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Taliban Regime Says It Has ISIS Afghan Affiliate on the Run
Taliban fighters investigate inside a Shiite mosque after a suicide bomb attack in Kunduz claimed by the Islamic State – Khorasan Province, or ISIS-K, on October 8, 2021. (AFP via Getty Images)

Taliban Regime Says It Has ISIS Afghan Affiliate on the Run

US must release Kabul’s frozen assets for the sake of regional peace, experts say   

[Islamabad] Despite a series of deadly suicide attacks against its Shiite Muslim base, the Taliban claim they are making progress toward eradicating Islamic State, or ISIS militants in Afghanistan.

“Our forces are effectively engaged in operations to eliminate ISIS across the country,” Deputy Ministry of Information and Culture Zabiullah Mujahid, the chief spokesman for the Islamic Emirate of Afghanistan, told The Media Line.

“Taliban forces have so far arrested at least 600 ISIS fighters and also destroyed several hideouts in Kabul and other cities,” he said, adding that the Taliban do not consider the Islamic State – Khorasan Province a potential threat to regional security.

“ISIS does not exist here; unfortunately, some Afghan people have adopted the ISIS mentality. They are few in number as they have no support from the Afghan people,” he claimed.

“No group or individual will be allowed to use Afghan soil against any country,” Mujahid emphasized.

Islamic State – Khorasan Province, also known as ISIS-K, IS-KP or IS-K, is the Afghan/South Asia affiliate of the Islamic State in Iraq and Syria (ISIS), which is also known by its Arabic acronym Daesh.

Khorasan refers to a historical region under an ancient caliphate that once included parts of Afghanistan, Iran, Pakistan and Turkmenistan.

The Islamic State announced its expansion to the Khorasan region in 2015. ISIS-K was formed by fugitive Tehrik-i-Taliban Pakistan (TTP), al-Qaida and Afghan Taliban militants.

In January 2015, then-ISIS chief Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi appointed former TTP commander Hafiz Saeed Khan as the first “emir” of ISIS-K. Saeed Khan was killed by a US airstrike in Nangarhar Province, Afghanistan on July 26, 2016.

ISIS-K has carried out suicide attacks in various Afghan cities and in Pakistan’s border areas, mainly targeting the Shia Muslim minority in Afghanistan.

It has also targeted US, NATO and Afghan forces, politicians, the Taliban, non-Shia religious minorities, and international agencies, including aid organizations.

The group has been accused of targeting girls’ schools, hospitals and even a maternity ward, where they reportedly shot dead pregnant women and nurses.

In October 2021, Human Rights Watch, a New York-based organization, released a media note holding ISIS-K responsible for bombing and otherwise targeting Afghanistan’s Shia minority, in what it said amounts to crimes against humanity.

After the Taliban took over Kabul, ISIS-K carried out fatal mass attacks, including the August 29, 2021 suicide bombing at the city’s airport that killed 170 Afghans, mostly civilians.

On November 2, ISIS-K claimed responsibility for a suicide attack in Kabul’s military hospital. At least 19 people were killed and 43 others were wounded in that attack.

Earlier, the ISIS-K also claimed responsibility for attacks on the Hazara Shia community, including suicide bombings that killed at least 72 people at the Gozar-e-Sayed Abad Mosque in Kunduz city on October 8, followed by a bombing that killed at least 63 people at the Bibi Fatima Mosque in Kandahar on October 15.

ISIS-K is a bitter rival of the Taliban, and it wants to weaken the group by creating the impression that the Taliban can’t protect the Afghan people

Michael Kugelman, a Washington-based leading expert on Afghanistan, and the deputy director of the Asia Program and senior associate for South Asia at the Wilson Center, told The Media Line that “ISIS-K has been galvanized by the Taliban takeover, but unlike most other regional militants, who are now inspired to carry out attacks in other countries, ISIS wants to ramp up its fight in Afghanistan.”

“ISIS-K is a bitter rival of the Taliban, and it wants to weaken the group by creating the impression that the Taliban can’t protect the Afghan people,” he said. “Ironically, this is exactly the impression that the Taliban sought to convey when it was fighting the previous Afghan government, so we can expect to see a rash of attacks from ISIS on civilians but also on Taliban targets,” he added.

“With the US struggling to develop a capacity to carry out counterterrorism activities from outside Afghanistan, it’s unlikely that the ISIS-K threat will be dialed down anytime soon. This has troubling implications for Afghanistan and the region,” Kugelman said.

Kamal Alam, a nonresident senior fellow at the Atlantic Council’s South Asia Center, addressed the situation in Afghanistan from a different angle. He told The Media Line that “as the war in Syria winds down, the theater [of operations] for Sunni hardcore groups like ISIS but also for the Shia militant groups like Fatemiyoun as well [is shifting].” Liwa Fatemiyoun, or “Fatimid Banner,” also known as the Fatemiyoun Brigade and Hizbullah Afghanistan, is an Afghan Shia militia formed in 2014 to fight in Syria on the side of the Assad regime.

