Why Islamic State Khurasan Poses an Indigenous Threat to the Afghan Taliban
What’s more, ISK has recently launched two significant cross-border attacks against Afghanistan’s neighbors. Late last month, the group claimed it had carried out a rocket attack on an Uzbek military base in the border town of Termez from the northern Afghan province of Balkh. And just yesterday, ISK claimed a second rocket attack, this time against Tajik military targets across the border from Afghanistan’s Takhar province. If these attacks and ISK’s propaganda campaigns targeting Uzbek and Tajiks for recruitment are any indicators, the group is growing bolder in its strategy to foment tensions between the Taliban and Afghanistan’s neighbors. This strategy-and any Taliban weakness to counter it-bodes poorly for regional security prospects.
In the months between ISK’s major fall and spring attack waves, some experts declared that ISK’s failure to carry out a large-scale attack in Afghanistan reflected the group’s demise under Taliban rule. However, temporary lulls in ISK attacks cannot be examined in isolation; a more rigorous analysis should guide assessments of the threat ISK poses in Afghanistan, the region, and beyond. To that end, this piece explores the depth of the ISK threat in Afghanistan, and shows how longstanding grievances held by the Taliban’s rival Islamist circles has provided a strong base for ISK in Afghanistan today.
Salafism emerged as a new variant of Sunni Islam in Afghanistan with the arrival of Arab foreign fighters to support the Afghan militants’ war against the Soviet invasion in the early 1980s. Salafists dominated the northeastern province of Kunar after a prominent Afghan jihadist leader, Shaikh Jameel ur Rehman a.k.a. Mulawi Hussain, embraced Salafism under the influence of its Middle Eastern proponents. Hussain belonged to the Panjpir sect of Hanafi Islam, and was the provincial emir of HIG for Kunar province. He founded the first ever Salafi-jihadist party of Afghanistan, Jamat Lil Quran Wal Sunna (JLQWS).
Hussain was a charismatic jihadist leader who had widespread influence among Afghan jihadists, particularly in his native province and its surroundings. He started preaching Salafism and held a leading role in fighting against the invading Soviet force and its supported Afghan regime in Kabul. Kunar soon turned into a Salafi-dominated province with his efforts. Hussain established a Salafist state in Kunar, which was the first Salafist proto-state in modern history.
However, HIG soon moved to thwart the Salafis’ proto-state project, which HIG saw as upsetting the party’s hegemony over the Pashtun provinces, particularly in Eastern Afghanistan including Kunar. Hussain was assassinated in a targeted attack in August 1991, hardly a year after establishing his Salafist state in Kunar, which dissolved with his murder.
Due to these major setbacks, Afghan Salafists centered their focus predominantly on non-militant approaches for propagating Salafism in Afghanistan and in its adjacent Pashtun belt of Pakistan. They established seminaries that produced hundreds of graduates steeped in Salafist doctrine every year. These Salafist graduates spread across Afghanistan and Afghan refugee camps in Pakistan to preach Salafism. Above all, wealthy Salafist donors from the Middle East supported charity projects for needy Afghans, which further accelerated the expansion of Salafism among the Afghan population.
With the Taliban’s accession to power in the early 1990s, Salafists faced a challenging era in Afghanistan. While Salafism had made inroads out of Kunar and into the provinces of Nangarhar, Laghman, and even the capital Kabul, Salafists faced stringent Taliban restrictions in these areas. These restrictions were mainly the product of sectarian differences, aimed to limit Salafism’s spread in Afghanistan. Several Salafists seminaries were closed, and books were confiscated. A delegation of Afghan Salafists met the Taliban leadership in Kabul, including Prime Minister Mullah Muhammad Rabbani, but to no avail.
