By Sushant Sareen, August 30, 2021
After the horrific suicide bombing at the Kabul airport, the international spotlight and scrutiny has suddenly shifted from the Taliban and its close ally Al Qaeda to the shadowy terror group Islamic State Khorasan Province (ISKP). The saturation media coverage of ISKP since the bombing will make anyone believe that the real problem in Afghanistan is not the capture of that country by the Taliban, but the presence of ISKP. This is exactly what the masterminds of the airport attack would have wanted – Taliban and Pakistan are the good guys and everyone should help them, fund them to fight against the ISKP which is the real threat to global security. With US President Joe Biden calling ISKP “an arch enemy of the Taliban”, it seems like a slam dunk for the new narrative that is being manufactured of “good Taliban” or to use the evocative phrase of the British army chief “country boys with an honour code”, vs “bad ISKP”. The US military seems to have developed so much faith, trust and confidence in the Taliban that they even share extremely sensitive information with them. There is talk of intelligence sharing with the Taliban to target ISKP.
Even as the ISKP is being built up as some kind of ISIS on steroids to justify possible cooperation, coordination, even collaboration with the Taliban regime, no one is asking some simple questions: just how dangerous is the ISKP really? Does it have a global or even regional footprint (outside Afpak) or is it a local terror group with a very tenuous international affiliation? is it only using the label of an international terror brand to build its profile? What is its strength and capability to carry out big terror attacks outside of Afpak region and destabilise other countries? The data just doesn’t bear out the hype surrounding ISKP. According to South Asia Terrorism Portal (SATP), in 2021 there have been only 3 major terror attacks claimed by ISKP – killing of 3 women workers of a TV station in Jalalabad, bombing of a Shia imambargah in Kabul in May killing 14 people, and of course the Kabul airport attack. The bombing of a girls school in Kabul was never claimed by ISKP, which normally is quick to claim even attacks it hasn’t carried out. Last year, the ISKP carried out only 7 major terror attacks. Most of its attacks have been against soft targets.
From a time in 2018 when ISKP carried out over 130 attacks to 2021 when in the first 8 months, it has been able to carry out just 3 attacks (or 4 if the girls school attack is added to the list), it is clear that ISKP’s operations have been seriously disrupted and its strength seriously degraded. While the data given out in the latest UNSC report is different from what has been collated by the SATP, the broad conclusion of the UNSC is the same. According to the UNSC report, ISKP “remains diminished from its zenith, following successive military setbacks that began in Jowzjan in summer 2018”. In fact, over the last couple of years the ISKP has been systematically targeted by not just its ‘sworn enemies’ (Taliban) but also the erstwhile Afghan government and the Americans. In many instances there has been a tacit cooperation between these three parties to target the ISKP.
The UN report puts the strength of ISKP fighters between 1500-2200 but adds that the group has been “forced to decentralize and consists primarily of cells and small groups across the country, acting in an autonomous manner while sharing the same ideology”. Even so, the report assesses the group to be “active and dangerous”, more so as it could become a magnet for disgruntled Taliban and other Jihadists. But to extrapolate from here and project ISKP as some kind of a global or even regional threat that requires all major powers to come together and support the Taliban regime with money and weapons against this group, is clearly a gross exaggeration of its potential. This is not to deny that ISKP can launch some really high-profile and high casualty attacks. It is also possible that ISKP might capture a few districts or even a couple of provinces in parts of Afghanistan. But beyond that, its ability and capacity to transform into another Islamic State like entity that can capture large swathes of territory in different countries and wreak havoc on the region and beyond is highly suspect.
Until now, the only real ‘achievement’ of the ISKP is that it has accorded a degree of international respectability and acceptability to the Taliban. If this was the real purpose behind the rise of ISKP, it has been achieved. The purported threat that ISKP poses has opened the doors for Taliban to engage with countries like Russia, China, Iran, Central Asian state and even Western countries. Dealing with the Taliban, who were international pariahs not so long back, is now being justified in the name of crushing the ISKP. That the Taliban, given its deep association with a melange of regional and global jihadist groups is a far more internationalist terror group than the ISKP which is predominantly manned by disgruntled Afghan and Pakistani Taliban, is conveniently glossed over.
The linkages between ISKP and other terror groups (including those with which it is daggers drawn), as also with the putative mother organisation of many of these groups – Pakistan’s premier intelligence agency, ISI – isn’t really a secret. With decades of experience behind it, the ISI has mastered the art of manipulating and managing the contradictions and conflicts between different terror organisations and using them for advancing security and foreign policy agendas of the Pakistani state. Pitting one group against the other, using one group as a foil for the other, raising the profile of one group to increase leverage with another group, making rivals come together for a specific purpose and then forcing them to go their separate ways, is something that the ISI has used to great effect in its ‘War Through Terror’ strategy. Even the whole Taliban-vs-ISKP narrative first came out from Pakistan.
A basic mistake that is often made while analysing terror groups in the Afpak region is to look at them in terms of binaries. For example, it is often implicitly assumed that Haqqani Network, which is a ‘veritable arm of ISI’, will be an enemy of ISI’s enemy Tehrik-e-Taliban Pakistan; or, since Pakistan is the main backer of Afghan Taliban, it will not have any truck with the Taliban’s challenger, ISKP. But the Haqqani network in not just an integral part of Taliban, it also has extremely close links with TTP, Al Qaeda, ISKP. It is known to have acted as a go-between and peacemaker between these groups, and between the ISI and these groups. Often enough avowedly sworn enemies cooperate and collaborate on some things and viciously gun for each other on other issues. There have been instances where the Taliban and ISKP have carried out joint operations; and then there have been any number of instances when they have brutally targeted each other.
