By: Jonathan Tybjerg and Asad Kosha
In the past year, a branch of Islamic State has carried out a number of significant attacks in Afghanistan. Meanwhile, the United States, Denmark, and the rest of the Western coalition are on their way out of the country. Experts and intelligence services fear it could destabilize Afghanistan and turn the country back to international terrorism.
Twenty years ago, the United States went to war in Afghanistan to exterminate extremists and terrorist organizations in the country. On September 11, 2021, the United States and its allies will withdraw from Afghanistan, but extremism and the forces that the United States wanted to get rid of still exist in the country. Maybe in even worse shape.
On May 12, 2020, just around 10 a.m., a ghost passed through the western part of Afghanistan’s capital, Kabul. A monster believed to have been killed showed one of its eerie faces again.
Three men dressed as police officers went into a maternity clinic, which was run by MSF. Inside the clinic, they drew their automatic weapons and went from room to room, firing on staff, pregnant women, mothers, new mothers, and newborns.
Afghan security forces managed to evacuate 100 people, but before killing the terrorists after four hours of firefighting, 24 had been killed, including three infants.
Just over an hour later in Nangarhar province in eastern Afghanistan, hundreds of people had gathered for a funeral procession for Shaykh Akram, the leader of the local police force who had died of a heart attack the night before. Halfway through the funeral, a suicide bomber detonated the belt around his waist, triggering an explosion that killed 32 people and injured 133.
That day, the images of infants in bloody clothes and wounded mourned went around the world. Late in the evening, a message came from the Islamic State in the Korasan Province (ISKP), in which they took responsibility for the attack on the funeral. No one took public responsibility for the attack on the maternity clinic, but all Western intelligence services and the U.S. Secretary of State pointed to ISKP.
The year before, both the ISKP and the Islamic State, to which they have sworn allegiance, had otherwise been declared finished. In March 2019, Donald Trump had said that Islamic State and the dream of a caliphate were dead, and in November 2019, Afghan President Ashraf Ghani said that the ISKP had been “wiped out”.
Although experts stressed that there were still signs of life from Islamic State and the ISKP, few at the time had imagined that the ISKP could carry out a large-scale attack in Kabul. But they did, and in the past year, the ISKP has been responsible for some of the largest, deadliest and most significant attacks in Afghanistan.
Meanwhile, on April 15, the new US President Joe Biden announced that the remaining US troops would leave Afghanistan before September 11, the 20th anniversary of the terrorist attack that led to a US-led coalition. Afghanistan. A majority in the Folketing supports that the 135 Danish soldiers who are left in Afghanistan must also return home.
The Afghan government is negotiating a peace deal with the country’s major militant Islamist movement, the Taliban, but experts and sources in the Afghan and Western intelligence services do not believe in a successful agreement or that it will hold back the ISKP. The Defense Intelligence Service expects that militant Islamist groups such as the ISKP will use “a Western withdrawal to build their capabilities and use Afghanistan as a base”, just as the peace talks can strengthen their “growth conditions”. Therefore, the terrorist threat both inside and outside Afghanistan will increase.
“It is very likely that after a Western withdrawal, there will be more training opportunities for visiting militant Islamists and also the opportunity to join groups such as al-Qaeda and the ISKP,” the Defense Intelligence Service wrote in its latest risk assessment.
ISKP is in many ways a mystery. No one knows exactly how they are capable of making such major attacks or who they are in cahoots with. The government, the Taliban, and neighboring countries like Pakistan all accuse each other of working with the ISKP, and there are plenty of conspiracy theories. One thing is clear, however: the ISKP is a destabilizing factor that can have major and dire consequences for Afghanistan in a vulnerable moment. Over the past year, Danwatch, in collaboration with Kabul Now, has been following the activities of the ISKP, and with the help of sources in the Afghan and Western intelligence communities, we have tried to find an answer to what threat they pose.
A chaotic story of formation
In October 2001, US fighter jets flew over Afghanistan, bombing selected targets. The bombings were the United States’ immediate response to al-Qaeda’s terrorist attacks on the World Trade Center on 9/11. Soon after, a decisive invasion of US troops on the ground in Afghanistan followed. The goal was as simple as it was difficult: Destroy Al Qaeda and overthrow the Taliban, which at the time was in power in Afghanistan and housed al-Qaeda.
