government for any stalemates in the peace process. See Hamid Shalizi, “Former warlord Hekmatyar calls for peace with Afghan Taliban,” Reuters, May 4, 2017, and Massoud Ansar, “Hekmatyar Blames Afghan Govt, US for Talks Stalemate,” Tolo News, February 14, 2021. Hekmatyar was one of the first to welcome the Taliban’s takeover of Kabul, declaring it to be one of the most peaceful regime changes in Afghanistan in the last few decades. However, this positive stance ended when Hekmatyar accused the Taliban of arresting, harassing, and killing his party members in different parts of the country. Perhaps the most prominent case was the abduction and killing of one of HIG’s party leaders in Nangarhar, Ezatullah Mohib, who mysteriously disappeared in late October 2021. Mohib’s body was found on a roadside a few days later. See Majeed Qarar, “Ezatullah Mohib was kidnappd on Kabul-Jalalabad highway …,” Twitter, October 29, 2021. Although the Taliban never claimed Mohib’s killing, an HIG member told author Abdul Sayed that a handwritten letter was found with Mohib’s dead body, which stated that he had been killed due to his links with ISK. The same interviewee claimed that, subsequently, Hekmatyar criticized the Taliban publicly for Mohib’s assassination in the following Friday sermon, which he delivered at his party’s central office in Kabul.

Citations
[1] Deepa Shivaram and Sharon Pruitt-Young, “The Attack Outside Kabul Airport Pushes The U.S. Exit Into Deeper Disarray,” NPR, August 26, 2021.

[2] Andrew Watkins, “An Assessment of Taliban Rule at Three Months,” CTC Sentinel 14:9 (2021): pp. 1–14.

[3] Jonathan Landay, “U.N. envoy says Islamic State now appears present in all Afghan provinces,” Reuters, November 17, 2021.

[4] Victor Blue, Thomas Gibbons-Neff, and Christina Goldbaum, “ISIS Poses a Growing Threat to New Taliban Government in Afghanistan,” New York Times, November 3, 2021.

[5] Amira Jadoon, Allied and Lethal: Islamic State Khorasan’s Network and Organizational Capacity in Afghanistan and Pakistan (West Point, NY: Combating Terrorism Center, 2018).

[6] Amira Jadoon, Nakissa Jahanbani, and Charmaine Willis, “Challenging the ISK Brand in Afghanistan-Pakistan: Rivalries and Divided Loyalties,” CTC Sentinel 11:4 (2018): pp. 23–29.

[7] These interviews were conducted in 2021 both in person and remotely, including author’s (Sayed) research trip to Afghanistan in summer 2021.

[8] As understood through a review of documents captured in Afghanistan, provided to the CTC through its Department of Defense partners.

[9] Don Rassler, “Situating the Emergence of the Islamic State of Khorasan,” CTC Sentinel 8:3 (2015), pp. 7–11.

[10] Tim Craig and Haq Nawaz Khan, “Pakistani Taliban leaders pledge allegiance to Islamic State,” Washington Post, October 14, 2014.

[11] Amira Jadoon and Andrew Mines, Broken but Not Defeated: An Examination of State-led Operations Against Islamic State Khorasan in Afghanistan and Pakistan (2015–2018) (West Point, NY: Combating Terrorism Center, 2020). For a collection of relevant on-the-ground reporting and analysis, see the Afghanistan Analysts Network collection of ISK-related content available on its website.

[12] Borhan Osman, “The Islamic State in ‘Khorasan’: How It Began and Where It Stands Now in Nangarhar,” Afghanistan Analysts Network, July 27, 2016.

[14] Casey Johnson, “The Rise and Stall of the Islamic State in Afghanistan,” United States Institute of Peace, November 3, 2016.

[15] Gordon Lubold, “U.S. Clears Path to Target Islamic State in Afghanistan,” Wall Street Journal, January 19, 2016.

[16] General John W. Nicholson, “Statement for the Record on the Situation in Afghanistan,” Senate Armed Services Committee, February 9, 2017.

[17] “Ninth report of the Analytical Support and Sanctions Monitoring Team pursuant to resolution 2255 (2015) concerning the Taliban and other associated individuals and entities constituting a threat to the peace, stability, and security of Afghanistan,” United Nations Security Council, May 30, 2018.

