ISLAMIC STATE IN KHURASAN: ESCALATING VIOLENCE, LOOSING GROUND?9 / August 2016 | 0 Comment
On a fateful Saturday, July 23, over 80 people were killed and many more maimed in a brazen suicide attack on the Hazara community in Dehmazang Square in Kabul, the capital city of Afghanistan. Not surprisingly, the Syria based Jihadi group Islamic State (IS or DAESH) has claimed responsibility for the first time, highlighting the group’s consolidation and firepower in the country. This twin suicide attack triggered by the militants affiliated to the Islamic State’s local franchise, otherwise known as Wilayat Khurasan, or, IS Khurasan (ISK). On that fateful day, thousands of Hazaras’ descended to the streets of Kabul protesting the government’s rerouting of the TUTAP (Turkmenistan, Tajikistan, Afghanistan and Pakistan) transnational electricity project which was planned earlier to pass through impoverished Bamiyan province, predominated by the Hazara ethnic group.
Resurging Sectarian Schism
Abu Omar Khurasani, one of the leading ISK commanders in Afghanistan termed the Kabul attack as a retribution against the support offered by some Afghan Shia members to the Bashar al-Assad regime in Syria, ostensibly with the help of Iran. Speaking to Reuters, Khurasani threatened further attacks, saying that “unless they (Hazaras’) stop going to Syria and stop being slaves of Iran, [we] will definitely continue such attacks.”
Although, the anti-Shia strikes, especially against Hazaras’, are not completely unusual in Afghanistan. Hazara Shias’, who have long suffered militant violence and socio- political discrimination in Afghanistan (and Pakistan), become the easy target of the so-called Islamic State or Taliban led sectarian violence. Similar targeted violence was carried out by the suspected ISK militants in November 2015 when seven Hazaras’ including two women and a child were abducted from the Gilan district of southeastern Ghazni province and their dead bodies were recovered from Khak-e-Afghan district of southern Zabul province.
Footprints of IS Khurasan terror
As per ground reports, IS Khurasan’s influence and dominance is limited to the Nangrahar province and nearby localities. The most intriguing question is how come the IS affiliates who have suffered few major reversals in their strongholds in eastern Afghanistan recently, able to strike at the heart of Kabul? Arguably, the government agencies have underestimated the ISK’s firepower despite all the recent reversals. The plausible reasons behind its gradual consolidation, could be the inherent infighting within the Taliban groups and a mass exodus of militant elements from Pakistan side, post military operations like ‘Khyber –I, II – in the Khyber Agency, and the operation Zarb-e Azb in North Waziristan of Pakistan that virtually disturbed the Taliban networks (including the Tehrik-e Taliban and Lashkar-e-Islam) in Pakistan. Like the ISK’s present leader Hafiz Saeed Khan, most of the disgruntled Taliban leaders and those who have taken shelter in eastern Afghanistan have shifted their allegiance to the Islamic State.
As early as in June 2014, the Islamic State’s early footprints were visible in Afghanistan. Largely ignored by the government forces, there were intermittent information trickled down about the IS making inroads into Afghanistan and by early 2015, the IS flags surfaced in Ghazni and Nimroz provinces, following which large number of Taliban militants switched their allegiance to IS. In fact around this time, the Islamic State’s chief spokesperson, Abu Muhammad al-Adnani, announced the establishment of ‘Wilayat Khurasan’ covering a geographical region that vaguely includes Afghanistan, Pakistan and parts of Central Asia. By then, a former Taliban commander Abdul Rauf Khadim, had already prepared the ground for IS to consolidate as he was actively engaged in recruiting Afghan fighters for the IS mostly in Helmand region. Khadim, a Guantanamo Bay detainee had confronted with pro-Taliban elements like Abdul Rahim Akhund in the past. Another senior Afghanistan Taliban leader Abdul Rahim Muslim Dost, too, helped initially in the IS’ expansion in the region, but later deserted the group.
