ISIS May Find Some Comfort in Afghanistan

Gilad Shiloach analyzes the ISIS presence in Afghanistan.

ISIS members in Afghanistan.
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ISIS members in Afghanistan. 

As ISIS territory in Iraq and Syria continues to dwindle and its propaganda output is shrinking as well, the Jihadi group may find some comfort in Afghanistan. Its official Afghan branch, known as ISIS’s “Khorasan Province” (Wilayat Khorasan) or ISIS-K, emerges as a significant threat to the stability of the country and some fear it will stir up sectarian violence.

In less than a month, since October 20th, the Islamic State has claimed responsibility for five different suicide attacks in the Afghan capital of Kabul through its official channels on Telegram. In the first attack in the series, an IS suicide bomber detonated his suicide vest in the Imam Zaman Shiʿi mosque in the city, killing at least 39 people. The attack highlighted the vulnerability of the Shiʿi minority in front of ISIS militants, who have already been able to carry out devastating assaults against Shiʿi targets and kill more than 200 members of the Afghan Shiʿi community in the past year.

Four other suicide attacks carried by ISIS-K in this period targeted a local Afghan TV station, a convoy of the Afghan army, a political gathering and a compound housing foreign embassies, and government departments in the capital. ISIS pictured the suicide bombers before these attacks and released the photos on its official channels. In addition to the attacks in Kabul, official ISIS propaganda released pictures documenting its fighters assaulting on Taliban positions in Nangarhar and the northern Jawzjan Province.

ISIS-K continues the fight against both US-led forces and its Taliban rivals. It has proven resilient despite recent setbacks like the assassination of its leader Abu Sayed last July and the killing of scores of its fighters when the US dropped the "mother of all bombs" on ISIS-K bases in the eastern province of Nangarhar last April.

Moreover, unlike most of ISIS's "provinces" across Iraq and Syria these days, the media office of ISIS-K is bragging about some aspects of governance in Nangarhar, showing photos of an ISIS-run school for the Caliphate "cubs" in the area and its Hisba (religious police) members burning seized drugs.

"Khorasan Province" was established in January 2015 after former commanders in the Pakistani Taliban (TTP) pledged allegiance to ISIS's leader Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi and declared war on both the Afghan Taliban and the local government in Kabul. Since then, it enjoys a safe haven in the eastern province of Nangarhar, which borders Pakistan and often remains off-limits to the Afghan Security Forces. 

Afghanistan and the ISIS's hub in Nangarhar, in particular, may become a refuge for ISIS fighters fleeing Iraq and Syria to regroup and reorganize. ISIS’s large-scale terror attacks and military achievements in Afghanistan  could make this development even more significant.