Taliban assess threat from tenacious IS-K

Islamabad (AFP)

The Taliban’s efforts to bring stability to Afghanistan have been hampered by a series of bloody attacks by operatives of the Islamic State of Khorasan (IS-K).

The latest attack saw a suicide bomber slaughter dozens of Shia Muslims during Friday afternoon prayers in the northern city of Kunduz, with the apparent aim of sowing sectarian hatred and rendering the country ungovernable.

It follows a suicide bombing that killed more than 100 Afghans and 13 American soldiers during the evacuation of American troops in August.

AFP looks at the two groups and the likely evolution of their rivalry.

– Who is IS-K? –

The Islamic State group at large was officially founded in late 2014, when Sunni extremists fighting insurgencies in Iraq and Syria swore allegiance to a “caliphate.”

Supposedly the heart of a future universal Muslim homeland under the black banner of ISIS, Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi’s group seized part of Iraq and eastern Syria .

This territory was eventually recaptured by US-backed forces, but not before inspiring fallout elsewhere, notably in “Khorasan”, a region comprising parts of Afghanistan, Iran, Pakistan and Turkmenistan.

Jean-Luc Marret, of the French think tank Foundation for Strategic Research, describes the IS-K as “a conglomerate of former jihadist organizations, including Uyghurs and Uzbeks, and Taliban defectors.”

Taliban promised stability in war-torn Afghanistan, but their authority could be destabilized by IS-K WAKIL KOHSAR AFP

The IS-K claimed that Friday’s Kunduz bombing was carried out by a Uyghur, a member of China’s persecuted Muslim minority, underlining the regional nature of the threat.

According to UN estimates, the IS-K has between 500 and a few thousand fighters in northern and eastern Afghanistan, including cells under the noses of the Taliban in the capital Kabul.

Since 2020, the group has been reputed to be led by a certain “Shahab al-Mujahir”, whose nom de guerre suggests that he arrived in the region from the Arab world, but his origins remain unclear.

According to various rumors, he was allegedly a commander of Al Qaeda or a former member of the Haqqani network, now one of the most powerful and feared factions of the Afghan Taliban.

– What’s the threat? –

Until 2020, eclipsed by the Taliban and targeted by a campaign of American airstrikes and drones, the IS-K faction was losing its influence.

But the arrival of the mysterious new leader seems to have marked a turning point in his fortune.

According to researcher Abdul Sayed of online extremism tracker ExTrac, Shahad has placed “a renewed emphasis on urban warfare and symbolic violence.”

“Although the Taliban are its main target, the IS-K has chosen easy targets like religious places, educational establishments and public places like hospitals etc. to spread fears of its terrorism,” he said. said Sayed.

The Taliban and the IS-K are both militant Sunni groups, but while the new Taliban-led regime in Kabul has vowed to protect the Shia minority, its rival remains determined to stamp out “apostates” and “hypocrites. “.

As in Iraq, where the original ISIS targeted Shiite communities to foment sectarian war, in Afghanistan the IS-K threatened the Hazara, a predominantly Shiite ethnic minority.

– Where did the rivalry start? –

Many IS-K fighters have fought for the Taliban or allied groups, or are from insurgent movements inspired by Al Qaeda. But now the groups’ strategies have diverged.

The Taliban in 2021 aims to rule Afghanistan according to its interpretation of Islamic law, while the IS-K remains committed to the distant goal of a global “caliphate”.

Taliban spokespersons call the group “takfiri” – Muslims who mark the other apostates and condemn them to death – while IS-K propaganda presents their rivals as clearance sales to the Americans.

But while the rhetoric is chilling, the line between the groups is porous and fighters may switch sides as the views and opportunities of their commanders evolve.

“IS-K has already been successful in recruiting disgruntled members of the Taliban and those who perceive the Taliban as too moderate,” said Barbara Kelemen of Dragonfly Security Intelligence.

“With the Taliban now apparently carrying out moderate reforms to their regime, it is highly likely that the group will try to capitalize on its position as the main rejection group in Afghanistan to recruit more disgruntled former Taliban supporters and to launch attacks against the Taliban. Taliban. ”

– Do the Taliban have the upper hand? –

“The Taliban’s main message to the Afghan people since August 15 is that they have restored stability by ending the war,” said Michael Kugelman of the US think tank Woodrow Wilson Center.

“But terrorist attacks like the one in Kunduz undermine this narrative in a major way,” he warned.

The fallen US-backed Afghan government received hundreds of billions of dollars in security support and assistance and was backed by Western forces, but was unable to defeat either the Taliban or the IS-K.

Now the Taliban are facing their rival with very little outside help and none of the sophisticated intelligence gathering and surveillance equipment deployed by the US military.

They know their enemy and the terrain, however, and last week announced the destruction of an IS-K cell in Kabul following a suicide bombing attack on the city’s second largest mosque.

And they have the potential backing of two groups who are very familiar with IS-K tactics.

As a report from the US-based Soufan Center explains: “To fight IS-K, the Taliban will rely on the Haqqani network, al-Qaeda and other violent non-state actors for the workforce. manpower, combat expertise and logistical support. . “

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