[18] Ibid.; Amira Jadoon and Andrew Mines, “Taking Aim: Islamic State Khorasan’s Leadership Losses,” CTC Sentinel 12:8 (2019): pp. 14–22.

[19] “Twenty-fifth report of the Analytical Support and Sanctions Monitoring Team submitted pursuant to resolution 2638 (2017) concerning ISIL (Da’esh), Al-Qaida and associated individuals and entities,” United Nations Security Council, January 20, 2020; Borhan Osman, “Bourgeois Jihad: Why Young, Middle-Class Afghans Join the Islamic State,” United State Insitute of Peace, June 1, 2020.

[20] Jadoon, Allied and Lethal; authors’ data.

[21] Jadoon, Allied and Lethal; authors’ data.

[22] All documents discussed in this section are part of a collection held by the CTC that is being assessed and will be released as part of a future product.

[23] Jibran Ahmad and Yeganeh Torbati, “U.S. drone kills Islamic State leader for Afghanistan, Pakistan: officials,” Reuters, August 12, 2016.

[24] Authors’ data on ISK militant losses. For more information, including collection methodology, see Jadoon and Mines, Broken But Not Defeated. See also Haroro Ingram, Craig Whiteside, and Charlie Winter, The ISIS Reader: Milestone Texts of the Islamic State Movement (London: C. Hurst & Co., 2020).

[25] Authors’ data. See also Abu Saad Muhammad al-Khurasani, “Bright pages for understanding the nationalists Taliban,” al-Azaim Foundation, August 2021, p. 552 (acquired from the ISK channels on the social media messaging app Telegram).

[26] This is in line with the structure and procedures for Islamic State Hisbah activities as described in “Moral Dominance: Policing Minds, Spirits, Bodies, and Markets,” The ISIS Files, Program On Extremism, George Washington University, June 2021. See pp. 20–22.

[27] Zabihullah Ghazi and Mujib Mashal, “29 Dead After ISIS Attack on Afghan Prison,” New York Times, August 3, 2020.

[28] Jadoon and Mines, Broken But Not Defeated; Osman, “Bourgeois Jihad.”

[29] Data is compiled from various Al Naba (Islamic State’s official weekly newsletter) articles and editorials, and other propaganda materials distributed through Telegram have discussed ISK’s attacks, such as the Kabul airport attack in August 2021. See footnote A.

[30] Ewelina U. Ochab, “Bombings Outside a School in Afghanistan Kill Over 68 People, Mostly Children,” Forbes, May 9, 2021.

[31] Abdul Sayed, “Opinion: ISIS-K is ready to fight the Taliban. Here’s how the group became a major threat in Afghanistan,” Washington Post, August 29, 2021.

[32] For reporting on the Kunduz attack, see Thomas Gibbons-Neff and Wali Arian, “ISIS Bomber Kills Dozens at Shiite Mosque in Northern Afghanistan,” New York Times, October 8, 2021. For reporting on the Kandahar attack, see Ailsa Chang, Connor Donevan, and Amy Isackson, “A Kandahar mosque attack exposes the Taliban’s security challenges,” NPR, October 15, 2021.

[33] Thomas Gibbons-Neff, Sami Sahak, and Taimoor Shah, “Dozens Killed in ISIS Attack on Military Hospital in Afghanistan’s Capital,” New York Times, November 2, 2021.

[34] Ghazi and Mashal.

[35] Authors’ data. See footnote A.

[36] Amira Jadoon, Andrew Mines, and Abdul Sayed, “The evolving Taliban-ISK rivalry,” Interpreter, September 7, 2021.

[37] Authors’ data. See footnote A.

[38] Abdul Sayed, “The Taliban’s Persistent War on Salafists in Afghanistan,” Terrorism Monitor 19:8 (2021): pp. 9–13.

[39] Abubakar Siddique, “Taliban Wages Deadly Crackdown on Afghan Salafists as War with IS-K Intensifies,” RFE/RL Gandhara, October 22, 2021.

[40] Susannah George, “Taliban sends hundreds of fighters to eastern Afghanistan to wage war against Islamic State,” Washington Post, November 22, 2021.

[41] Colin Clarke and Jonathan Schroden, “Brutally Ineffective: How the Taliban Are Failing in Their New Role as Counter-Insurgents,” War on the Rocks, November 29, 2021.

