Is the Islamic State Escalating in Afghanistan?
In the past few months, Afghanistan has become an attractive arena for the spread of the Islamic State, also known as ISIS. Since ISIS announced the creation of Wilayat Khorasan, its administrative unit in Afghanistan and Pakistan, bands of local militants in several provinces across the country have carried out attacks against security forces, civilians, and other militant groups in the name of the Islamic State, although most of these reports remain largely unconfirmed. A recent spectacular attack in Jalalabad marks a serious departure from previous reports of ISIS activity and brings up questions as to whether or not ISIS is aspiring to strengthen its foothold in the region.
On April 18, 2015, a suicide bomber attacked a branch of the Kabul Bank in the provincial capital Jalalabad in Afghanistan’s eastern Nangarhar Province, killing at least 35 civilians and injuring over 125 others. President Ashraf Ghani announced that ISIS claimed responsibility for the attack, although he did not elaborate on how he obtained the information. Taliban spokesman Zabihullah Mujahid released a statement condemning the bombing, calling it “an evil act.” On April 18, local media received text messages allegedly from Shahidullah Shahid, a key figure in the establishment of Wilayat Khorasan, claiming responsibility on behalf of ISIS for the attack.
Was the Kabul Bank bombing an ISIS attack? The Taliban claimed responsibility for similar attacks at branches of the Kabul Bank in the past, most notably in Kunar province in 2014 and at the same branch in Jalalabad in 2011. The Taliban has therefore proven its interest in attacking that target, which was an emblem of corruption in the era of former President Hamid Karzai, whose brother Mahmud had a financial interest in the bank. An alleged spokesman of Wilayat Khorasan, Abdul Rahim Muslim Dost, told the Daily Beast on April 21 that ISIS condemned the April 18 attack in Jalalabad and instead blamed “Pakistani agencies” for the attack in a plot “to damage the reputation of ISIS.” Muslim Dost, a former Guantanamo Bay detainee with past connections to Pakistani and Afghan Taliban groups, resurfaced in the AfPak region in 2014 and reportedly announced his allegiance to ISIS leader Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi at the end of last summer. Some reports say Muslim Dost was named chief of Wilayat Khorasan, although he was only briefly mentioned in the January 2015 video released by former Tehrik-e Taliban Pakistan (TTP) commanders who pledged allegiance to ISIS under the leadership of Hafiz Saeed Khan. He has been leading ISIS recruitment efforts in Pakistan and in Afghanistan’s eastern provinces, including Nuristan and Kunar, to send Afghans to fight alongside ISIS in Syria and Iraq.
Reports of ISIS activity in Afghanistan have been on the rise in recent months, although no attacks have matched the level of coordination or violence witnessed in the suicide bombing at Kabul Bank in Jalalabad. President Ghani, during his visit to Washington D.C. in March, said the Islamic State was expanding its presence in Afghanistan, particularly in the southern and western provinces of the country. Several high-profile sectarian attacks, including the kidnapping of thirty-one Hazaras in Zabul province, have also been attributed to the group. Several small pockets of militant groups across Afghanistan, including in Helmand, Farah, Ghazni, Logar, Nangarhar, Sar-e Pul, and Faryab Provinces, have claimed to fight under the banner of the Islamic State. At present, however, these groups are not operating under any sort of united leadership. Various militant bands that claim affiliations with ISIS have carried out the attacks in the past few months, none of which indicate a major designated effort by Wilayat Khorasan in Afghanistan or ISIS militant coordination across several areas of operation.
ISIS’ claim of responsibility for the Kabul Bank attack in Jalalabad should be treated skeptically, as the nature of the Kabul Bank attack suits a number of militant groups. It is indeed possible that the Taliban or another militant group, such as the Haqqani Network or Hezb-e Islami, carried out the attack and is hoping ISIS’ claim of responsibility will deflect criticism for killing civilians. In a country that has hosted the Taliban insurgency for years, ISIS still struggles to establish a solid foothold within the Afghan population.
If ISIS did conduct the attack, it has demonstrated a step change in its capabilities. Previously, ISIS-affiliated groups claimed a number of targeted attacks against minority ethnic or sectarian groups. The bombing in Jalalabad would signal a significant enhancement in their operational capabilities and mark their first explosive attack in Afghanistan.
Yet the ISIS leadership structure under Wilayat Khorasan in Afghanistan has dwindled since its announcement back in January 2015. One of the first major recruiters for ISIS in Helmand province, Abdul Rauf Khadim, was killed in a NATO drone strike on February 9, 2015. On March 16, Khadim’s deputy and potential replacement Hafiz Wahidi was killed in an Afghan security forces operation in the group’s recruiting stronghold in Helmand province. Most recently, Pakistani media reported that the governor of Wilayat Khorasan Hafiz Saeed Khan was allegedly killed by his own IED in Pakistan’s Tirah Valley on April 17, although there has been no confirmation of his death or its cause from the group.
With the loss of its top key players, it will be important to track how ISIS develops its presence in Afghanistan and Pakistan. Prominent local commanders like Muslim Dost, especially those with familiar ties to regionally-based groups like the TTP and Afghan Taliban, could fill these roles to carry on the established ISIS strategy for the region focused on recruitment and attracting regional support. As the Taliban prepares for the launch of its spring offensive, ISIS could take the opportunity to carve out its own space in the AfPak region. If ISIS successfully raises its profile, it could co-opt the existing militant bands and their networks for enhanced coordination in attacks under the leadership and resources of Wilayat Khorasan.
For now, ISIS activity in Afghanistan has included disjointed yet brutal attacks from various militant bands and ISIS-affiliated commanders, each with varying degrees of allegiance to and recognition from the Islamic State operating in Syria and Iraq. The text-message-based claim and subsequent rejection of responsibility for the Jalalabad attack highlights how ISIS in Afghanistan is far from a united front. It will be important to watch for ISIS involvement in future attacks, specifically those targeting sectarian or ethnic groups, as well as claims of responsibility by Wilayat Khorasan and more formal media channels, to see how ISIS advances its operations in Afghanistan as the fighting season begins.