On June 18, the Islamic State in Khorasan Province (ISKP) claimed an attack which targeted a Sikh Gurdwara in Karta-e-Parwan area of Kabul (Dawn, June 18). While ISKP stated there were 50 Sikh and Taliban casualties, two people were reported killed. The operation lasted for several hours and, according to Islamic State (IS)’s Amaq News Agency, one militant named Abu Muhammad al-Tajiki conducted an inghimasi (fighting until death) operation inside the Gurdwara while other supporting members ambushed a Taliban patrol outside it (Twitter/IftikharFirdous, June 19).
The statement released by IS noted that the attack was conducted in revenge for the Indian Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP)’s national spokesperson Nupur Sharma’s blasphemous remarks against the Prophet Muhammad. This statement triggered a backlash not only from Muslims generally, but also from jihadist organizations, who condemned the comments, including ISKP through its propaganda. By conducting this attack and spreading propaganda, ISKP is at the same time fulfilling two objectives: undermining the Taliban as a would-be state actor and demonstrating its capabilities as a jihadist competitor to the Taliban.
Warnings Signs of an Attack
There were many early warnings from ISKP propaganda releases that hinted at a possible attack from the group somewhere in the region, whether India, Pakistan, or Afghanistan, as a result of Nupur Sharma’s words. The first was a 55-page detailed pamphlet published as early as June 9 titled “Sons of Cows [Hindus] and Their New Friends [the Taliban]”, which was clearly aimed toward the Taliban (TheKhorasanDiary, June 9). Written in Pashto, the pamplet harshly criticized Taliban policies in Afghanistan, such as the preservation of Buddha statues in Mes Aynak, which ISKP considered an act of polytheism by the Taliban, and promised revenge for the Prophet’s honour (Dawn, March 28).
The following week, on June 14, ISKP’s Al-Azaim Foundation published a 10-minute-long video titled “The Polytheists are Brothers to the Polytheists”, describing Indian-Taliban relations as a betrayal of Muslims and Islam considering Nupur Sharma’s comments. It further stated that the Taliban merely issued a tweet condemning BJP officials, but took no other action since the Taliban themselves are guilty of un-Islamic behavior, including pledging to preserve and protect Buddhist heritage in Bamiyan. The video ended by threatening Hindus and Sikhs in Afghanistan and referred to the March 2020 attack at the Gurdwara in Kabul carried out by ISKP’s Kerala, Indian militant Abu Khaled al-Hindi (Dawn, March 25, 2020).
The final alarm bell was the third issue of Khurasan Ghag released on June 16, which is ISKP’s Pashto magazine and was first published on May 11 (Terrorism Monitor, June 16). As usual, the magazine lashed out against the Taliban by arguing that instead of defending the honor of the Prophet, the movement preferred its own “nationalist interests,” including siding with the Hindus and accepting their offer of training Afghan soldiers (The Tribune, June 4). The magazine specifically threatened the Taliban and its ”Hindu brethren” and drew a parallel between Hindus and Shias by stating that just as the Taliban were unable to protect Shias in Kabul, Herat, Mazar-i-Sharif, Kunduz, Kandahar, Takhar, and other places in Khorasan, it would not be able to defend the Hindus there either (Terrorism Monitor, May 6).
ISKP’s Reaction after the Gurdwara Attack
On the day of the Gurdwara attack, and before officially claiming the operation, ISKP internal channels had already begun to rejoice (TheKhorasanDiary, June 18). At the same time, the group released a 12-page statement in response to the remarks by BJP officials, in which they condemned India-Taliban ties. The statement equated the “betrayal” the Taliban committed by siding with the Shias with its “alliance” with the “Hindus” of India, which brought three “polytheistic” groups together against Islam. Again, the statement threatened to kill “Hindus today or tomorrow” and officially declared the start of jihad against the Hindus. Significantly, the statement, which was initially published in Pashto, was subsequently translated into Uzbek, Urdu, English, Tajik, Farsi, Hindi, and even Russian. (Twitter/ValleRiccardo, June 18). Two days after the attack, on June 20, Al-Azaim Foundation also issued a six minute audio statement in Pashto, which described the Gurdwara operation and praised the attacker Abu Muhammad al-Tajiki and IS as the sole defenders of the Prophet’s honor, in contrast to the Taliban.
Finally, on June 30, the fourth issue of Khurasan Ghag featured an article specifically dedicated to Abu Muhammad al-Tajiki, disclosing his unblurred picture for the first time, and the English translation of the article was published by Voice of Khurasan (Twitter/ValleRiccardo, June 30). In the text, the Gurdwara attacker was identified as Ustad Abdullah Abu Muhammad [al-Tajiki], who served the group as a scholar by writing and translating books and pamphlets and working in the Tajiki language media department. He allegedly was part of a four-man team, which provided military training in the field of istishhadi operations, including for Julaybib al-Kabuli, who carried out an attack in Peshawar on March 4 on a Shiite shrine, and Shahram Muwahid, who attacked the memorial ceremony of former Taliban Emir Mullah Akhtar Mansoor on May 22 in Kabul (Twitter/ValleRiccardo, March 4; Twitter/ValleRiccardo, May 23). According to the article, Abu Muhammad al-Tajiki specifically asked ISKP’s emir Shahab al-Muhajir for permission to conduct the operation at the Gurdwara.
Despite the Gurdwara attack, ISKP anti-India and anti-Taliban-India relations propaganda did not stop. On July 21, the group issued a new 116-page long book, which quoted a decree of IS’s Diwan al-Harb (Ministry of War). The decree legitimized attacks against Hindus and stated that their “polytheism” is among the most impure ones not only in Afghanistan but also in India. Further, the book reminded readers that India is an established province of IS where jihad is open and argued that the Taliban is actively promoting Hinduism and Sikhism in Afghanistan to cultivate Indian favor and investments.
More recently, between August and September, issues 12 and 13 of Voice of Khurasan featured two articles dedicated to the biography of two IS militants originally from India who travelled to Libya and Afghanistan. The publication exploits their stories to attract Indian recruits (TheKhorasanDiary, August 19; TheKhorasanDiary, September 2).
Following this attack in Kabul and the targeting of the local Sikh community, ISKP has once again capitalized on international and regional developments to pursue its own goals. All the while, the group continues to portray itself as the only legitimate jihadist organization in the South Asian region. In addition, ISKP propaganda again signaled careful planning by the group, which continues to be a threat to regional stability, and specifically Afghanistan and Pakistan. With the announcement of al-Qaeda’s veteran leader Aymann al-Zawahiri’s death in Kabul, ISKP will find another fresh opportunity to push its own narrative of a U.S-Taliban alliance and potentially attract more disgruntled militants from the region.