[42] Abu Saad al-Khurasani, “Khorasan: a graveyard for the crusades and a province of jihadists,” al-Azaim Foundation, August 29, 2021.

[43] Sami Yousafzai and Tucker Reals, “ISIS-K is trying to undermine Afghanistan’s Taliban regime, from inside and out. That’s America’s problem, too,” CBS News, October 8, 2021.

[44] Author (Sayed) interviews, senior security officials of the former Afghan government, conducted remotely, September-November 2021.

[45] Author (Sayed) interviews, senior security officials of the former Afghan government, conducted remotely, September-November 2021.

[46] Author (Sayed) interviews, senior security officials of the former Afghan government, conducted remotely, September-November 2021.

[47] Author (Sayed) interviews, senior security officials of the former Afghan government, conducted remotely, September-November 2021.

[48] Abdul Sayed, “Daesh Khorasan: Who is Dr. Shahab Al-Muhajir and has he been chosen as the new head of IS Khorasan?” BBC Urdu, August 21, 2020.

[49] Author (Sayed) interviews, senior security officials of the former Afghan government, September-November 2021.

[50] Author (Sayed) interviews, senior security officials of the former Afghan government, September-November 2021.

[51] Yousafzai and Reals.

[52] Al-Khurasani, “Khorasan.”

[53] Eric Schmitt, “U.S. Military Focusing on ISIS Cell Behind Attack at Kabul Airport,” New York Times, January 1, 2022.

[54] “Twenty-sixth report of the Analytical Support and Sanctions Monitoring Team submitted pursuant to resolution 2638 (2017) concerning ISIL (Da’esh), Al-Qaida and associated individuals and entities,” United Nations Security Council, July 23, 2020.

[55] “Message from Dr Shahab al-Muhajir — the new wali of Khorasan,” Black Flags Media Center, July 3, 2021.

[56] Sultan Aziz Azzam, “Special report on the Islamic State attack on the Nangarhar prsison,” Black Flags Media Center, August 3, 2021.

[57] Sayed, “Opinion: ISIS-K is ready to fight the Taliban.”

[58] Author (Sayed) interviews, former Afghan government security officials, September-November 2021.

[59] For details on the arrest of Farooqi and Ahangar, see Shishir Gupta, “Kashmiri terrorist got away 25 yrs ago, caught with ISKP chief in Afghanistan,” Hindustan Times, April 17, 2020.

[60] Roshan Noorzai, “Afghanistan to Discuss Fate of Foreign IS Prisoners with Their Countries,” VOA News, May 3, 2021.

[61] “Edict on the surrendered people,” ISK Sharia committee, August 2, 2020.

[62] “Voice of the Caliphate Radio,” episodes 43–45, March 5–7, 2021.

[63] ISK judiciary official letter to the ISK emir and other officials, released via ISK Telgram channel; Abu Obaida, “To the respected governor of Khurasan, officials and judges,” Diwan al-Qadi’ wa-l Madhalim [The office of justice and grievances], Islamic State Khorasan Province, August 2, 2020.

[64] For details, see, for example, the ISKP video released by its Khalid Media: “The guarantors [Taliban] are in panic,” Khalid Media, November 2021.

[65] Abdul Sayed, “The dynamics of the upcoming battle between the Taliban and Daesh-K,” TRT World, September 13, 2021.

[66] Sayed, “The Taliban’s Persistent War on Salafists in Afghanistan.”

[67] “The guarantors [Taliban] are in panic,” al-Azaim Foundation, November 2021, acquired from the ISK channels on the social media messaging app Telegram.

[68] Yaroslav Trofimov, “Left Behind After U.S. Withdrawal, Some Former Afghan Spies and Soldiers Turn to Islamic State,” New York Times, October 31, 2021.

[69] Saurav Sarkar, “The Islamic State’s Increasing Focus on India,” Diplomat, March 20, 2020.

[70] Ananya Bhardwaj, “2 more Indians from Kerala susptected to be among ISIS terrorists who attacked Jalalabad jail,” Print, November 13, 2020.

[71] Gibbons-Neff and Arian.

[72] Raffaello Pantucci, “Indians and Central Asians Are the New Face of the Islamic State,” Foreign Policy, October 8, 2020; Vijait Singh and Suhasini Haidar, “India unlikely to allow return of 4 women who joined Islamic State,” Hindu, June 11, 2021; Arvind Ojha, “Islamic State Khorasan warns of more attacks in Kashmir amid targeted killings,” India Today, October 18, 2021.