“There has been a small but steady flow of Shia and Sunni fighters from Syria into Afghanistan in the last two years,” Alam said.

“The pattern of attacks in Afghanistan is similar to the beginning of the sectarian bloodbath in Iraq,” he said. “Extremely violent attacks against Shia minorities could provoke Shia fighters to take revenge.

“The situation is a problem for the region. Former Iranian Foreign Minister [Mohammad] Javad Zarif even offered to have Fatemiyoun fighters combat the menace of ISIS,” he added.

“The Taliban don’t have experience of governance. This is not the ’90s anymore and ISIS, unlike al-Qaida, has no alliance with the Taliban,” Alam said.

The Tehran-backed Liwa Fatemiyoun draws its members from Shia Afghan refugees in Iran and from members of the Hazara Shia minority inside Afghanistan. Iran reportedly recruited them to fight in Syria and Yemen.

The Hazara community has been targeted for death for the past three decades; as a result, thousands of families have sought refuge in Iran.

In 2019, the US Treasury Department designated Liwa Fatemiyoun as a terrorist organization for “providing material support” to Iran’s Revolutionary Guards in Syria.

Economic stability will play a pivotal role in countering ISIS and any other insurgencies

Brig. Gen. (ret.) Haris Nawaz, a Karachi-based prominent regional defense analyst who served in the Pakistan Army for 32 years, told The Media Line that “the US and the rest of the world are definitely right to be concerned about the resurfacing of ISIS-K and al-Qaida in Afghanistan.

“If the US and its allies want a peaceful Afghanistan, then they must unfreeze the [central bank] of Afghanistan’s $9.4 billion in assets to stabilize the country’s deteriorating economic situation,” Nawaz said of reserve assets that Afghanistan keeps in the US. “An economically viable, stable and inclusive government in Kabul is badly needed on a priority basis.”

“Economic stability will play a pivotal role in countering ISIS and any other insurgencies,” he also said.

“It is a strange question why the US and the Western world do not understand or deliberately ignore the fact that unemployed youth with no prospects are a breeding ground ripe to fall prey to ISIS and al-Qaida” recruitment, Nawaz said.

Irina Tsukerman, a New York-based national and global security analyst, told The Media Line that the “expansion of ISIS in Afghanistan should surprise no one who has followed the security situation in the country since Donald Trump decided to engage in ‘peace talks’ with the Taliban.”

“First, to understand the nature of ISIS presence in Afghanistan: it is fundamentally different from the so-called Islamic State in Iraq and Syria. ISIS in Afghanistan is heavily composed of local ex-Taliban fighters,” Tsukerman noted.

“ISIS-K, which itself has a rival vision of an Islamic caliphate… is now challenging the Taliban’s authority in various areas of the country,” she continued.

“The only way to stabilize the situation in Afghanistan is to create a regional and international security force, and to set up an inclusive government with clear protections for minorities, women and others,” Tsukerman said.

There are little to no signs of IS-KP becoming successful in gaining a hold in Afghanistan enough for them to destabilize regional security

Maj. (ret.) Adil Farooq Raja, a regional security analyst and former NATO coordinator based in Rawalpindi, Pakistan, told The Media Line that “ISIS is a rogue organization created to misuse international ideological mercenaries.”

“However, ISIS -K won’t succeed in their nefarious designs as the Taliban are after them with all their guns blazing,” he said. “The Taliban are a stronger force with greater experience which outclassed ISIS-K in the past as well,” he added.

“There are little to no signs of IS-KP becoming successful in gaining a hold in Afghanistan enough for them to destabilize regional security,” Raja said.

The Media Line also spoke with Adeeb Ul Zaman Safvi, a Karachi-based senior security analyst and retired Pakistan Navy captain, about the overall regional situation. He said that: “After the withdrawal from Afghanistan, the US is continuously creating economic problems for the Afghan people by holding Afghanistan’s foreign exchange reserves.”

“In desperation, the United States is running from one pillar to another to stay relevant in the region by creating the Quad for the siege of China,” Safvi continued. “On the other hand, the US is putting all possible pressure on Pakistan to pull it away from China, but the situation has now changed a great deal and the region has gained in strategic importance.”

“One wonders why the US policymakers are not realizing this,” Safvi said.

The Quadrilateral Security Dialogue (also known as the Quad) is a framework for diplomatic dialogue and joint military exercises among the United States, India, Japan and Australia, in response to increased Chinese economic and military power.

“US Admiral Alfred Thayer Mahan, bearing in mind the importance of this region, wrote in the 19th century that ‘the destiny of the world will be decided on’ the Indian Ocean’s waters ‘in the 21st century,’” Safvi said.

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