The Islamic State threat in Afghanistan
Framing the World Focus: Terrorism and Security section
When we refer to Afghanistan and Islamic terrorism, we always have to start from an essential factor: the importance of the Asian state within the jihadist galaxy. First of all, this importance is evident from a symbolic point of view: indeed, it is precisely here that arose strategic directions and ideologies that widely influenced the armed Islam (for instance, the doctrines of Abdallah Azzam and Abu Musab al-Suri). And it is always here that were formed some of the most famous fighters and leaders in the landscape of Islamic radicalism (to name a few, Osama Bin Laden, Ayman al-Zawahiri e Abu Musab al-Zarqaw).
Having said that, we see how Afghanistan has been the country most affected by terrorism in recent years. In particular, as reported by Global Terrorist Index 2019 (which analyses 2018 data), the Afghan state is number one in the world ranking that measures the impact of terrorism - with a score of 9603 (ahead of Iraq and Nigeria). In addition, also in 2018, Afghanistan recorded the highest death toll (7379) in the face of 1443 terrorist attacks - a "record" also achieved the previous year. According to the report, the Taliban are responsible for 83% of terrorist incidents and their casualties, while the local Islamic State cell is responsible for 11% of casualties. In 2019, terrorism kept equally high numbers but, at the same time, the US and the Taliban took the first steps towards a peace agreement, signed by both sides at the end of February 2020. While, on the one hand, Afghanistan is seeing timid signs of improvement in the negotiating process with the Taliban - although with many problems -, on the other hand, the Asian state has to face an increasingly relevant danger: ISIS.
The IS-K (Islamic Khorasan Province), local branch of the Islamic State, appeared for the first time in Afghanistan between the end of 2014 and the beginning of 2015, in conjunction with the repeated defeats suffered by Daesh militants in the Syrian-Iraqi motherhouse. The jihadist group, originally composed mainly of the Pakistani Taliban, over time received the support of thousands of fighters coming from central Asia, as well as India and Bangladesh. Among the militants, there are also some Uyghur, a Muslim minority settled in China. Over the years, the terrorist cell has improved its operational capacity, becoming the protagonist of several attacks both in Kabul and in more remote provinces.
Precisely in the last few weeks, while the Taliban have "reduced" their attacks (limiting them to rural areas or small towns) after signing the peace agreement, the militants of the local ISIS cell are intensifying their threat. Indeed, last month the IS-K claimed responsibility for two highly brutal attacks: the first, on 5 March, occurred in Kabul during a memorial service in honour of Abdul Ali Mazari, leader of the Shiite Hazari minority (about 30 casualties). The celebration was also attended by Adullah Abdullah (the main political rival of president Ghani), who remained unharmed. The second attack also occurred in the Afghan capital, against a Sikh temple, inside which 150 people were taken hostage (at 25 casualties among the faithful). Analysing these attacks, it is very easy to see how the IS-K preferred targets are religious minorities (in these case, the Hazari and the Sikh) and, therefore, civilians. This is a significant difference from the Taliban, whose primary targets are military objectives of both Kabul and the international coalition. The differences between the two groups are even stronger if we look at their ideological profiles: the IS-K, like the Islamic State in general, aims at establishing an Islamic Caliphate and has a global and transnational vocation. The Koranic students, instead, have always supported the creation of an Afghan Emirate and are therefore bearers of purely nationalist requests.
With regard to its internal organisation, the IS-K encountered visible difficulties in mantaining control of the territories in the eastern provinces - where it is more active. Indeed, in these areas, the jihadist group did not manage to win the local population minds because of the deep-rooted presence of the Taliban on the ground. In reference to the leadership, the founder of the group, emir Hafiz Saeed Khan, was killed in July 2016 by a US raid. After him, several leaders died because of American strikes conducted in the past three years, including emirs Abdul Hasib (April 2017), Abu Sayed (July 2017) and Abu Saad Orakzai (August 2018), as well as other prominent members of the organisation. Moreover, Afghan authorities recently announced the capture of another key member of the jihadist cell, Pakistani Aslam Farooqi.
Despite the obvious organisational complexities and the decimation of its leadership (and of its members in general), in the last few years the IS-K has managed to perform numerous attacks, some of which with a strong media impact. Its resilience comes primarily from two factors. The first one is the porosity of the borders between Afghanistan and Pakistan, which facilitated the flow of Pakistani Taliban (and other Islamic fighters) towards the lines of the local branch of the Islamic State. The other one - the most important and decisive -, is the everlasting civil conflict that has been marking the Afghan state for 19 years. The political instability and the socioeconomic uncertainty deriving from it undoubtedly represent fertile ground for the proliferation of terrorist groups, as the IS-K in this case. That said, the Afghan government has to regain its credibility and legitimacy, overcoming current internal divergences. Only a compact political structure can achieve a good result in the negotiations with the Taliban. The ongoing peace process - already very complicated in itself - would risk to stop if divisions within the political class persisted, with the effect of giving further room for manoeuvre to the IS-K, which, precisely during this stage of negotiations and intra-Afghan first dialogues, intensified its threat. Furthermore, it is worth remembering that a potential failure in the peace process would also have the effect of reigniting the civil conflict, resulting in the full resumption of the terrorist activities of the Taliban (which, as mentioned before, did not cease even at this stage).
To conclude, we need to look beyond the Afghan internal dynamics and project the focus towards a broader framework covering Islamic terrorism as a whole. The Islamic State, as a result of the defeats suffered in 2019, definitely lost its "state" configuration in the Syrian-Iraqi territories. It is therefore easy to think that the IS is now aiming at strengthening its local cells (the so-called Wilayat: provinces) in other geographical areas. al-Qaeda, even though in different ways, embarked on a strategy aimed at seeking local consensus and the related social roots in certain territories. On the basis of what was said, it is likely that in the short-medium term we will see not the development of a global jihad, but the resilience and/or affirmation of the "local Emirates", i.e. jihadist groups active in more restricted areas. The IS-K, through its bond with the Islamic State, would fully fit into this strategic reorganisation.
Translated by Roberta Sforza