Right from the time when some top commanders to TTP broke away from Mullah Fazlullah and swore fealty to Abu Bakr al Baghdadi in 2014, doubts have been expressed as to who and what was behind the split. Ostensibly, the split was the result of differences of prominent commanders with Mullah Fazlullah who had succeeded Hakimullah Mehsud. With Fazlullah remaining loyal to Mullah Omar (who was dead by then, only no one knew it), the breakaway faction found the IS as a convenient banner to work under. But there is also speculation that the military operation Zarb-e-Azb that had started in June 2014 against the TTP in North Waziristan played a major part in the split. In other words, the split was engineered to break the strength of TTP and push the war that had entered Pakistan, back into Afghanistan. According to one of the earlier leaders of ISKP, Abdul Rahim Muslimdost, the organisation had been “infiltrated by elements of Pakistan’s intelligence agency, in order to push what was left of the militancy in Pakistan across the border”.
Whatever the murky reality of what exactly happened back then, subsequent reports revealed deep suspicions about ISKP links with ISI, not directly but through the instrumentality of its ‘veritable arm’ – the Haqqani Network. The de jure caretaker President of Afghanistan, Amrullah Saleh, has for long been accusing the ISKP of being a proxy of ISI. In an interview two years ago, he disclosed that arrested ISKP terrorists had admitted to having received funding and training from Pakistan. He also revealed that communication intercepts had pointed to ISKP cadres being in constant contact with people in Pakistan. In his book on ISKP, Antonio Giustozzi has written that in 2017 a Pakistani terrorist Aslam Farooqi was made leader of ISKP as part of a deal with ISI. According to Giustozzi, the deal was that in exchange for the appointment of a leader linked to ISI and cessation of attacks against Pakistan government targets, the ISKP would be given access to safe havens inside Pakistan. Lobbying for the deal was done by the Haqqani Network. But Farooqi’s appointment split the ISKP. A report last year revealed that at the behest of the ISI, the Haqqani Network was trying to take control of ISKP but this was being resisted by some of the factions that had emerged after the split.
Despite the Haqqani Network being one of the most lethal components of the Taliban movement, it maintained a close link with the ISKP. Many of the attacks claimed by the ISKP in Kabul were a joint venture with the Haqqanis which facilitated them and perhaps even executed them. According to a UNSC report in 2020, ISKP “lacked the capability to launch complex attacks in Kabul on its own while taking responsibility for operations that had, in all likelihood, been carried out by the Haqqani Network”. The Afghan intelligence had busted a major cell of Haqqanis and ISKP in Kabul in May last after the attack on the Sikh Gurdwara. These kind of joint attacks in which different groups, even rivals, collaborate is not out of the ordinary. In Pakistan too, there have been occasions when two or more terrorist groups have claimed responsibility for the same attack because all these groups have participated in the attack and were entitled to take ownership.
It is also not uncommon for one group to carry out an attack but for another to take responsibility, something that has been seen in Jammu and Kashmir in the past when an attack which had clear fingerprints of Pakistani terrorist groups like Lashar-e-Taiba or Jaish-e-Mohammad were claimed by an ‘indigenous’ terrorist group like Hizbul Mujahideen. The same template has been followed in Afghanistan as well, as is clear from the latest UNSC report which writes: “certain attacks can be denied by the Taliban and claimed by ISIL-K, with it being unclear whether these attacks were purely orchestrated by the Haqqani Network, or were joint ventures making use of ISIL-K operatives”.
While the ISKP is now the new ogre in town, and the Taliban crimes are being white-washed – the US state department spokesman has gone to the extent of declaring that the Taliban and Haqqani Network are separate entities – an effort is underway for getting a tighter grip on the ISKP. Although many of the arrested ISKP cadres have escaped after the jails were thrown open by the Taliban, there are reports that they are trying to enlist the ISKP fighters in the Taliban ranks. But this follows the culling of some of the top leaders of ISKP, including the former ‘governor’ of Khorasan wilayat, Abu Umar Khorasani. The fighters are however being offered a chance to save themselves if they join the Taliban. Otherwise, they will be hunted down.
Going forward, instead of making yet another Faustian bargain with the Taliban, and plying them with money, resources, legitimacy in the hope they will fight the ISKP, the US and its allies need to think this through. It might be a better idea to let the Taliban stew in its own juice, and taste some of its own medicine. No one should forget the thousands that Taliban killed through precisely the same tactics that the ISKP uses. There is nothing really redeeming about the Taliban and nothing that really distinguishes from the ISKP. Therefore, if the ISKP finds space after the US withdrawal, and revives, then so be it. Let the Taliban tackle them with their own devices and resources. This will keep them busy and tied down fighting and killing each other and not spread their poisonous wares elsewhere. In any case, now that the US has walked out, why not let the supporters of Taliban – Pakistan, Russia, China and even Iran – handle this problem and suffer the consequences of their own making.
Sushant Sareen is a senior fellow at the Observer Research Foundation.