Among the Afghan Salafist scholars who suffered under these Taliban restrictions were Shaikh Abu Obaidullah Mutawakil in Kabul and Shaikh Abdul Rahim Muslim Dost in Nangarhar. Both supported the post-9/11 Taliban insurgency in Afghanistan, and would later become notable proponents of ISK’s efforts in Afghanistan. Dost had an influential role in laying ISK’s foundation in the Af-Pak region, and is regarded by many to be the core ISK founder in Afghanistan. Mutawakil was respected as the senior-most Afghan Salafist scholar and a top supporter of ISK before being brutally killed in Kabul after the Taliban’s takeover in August. Dozens of his students joined ISK, including ISK’s current top leader, Dr. Shahab al-Muhajir.
The U.S. invasion of Afghanistan in 2001 provided Afghan Salafists a renewed militant jihad opportunity for the greater religious duty of expelling invading apostates from the homeland. A senior Afghan Salafist interviewed by this author stated that influential Afghan Salafist leaders held a secret meeting in early 2002 in the north-western provincial capital of Peshawar, Pakistan, to organize a militant resistance against the U.S. and allied forces in Afghanistan. They agreed that although the Taliban regime had oppressed them, they held equal responsibility to the Taliban to fight against the invaders. Sources who attended this meeting confirmed to the author that the convener of the meeting was Haji Hayat Ullah, nephew and military successor to Mulawi Hussain (Shaikh Jameel).
Moreover, post-9/11 anti-U.S. public sentiments within Islamist circles across Afghanistan and Pakistan emboldened Afghan Salafists to wage militant jihad once again. Fanning the flames were influential Salafi-jihadists in the ranks of al-Qaeda and allied foreign militant groups, who played an instrumental role in pushing Afghan Salafists towards the greater jihad against the U.S. Al-Qaeda and allied Arab jihadists focused on mobilizing local allies for a joint insurgency with the Taliban against the U.S. and its allies. Thus, with al-Qaeda’s economic and military support, the Salafists strengthened their post-9/11 insurgency against the U.S., resulting in heavy casualties to U.S. forces. Once again, the Salafist-dominated Kunar province cemented its reputation as the hardest place for U.S. forces in Afghanistan, which even President Joe Biden labeled the “ gates of hell”.
Most of the al-Qaeda senior leadership who played a role in uniting the Taliban’s rival Afghan jihadists-particularly HIG and Salafist militants-for a joint armed jihad alongside the Taliban against the “invading infidels” were gradually killed in U.S. drone strikes from 2008 to 2014. This resulted in the rise of a new al-Qaeda leadership in the region that was dominated by hardliner Salafists. Some influential voices within this new al-Qaeda leadership soon objected to al-Qaeda policies and strategy in Khurasan. Among other matters, this included the group’s tolerance of Taliban and local militants’ theological beliefs and religious practices, which the Salafists consider deviances and innovations in religion. Nine of these al-Qaeda leaders comprised the first group of jihadist leadership from Khurasan that publicly announced allegiance to soon-to-be ISIS caliph, Abu Bakar al-Baghdadi, in March 2014. The published accounts of the three senior figures of this group- Abu Huda Sudani, Abu Ta’ir Urdani, and Abu Ubaydah Lubnani-point out that their major grievance against top al-Qaeda leader Ayman al-Zawahiri was his prioritizing the Hanafi creed over Salafism, which they believed violated Salafist principles. As a result, these leaders started a regional recruitment campaign for al-Baghdadi before he declared the so-called ‘caliphate’ later that summer. Sudani, Urdani, and Lubnani succeeded in securing pledges of powerful Salafist military commanders in the region, like the TTP’s Orakzai chapter emir Hafiz Saeed Khan and the TTP’s spokesperson Shahidullah Shahid, alongside four other TTP commanders. The TTP’s Orakzai chapter controls large amounts of territory on the Pakistan side of the border, which served as a base for like-minded jihadists to gather and first establish ISK under Khan’s stewardship.
Abdul Sayed is an independent researcher on jihadism and the politics and security of the Afghanistan-Pakistan region. Abdul 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. Abdul regularly provides analysis for the BBC Monitoring service, has published opinion pieces in mainstream outlets like the Washington Post, and and is a go-to source for journalists across the globe who are writing on militancy in the region. View his personal website here. He tweets at @abdsayedd.