As unemployment worsens in strife-torn Afghanistan, ISIL is offering the jobless a lucrative new profession: terrorist.
The extremist group has made significant headway in Afghanistan and is recruiting villagers as well as its enemy, the Taliban, to paid jobs in order to expand its influence across the north, according to local Afghan officials.
Hundreds of local villagers from remote areas of the Faryab and Jawzjan provinces and several Taliban commanders with more than 300 fighters have pledged allegiance to ISIL in the past six months, said Mohammad Sami Khairkhowah, the head of the Faryab provincial council. They are paid more than US$500 (Dh1,836) a month, thrice the wage of a government soldier, he said.
Several Afghan lawmakers confirmed the account and expressed deep frustration over government’s inability to stop it. The group is recruiting people "openly and publicly" in the region, Abdul Rauf Ibrahimi, the speaker of lower house of parliament, said during a session in June.
The revelations come as US president Donald Trump struggles to define an Afghanistan policy and weighs an increase in troop levels in Afghanistan. His generals have recommended adding as many as 5,000 troops to about 8,400 already there to train and assist Afghan forces. Defence secretary James Mattis told American legislators in June that the US was not winning the 16-year-long war.
The ISIL recruitment drive is led by Qari Hekmatullah, who has been identified by the Afghan government as the regional leader of ISIL's Khorasan Province branch. He operates in the deserts of Dahst-e-Laili and mountains of Darzab district in Jawzjan province, which share a border with Faryab, Mr Khairkhowah said.
"ISKP’s aim is to establish a presence in the increasingly volatile north of Afghanistan and highlights the resilience of a group, which has recently lost leaders, fighters and territory," said Viraj Solanki, a research analyst for South Asia at the London-based International Institute for Strategic Studies. The group’s "appeal and brand is attractive for fighters, and the financial gains are also attractive for local villagers".
Their recruitment drive, along with the growing Taliban presence in the region "multiplies the challenges" for president Ashraf Ghani, Mr Solanki said, and will determine "the nature of future US policy towards Afghanistan".
The extremists lost ground in their first established foothold in the eastern Nangarhar province and in the south after operations by Afghan and US forces. A US air strike killed the group’s third leader Abu Sayed as well as his four senior advisers, US military officials in Kabul said on July 31. And in April, the US dropped its largest non-nuclear bomb on ISIL hideouts in Nangarhar, killing as many as 100.
However it is feared the group may expand further into the country’s north. For the first time since their emergence in 2014, ISIL fighters gained control of the Darzab district in June. Among the former Taliban commanders who switched allegiance to the ISIL are Maulavi Assadullah, Mullah Sufi Qayum and Mullah Nemat Mufti, who brought with him 200 armed fighters.
ISIL targets young men who failed to find a government job or whose farm work does not cover their family expenses, said Fawzia Raufi, who represents Faryab in parliament.
Others who leave the Taliban may simply see better opportunities with ISIL, said Omar Zakhilwal, the Afghan ambassador to Pakistan. "Within the Taliban, it’s not just one unified ideological group that will stick to its core instructions, there are lots fighters of opportunity, or of varying beliefs," he said in Islamabad last week.
On August 5, ISIL militants teamed up with newly-formed Taliban groups to attack Mirza Olang village in Sar-e Pul province, killing more than 50 people, according to Zabihullah Amani, the provincial spokesman
Attacks by militants jumped 21 per cent from March to May compared with the previous three months, with more than 5,000 civilians killed or wounded in the first half of this year, according to a report by the Special Inspector General for Afghanistan Reconstruction, a US watchdog. At least 2,531 Afghan forces were killed and 4,238 wounded from January to May, the report said.
Meanwhile, the amount of territory under government authority was down to about 60 per cent, six percentage points less than a year earlier, with the rest controlled or contested by Taliban and other militants, according to the report.
The US-led Nato forces commander Gen John Nicholson declared in June that ISIL's numbers had been reduced by two-thirds to 750 militants nationwide and vowed to eliminate them by year’s end.
However, "if they are able to establish a significant presence" in the north, it will "present a new challenge for the Afghan forces and U.S. forces’ aim to defeat ISKP in 2017."
More than half of Faryab province is threatened by the presence of both ISIL and the Taliban, said Ms Raufi, the local MP.
"They’re trying to embolden their strength with the recruitment of jobless villagers and the Taliban," she said. "If that’s not prevented, the entire north will be under significant threat because Faryab is the gateway to the region."