Research Associate, Institute for Conflict Management
On April 20, 2022, at least six people were killed in two separate explosions at the Abdul Rahim Shahid High School in the Dasht-e-Barchi area, a Hazara Shia dominated area, under Police Distrcit-18 of Kabul.
On April 1, 2022, five Shia civilians were killed while 22 others were injured in twin blasts in Jibril town under Police District-13 of Herat city, Herat Province.
Islamic State-Khorasan Province (IS-KP) claimed responsibility for each of these attacks.
The spate of attack is being carried out under campaign “Conquest of Revenge for The Two Sheikhs” initiated by the IS-Central on April 17, 2022. IS-Central spokesperson, Abu-Omar al-Muhajjir, announcing the campaign, declared, “We announce, relying on God, a blessed campaign to take revenge”. On February 3, 2022, US Special Operations Forces carried out a raid targeting IS ‘caliph’ Abu Ibrahim al Hashimi al Qurayshi aka Hajji Abdullah,in Atme town, in the Idlib Province of Syria. During the raid, the IS leader detonated a suicide vest, killing himself, his wife and children. IS-Central spokesperson Abu Hamza al-Qurayshi was also killed in the raid.
Abu Ibrahim had replaced the first IS-Central ‘caliph’ Abu Bakar al-Baghdadi, who had blown himself up during a similar raid carried out by US Special Operations Forces in Barisha village in Idlib Province, Syria, on October 26, 2019.
Though the IS-KP justifies these recent attacks in the name of a “revenge campaign”, it is significant that the group is violently engaged in opposing the Taliban since its return to power in August 2021.
According to a United Nation Human’s Rights Council (UNHRC) report, released on March 6, 2022, out of 397 civilians killed in attacks in Afghanistan between August 15, 2021 and February 15, 2022, more than 80 per cent were killed by the by IS-KP. According to partial data compiled by the South Asia Terrorism Portal (SATP), another 151 civilians have been killed in Afghanistan since February 16, 2022, of which 87 killings have been attributed to or claimed by IS-KP (data till April 22, 2022).
During the same period (August 15, 2021-April 24, 2022), IS-KP has killed 23 Taliban fighters. On April 24, 2022, two Taliban men, including Mawlawi Abdul Fattah, Acting Head of Mines, were killed in an explosion in Bagh Shah area of Faizabad city, the provincial capital of Badakhshan
During the preceding comparable period (December 5, 2020 – August 14, 2021), IS-KP had killed 124 civilians. No Taliban cadre was confirmed killed by IS-KP during this period.
Also, according to a United Nation (UN) report on the situation in Afghanistan, released on January 28, 2022,
Attacks claimed by or attributed to ISIL-KP [IS-KP] increased and expanded beyond the movement's previous areas of focus in Kabul and eastern Afghanistan. Between 19 August and 31 December, the United Nations recorded 152 attacks by the group in 16 provinces, compared to 20 attacks in 5 provinces during the same period in 2020. In addition to the de facto authorities, the group also targeted civilians, in particular Shia minorities, in urban areas.
Another UN report released on the same day read,
[Member States assess that the strength of the Da'esh affiliate in Afghanistan, Islamic State in Iraq and the Levant-Khorasan, has increased from earlier estimates of 2,200 fighters to now approaching 4,000 following the release by the Taliban of several thousand individuals from prison.
The IS-KP recruitment has also spiked due to poor economic and humanitarian conditions since the Taliban take over in August 2021. According to an April 13, 2022, World Bank report on Afghanistan's economy 'Towards Economic Stabilization and Recovery',
…the per capita incomes of Afghans are likely to have fallen by around one-third over the last months of 2021, wiping out economic progress achieved since 2007, and leading to significantly increased household hardship.
A December 16, 2021, report quoted a resident of the Kunar Province saying, "Daesh is offering 30,000 to 50,000 Afghanis (about USD 270-USD 450) a month to join them in the Kunar province.”
Moreover, the IS-KP is trying to spread beyond its traditional stronghold in Nangahar in Eastern Afghanistan. An article published on March 17, 2022, claimed that “Islamic State is trying to broaden its appeal in Central Asia,” and argued that, to this end, IS-KP was focusing on Northern Afghanistan and has increased operations there. These areas are largely populated by Uzbeks and Tajiks – ethnic groups largely shut out of the Taliban government. This makes IS-KP recruitment from these ethnic groups much easier.
Yet, public posturing by Taliban leaders has sought to play down the IS-KP threat. On February 14, 2022, Acting Defense Minister Mullah Mohammad Yaqoob asserted, “Da’esh is not a threat to Afghanistan. Our intelligence has dismantled 85-90 percent of the group.”
Indeed, the Taliban had initiated a countrywide campaign to counter the IS-KP threat, in order to gain international legitimacy. Some prominent incidents in such operations included:
January 10, 2022: Taliban forces killed three IS-KP fighters in an operation in Police District-5 of Kabul. Two suspected IS-KP members were also arrested during the operation.
November 29, 2021: Three IS-KP militants were killed when Taliban fighters raided their hideout in the Zangoy area under Police District-1 of Jalalabad city, capital of the eastern Nangarhar Province.
Meanwhile, according to the UNSC January 26, 2022, report, United Nations Assistance Mission in Afghanistan received credible allegations of the extrajudicial killing of at least 50 individuals suspected of affiliation with IS-KP.
The Taliban, has meanwhile, claimed that at least 351 IS-KP terrorists have surrendered to ‘Islamic Emirate of Afghanistan’ (IEA) forces since August 15, 2021. Some recent incidents of surrender include:
February 5, 2022: At least 50 IS-KP militants surrendered to IEA forces in Nangarhar Province.
March 4, 2022: Abdul Rahim Muslimdost, one of the founders of the IS-KP, renounced the group and joined the Taliban. He claimed that IS-KP had been suppressed in the country.
However, the recent spike clearly suggests that the Taliban’s claim of IS-KP being decimated is far from the truth.
It is, moreover, pertinent to recall that the IS-KP has shown itself a resilient organization. Significantly, IS-KP suffered major losses in 2019, but had subsequently reorganized under Shahab al-Muhajir aka Sanaullah after his appointment in June 2020 by Islamic State-Central, to lead IS-KP. Al-Muhajir also heads the Al-Sadiq office of the Islamic State, which covers the ‘Khorasan’ region, including Afghanistan, Bangladesh, India, Maldives, Pakistan, Sri Lanka, and the Central Asian States. The reorganization certainly helped the group and there was an intensification of its activities.
There is a strong likelihood that the Taliban regime will face an increasing threat from IS-KP. The outfit may succeed in making further inroads inside Afghanistan and has the potential to emerge as a force that could destabilase not only Afghanistan, but the countries around it as well.