Since the Taliban captured Kabul and installed its new government of Afghanistan in August, Islamic State in Khorasan Province (ISKP) has been carrying out numerous attacks. ISKP has targeted both the Taliban and vulnerable minorities, such as Shias (Terrorism Monitor, November 19). One of the most recent and deadliest ISKP attacks was carried out at the Daud Khan hospital in Kabul on November 2 by five inghimasi (“fighting until death”) fighters, who also killed prominent Taliban commander, Qari Hamdullah Mukhlis (Twitter.com/Valle_Riccardo, November 2). Another was the bombing of two buses, which were carrying Shia civilians in the Shia district of Dasht-e-Barchi and Kabul’s third district (Twitter.com/AfghanAnalyst, November 17).
Despite the growing pressure on ISKP from Taliban operations against its members, the Taliban’s historical stronghold of Kandahar has not been spared. On October 15, for example, ISKP conducted another devastating attack, which targeted a Shia Mosque in the city (TOLOnews, October 15). ISKP has demonstrated the capacity to survive and take advantage of weaknesses of the Taliban government, namely its difficulty in providing security to Afghan society.
ISKP’s Propaganda Ecosystem
Along with its military operations, ISKP continues to boost its political and religious propaganda, which remains a fundamental method for the group to assert its presence among its militants and potential new recruits and to deride the Taliban. Several ISKP-affiliated local media organizations have flooded Telegram and Facebook over the past few years, including:
Al-Millat Media (which used to publish booklets and statements from ISKP’s central leadership, including its current emir, Dr. Shahab al-Muhajir, and spokesman, Sultan Aziz Ezzam):
- Tor Bairaghona;
- Khalid Media (which published several ISKP videos);
- Haqeqat News; and
- Akhbar Wilayah Khurasan (ExTrac, August 2021).
In addition to semi-official media organizations, there are a plethora of supporters’ channels and accounts that share ISKP propaganda from small writings to entire books, videos, and audios. Some of the propaganda is also translated into languages other than Pashto and Dari, such as English (Twitter.com/Ab.Sayed, November 10).
Two of the most important ISKP media institutions are, however, Khurasan Ghag Radio and al-Azaim Foundation. While the former recorded several discussions and interviews after it resumed its publications in January and now accounts for around 190 episodes, the latter mainly publishes books related to religious subjects, such as sharia lessons, aqeedah (creed), manhaj (methodology), and political matters (Twitter.com/SaleemMehsud, February 22). However, on November 6, al-Azaim Foundation also published its first propaganda video against the Taliban that featured some of the main criticisms typical of ISKP’s anti-Taliban rhetoric (Twitter.com/Valle_Riccardo, November 7). These criticisms were previously summarized by ISKP writer, Sheikh Abu Saad al-Khurasani, in August in its 840-page long magnum opus (Twitter.com/Valle_Riccardo, August 18).
Al-Azaim Foundation’s Three New Books
Al-Azaim Foundation released three small new books in mid-November. None of the three books is as elaborate and detailed as other publications from al-Azaim Foundation in the recent past or as important as those written by Dr. Shahab al-Muhajir or Sultan Aziz Ezzam. However, all three books address topics that are key to understand the ideology of ISKP.
The first book is a 49-page long publication in Dari titled “Recitation of the Surah al-Fatihah during the prayer.” It presents a study about if and when it is obligatory upon the imam and those praying behind him or alone to recite Surah al-Fatihah, which is the first verse of the Koran. Apart from concluding that the Shafi’i school of Islamic jurisprudence is the one closest to the teachings of the Prophet and his Companions, the majority of the pages are dedicated to refuting the positions of Deobandi Hanafis like the Taliban. The Deobandi Hanafis are largely criticized for their incorrect interpretation and application of verses of the Koran, including the recitation of Surah al-Fatihah, while deliberately ignoring other hadiths (records of the traditions or sayings of the Prophet Muhammad). The book ends by calling on Deobandi Hanafis to correct their way of praying or else their prayers will be null and void.
The book specifically addresses Deobandi Hanafis as “Hanafi supremacists” who do not correctly follow the teachings of their own Imam Abu Hanifa, as Abu Saad al-Khurasani already stated in his 840-page long book. ISKP efforts in the literary field are also a harbinger of the potential for exacerbating conflicts between Salafis and Deobandi Hanafis in Afghanistan. These conflicts have also been fueled by the recent wave of extrajudicial killings by the Taliban, which targeted Salafis (Terrorism Monitor, September 24; Twitter.com/Valle_Riccardo, September 30).
