On April 4, an operation conducted by Afghanistan’s intelligence agency, the National Directorate of Security (NDS), successfully captured the head of Islamic State-Khorasan (IS-K), Aslam Farooqi, along with 19 other militants (TOLO News, April 4; Al Jazeera, April 4). Farooqi was arrested during a multi-day operation in the southern province of Kandahar. According to a NDS commander involved in the operation, the arrest of a weapons supplier provided information that led to Farooqi’s arrest (TOLO News, April 6).
Farooqi, born as Abdullah Orakzai, is originally from the Orakzai district, Khyber Pakhtunkwa province in Pakistan. Farooqi is a member of the Mamozay tribe of the Orakzai clan. He reportedly has four children and is believed to be approximately 55 years old. Farooqi reportedly began his militant career by first joining the Lashkar-e-Taiba (LeT) jihadist group and was later a commander in Tehreek-e-Taliban (TTP) (see MLM, October 4, 2018; Anadolu Agency, April 30; Hindustan Times, April 9). More recently, he became a commander of Islamic State’s military wing operating in Peshawar city, Pakistan, before being deployed to the Achin district of Afghanistan’s eastern province of Nangarhar (TOLO News, April 4). Farooqi was also the commander of IS-K operations in Pakistan’s Khyber agency. The NDS statement released following Farooqi’s captured stated that he was placed in charge of IS-K by Islamic State’s central leadership following the killing of his predecessor, Abu Saeed Bajawori, by Afghan and U.S. forces in 2018 (Pajhwok, April 4).
However, the United Nations said in a July 2019 report that his promotion came later—in April 2019. According to the report, Abu Omar al-Khorasani, who became IS-K leader in late 2018, was demoted by a delegation representing Islamic State’s central leadership for “poor performance” in battles in Nangarhar. The same delegation promoted Farooqi to the leader’s position (UN Security Council, July 19, 2019).
Farooqi’s rise to power fomented a factional split within IS-K based on regional and ethnic background. A sizable portion of the organization consisting of those of Central Asian origin and veterans of the Islamic Movement of Uzbekistan (IMU) who joined IS-K when it was founded suspected Farooqi, due to his LeT and TTP past, of having connections with Pakistan’s Inter-Services Intelligence (ISI) agency (Afghanistan Analysts, July 23, 2017). Refusing to recognize Farooqi’s leadership, this group de facto split from the larger organization, and began operating under the leadership of the mysterious Moavia Uzbeki. Uzbeki’s faction reportedly focused its operations in the northeastern provinces of Afghanistan, while Farooqi’s forces were in the eastern and southeastern provinces (see MLM, December 10, 2018). This has been given some credence by the fact that Farooqi was arrested in Kandahar province, in the country’s south.
Farooqi rose to IS-K’s leadership during a perilous time for the organization. Since the group’s founding in 2015, it has consistently been fighting with coalition forces, the Afghan government, and the Taliban. IS-K has experienced losses in what was its stronghold in Nangarhar province. Over four years, the U.S. launched numerous airstrikes while Afghan forces on the ground launched counterterrorism operations. Notably, during this time, IS-K was also defeated in several battles by the Taliban. These operations culminated in a seven-week operation that effectively dislodged IS-K from the province. In November 2019, Afghan President Ashraf Ghani said the group was “obliterated” in Nangarhar (Al-Araby, November 19, 2019).
However, this was an over exaggeration. While the group was routed in its traditional stronghold, Farooqi and IS-K were still able to plan and carryout several large-scale notable terrorist attacks. The group claimed responsibility for an attack on March 25 on a Sikh gurudwara in Kabul, which killed 25 people and wounded eight. According to some reports, Farooqi directly oversaw the planning of the gurudwara attack (Al Jazeera, March 25; MENAFN April 5). A Shia gathering attended by Afghan Chief Executive and self-proclaimed president, Abdullah Abdullah, was attacked, killing 27 and wounding 29 (Al Jazeera, March 6).
A diplomatic row between Afghanistan and Pakistan has emerged as a result of Farooqi’s arrest. On April 9, Pakistan’s foreign ministry summoned the Afghan ambassador to formally request Farooqi’s extradition to Pakistan, citing IS-K activities within their country. The Afghan foreign ministry refused the request, citing the lack of an extradition treaty between the two countries, and the fact that Farooqi is responsible for the deaths of hundreds of Afghans and thus would be tried there (Dawn, April 21). Some Afghan officials have alleged that Pakistan’s request is motivated by fears that his arrest will expose connections between IS-K and the ISI (Anadolu Agency, April 30).
Farooqi’s arrest is the latest in a long line of recent setbacks for IS-K. Loss of territory and the deaths or arrests of hundreds of its fighters over the past year has diminished its operational capability. The arrest is the sixth loss of an IS-K leader since the group’s founding in 2015 and will force the group to pick yet another leader, a process which might exacerbate the ethnic and regional tensions that has already factionalized the group.