[73] Tricia Bacon, Grace Ellis, and Daniel Milton, “Helping or hurting? The impact of foreign fighters on militant group behavior,” Journal of Strategic Studies, October 20, 2021.

[74] Jadoon, Allied and Lethal.

[75] Hafiz Saeed Khan, “Come join up with Wilayat Khurasan,” Wilayat Khurasan Media, 2015, available at jihadology.net

[76] For details on ISK founding leaderships’ roots to TTP, see Abdul Sayed and Tore Hamming, “The Revival of the Pakistani Taliban,” CTC Sentinel 14:4 (2021): pp. 28–38.

[77] Mufti Noor Wali Mehsud, Inqilab-i-Mehsud [Mehsuds Revolution] (Paktika, Afghanistan: Al-Shahab Publishers, 2017), p. 525.

[78] Internal ISK document reviewed by the CTC.

[79] “The Tihrek Taliban Pakistan religious stance on the caliphate announced by Sheikh Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi, May Allah Protect him,” Umar Media, circa mid-2015.

[80] Amira Jadoon, “The Evolution and Potential Resurgence of the Tehrik-i-Taliban Pakistan,” United States Institute of Peace, May 12, 2021.

[81] “The TTP statement against the unjust UN report about the TTP,” Umar Media, July 29, 2020.

[82] Mufti Noor Wali Mehsud (Abu Mansur Asim), “The Tihreak Taliban Pakistan congratulations to Emirate Islami,” Umar Media, August 17, 2021.

[83] Al-Khurasani, “Bright pages for understanding the nationalists Taliban.”

[84] Ibid., pp. 757–759.

[85] “Negotiations: Loss of this world and hereafter,” Yalghar 1:2 (2021): pp. 22–26.

[86] Author (Sayed) interviews in Afghanistan, summer 2021.

[87] Amira Jadoon and Abdul Sayed, “The Pakistani Taliban Is Reinventing Itself,” South Asian Voices, November 15, 2021.

[88] Al-Khurasani, “Bright pages for understanding the nationalists Taliban,” pp. 329–334.

[89] Ibid., pp. 757–759.

[90] Nineteen-minute propaganda video released by As-Sawarte in November 2021.

[91] For details, see Asfandyar Mir, “What Explains Counterterrorism Effectiveness? Evidence from the U.S. Drone War in Pakistan,” International Security 43:2 (2018): pp. 45–83.

[92] Ash-Shamali, “Al-Qa`idah of Waziristan,” Dabiq 6 (2015).

[93] Author (Sayed) interviews, senior security officials of the former Afghan government, conducted remotely, September-November 2021.

[94] Author (Sayed) interview, Pakistani journalist Faizullah Khan, October 2021.

[95] Ustad Ahmad Farooq, “Training course for the leadership Part 10: Instructions for the leadership,” audio lecture, As-Sahab AQIS, 2014.

[96] Ustad Usama Mahmood, “Our responsibilities in the context of Baghdadi killing and the Daesh’s discord,” Nawai Afghan Jihad, November 2019.

[97] As-Sahab Media, Resurgence 1 (2014): p. 20. The Resurgence magazine was launched by al-Qa`ida in 2014. For more details, see Alastair Reed, “Al-Qaeda in the Indian Subcontinent: A New Frontline in the Global Jihadist Movement?” International Centre for Counter-Terrorism (ICCT) Policy Brief, May 10, 2016.

[98] As-Sahab Media, Resurgence 2 (2014): p. 67. See Reed.

[99] Mahmood.

[100] Jadoon, Jahanbani, and Willis.

[101] Hafiz Saeed Khan, “Messsage to our people in Wilayat Khurasan,” Wilayat Khurasan Media, July 2015, available at jihadology.net

[102] Amira Jadoon and Andrew Mines, “The Taliban Can’t Take on the Islamic State Alone,” War on the Rocks, October 14, 2021.

[103] Haroro Ingram, “The Long Jihad: The Islamic State’s Method of Insurgency- Control, Meaning, & the Occupation of Mosul in Context,” Program on Extremism at George Washington University, September 2021.

[104] Clarke and Schroden.

