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Do Islamic State group jihadists pose a real challenge to the Taliban?

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With the Taliban busy installing their regime in Kabul since the departure of the last American soldiers, the Islamic State (IS) group’s regional chapter – known as Islamic State-Khorasan, ISIS-K or IS-K – is continuing its bloody campaign across the country. FRANCE 24 terrorism specialist Wassim Nasr looks at the significance of this jihadist group and the challenges it could pose to the Taliban.

At war with the Taliban since 2015, Islamic State-Khorasan (IS-K) is considered to be the main threat to the new masters of Kabul. According to FRANCE 24’s Wassim Nasr, IS-K can now hope to swell its ranks by taking advantage of anything considered to be a misstep by the Taliban. It could even recover its territorial bases near the Pakistani border – if American drones stop tracking them.

The death toll from the August 26 attack that IS-K orchestrated at the entrance to Kabul airport confirmed this jihadist group’s ability to strike. 

FRANCE 24: Now that the Taliban have taken control of Afghanistan, do they really have anything to fear from IS group jihadists? 

Wassim Nasr: Yes, because the IS group has been at war with the Taliban since 2015, the year the jihadists established themselves in Afghanistan. This is particularly true in the provinces of Nangarhar and Kunar near the Pakistani border. Even if they do not represent a direct threat to the Taliban’s power right now, the Taliban takes the potential threat seriously. When the group broke into the country’s prisons, including the notorious Bagram prison built by the United States under former president George W. Bush, the Taliban killed the former head of the IS group in his cell, while other important detainees of the jihadist group were kept captive. This happened at the same time that hundreds of jihadists not linked to the IS group were released. 

For its part, the IS group recognises that the Taliban has negotiated an amicable exit with the Americans – but they perceive the regime change in Kabul as a transfer of power and not a Taliban victory. 

Although it is difficult to estimate the number of IS group militants in Afghanistan, we can measure its potential on the ground and its strike force through its actions, such as the Kabul airport strike on August 26. Between assassinations, bombings, car bombs, suicide attacks and rocket attacks, it can be said that IS-K has a significant capacity to cause harm. And this is boosted by the fact that their attacks do not cost much to finance. 

What does IS-K represent in Afghanistan? 

In January 2015, the IS group announced the expansion of its so-called caliphate with the creation of Islamic State Khorasan Province, IS-K. Khorasan refers to a historical region covering parts of modern-day Afghanistan and Pakistan.  

IS-K was originally under the command of Hafiz Khan Saeed, who was killed by an American drone strike in 2016. IS-K established its territorial base in the Namgarhar and Kunar provinces, near the Pakistani border. Its ranks were quickly filled with people who had become disillusioned with the Taliban. It also managed to recruit locals and attract foreigners from neighbouring countries in the region, namely Pakistanis, Indians and fighters from the former Soviet republics in Central Asia. 

The jihadists were not able to maintain their base for long because they were quickly targeted by the Taliban, who worried that they would be swallowed up by the IS group. IS-K members were then hunted down by the Afghan army and by American forces. In 2017, former US president Donald Trump congratulated himself for ordering the drop of the “Mother of all Bombs” against the IS group in Tora Bora in the Achin district of Nangarhar. This was a particularly symbolic attack as it was in Osama Bin Laden’s former stronghold in Afghanistan. 

Although they were defeated territorially by the simultaneous actions of the Taliban, the Afghans and the Americans, the IS-K group jihadists had in the meantime managed to establish a foothold in urban environments. This is particularly true in cities like Kabul and Kandahar, where the jihadists have proven that they can strike without the need to control territory. The group has benefited from the reinforcement of old and new supporters but also, and this is a key point, from disappointed former members of the Haqqani terrorist network, a family aligned with the Taliban. They have the logistics and networks to enable them to perpetrate the bloodiest attacks claimed by the IS-K group in Kabul, well before the recent airport attack. These notably include an attack in May against a mosque run by an imam they considered to be deviant and the bombing of the presidential palace in July.  They even targeted a maternity ward, where they reportedly shot dead pregnant women and nurses.

What challenges does IS-K pose to the Taliban?

Now that it is in power, the Taliban finds itself in something of an unexpected situation, to say the least. Twenty years after the 9/11 atttacks, they will have to transform from poacher to game keeper – and engage in counter-terrorism  to protect major Afghan cities like Kabul from the threat of IS-K. The big question is, can they do this? And will the Americans continue to direct drone strikes at the IS-K group, thereby directly helping the Taliban to contain the terrorist threat? If the answer is no, who will be able to prevent the jihadists from re-establishing themselves? The Taliban has no air-strike power, no drones.    

If they can provide security, and there is a new level of cooperation between the United States and the Taliban regime, this could in itself create real dissension within the ranks of the new masters of Kabul. Such cooperation could actually serve to benefit IS-K in terms of propaganda and recruitment. The Taliban cannot parade around Kabul saying that they have driven out the American enemy and then collaborate with Washington. The Pentagon itself has indicated that it gave information to the Taliban to counter IS-K. For its part, the Taliban has not blamed the US military for the recent drone strikes targeting IS-K jihadists. 

This is a crucial issue, just as the Taliban’s mode of governance will also be scrutinised by other jihadist movements, including al Qaeda networks. If the Taliban are deemed too soft on the strict application of Sharia law, or too inclusive with Shiites and minorities, this could hollow out their ranks. And this, once again, would be to the benefit of the IS-K group, whose ideology is gaining followers. The question remains whether the group will be able to capitalise on the current upheaval to gain real power in Afghanistan?

This article has been translated from the original in French. 

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