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Af-Pak 2014: Under the flag of the Islamic State

Ahmad Nawid, Wisal Yousafzai and Rahmat Alizada
The Islamic State is making inroads with militants based on both sides of the Durand Line, appealing to impoverished youth and raising the risk of sectarian conflict. But the complex structure of domestic terrorism…
26.11.2014  |  Nangarhar, Quetta, Ghazni
Demonstrators in Mazar-e Sharif blocked roads and burned the ISIS flag last November as part of a protest coordinated by groups in five Afghan cities.
Demonstrators in Mazar-e Sharif blocked roads and burned the ISIS flag last November as part of a protest coordinated by groups in five Afghan cities.

An ominous trail of signs supporting the Islamic State of Iraq and Syria (ISIS) stretches from Kabul to Lahore, scrawled on university walls, pasted along major highways and printed on fliers disseminated in lonely outposts along the Afghanistan-Pakistan border. While both governments deny ISIS’ rising influence among the multitude of militant groups native to the region, reports from turbulent provinces on both sides of the Durand Line paint a bleaker picture.

Strapped with an assault rifle and waiting for a fellow operative outside a guesthouse in Baluchistan, Ahmad Norani was on his way across the Durand Line to join an increasingly international band of ISIS-affiliated insurgents. High-ranking commanders of Tehreek-e Taliban (TTP), the Pakistan-based branch of the Taliban Norani belongs to, had sworn allegiance to the Islamic State weeks earlier. “We will support ISIS and fight hard to defeat US forces. Once again, we will establish an Islamic state in Afghanistan as we have before,” Norani told Afghanistan Today.

After its expansion in Iraq and Syria, ISIS has announced intentions to bring Afghanistan, India and Pakistan under the caliphate. The dearth of state capacity in the Pakistan-Afghanistan border areas may make it an ideal location to strengthen ISIS’ base in the region, though the complex power structure and ambivalent allegiances of local insurgency networks may make long-term collaboration difficult for ISIS.

As the waning presence of U.S. and international forces in Afghanistan leaves behind a demoralized and under-equipped local security force, insurgent groups active on the Af-Pak border are allying themselves with ISIS amid concentrated attacks on vulnerable areas in Afghan provinces. Gaining a greater foothold in Afghanistan presents a strategic threat for the Pakistan army in its own war against militant groups in the tribal areas, some of which have also indicated support for ISIS.

If the Islamic State’s brand of Salafism and anti-Americanism proves ideologically salient for local insurgents keen to capitalize on the power vacuum left behind by NATO forces, the resulting violence could set off a sectarian conflict of disastrous proportions.

Ayesha Siddiqa, a defense analyst in Pakistan, said ISIS’ efforts to strengthen their command and recruit local people on the Af-Pak border should sound regional alarm bells. She added that IS might follow in the footsteps of the TTP, which was able to start attacking government installations after establishing its grip in the region. The entry of ISIS into an already tense security situation could also foment sectarian hostilities and escalate tensions between Pakistan and India, she noted.

Recruiting and enlisting

Fliers promoting ISIS in Pashto and Dari began appearing along the Durand Line in August. (This and bottom photo: Wisal Yousafzai)

Pamphlets urging Central Asians to join ISIS began appearing along the Afghanistan-Pakistan border in August. Afghan refugees living in camps on the Pakistani side of the border, Peshawar residents, and journalists working in Pakistan’s Federally Administered Tribal Areas (FATA) all reported receiving printed materials promoting ISIS.

An Afghan journalist who spoke to AT on condition of anonymity said ISIS managed to find the “soft spot” of many locals, urging them to support the group in the name of Islam and to destroy the power of non-Islamic countries.

In the east Afghan provinces of Kunar and Nangarhar, ISIS message resonates with unemployed youth without previous militant leanings. “I have decided to join the Islamic Caliphate and participate in jihad against America and other infidels,” says Imamudeen, a teacher at a madrasah in Nangarhar province. “The Taliban could not win, but with Allah’s help our group will be victorious, because we are not fighting for power but for the Islamic Caliphate.”

The emir of Khorasan

In Nangarhar, ISIS has been hard at work to recruit locally influential militants. Among others, ISIS has won the support of prominent religious scholar and Nangarhar native Maulvi Abdul Rahim Muslim Dost, whose written account of his four-year detention in Guantanamo prison earned him widespread respect among Taliban operatives.  In a Nov. 15 announcement, ISIS proclaimed Muslim Dost the emir of the ancient region of Khorasan. Muslim Dost’s emirate includes Afghanistan, Pakistan, India, Bangladesh and central Asian countries, according to ISIS. 

In 2005, Dost was released from Guantanamo in exchange for a high-ranking Pakistan army general held by the Taliban. He is a prolific writer in Pashtu, Arabic and Dari and acts as a religious judge for the Pakistan Taliban active in tribal regions along the Durand Line.

In a video clip publicized in October, Muslim Dost is shown speaking with self-styled caliph Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi, referring to him as the Caliph of Muslims. Together with Maulvi Abdul Qahar, a prominent Salafist and Taliban operative active in Kunar province, Muslim Dost promises widespread support in Afghanistan. It is also likely that Jamaat-ul-Ahrar, a splinter group of the Tehreek-e Taliban active in the Af-Pak tribal region, will ally itself with ISIS in the near future, said Hazrat Bilal, a Taliban associate of Muslim Dost in Nangarhar province.

Across the border, the ISIS agenda resonates with some members of the TTP, whose former spokesman Shahid Ullah Shaihd confirmed the group’s support of ISIS in an October telephone call with AT from an undisclosed location. He added, however, that while the TTP’s recently anointed leader also tacitly supports ISIS, the organization is still awaiting his final decision on pledging allegiance to al-Baghdadi. This week, the TTP reportedly sacked Shahid for making the statement.

