Following a coordinated suicide attack on a gurdwara in Kabul on March 25, in which several Sikhs were killed, Daesh (ISIS) claimed its second ever attack on Indian interests in Afghanistan. Identifying the lone attacker as Abu Khalid al Hindi (Muhammad Muhsin from Kerala, who had gone to the Gulf in 2018), ISIS termed it “revenge for Muslims of Kashmir”.
Subsequently, Afghan security forces arrested the Amir of Islamic State Khurasan Province (ISKP, the ISIS branch in Af-Pak) —a Pakistani national, Aslam Farooqui Akhunzada — and others, including Kashmiri militant Aijaz Ahangar, wanted for two decades. ISKP posted a picture and a video of an Afghan officer in their custody, and pictures of his “beheading” on May 4. The Afghan Taliban called Aslam a “stooge” of Afghan forces, but his organic links in the region have been known even before ISIS was born. The chain of events does necessitate closer scrutiny of the ISKP threat in the region.
ISIS and Taliban
Less than a month after the fall of the Caliphate (March 23, 2019), ISIS mounted spectacular attacks on targets in Sri Lanka. In March 2020, in Kabul, ISIS claimed mortar attacks on a high-profile political gathering, President Ashraf Ghani’s inauguration, and on US troops in Bagram base twice. Was the March 25 attack an “anniversary attack”? Did ISIS intend to target “enemies” using a local radicalised group as it had sought to do with the July 2016 bakery attack in Dhaka or the April 2019 attacks in Sri Lanka? In a country where ISIS presumably has a handful of targets, it is curious as to why it endorsed the targeting of a minuscule minority.
Moreover, in recent years, especially after the US-Taliban agreement, the Taliban have repeatedly claimed to have finished ISKP in Afghanistan. In a recent issue of the weekly al Nabha, criticising the agreement, ISIS has exhorted supporters to target “enemies” as their resources are tied up with Covid-19. Over the last few weeks, a few lone wolf attacks have been reported across Europe. Thus, the targeting of a gurdwara is surprising. Moreover, the claim of using a single foreign fighter, the modus operandi, and weak propaganda doesn’t indicate a signature attack by ISIS. However, owning up to the ISKP attacks could suggest a possible shift in post-Caliphate strategy.
The Wilayat Khurasan — comprising parts of Afghanistan, Pakistan, Iran and Central Asia — is a concept born in January 2015, when ISIS designated a former Tehrik-e-Taliban Pakistan (TTP) commander from Orakzai, Hafiz Saeed, as “Wali” and a disgruntled Afghan Taliban commander, Abdul Rauf, as “deputy Wali”. Following the killing of TTP Amir, Hakimullah, in a drone strike in November 2013, Hafiz Saeed and TTP spokesperson Sheikh Maqbool had drifted away from TTP towards the ISI. The intra-Mehsud fight within TTP led to the emergence of Mullah Fazlullah as the Amir, which led to an exodus of some commanders who were being courted by the ISI to turn them towards targeting Afghanistan.
In October 2014, Hafiz Saeed and Sheikh Maqbool suddenly pledged allegiance to ISIS. Around that time, the ISIS ideology was gaining traction in Pakistan; not so much in Afghanistan. The group did attract Pakistani and Afghan foot soldiers. The group went online for propaganda and recruitment of foreign fighters who found it difficult to go to Syria-Iraq, especially from Pakistan, India, Bangladesh and Central Asia. However, this recruitment was very small, except from Pakistan. Accounts from the West described the group as ISKP. Online recruiters from Kashmir surfaced as Abu Usman Al Kashmiri, a kuniya (a kind of name) used by Aijaz Ahangar, and as Huzaifa-al-Bakistani, a kuniya used by his son-in-law, reportedly killed in Nangarhar.
In no time, hundreds of local fighters of ISKP displaced the mightier Taliban from Nangarhar while, across the border the Pakistan Army had a formidable presence to control cross-border movement for its own security. It has taken close to five years for ISKP to be dislodged from a small area. Some ISKP nodes did surface in Kunar province, where Pakistan has for years alleged the presence of TTP and Jamaat-ul-Ahrar bases. The geographical spread of ISKP, its selective and big attacks (promptly denied by Taliban) and its “near peaceful coexistence” with Taliban cannot be misread.
Four ISKP Amirs have been killed and a fifth is now under arrest. The group has never gained much traction in Afghanistan or Pakistan. Except claiming a few big attacks in Kabul and Quetta, ISKP has not shown any keenness to expand its areas of influence. Post-Caliphate, no mass movement of regional foreign fighters back to the fold of ISKP has been reported. Some central Asian fighters of dubious connections have surfaced, especially in the north and Nangarhar, recruiting Tajiks and Uzbeks for local and overseas operations. However, the local impact of such groups is marginal.
Aslam Farooqui is one of the first Pashtun commanders of tribal areas of Pakistan who, along with Moulvi Nazeer and Hafiz Gul Bahadur, aligned with Taliban to fight against US-led ISAF, with active support of the Pakistan Army way back in October 2001. He was also one of the founders of the TTP network that turned the heat on the Pakistan Army for targeting their fiefdom. However, Aslam Farooqui was reported to have made a “deal” with the Pakistan Army around December 2012. Like all such deals in Pakistan, this too was denied as soon as it became public.
In the region, the signs
It is widely believed that over 100 Indians had migrated to the Caliphate, while it was gaining traction among foreign fighters across the world. Subsequently, it became known that a group of Indians from Kerala, including women and children, had migrated to Afghanistan around 2016-17. Some children were born there. A total of 60-plus Indians were believed to be living in territory controlled by ISKP in Nangarhar. Between October and December 2019, over 1,400 people with ISKP, including fighters and their families, surrendered before Afghan forces in Nangarhar. These included fighters from Pakistan, Bangladesh and India. Some Indian women and children were in this group. A few Indian fighters are believed to have been killed, with no solid proof as yet, while a few are still missing. With the surfacing of Mushin, it appears that a few more Indians may have joined ISKP.
In recent times, online entities called the Islamic State Hind Province (ISHP) or Islamic State-Kashmir (IS-K) have surfaced, with focus on propaganda and recruitment of Indians, or of fighters from the region, for attacks on Indian interests. The activities of ISHP and IS-K are closely linked to ISKP. The arrest of a Kashmiri couple by Delhi Police Special Cell in early March, being linked to ISHP/IS-K, may have been an attempt to test the waters with Indians — those driven by personal grievances, radicalised in the name of ISIS — to hit targets in Delhi or elsewhere.
Although the source of ISKP/ISHP/IS-K is known, this does not reduce the threats posed by them. Since ISIS is currently claiming all “verifiable” attacks, these entities have a ready-to-use platform for propaganda for recruitment. Moreover, through the Covid-19 phase, ISIS is becoming quite active in cyberspace. While ISIS would happily own up to many attacks by the likes of the ISKP network, it may not miss the opportunity to rope in and guide such networks to attack targets in the region. Thus, apart from stemming radicalisation, it is critical to closely watch threats emerging in the region, especially for India and the West.
Anju Gupta is an IPS officer. Views are personal
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