The second 35-page long booklet by al-Azaim Foundation is written by Abu Saad al-Khurasani in Pashto and is titled “O Propagandist Brother! Do You Know the Value of Your Jihad?” The intended audience is anyone who disseminates ISKP’s propaganda, who are described as even “more dangerous than the mujahid’s gun.” Abu Saad al-Khurasani particularly praises the efforts of “the fighters against falsehood,” who share writings, videos, and statements to counter the negative propaganda spread by the “apostates, Jews, Christians, and secularists and atheists.” It should be noted that ISKP, including Sultan Aziz Ezzam and other members from al-Millat Media, has a history of propaganda against journalists and media, which ISKP accuses of serving the interests of the now defunct U.S.-backed Afghan government and currently the Taliban (Terrorism Monitor, September 7). Abu Saad al-Khurasani also mentions the important task of the “mujahideen of the tongue” is their work to convince others to join ISKP through da’wah (preaching) activities. An invitation letter published in October from al-Azaim Foundation, for instance, openly called on young madrassa students to join Islamic State (IS) to fight the Taliban both in armed jihad and through intellect, as the Taliban are guilty of adopting the system of democracy and secularism.
The third book by al-Azaim Foundation is titled “The Truth of the Taliban Movement” and is 46-pages long and written in Dari. It features a series of harsh accusations against the Taliban typical of ISKP, including describing the Taliban not only as a joint creation of the CIA and Pakistani Inter-Service Intelligence (ISI), but also as a movement whose aim is to remove Islam from Afghanistan by killing religious scholars and replacing Islam with Western ideologies. The Taliban is accused of being the real khawarij (infidels outside the fold of Islam), who have repeatedly violated Islamic rulings, including the call for monotheism by embracing polytheistic rituals. This is an accusation frequently exploited by ISKP in its propaganda that argues that Taliban members are Sufis and was elaborated in a statement published in May by Akhbar Wilayah Khurasan after ISKP bombed Mufti Numan’s Mosque in Kabul because his followers are Sufis (Tolo News, May 14). Another topic covered in this book is the Taliban’s relations with other countries, specifically with China, which has been frequently featured in ISKP’s propaganda because of China’s mistreatment of Uyghurs. Thus, the Taliban is seen as condoning Chinese oppression in Xinjiang (Eurasianet, November 4).
Some pages of the third book are also dedicated to ISKP’s criticism of the Taliban’s promoting the Hanafi school of Islamic jurisprudence. ISKP accuses the Taliban of imposing an exclusively Hanafi state in Afghanistan instead of following the Koran as it was originally revealed and argues that it is against Islam to adhere to one school of jurisprudence because there is no religious obligation to follow any particular school. Moreover, ISKP frames its reasoning by adding that choosing a particular madhhab (school of Islamic jurisprudence) is also part of a global colonial effort aimed at fragmenting the Islamic ummah (community) into several weak emirates, which, once separated from the Caliphate, will eventually accept democracy, such as in North Africa, Baluchistan, and Bahawalpur [Punjab Province, Pakistan].
According to ISKP, the building of a Hanafi Emirate in Afghanistan is the first step to democracy. ISKP argues the Taliban has built an inclusive government to appease Western countries at the same time as the Taliban prepares a new secular, democratic, and mono-ethnic government. The book ends by praising IS for following solely the Koran and Sunnah (traditional social and legal custom and practice of the Islamic community) and rejecting a one-madhhab approach, Islamic deviations, and “Western atheistic philosophies.”
ISKP has developed propaganda that complements its military operations. The three books are a fragment of the body of literature the group has produced over the years to delegitimize enemies, whether they are the defunct Afghan government or the Taliban’s new one. ISKP now watches carefully every concession made by the Taliban in various fields from education to international relations to dealing with religious minorities and capitalizes on these concessions by expanding the list of criticisms against the Taliban. This will potentially boost ISKP’s propaganda in the near future, as ISKP has demonstrated an ability to quickly adapt its own rhetoric to the changing situation in Afghanistan.