In recent weeks, Islamic State in Khorasan Province (ISKP) has been active in northern Afghanistan, which has prompted the Taliban to conduct a series of counter-terrorism operations against ISKP hideouts (Asia Plus, April 6). The location of these operations, the fact that Tajik and Uzbek foreign fighters were reportedly killed in the Taliban raids, and ISKP’s ramping up of its propaganda, recruitment, and fundraising efforts targeting Central Asia could very well have future transnational security implications for Central Asia. As a result, Uzbekistan, Tajikistan, and other neighboring states have implemented security measures to address the threat (Amu TV, July 25, 2022).
ISKP Attacks in Northern Afghanistan and Central Asia Border Security
ISKP has been active in northern Afghanistan throughout recent months, and the Taliban has responded in kind by cracking down on the group and arresting and killing several militants, including prominent ideologues and high-ranking fighters (Twitter/Cheegha News, March 27). This has made Central Asian countries concerned about a repeat of the ISKP rocket attacks launched against Uzbekistan in April and May 2022 (Salaam Times, April 19, 2022; India Times, May 8, 2022).
In Mazar-e-Sherif, ISKP killed Mohammed Duad Muzammil, who was the Taliban governor of that province, on March 9. Only days later, ISKP then claimed an attack that targeted Shiites, killing more than 30 people in a bombing inside the Tebyan Cultural Center. The group has also been active in Badakhshan; ISKP detonated a car bomb near a police headquarters in Fayzabad in December 2022, which killed a Taliban police chief and other security personnel (Bakhtar News Agency, December 26).
The Taliban has responded in kind with a series of counter-terrorism raids on alleged ISKP safe houses. The Taliban’s General Directorate of Intelligence (GDI) targeted suspected ISKP hideouts in Balkh Province (Taliban GDI, April 2). In March, GDI claimed that its forces killed several prominent ISKP leadership figures, including Abu Umar Afridi, who was a member of the ISKP central Shura, and Ustad Salman Tajikistani, who was a trainer and explosives expert (Twitter/@KhorasanDiary, April 2). GDI also claimed that the ISKP member who was accused of being involved in several bombings in Balkh and the assassination of the provincial governor was captured (Ariana News, April 2).
ISKP’s Central Asian Outreach Campaign
Central Asian countries have reason for concern given the history of cross-border attacks and internal militant activity in their region. In July 2018, for instance, an Islamic State (IS) attack in Tajikistan’s Danghara District killed four Western cyclists and wounded others (AKIpress, July 31, 2018). In November 2019, 15 ISKP militants were killed and four others were detained by Tajik security forces at a checkpoint near the Tajik-Uzbek border (Tolo News, November 7, 2019). Shortly after that, IS released an official claim that described how the “soldiers of the caliphate” carried out the attack and attributed the actions to the group’s Tajikistan network rather than ISKP (Naharnet, November 2019). Then, in August 2021, two Pakistani ISKP operatives were arrested while attempting to set off an improvised explosive device (IED) outside of the embassy of Turkmenistan in Kabul (Hindustan Times, August 28, 2021). If the report is accurate, this indicates that ISKP is looking to strike the interests of other Central Asian states besides Uzbekistan and Tajikistan—the two nations in the region ISKP primarily focuses on.
Since the Taliban’s takeover of Afghanistan in August 2021, ISKP has also centralized and expanded its propaganda apparatus. For example, it has formed Tajik and Uzbek wings of its Al-Azaim Foundation for Media Production, which has bolstered efforts to build support in Central Asia (Militant Wire, September 17, 2022; Eurasianet, July 20, 2022). ISKP’s media strategy is comprised of criticism aimed at Central Asia’s government and leader’s, denouncing the Taliban’s relations with “apostate” regimes in Tashkent and Dushanbe. ISKP portrays the Taliban as a Pashtun-centric movement that is hostile to Uzbeks and Tajiks, while simultaneously serving as a puppet to foreign powers, to include the Central Asian states. Additionally, ISKP emphasizes how the Taliban waged war on the IS-allied Islamic Movement of Uzbekistan (IMU) and slaughtered IMU fighters and their families alongside innocent bystanders (Jihadology, March 25, 2020).
In contrast to its negative rhetorical attacks, ISKP also employs positive appeals, celebrating Central Asian martyrs and ideologues. ISKP has, for example, lauded prominent Tajik fighters such as Abu Muhammad al-Tajiki, who attacked a gurdwara (a place of worship for Sikhs) in Kabul last summer. Also highlighted are Uzbeks like Abu Muhammad al-Uzbeki, the prominent IMU-turned-IS ideologue (see Terrorism Monitor, September 23, 2022; Militant Wire, December 5, 2022).
The Taliban is under immense pressure from neighboring countries and the international community to prevent terrorist attacks from being launched from Afghanistan as well as to halt any potential spillover into Central Asia. ISKP has intensified its hostile rhetoric and threats against Central Asian governments and has targeted both Uzbekistan and Tajikistan, while also seeking to grow its appeal among Islamists in these countries through propaganda. The group also wants to undermine the Taliban’s relations with regional countries and create a “chilling effect” in Afghanistan to keep the Taliban weak, cutting support from foreign diplomatic missions, investors, and humanitarian organizations. The threat of further attacks against Central Asian governments and their interests inside Afghanistan, therefore, will persist.