At least three other splinter groups based in the Pakistan tribal areas—the Jundullah, Khezb-e –Islami, Ahl-e-Sunnat Wai Jamat and Lashkar-e-Jhangvi groups—have also reportedly indicated support of ISIS. On Nov. 12, Jundullah spokesmen announced that ISIS representatives had visited the group for talks in Baluchistan. According to some reports, the Haqqani network has also voiced tacit support for the group. Conversely, the Quetta Shura—the leadership council of the Afghan Taliban—has reportedly prohibited its members from supporting ISIS.

Hostile environment

The 30-some armed insurgent groups indigenous to the Af-Pak region are far from united in opinion. Despite their shared anti-western sentiments and Salafist leanings, dealing with all the armed groups in the tribal belt portends a challenge for a multi-national outfit like ISIS, as several of the groups have strictly defined ethnic identities and are exclusively nationalist in nature. Despite claims of support by TTP’s spokesman and high-level commanders, dissenting voices from Taliban affiliates on the Afghan side of the border indicate the group’s lack of consensus on ISIS.

“Influencing, uniting with or annihilating these groups will be difficult for ISIS,” said Sayed Mohammad Akbar Agha, the former leader of Jaish-al-Muslimeen (Army of Muslims), a splinter group of the Afghanistan-based Taliban.

“The environment is not feasible for them to work in, because ISIS distinguish themselves from the Taliban and other groups and do not accept them. [The Taliban] has already chosen a Caliph: Mullah Mohammad Omar. [ISIS] will face stiff resistance here and I don’t think they will succeed.”

He added that Muslim Dost was “not in any contact with the Afghan Taliban” and is a “member of Salafist Taliban groups who follow the path of ISIS.”

A car with pro-ISIS insignia was spotted in September on a road near Peshawar, Pakistan. 

Government responses

As they continue to fight insurgents, the national governments of both Afghanistan and Pakistan have officially denied the role of ISIS in the continuing violence. In Pakistan, Inter Service Public Relation (ISPR) spokesman Major General Asim Bajwa attributed any ongoing violence to domestic militants, adding the Pakistan army will continue taking action against them.

He further said that the ongoing operations in North Waziristan and FATA had successfully dismantled the TTP network, eliminating TTP leaders and forcing surviving operatives to flee to Afghanistan.

In a confidential report leaked to Pakistani media last week, however, the provincial government of Baluchistan warned the national government and security forces of ISIS’ increased presence in the province. The report also predicted attacks in Khyber Pakhtunkhwa province as well as targeted assaults on Shi’a communities, adding that ISIS had formed a ten-member “strategic planning wing” for the region.

Afghanistan’s security organizations have so far voiced skepticism on the possibility of an ISIS presence in the country, while spokesmen for NATO’s International Security Assistance Force in Afghanistan maintain there is no reliable intelligence confirming ISIS operations in Afghanistan, U.S. Army General John F. Campbell told journalists in late September. He added that continued reports of beheadings of civilians in insurgency-prone parts of the country were also unconfirmed, though reports acquired by AT from Ghazni province point to the contrary.

The battle of Ajristan

In late September, a multilingual band of militants waving the black ISIS flag launched an attack in Ajristan district, west of Ghazni city. Pushed back by Afghan security forces, the militants eventually retreated to Uzurgan province, leaving behind a bloody trail of civilian casualties. At least 100 locals were killed and another twelve beheaded, Ghazni province Deputy Governor Muhammad Ali Ahmadi told AT.

According to one eye witness, Taliban operatives wearing ISIS colors are responsible for the beheadings of 12 people, six of them from one family. “The Taliban are carrying black flags and speak Urdu, Pashtu and Arabic. They are in different parts of Ajristan and are fighting Afghan security forces,” said local community leader Dost Muhammad Ajristani, 54. The group has also burned down 70 houses and caused around 300 families to flee their homes.

A local commander named Abdullah Faheem helped pave the way for ISIS in Ajristan after receiving training in Iraq, added Ajristani.  

The Taliban issued a statement denying the beheadings in Ajristan, adding that "check points around the district centre are falling one after the other."

"Enemy claims that they have pushed back the mujahideen from their positions in Ghazni are complete lies," the English-language statement said.

The International Security Assistance Force (ISAF) emphasized that the media reports regarding the violence Ajristan district were “grossly exaggerated.”

Afghan officials said the Taliban planned to use Ajristan as a launching pad for attacks on other districts and neighboring provinces. Muhammad Arif Rahmani, the parliament representative of Ghazni province, said the majority of militants in Ajristan District are foreigners. They look very much like ISIS and carry ISIS flag, he confirmed. At least 70 Taliban operatives were killed in the fighting.  

“My family was sleeping when they heard heavy and light gun shots. After an hour of battle, they captured our village and entered our house,” Engineer Kabeer, a resident of Muhammad Khayl Village in Ajristan District told AT.  “They were speaking Urdu and Arabic and shot six members of my family dead.”According to Mr. Kabeer, the Taliban killed more than one hundred people in the village and kidnapped several others.

Kabeer was in the capital of Ghazni when the attack happened. A day later, he returned to his home alongside Afghan security forces.  During the counterattack, locals captured four Taliban operatives and hung them. Previously, residents took up arms against militants in Ander, Qarabagh and Moqor districts. Arjistan is a mountainous place, and the cold weather has forced the militants to retreat back to Pakistani, according to Ahmadi.

“People taking up arms and fighting these terrorists helped avoid the fall of Ajrestan District to the Taliban and ISIS,” he added. “They essentially stopped the Taliban.”