Taliban play down ISIS-K threat despite spate of attacks

Danger dismissed despite what experts say are clear signs of resurgence by extremist group's Afghanistan branch

Taliban fighters check travellers on a road in Kunduz, two days after a deadly suicide bombing at a mosque in the city for which ISIS-K claimed responsibility. AFP
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Afghanistan has suffered more than 30 attacks by ISIS since the Taliban seized power in August, experts say, including a bombing on Friday that killed dozens.

But the country's new rulers are dismissing the threat posed by their bitter rivals.

The deadliest attack claimed by Islamic State Khorasan Province (ISIS-K), the ISIS branch active in Afghanistan, killed about 200 people at Kabul airport on August 26, only days after the Taliban takeover. Another recent suicide bombing killed at least five and injured several at the funeral of the mother of Zabihullah Mujahid, the Taliban deputy minister for information and culture. On Friday, a suicide bomber killed more than 60 people at a Shiite mosque in Kunduz and injured scores more.

The UN Security Council called the Kunduz attack "atrocious and cowardly" and said such terrorism constituted one of the most serious threats to international peace and security. The US said its officials discussed "security and terrorism concerns," among other issues, during their first direct talks with the Taliban in Doha on Saturday and Sunday.

Funerals held for victims of Afghan mosque attack

Funerals held for victims of Afghan mosque attack

But the Taliban has played down the resurgence of ISIS and with the international community so far refusing to recognise the "Islamic Emirate", as the group calls itself, it is unclear how they will ensure Afghanistan does not once again become a haven for terrorist groups.

“The United States is exaggerating the presence of the Islamic State in Afghanistan," Abdul Haq Wasiq, the Islamic Emirate’s intelligence chief said. ISIS-K “will not last” in the country, he said.

Mawlawi Noor Ahmad, director of the Information and Culture Ministry in Kandahar province, which has a highly porous border with Pakistan, also shrugged off concerns. “Daesh [ISIS] is an American project,” he told The National. “We have full control of the whole country.”

The former Afghan government also bragged about ISIS-K’s defeat, but the reality on the ground suggests the opposite.

According to various estimates, there are about 4,000 ISIS-K fighters in Afghanistan; the majority of them, between 2,000 and 3,000, were freed when the Taliban took over and scores of prisoners escaped from jails across the country. Many small urban cells have since been set up.

Whether all of the estimated 4,000 are active is difficult to say, said Abdul Sayed, a senior analyst with ExTrac – an AI-enabled conflict and communications analytics system developed to track violent extremism – who focuses on security, politics and radical militant groups in Afghanistan and Pakistan. ISIS-K is driven by Afghan dynamics rather than the global claims of ISIS central – such as establishing a caliphate – and is connected to ISIS more for moral encouragement, the trademark flag and resources, he said.

“ISIS-K is in direct communication with ISIS central and they are getting both funds and resources,” Mr Sayed said.

Afghanistan expert and journalist Bilal Sarwary wrote on Twitter last week that reliable sources within the Taliban had confirmed to him that ISIS-K has appointed provincial governors, military commanders and district governors all over Afghanistan.

The Taliban and ISIS-K have a long history of conflict; with the latter announcing a new war after the Taliban, who follow the Hanafi branch of Islam, signed an agreement with the US in February 2020.

While ISIS-K sprung up in Afghanistan in 2014, the Salafi movement – the terrorist group’s religious affiliation – already counted a small number of followers as early as the 1980s, Mr Sayed said.

This following grew after the US-led invasion ended five years of Taliban rule in 2001, with countries in the Arab Gulf financially supporting mosques and madrasas mostly in the rural areas of the eastern Nangarhar and Kunar provinces where, to this day, ISIS-K finds its roots and where most attacks – including a spate of targeted killings against Taliban fighters – have taken place.

But instead of acknowledging the potential threat, the Taliban highlights its victories against ISIS-K.

After the suicide bombing at his mother's funeral, Mr Mujahid said that “a Daesh hideout was eliminated in an operation by the Islamic Emirate forces” and that all the fighters there were killed. The Taliban invited journalists to visit the compound where the attack had taken place but later withdrew the offer and did not say how many ISIS-K fighters had been killed in the operation.

Mr Sayed says the Taliban’s approach is unrealistic. “This mistake – the denial – has been seen before by the former Afghan government in previous years. I believe they are aware of the threat but public and political narratives are quite different.”

The international community has slowly been seeking dialogue with the Taliban but no country has formally recognised the "Islamic Emirate" and its all-male interim government.

Part of this, experts say, hinges on the Taliban’s assurances to not let Afghan soil be used by terrorist groups.

The Taliban have already backtracked on several promises, including the establishment of an inclusive government that was forgone in favour of an all-male, Pashtun-majority set-up.

How the Taliban will deliver on its counterterrorism promises in a volatile region is unclear.

Mr Mujahid told The National in an interview last month that “we now have an Islamic government, so there is no reason for fighting in this country. We don’t want this country to be used by anyone to harm others.”

But the Taliban in itself is divided, with concerns that some of the more hardline fighters could defect to groups such as ISIS-K if their expectations, including conservative views on governing and women’s rights, are not met.

“This is a risk,” said Amira Jadoon, assistant professor and associate at the US Military Academy at West Point. “Any concessions by the Taliban will result in internal divisions or infighting. This is something that [ISIS-K] will position itself to take full advantage of. They regularly appeal to Taliban members to defect to [them] and poaching disgruntled members of other groups is a key part of how they recruit,” she told The National.

As for Afghans who have already endured more than four decades of war, ISKP has become “a new spectre haunting the people”, independent Afghanistan analyst Ali Adili said. “The Taliban as a militant group has poor-to-zero accountability when it comes to fighting another terrorist group such as ISIS-K."

Even with billions of dollars' of US equipment and training, the previous government’s National Defence and Security Forces still could not eliminate ISIS-K cells in cities such as Kabul and Jalalabad. On the other hand, the Taliban have yet to even set up a functioning army.

“Even if the Taliban had every intention to constrain terrorism, they are unlikely to have the capacity to do so,” Ms Jadoon said.

Updated: October 12, 2021, 2:01 AM