Islamic State-Khorasan (IS-K) has dominated the jihadist landscape of Afghanistan for the past several years while sharing turf with the powerful Taliban. It has suffered several significant setbacks in recent months, including a leadership crisis and territorial losses in its former provincial strongholds of Nangarhar and Kunar. Both Afghan government forces and the Taliban claimed to have accosted and defeated IS-K in 2019. The perceived downfall coincided with Islamic State’s (IS) crumbling caliphate in the Middle East and the death of its leader Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi. A string of arrests and mass surrenders of IS-K fighters led to the assumption that concerted government offensives have disrupted the group’s command and control structures. In November 2019, Afghan President Ashraf Ghani himself said that IS-K was “obliterated” in Afghanistan (Ariana News, November 25, 2019).
While obituaries poured out in later 2019 predicting IS-K’s imminent collapse, the group seemed to recover, launching several terrorist attacks on civilians and security forces between March and May. Recently, four significant strikes proved the operational capability and resiliency of the group. On May 12, an IS-K suicide bombing at the funeral ceremony of Shaikh Akram—a police commander in the eastern province of Nangarhar—killed at least 32 people and more than 60 people were injured (Tolo News, May 13). Claiming responsibility for the attack, IS’ statement claimed the suicide bomber, Abdallah al-Ansari, killed and wounded ‘100 non-believers.’
Another purported IS-K suicide assault occurred at a maternity hospital in the Dasht-e-Barchi area of the capital Kabul on May 12. The attack killed at least 24 civilians, including children (Afghanistan Times, May 13). Though there was no official claim from IS-K, suspicion has fallen squarely on the group. The other potential culprit, the Taliban, denied any involvement in the attack. Government security agencies and the United States have blamed IS-K for the recent series of deadly attacks in capital Kabul and in Nangarhar province (Afghanistan Times, May 15). While IS-K media units are still silent on the violence inflicted on the maternity ward, the group claimed responsibility for multiple low-intensity mine blasts in Kabul on May 11. The bombs targeted vehicles belonging to the National Directorate of Security (NDS) (Tolo News, June 2). The jihadist group’s statement, however, erroneously claimed that 15 security force personnel had been killed or wounded in the attacks using improvised explosive devices (IEDs).
Though IS-K is deeply ingrained into Kunar and Nangarhar province due to its strong physical presence in the eastern Afghan regions bordering Pakistan, its subversive activities intermittently reach Kabul. In March this year, IS-K launched a coordinated attack on a Sikh gurdwara (place of worship) in Kabul’s Shor Bazar area, which killed 27 worshippers. Two Indians were identified as part of this suicide operation—Muhammed Muhsin (a.k.a Khalid al-Hindi) and Sajid Kuthirummal. Both were from India’s southernmost state of Kerala. Later, IS claimed the attack was intended to “avenge Muslims in Kashmir” (Express Tribune, March 26). Kabul also witnessed several high profile IS-K strikes in early March this year, including a suicide attack on a ceremony marking the death anniversary of Hezb-e Wahdat party leader Abdul Ali Mazari. The IS-K assault killed 32 people and injured more than 80 others (Khaama Press, March 6). IS-K also claimed the most recent attack on May 30, 2020, targeting a vehicle carrying the Khurshid TV news station employees in Kabul. Its statement mentioned the TV station as “loyal or aligned to the Afghan apostate government.” Two people including the driver of the vehicle died while six others were injured in the blast (Khaama Press, May 30).
IS announced its so-called Khorasan province (Wilayat-e-Khurasan) under the leadership of disgruntled former Taliban commanders in January 2015. The new branch pledged its allegiance to IS leader Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi and primarily focused on the geographical region of Pakistan and Afghanistan. The inherent ideological differences and battle over territorial control remained the major bone of contention with the Taliban throughout IS-K’s existence. However, the IS affiliate has spread its influence mostly by co-opting Pakistan-based militant factions, including Lashkar-e-Jhangvi al-Alami, Jundullah, and Jamaat-ul-Ahrar, among others. The group has garnered much of its strength and influence through its covert network of extremists in Pakistan who have sworn allegiance to IS.
Recent arrests of several key IS-K leaders revealed the lasting symbiotic nexus between Pakistani militant groups and their backers in the state intelligence agencies, including with organizations such as the Haqqani network and Lashkar-e-Taiba. According to Afghanistan’s NDS, recently arrested IS-K leaders such as Munib Mohammad (Abu Bilal) and Sheikh Abu Omar al-Khurasan may have acted as liaisons with Pakistani intelligence agencies and its terrorist proxies (Kabul Times, April 23, Dawn, May 7; Pajhwok, May 11; Gandhara, May 6). The Afghan security forces also detained two senior-ranking members of IS-K identified as Sahib, the head of public relations, and Abul Ali, the group’s intelligence chief (Khaama Press).
Earlier in April, the NDS arrested IS-K’s chief Aslam Farooqui (a.k.a. Mullah Abdullah Orakzai) in the southern province of Kandahar. According to NDS, Farooqi had close ties with Pakistani intelligence agencies and their militant proxies (Tolo News, April 4; Pasbanan, April 4; Tolo News May 11). In April 2019, according to a UN document, the IS-K Shura in consultation with the IS representative from Syria had promoted Aslam Farooqi, who was previously in charge of Pakistan’s Khyber Agency, to lead the group. He replaced Abu Omar Khorasani, who was demoted for a series of setbacks that took place under his watch in Nangahar (UN Document, July 15, 2019). However, Afghan NDS sources claimed that Aslam Farooqi took the reins of the group following the death of Abu Saeed Bajauri, another Pakistan-based chief of IS-K (1TV News, April 4).
If the local media reports are to be believed, IS-K has increased its influence despite the mass surrenders last year and leadership arrests in 2020. The group still benefits from militant factions from Pakistan and Central Asia. Officials of Afghanistan’s Badakhshan province observed in April that IS-K is trying to establish a more robust military presence in the region. Nearly 400 fighters linked with various groups affiliated with Islamic State—such as Tajikistan-based Ansarullah militant group, the East Turkestan Islamic Movement, the Harkat-i-Islami Uzbekistan—are active in the Khastak valley of Juram district in the province (Tolo News, April 21).
The string of recent arrests, however, underscored Afghan security and intelligence agencies’ success in stifling IS-K to some extent. These successes, however, have hardly affected its operational capabilities in its strongholds and Kabul. It is undoubtedly far from destroyed and is still capable of carrying out sporadic attacks against U.S. and Afghan security targets with impunity. IS-K regularly issues statements claiming attacks against the Bagram Airbase located in northern Kabul (Al Jazeera, April 9).
The Afghan government forces continue to carry out concerted security efforts to dismantle IS’ remaining networks in eastern Afghanistan and other parts of the country. With the rank and file of the group experiencing significant disruptions and several members of its leadership being placed in detention, IS-K might appear subdued for the time being. However, there should be no complacency in dealing with its ideological traction and operational capabilities as the IS-K attempts to further regroup and regain lost ground in neighboring Pakistan and Central Asia with the help of its existing local networks.