The Islamic State’s Anti-Russia Propaganda Campaign and Criticism of Taliban-Russian Relations
Publication: Terrorism Monitor Volume: 20 Issue: 1
In his first speech following the official declaration of the Islamic State’s (IS) caliphate in 2014, the new caliph, Abubakr al-Baghdadi, delivered his famous audio statement titled, “A Message to the Mujahidin and the Muslim Ummah in the Month of Ramadan.” In the speech, al-Baghdadi divided the world into, “two camps,” that were in violent and irreconcilable opposition to each other, including the, “Muslims and the mujahidin,” on one end, and the, “Jews, the crusaders, [and] their allies,” on the other end. The latter camp, he declared, was, “being led by America and Russia, and being mobilized by the Jews” (Jihadology, July 1, 2014). This designation of Russia as a top priority enemy by IS’s sole leader would set the tone for the organization’s media warfare campaign against the country for years to come.
IS criticism of Russia is centered on a select set of Russian policy actions, including its controversial military intervention in Syria, its strong support for Bashar al-Assad, its alliance with Iran, its relationships with the Iraqi government and the PKK, and its influence as a permanent member of the United Nations Security Council. Other stated grievances included Russia’s role in drawing borders in the Middle East (the Sykes-Picot Agreement), its ties with China and Israel, and its accused involvement in the war against IS forces in the Philippines (Jihadology, November 18, 2015; Jihadology, June 7, 2017). Domestically, IS also scorns Russia for harshly oppressing and imprisoning Muslims in regions such as Dagestan, and for its counter-terrorism operations against IS cells and supporters. IS propaganda often places historical emphasis on the Soviet invasion of Afghanistan and the wars in Chechnya to illuminate Russia’s record of aggression against Islam and its alleged desire to occupy Muslim lands (Jihadology, November 4, 2021).
When IS expanded into Afghanistan and came into conflict with the Taliban, the former began to develop new lines of rhetorical attack against the latter in conjunction with the broader IS global war effort. Supported by central IS propaganda organs in Iraq and Syria, the regional and local South Asian media ecosystem of pro-IS and official IS propaganda outlets and online supporters began to take aim at the Taliban’s growing diplomatic relations with Russia. That is to say that IS sought to kill two birds — Russia and the Taliban — with one stone through its propaganda.
IS Media Warfare Against Russia
IS’s founding father, Abu Musab al-Zarqawi, had cut his teeth in Afghanistan in the late 1980s, during the war with the Soviet Union (US Department of the Treasury, April 13, 2006). This era of triumphalism over the Soviet Red Army helped shape al-Zarqawi, and provides a deep conceptual framing mechanism for IS to vilify Russia. That is why IS leveraged its domestic Iraqi insurgency against Russia.
In 2006, militants linked to the IS predecessor, al-Qaeda in Iraq, claimed responsibility for the killing of a Russian national and the kidnapping of four Russian embassy employees. The alleged perpetrators from the Mujahidin Shura Council released an initial statement demanding that Russia withdraw from Chechnya and free the Muslim prisoners, or else Russia would have to, “accept the consequences” (RFERL, June 19, 2006). Moscow refused to negotiate, however, and the hostages were executed, after which the group released a video proclaiming their actions were taken, “in revenge for the torture, killing, and expulsion of our brothers and sisters by the infidel Russian government” (RFERL, June 26, 2006).
IS’s anti-Russia propaganda intensified with the establishment of the caliphate in 2014 and drastically accelerated following Russia’s 2015 military intervention in Syria (Terrorism and Political Violence, September 13, 2019). In the mid-2010s, IS grew links to Russian jihadists through the integration of central leadership figures and foreign fighters, and by gaining the allegiance of jihadist elements in the Caucasus (Jihadology, June 21, 2015). The group produced Russian-language propaganda materials, such as al-Hayat Media Center’s Istok magazine, provided translations of its video productions print publications in the Russian language, and promoted the cause of IS militants fighting on Russian soil (Jihadology, May 26, 2015).
In 2015, IS declared Russia the leader of the “Crusader East,” and the controversial Russian military intervention in Syria prompted the organization to increasingly direct and encourage attacks against Russian nationals and interests around the world (Jihadology, November 18, 2015). This hostile sentiment manifested in the official IS Sinai branch blowing a Russian passenger plane out of Egyptian skies in October 2015, killing 224 people (Haaretz, November 4, 2015; Jihadology, November 18, 2015). The IS incitement machine, spearheaded by spokesman Abu Muhammad al-Adnani, painted a target on Moscow and urged aggressive militant action as revenge for Russia’s aerial bombing campaigns in Syria (Militant Wire, October 26, 2021). IS elements have seemingly answered the call and have conducted a protracted series of attacks on Russian soil (Jihadology, April 5, 2021).
South Asian Islamic State Branches Target Taliban-Russia Relations
Having been absent from Afghanistan for some time after ceding ground to the Taliban, in 2015 IS formally returned to Afghanistan, establishing the Islamic State in Khorasan Province (ISKP). Given that Afghanistan is so prominent in the telling of IS organizational history, the return has resonated deeply with the group, feeding its determination to prevail over the Taliban in Afghanistan.