Within six months, the United States, with the help of NATO and, among other things, Danish special forces, had invaded Afghanistan and sent the leading figures in al-Qaeda and the Taliban to the grave, in captivity or in hiding. Nevertheless, American and Danish engagement in Afghanistan was to continue and expand for the next 19 years, and the war came to be about many other things.
In 2012, Afghanistan had a semi-democratic government that had gradually begun negotiating a peace deal with the Taliban. There were more than 100,000 NATO soldiers helping with security in the country, but according to the plan, they were to leave the country within the next few years.
In the eastern region of Afghanistan, a large group of refugees from 2012 began moving into the country from Pakistan and settled in the province of Nangarhar. They were on the run from an offensive by the Pakistani military that was chasing members of the militant Islamist group Tehreek-e-Taliban Pakistan (TTP). The flow of refugees continued in the ensuing years, with the Afghan authorities and local communities welcoming the new guests surprisingly well.
Nangarhar: ISKP’s home and stronghold
However, it was not only universal compassion that led to the nice welcome from the Afghan authorities. To Kabul Now and Danwatch, sources in Afghanistan’s military and intelligence service say that Afghanistan housed fighters from the TTP to take revenge on Pakistan, which had supported the Taliban in Afghanistan, and to use them purely militarily in the war against the Taliban in Afghanistan. However, that should prove to be a bad decision.
In 2014, Islamic State emerged in Syria and Iraq. In eastern Afghanistan, former members of the TTP began to join the movement, and Hafiz Saeed, a former TTP army commander, was named the first emir of Islamic State. Hafiz Saed had good connections on both sides of the border to tribal leaders and warriors in both the TTP and the Taliban. In October 2014, he, along with a number of other members of the TTP, swore allegiance to Abu Bakr al Baghdadi, the Islamic State’s caliph, and a few months later, Islamic State declared that it had incorporated Korasan province, an area that has historically included Afghanistan, and parts of Pakistan, Iran, and other Central Asian countries. ISKP was born.
At war with everyone
In the following years, the PSP first engaged with the Taliban, then the Afghan security forces and the Western coalition.
In late 2014, the Taliban tried to get the ISKP to leave Nangarhar. When ISKP refused, it developed into fighting in mid-2015, and ISKP won control of eight districts in eastern Afghanistan. The Taliban responded by sending a letter to Abu Bakr al Baghdadi asking him to either ban the ISKP or get them to join the Taliban. Baghdadi did not write back, but Islamic State responded through a spokesman calling the Taliban an ally of Pakistan’s intelligence service – an insult that escalated the conflict and prompted the Taliban to deploy 3,000 elite troops against the ISKP.
At the same time, the ISKP became enemies of the Afghan police and the security forces from which they had received support a few years before. On June 12, 2015, the ISKP released a video in which they executed two men who were allegedly Afghan soldiers.
According to a source in the Afghan intelligence service, the ISKP had been infiltrated by the Pakistani intelligence service and therefore attacked the Afghan security forces. The Afghan security forces responded again with air support from US aircraft.
This is how the war for ISKP continued on several fronts in the following years, and the organization developed in a way reminiscent of the Greek legendary monster Hydra, which has nine heads, and every time you cut one off, two new ones emerge. The ISKP suffered heavy losses, but continued to emerge in new places and win important victories, and the movement constantly found new places to recruit fighters: other Islamist groups, foreign fighters, and defected Taliban fighters.
But eventually, the ISKP was pushed into the northeast corner of Afghanistan, and by 2018, the group had lost control of virtually all the territories they had won in previous years. But Islamic State was not gone.
An agreement on peace and death
On February 29, 2020, Taliban mullah Abdul Ghani Baradar stood in Qatar’s capital Doha and shook hands with US Special Envoy to Afghanistan Zalmay Khalilzad. Next to him stood then-US Secretary of State Mike Pompeo and watched.
The United States and the Taliban had just agreed on the agreement that would set in motion the return of US troops from Afghanistan. The Taliban, in turn, had signed that they would enter into negotiations for a peace deal with the Afghan government and that extremist groups such as the ISKP should not be allowed to operate in the places controlled by the Taliban.
As the coalition withdraws, the ISKP is likely to seek to strengthen its influence in the region by collaborating with or recruiting radical insurgents from the Taliban, the Haqqani network, and other militant Islamist groups.
