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The Black Flag Rises Again: A Resurgent Islamic State and its Security Implications On the Neighborhood

By Malik Moin Abbas

On the evening of 26th August last year, the Kabul airport was the epicenter of a chaotic American withdrawal from Afghanistan in face of an imminent Taliban takeover of the capital. The airport compound was itself defended by the United States military, whose personnel were filtering the people requiring an evacuation. 

Amid a rush of desperate Afghans and foreigners vying for space on the flights, a suicide bombing ripped through the crowds near the Abbey gate of the airport. The deadly bombing resulted in 183 deaths, including 13 men from the United States military. 

As was anticipated by the United States intelligence multiple times in the week before the bombing, the infamous Islamic State claimed responsibility for the attacks. This event was followed by an even more hastened evacuation and a disastrous retaliatory drone strike by the United States, in which 10 innocent Afghan civilians were killed. The whole event was a harbinger of the events to come in Afghanistan. 

A brief history:  

The Islamic State – Khorasan Province (IS-KP), was formed back in early 2015, after a few ex-Taliban leaders visited Iraq and returned with an expansionary agenda in mind. Taking advantage of several rifts within the Afghan and Pakistani Taliban (Tehreek-e-Taliban Pakistan or TTP), the new organization went about recruiting disaffected members from these groups. Slowly but surely, the group expanded its footprint in the Khorasan province: A historical area consisting largely of Central and South Asia. 

In a few months, the IS-KP acquired sufficient strength to expel the Taliban from many districts of Nangarhar Province in eastern Afghanistan. It also received another shot in the arm in the form of the allegianceit received from the Islamic Movement of Uzbekistan (IMU), a militant group long involved in terror attacks in the region. This caused additional rifts to develop between the Afghan Taliban and IMU.

However, this rapid expansion was followed by a rapid fall, especially when the IS-KP had created too many enemies in the form of the Taliban, Afghan forces and the US military. 

A series of offensives in 2016 by all three forces led to severe reverses on the part of the IS, and much of its lower and mid-tier leadership was either eliminated or defected to the Taliban. These reverses continued well in 2017, as the decline in their membership clearly indicated. 

IS changed its strategy after this decline, basing its operations around targeted attacks in the form of suicide bombings rather than holding territory. That’s why the territorial reverses were never taken as an indicator of an overall erosion of IS efficacy. 

This apprehension was solidified by a string of IS terror attacks throughout Afghanistan in the years upto the US withdrawal in 2021, culminating in the Kabul Airport bombing. The primary targets were Hazaras, who are considered heretics by the group for their religious identity. 

However, they also attacked a whole range of targets inside Pakistan, both civilian and military, while relying on the pre-existing TTP networks.

Post-American withdrawal: 

This brings us to the aftermath of the Kabul Bombing and the Taliban rule in Afghanistan. Taking advantage of the prison breakouts which happened in the chaos of the American withdrawal, many dreaded members of the IS who had been previously imprisoned were set free. 

Since then, ISKP has calibrated its strategy according to the new realities of Afghanistan. First, it seems they aim to undermine the credibility of the Taliban regime both domestically and abroad. 

Domestically, the spate of attacks they have launched on mostly Shia/Hazara places, but also on Sunni mosques, are meant to highlight the ineptitude of the Taliban in protecting the civilian population living under their rule. Abroad, their attacks are meant to show to the broader world, and to the surrounding countries specifically, that Taliban doesn’t have the capability to live up to their promises of disallowing other militant groups from using Afghan territory groups to target these nations. 

Their operations, meant to undermine the regimes operating in their surroundings, are reflective of their long-standing goals. For instance, the whole process of achieving peace with TTP on the Af-Pak border in the months following the US withdrawal points towards this goal. 

While the Pak Army operations against the TTP networks in the tribal areas and the interior have degraded the capacity of the group to conduct lethal attacks, their renewed activity on the border offers the IS a springboard to bleed Pak forces. 