In an audio message titled “Die in Your Rage!” IS spokesman Abu Mohamad al-Adnani stated that the new IS province would be headed by a former Pakistani Taliban’s commander Hafiz Saeed Khan, who had recently fulfilled the necessary conditions to become the governor of the so-called Khurasan province, by taking the oath of allegiance to the IS supreme leader Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi. While urging the militants in Afghanistan and Pakistan to join Saeed Khan in their efforts to come under the banner of the united Caliphate, Adnani chided the crumbling Taliban Emirate in Afghanistan. It soon came to light that many small units of Taliban and other militant fringe groups in both Afghanistan and Pakistan have pledged their allegiance to the IS and its leader Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi and gathered under Hafiz Saeed Khan. The IS propaganda materials, e.g. Dabiq (No.7) informed that militants from Nuristan, Kunar, Kandahar, Khost, Ghazni, Wardak, Helmand, Kunduz, Logar, and of course, Nangarhar, joined the IS bandwagon in Afghanistan while many other from Bajaur, Orakzai, Kurram, Waziristan and Khyber Region of Pakistan came under the ISK banner.
Following the death of Khadim in a drone strike in Helmand in February 2015, ISK in Afghanistan and Pakistan primarily under Saeed Khan vowed to avenge the death of his deputy and other initial setbacks. In a show of force, it perpetrated the first ever strike in Jalalabad on April 18, killing more than 33 people and injuring over 100 outside a bank where government workers were collecting their salaries. IS spokesman in Afghanistan claimed responsibility for that anti-government and anti-civilian assault. The rival Taliban, however, distanced from this event that targeted civilians and since then this became a major bone of contention between Taliban and IS forces in Afghanistan. For the first time over a decade, the monopoly of Taliban in waging violence and conflict has been challenged by the IS forces in Afghanistan under Saeed Khan. With fear of losing ground and cadre defections, the Taliban leaderships who have been fighting their own battle within the ranks and file, attempted to fight back the Islamic State’s expansion and growing stature, both militarily and ideologically.
Arguably, the Taliban infighting and leadership struggle has been a boon for Islamic State’s overtures in the region. IS ideals have certainly found a conducive environment not only to entice but also to impress the local militants that helped the group to gain foothold and to entrench itself in the region. While IS’ propaganda units have actively denounced the Taliban, its leaderships (including Al-Qaeda), and their ineffectiveness in establishing Sharia rule or Caliphate in the region even after decades of armed struggle. The IS in Afghanistan leaders’ criticised and questioned the spiritual and political credibility of Taliban leadership including Mullah Omar and his successors. As termed by the Islamic State in its propaganda magazine Dabiq (e.g No 13), the Taliban is a conservative nationalist movement, and their administration is not in accordance with the Islamic tenets of governance. The other IS contentions which goes somehow against the Taliban’s worldview is “to impose Tawhid (monotheism) and defeat Shirk (polytheism) and punish apostasy. In tune with this motive, IS in Khurasan unleashed a series of killings between August and December last year what they tagged in IS Khurasan propaganda videos as ‘the Apostates in Revenge for the Monotheists’. The victims were purportedly charged for aiding or supporting Taliban or Al-Qaeda in Afghanistan as IS considers both as un-Islamic. Also, couple of beheadings were carried out by the ISK to send a message to Pakistan intelligence as well.
To counter such atrocities and further IS consolidations, the Taliban forces too raised a strike force against them sometimes in October 2015, with around 1,000 fighters specifically focussed on the IS. This Taliban strike force primarily target areas where IS has bases including Nangarhar, Farah, Helmand and Zabul, and some pockets in the neighbouring localities. Thereafter intermittent clashes between these two groups for terrain and resources became a regular affair until now.