Predictably, the formal IS footprint in Afghanistan has brought the group into direct conflict with the Taliban. To bolster its war efforts, IS central media organs and robust South Asian propaganda networks have sought to craft and weaponize narratives to discredit and undermine the Taliban as a religious authority. One of the primary ways IS has gone about this is to portray the Taliban as proxies and puppets controlled by foreign nations, most frequently linking the Taliban to great powers such as Russia, the US, and China, and to regional players such as Pakistan and Iran (Militant Wire, September 27, 2021; Terrorism Monitor, September 7, 2021). For instance, IS and its supporters have commonly focused on visuals of Taliban representatives shaking hands and socializing with Russian officials, especially Foreign Minister Sergey Lavrov (Eurasianet, December 9, 2021).
The propaganda emphasis on Taliban-Russia relations emerged during the Taliban’s peace talks with the US and intensified after the fall of Kabul in August. ISKP’s anti-Russia narratives are now spread by prominent figures, in a diverse range of media outlets. Some media are then translated into different languages to reach a wider audience.
Moreover, the IS critique, alleges that the Taliban had righteous beginnings but lost its way and deviated from the true path of Islam (Jihadology, March 25, 2020). The “new” Taliban, IS argues, is a secular Pashtun ethno-nationalist group, and IS sometimes describes them as Hanafi-centric and politically democratic. IS propaganda further contrasts the early leadership of Mullah Omar with the contemporary Taliban commanders, portraying this new generation as religiously and morally corrupt.
The Anfaal, a pro-IS media producer, for example, dubs the debased modern movement as “Taliban 2.0” and impugns them as promising, “security to the enemies of Allah like Russia … from any attacks by the Islamic State in Afghanistan.”  To illustrate the Taliban’s degeneration, a specific clip of Mullah Dadullah Akhund is frequently shared by IS supporters and spliced into ISKP videos, wherein he states that, “only a shameless person … would negotiate with the Kabul government,” and asks, “how could anyone talk to the Americans” (Jihadology, February 21, 2021)? Of course, the Taliban ended up doing exactly those things.
ISKP’s Targeting of Russia in Anti-Taliban Propaganda
ISKP uses visual methods to paint the Taliban leadership as a cosmopolitan, jet-setting class. There are photos of Taliban delegates lounging on private jets and in luxury hotels in foreign capitals, while the Afghan population starves and struggles to acquire the bare necessities of life. This moral degradation is likewise displayed in the Taliban’s cordial relations with the alleged enemies of Islam, such as Russia.
ISKP accuses the Taliban of inviting the “Russian Bear” back over the mountain by pursuing stronger ties with Moscow and encouraging greater Russian influence in Afghanistan through trade, investment, foreign aid, and security coordination. In the eyes of IS, the Taliban and Russia are close allies actively working together in the fight against the organization. This media campaign targeting Taliban-Russia relations is backed by IS central media branches, but the efforts are ultimately driven by the more proximate regional and local IS elements throughout South Asia.
The official IS media network further produced a number of ISKP videos, and featured the Pakistan and Afghanistan branches in its “Makers of Epic Battles” series. Through the Al-Furqan Media Foundation, prominent IS figures, such as the caliph Abubakr al-Baghdadi, spokesman Abu Mohammad al-Adnani, and al-Adnani’s successor, Abu al-Hassan al-Muhajir, have sharply criticized Russia. Likewise, on multiple occasions, IS has published official videos through its central media network showing ISKP military commanders threatening Russia (Twitter.com/@Javidforever, June 29, 2019; Twitter.com/@Natsecjeff, July 7, 2019).
Additionally, in print statements, ISKP figures have chided the Taliban for serving the interests of Russia, the US, China, Pakistan, and Iran (Terrorism Monitor, September 7, 2021). Such narratives have traditionally been crafted and pushed out by ISKP media outlets, including Al-Millat, Khalid Media, Al-Azaim Foundation, Khurasan Ghag Radio, and Akhbar Wilayah Khorasan (Terrorism Monitor, December 16, 2021). The Islamic State in Hind Province’s (ISHP) Voice of Hind magazine has also been active on this front. For instance, one issue includes a passage alleging that the, “Taliban … just like their masters, the Murtad ISI, lick the boots of the crusaders and now Russia and China as well” (Jihadology, September 18, 2021).
IS is pursuing a whole-of-movement strategy to frame Russia both as an imperialist global power and as a nefarious leader of regional security blocs in the Middle East and Central Asia. The media warfare effort is driven by IS’ central media organs, its branches in Afghanistan, Pakistan, and India, and is further buttressed by pro-IS content creators. The South Asian IS networks provide platforms on social media and messaging applications for grassroots supporters to holistically develop a discourse about Taliban-Russia relations. In sum, these networks are signaling their hostile intent, which indicates that IS will continue to fight the Taliban for the foreseeable future and look to target Russian interests and nationals around the world.
 This statement comes from a series of materials collected from IS Telegram channels.