The rising spate of attacks on Uzbek, Turkmen and Tajik state forces also points in this direction.

Avenues for expansion: 

The important point here is not just the ability of IS to double down on the pre-existing terror networks but also recruit from a wider social base. Many of their recruits have been from the well-educated middle class of Afghanistan, including academics of the Kabul University

This points to their penetration among the former elite of the country, not dissimilar to how the IS recruited members in other parts of the world. Additionally, many members of the former Afghan forces, especially the special forces, have joined the IS, not unlike how members of the former Baath party joined ISIS in  Iraq. 

This shall lend additional capabilities to the terror groups, capabilities they can rely on in order to increase their reach to the surrounding nations. They can count on this model to increase their foothold in the middle classes of the surrounding nations while using the existing networks to launch lethal attacks against state and non-state targets. 

This comes on the top of an active campaign to recruit the disgruntled members of the Taliban who feel let down by the present Taliban leadership. Taliban has already faced pushback from the IS regarding its normalization of ties with countries like Iran, China and Russia. 

Such efforts will stymie the Taliban’s effort to counter the IS in a country where a centralized rule has always been precarious for any regime. As per the latest assessments, it is surely succeeding in its efforts.

Security implications for the region:  

This phenomenon has severe security implications for the surrounding nations, and even beyond if you count the transnational nature of IS operations. 

As a starting point, IS can use the defected trained soldiers from the Taliban and former Afghan forces to launch sophisticated attacks, straining the already fragile security situation in the neighboring countries. 

Its ties with regional militant groups like IMU, TTP and even the ETIM pose a significant threat to the pre-existing fault lines within the surrounding nations. The autocratic nature of these states also entails a certain risk: grievances and injustices will not have any other mechanism to emerge to the surface other than through violent means. 

For instance, Kazakh security forces pointed toward ISIS involvement in the January unrest. This is significant in light of revelations that the face of IS in recent years has been Central Asian recruits. Their reach goes beyond the immediate surroundings of Afghanistan. 

Recruits from India, Bangladesh, and Malaysia are also becoming new faces of this terrorist group. This bodes ill for the entire region as a whole, especially in light of the domestic crisis that has engulfed most of the aforementioned nations. 

IS can capitalize on the internal fault lines in all of the South Asian nations to increase its reach. While the ISIS or Al-Qaeda wasn’t as successful in its bid to recruit members from the South Asian region, this newer version of transnational terrorism might outdo its predecessor. 

As long as the Taliban doesn’t manage to keep its house in order and curb the activities of such groups, they will only proliferate further. In light of the present circumstances in Afghanistan, the Taliban’s supremacy seems unlikely any time soon. 

This implies an extension of a period of instability and insecurity, making it a fertile ground for groups like the IS. Iran has already pointed out this reality as a cause of concern for the surrounding nations. 

The dismissive statements from the Taliban regarding the IS do not hold up to the facts on the ground. The current food insecurity ripping through the nation is just going to kick the objective of stability down the road.

Conclusion:  

There’s a tendency to downplay the threat emanating from ISKP. While we ought to understand all sides of this phenomenon, including the incentive for the Taliban to use this threat in order to gain acceptability, the threat itself shouldn’t be downplayed. 

We shouldn’t lose sight of how a 21st-century terror group utilizes various prevailing factors like domestic polarization and social media weaponization to gain membership and build networks beyond its base of operations. 

Considering the faultlines existing within the South and Central Asian nations, the states governing these nations should escalate their efforts within and in Afghanistan in order to curb this menace in its beginning. 

This means working on the faultlines within and working with the regime in Afghanistan, without lending it legitimacy, in order to prevent a regional resurgence of IS and similar groups. More importantly, this is not something one nation can accomplish on its own. 

Transnational challenges require a transnational effort to succeed.

Malik Moin Abbas is a Master’s in Liberal Studies (IR) student at Ashoka University.

Image credits – https://newlinesinstitute.org/isis/islamic-state-in-khorasan-attempting-to-absorb-rival-groups/

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