Groups such as Jamaat-ul-Ahrar (TTP-JA) or lesser-known organisations like the Tahreek-e-Khilafat Wa Jihad (Movement for the Caliphate and Jihad-TKJ), and violent sectarian group like Jundullah that has already expressed support to the IS and al-Baghdadi. Earlier, the IS Khurasan too galvanised grassroot militant support mostly from fringe and lesser-known groups like the Sa’ad bin Abi Waqas Front (Logar, Afghanistan), Tawad al-Jihad (Peshawar), and Ansar al-Mujahideen (Waziristan). In an elaborate interview, Hafiz Saeed Khan (Dabiq-13) blamed Taliban for initiating the conflict at the outset and IS Khurasan was forced to take arms against the Taliban as they have been allied with the Pakistani and Afghan armed forces. This line of argument is perhaps bringing Saeed Khan the support from the likeminded regional militant formations. Certainly, IS has been exploiting the crumbling edifices of Taliban led Islamic Emirate of Afghanistan, especially after the declaration of Mullah Omar’s death last year and coupled with the death of Mullah Mansour in May 2016. These leadership crisis within Taliban has created opportunity for IS to rebuild its network in the region.
While 2015 remained a boon time for IS in Afghanistan in terms of consolidation, the face of the 2016 brought an intense airstrike against the IS strongholds. The US led airstrike launched early this year along with ground operations reportedly inflicted moderate to severe damages to the ISK. Also, a three front offensive: Taliban push-back; military campaign by the Afghan security forces; and the US led airstrikes brought ISK some strategic reversals in its own strongholds. This optimistic scenario led the Afghan President Ashraf Ghani to say that Afghanistan would be a ‘grave-yard’ for the Islamic State.
According to one US estimation, the number of ISK militants in Afghanistan would be somewhere between 1000 to 1500 now, down from 3,000 in January 2016. While other estimates such as a Russian count has put the number of ISK loyalist at around 10,000 in Afghanistan.
Post July 23 Kabul suicide attack, once again, another concerted military offensive comprised of airstrikes, ground attacks and sweeping operations has been launched against the Islamic State Khurasan in the far eastern region, mainly in Nangarhar province, bordering Pakistan. Some claims even suggested that IS military centres in Achin and Kot Districts were destroyed and scores of IS militants were killed during the offensive so far including senior ISK commander and one of the founders of the group in the region, Saad Emarati.
Hazaras, on the line of fire
The deteriorating security situation in Afghanistan especially the resurgence of Islamic State affiliated militant formation brought the United Nations and the international community’s attention to this embattled country. The concern now shifts to the growing clouts of ISK and its capability to target government machineries and harm vulnerable civilians like the Hazaras who are living in the mountainous areas in Central Afghanistan loosely termed, as Hazarajat., mostly in Bamian and Daikundi provinces. Also places such as western Kabul, western Wardak, north-western Ghazni, Ghor, Sar-e Pul and Samangan have a strong Hazara population. While majority of Hazaras are followers of Shi’a Islam there are sections that follows Sunni Islam. Observers believe that this is part of an evil campaign of marginalisation and ethnic cleansing of Hazara Shias of the region.
Forced to live life in fear and despair, this educated and culturally progressive ethnic group faced targeted attacks from pro Taliban and Al Qaeda elements in the region since late 1990s. The Taliban with the help of violent sectarian groups like Lashkar e Jhangvi (LeJ) or SSP (Sipah-e-Sahaba Pakistan) carried out large-scale massacre against Hazaras along with other minorities in the region. The August 1998 Mazar-e-Sharif massacre, May 2000 Hazara Mazari killings and the January 2001 Yakawlang mass killings of Hazara people bear the testimonies of a systematic ethnic cleansing in Afghanistan. 
Now with the virulent anti-Shia Islamic State’s ideals gaining ground strongly in Afghanistan, the fate of Hazara people or for that matter other minorities in Afghanistan still remains uncertain. The July 23 Dehmazang event prompted Afghan President Ashraf Ghani to promise ‘revenge against the culprit’ (ISK). Even though observers believe that the ISK has, so far, not succeeded in creating a strong base in the country¾that is, similar to that of the IS in Syria and Iraq¾it is equally hard to visualise this inherently violent Jihadi group being anywhere near its end in the ‘grave-yard’ of Afghanistan.
 For couple of elaborate studies on the Hazara massacres by the Taliban militants, See, ‘Afghanistan: The Massacre In Mazar-I Sharif,’ Human Rights Watch, Vol. 10, No. 7, November 1998; Also See, “Afghanistan: Massacres of Hazaras in Afghanistan,’ Human Rights Watch, Vol. 13, No 1, February 2001.