[105] Watkins.

[106] Abdul Hai Mutmain, Mullah Umar, Taliban and Afghanistan (Kabul: Afghan Publishing Association, 2017), pp. 356–358; Aaron Y. Zelin, “Letter from the Taliban To Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi From the Head of the Shura Council,” Lawfare, June 27, 2015.

[107] Authors’ data.

[108] Jadoon and Mines, “The Taliban Can’t Take on the Islamic State Alone.”

[109] “ISKP Archives,” Afghanistan Analysts Network.

[110] Jadoon and Mines, “Taking Aim.”

[111] For further details on the Afghan Taliban’s complex relationship with the Afghan salafis since the early 1990s until the dominance of salafis within ISK, see Sayed, “The Taliban’s Persistent War on Salafists in Afghanistan,” and Abdul Sayed, “Islamic State Khorasan Province’s Peshawar Seminary Attack and War Against Afghan Taliban Hanafis,” Terrorism Monitor 18:21 (2020).

[112] Al-Khurasani, “Bright pages for understanding the nationalists Taliban,” pp. 757–759.

[113] Shaikh Jalaluddin, “Why we are fighting against the Taliban?” Khurasan Studio, August 2015, available at jihadology.net

[114] Sayed, “Islamic State Khorasan Province’s Peshawar Seminary Attack and War Against Afghan Taliban Hanafis.”

[115] “ISKP: A threat assessment,” ExTrac, August 2021; Sayed, “Islamic State Khorasan Province’s Peshawar Seminary Attack and War Against Afghan Taliban Hanafis.”

[116] Joanna Paraszczuk, “Afghanistan’s Hekmatyar Announces Support For IS In Fight Against Taliban,” RFE/RL, July 7, 2015.

[117] For source video of that gathering, see Malik Khurram Khan Dehwar, “NRF activists led by Amrullah Saleh & Ahmed Massoud are now …,” Twitter, October 4, 2021.

[118] Clarke and Schroden.

[119] Susannah George and Ellen Francis, “Blasts and clashes at military hospital in Kabul kill 20 people,” Washington Post, November 2, 2021.

[120] Blue, Gibbons-Neff, and Goldbaum.

[121] Sayed, “The Taliban’s Persistent War on Salafists in Afghanistan.”

[122] Ben Connable and Martin C. Libicki, How Insurgencies End (Santa Monica, CA: RAND Corporation, 2010).

[123] Jadoon and Mines, Broken But Not Defeated.

[124] Ibid.; “ISKP Archives,” Afghanistan Analysts Network.

[125] “Beyond Emergency Relief: Averting Afghanistan’s Humanitarian Catastrophe,” International Crisis Group Report, December 6, 2021.

[126] Clarke and Schroden.

[127] Jadoon and Mines, “The Taliban Can’t Take on the Islamic State Alone.”

[128] Jadoon and Mines, “Taking Aim.”

[129] Merhat Sharipzhan, “IMU Declares It Is Now Part of the Islamic State,”RFE/RL, August 6, 2015.

[130] Emily Feng, “Afghan Uyghurs whose families fled China fear the Taliban could deport them,” NPR, October 15, 2021.

[131] Jadoon, Allied and Lethal.

[132] Hassan Abbas, “Extremism and Terrorism Trends in Pakistan: Changing Dynamics and New Challenges,” CTC Sentinel 14:2 (2021): pp. 44–53.

[133] Jadoon, Allied and Lethal.

[134] Sayed and Hamming.

[135] “Twelfth report of the Analytical Support and Sanctions Monitoring Team submitted pursuant to resolution 2557 (2020) concerning the Taliban and other associated individuals and entities constituting a threat to the peace stability and security of Afghanistan,” United Nations Security Council, June 1, 2021.

[136] Federica Lai, “China’s economic influence in Afghanistan in a Belt & Road context,” Asia Power Watch, December 1, 2021.

[137] Jared Schwartz and Yelena Biberman, “A divided Taliban could unleash a new proxy war in Afghanistan,” Atlantic Council, June 29, 2020.

Originally published at https://ctc.usma.edu on January 27, 2022.

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I am a research analyst focusing on jihadism, Afghanistan, and Pakistan.

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Abdul Sayed

Abdul Sayed

I am a research analyst focusing on jihadism, Afghanistan, and Pakistan.

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