In the ensuing months, the ISKP was repulsed by US airstrikes, Afghan military and Taliban offensives. One head of the monster after another was chopped off, but as so many times before, new ones appeared.
The peace talks between the Taliban and the Afghan government also provided new opportunities for the ISKP. A few months earlier, the Defense Intelligence Service had assessed that the negotiations could provide better growth conditions for the ISKP, “as dissatisfied elements in the Taliban may erupt and as the military focus on the Taliban may weaken the coalition’s and ANDSF’s (Afghan security forces) focus on the ISKP”.
“ISKP will probably consolidate its core area in the eastern part of Afghanistan, just as ISKP will continue to carry out many attacks in major cities such as Kabul and Jalalabad”, wrote the Defense Intelligence Service in a threat assessment for the Danish forces in Afghanistan.
A growing strength
On May 12, the attack came on the maternity clinic and on the funeral. On August 2, 2020, a car drove up in front of the gate of a prison in Jalalabad, the capital of Nangarhar, and detonated a large amount of explosives. Thereafter, the prison was stormed by jihadists from the ISKP, who besieged the prison for the next 20 hours while the majority of the 1,793 prisoners fled. At least 29 people died during the attack, including civilians, prisoners, prison guards, Afghan security forces and eight of the ISKP jihadists.
A large proportion of the escaped prisoners, who were primarily members of the ISKP or Taliban, were recaptured, but the attack shows what the ISKP is capable of in Afghanistan today.
Officially, the Afghan security forces and the intelligence service have said that the ISKP is nothing more than a name, an umbrella for various groups that, with the support of other countries’ intelligence services, attack targets in Afghanistan. Similarly, some experts say Islamic State has no real roots in Afghanistan.
Despite such comments, ISKP has in the past year confirmed the assessment from the Defense Intelligence Service and shown that they have the capacity and willingness to pursue major goals that are in line with the group’s ideology. Amira Jadoon, an associate professor at the Combating Terrorism Center and Department of Social Sciences at the US Military Academy, West Point, has collected data on attacks from the ISKP, and they show an increase over the past year.
In 2020, the ISKP took the credit for 80 attacks, while in the first two months of 2021 alone, they carried out 47 attacks. 32 of the attacks in 2020 were on Afghan security forces or Afghan authorities, the rest of the attacks were on minorities such as Shia Muslims and Sikhs or Western targets, such as the US Embassy in Kabul.
According to Human Rights Watch, there is an escalation in targeted killings from extremist organizations such as the ISKP in recent months. It goes beyond ethnic minorities like Shia Muslims and women in public office. Female journalists in particular have been exposed in recent months.
What is Salafism?
Salafism is an orthodox, fundamentalist Sunni Muslim movement that reads the Qur’an very literally and literally, and which will practice Islam in the same way as the Prophet Muhammad and his contemporaries. Salafism will thus live as the first Muslims and reject other readings of Islam, such as Shia, as it is not considered “pure”. Salafism stems from a political movement in Egypt that developed in the late 1900s as a reaction to Western colonialism.
A Salafist dream
Islamic State and ISKP belong to the Salafist part of Sunni Islam. They believe in a “pure Islam”, where there is no room for other schools within Islam, such as Shia.
Afghanistan has a large number of ethnic groups, but about 90 percent of the population are Sunni Muslims, while only 7 percent are Shia Muslims. Since the 1980s, when Afghanistan was under invasion from the Soviet Union, there have been larger or smaller groups of Salafists in the country. In the 1990s, the Taliban, which is Sunni-Muslim like Islamic State, seized power in Afghanistan, and they quickly chose to provide protection to Salafist fighters who had fought against the Soviet Union. The most prominent of the Salafists was Osama bin Laden, who developed a close relationship with the Taliban’s emir Mullah Omer.
When the United States and NATO invaded Afghanistan in 2001, Salafism gradually began to spread in Afghan society, especially to universities. Here, according to a study by the United States Institute of Peace (USIP), today there is a generation of young Afghans who support the ISKP and their Salafist agenda, as well as expressing a hatred of the country’s Shia Muslims, which they see as a threat.
According to experts such as Amira Jadoon, the ISKP’s large-scale attack over the past year is a way of recruiting students and other Afghans interested in Salafism so that the movement can once again have the resources to regain territorial control in Afghanistan.
And the attacks are not the only way the ISKP is recruiting and showing its growing strength. ISKP has increased their propaganda, and they have, for example, re-established their radio channel Voice of the Khorasan, and they have started producing documentaries to recruit members of the Taliban.
Possible alliances and intrigue
On October 25, 2020, a suicide bomber blew himself up at a learning center in a Shia Muslim neighborhood in Kabul, killing 30 students. Just one week later, on November 2, an explosion went off at the entrance to Kabul University. At the same time as students fled, the university was stormed by fighters from the ISKP armed with pistols and Kalashnikovs. They took hostages before battling Afghan security forces for more than five hours. 22 people died during the attack.
Despite the chaotic situation in Afghanistan, carrying out the large-scale attacks that Islamic State has been behind over the past year is complicated. Among sources in both Afghanistan’s intelligence and Western intelligence services, the most widespread analysis is that the ISKP does not have the capacity for such attacks alone, and therefore they get help from others.
One story in particular is repeated and Sajjan Gohel has heard it so many times that he gradually thinks, “it is bizarre to ignore it”.
Sajjan Gohel is the International Security Director for the Asia-Pacific Foundation and holds a Ph.D. from the London School of Economics. In both places, he has focused on international terrorism and gained a broad source network in the intelligence services.
According to Sajjan Gohel, the ISKP is part of a network of terrorist organizations coordinated by the most militant part of the Taliban, the Haqqani network. Initially, he himself had a hard time believing it, but he believes that it is gradually becoming impossible to ignore. Especially after the attack on the maternity clinic, where the collaboration according to Sajjan Gohel was very clear.
According to Sajjan Gohel’s sources, the terrorists were trained by the Pakistani terrorist organization Jaish-e-Mohammd (JeM), the food clinic was designated as a target and investigated by another terrorist organization, Lashkar-e-Taiba (LeT). The Haqqani network provided weapons, police uniforms, logistics, and coordination, while ISKP had the overall responsibility and carried out the attack itself.
“The cold, calculating nature of the attack is very much Islamic State style, but it also fits into this network. ISKP does not have the capacity to carry out such attacks without assistance,” explains Sajjan Gohel.
“ISKP has experienced a number of setbacks in recent years. They have lost a number of their leaders and their territory. But instead of being eliminated, it has happened that they work more with others,” says Sajjan Gohel.
Among other sources, cooperation with the Taliban is increasingly seen as a conspiracy theory or something used by Afghan authorities to portray the Taliban in a bad light. Last summer, however, the Defense Intelligence Service issued a threat assessment for the Danish troops, who support Sajjan Gohel’s interpretation. According to their assessment, the ISKP will “cooperate with members of the Taliban and the Haqqani network who are dissatisfied with the agreement between the United States and the Taliban as well as the intra-Afghan negotiations.”
“With the withdrawal of the coalition, the ISKP will probably try to strengthen their influence in the region by collaborating with or recruiting radical insurgents from the Taliban, the Haqqani network and other militant Islamist groups,” the Defense Intelligence Service wrote, adding:
“Whether it succeeds will depend on the military pressure on the ISKP.”
The hydra is alive
The ISKP has not officially reacted to the US and Denmark’s decision to withdraw troops from Afghanistan, and neither the US nor the Danish authorities have commented on what significance it will have for the threat from the ISKP that they withdraw.
But when you read the latest threat assessment from the Defense Intelligence Service, it is clear that the ISKP will become a major threat in Afghanistan as well as in the rest of the world:
“ISKP’s insurgency is likely to have better growth conditions when the coalition withdraws from Afghanistan, and it will also have an impact on the terrorist threat from ISKP and other militant Islamist groups,” the Defense Intelligence Service writes.
Shortly before the decision to withdraw troops, Amira Jadoon, associate professor at the Combating Terrorism Center and Department of Social Sciences at the US Military Academy, West Point, wrote that a full withdrawal could have frightening prospects because it could lead to an escalation of fighting in Afghanistan, where the Taliban will try to gain power in the country “which will create the most resilient environment for the IKSP to flourish in”.
Over the past year, we have seen how ISKP itself works to create that environment. With their repeated attacks and constant threats, they have destabilized the peace talks and the situation in Afghanistan itself.
The monster, the eerie Hydra, is still alive.