Warning Update: The Expansion of ISIS in Northwestern Afghanistan

By: Caitlin Forrest and Richard DeKold

Key Takeaway: ISIS Wilayat Khorasan may be developing a regional powerbase in northwestern Afghanistan. Former Taliban militants operating in the name of ISIS executed international aid workers and held others captive in a prison in Jowzjan Province in February 2017, a step change in ISIS’s operations in Afghanistan. ISIS may increasingly use this hub to regenerate manpower as it suffers losses elsewhere, threatening US and NATO interests in multiple regions across Afghanistan. Malign external actors like Russia and Iran could also use ISIS’s expansion in the region to validate their support of Taliban militants and undermine the U.S. and NATO.

Tripwire: The Jowzjan Provincial Governor claimed ISIS-linked militants killed six International Committee for the Red Cross (ICRC) workers on February 8 in Qush Tepah District. Militants are holding two more ICRC workers captive in an ISIS prison in Qush Tepah District, Jowzjan Province according to a local news source. This report comes one month after local officials and elders separately claimed that ISIS members destroyed homes in Darzab District, Jowzjan Province and forced up to 60 families to leave their homes in Sayad District, Sar-e Pul Province in December 2016. Another report emerged on February 8 that the son of the slain leader of the Islamic Movement of Uzbekistan (IMU), which pledged to ISIS in August 2015, is leading efforts to resettle up to 650 foreign Pakistani and Uzbek militants and their families in Jowzjan, Sar-e Pul, and Faryab Provinces. ISW is issuing a warning based on these reports that ISIS may be developing a regional power base in northwestern Afghanistan. Neither ISIS Wilayat Khorasan nor ISIS’s central media has claimed the aforementioned events.

Pattern: The execution of international aid workers is a step change for ISIS in Afghanistan. The establishment of a prison and population displacement are new developments for ISIS in northwest Afghanistan, but typical of ISIS generally. ISIS militants previously used resettlement efforts to increase presence in Kunar in March 2016, and also established multiple prisons in their strongholds in Nangarhar Province. Reporting of ISIS-linked activity in northwestern Afghanistan accelerated in February 2017 compared to previous trends, but early indicators corroborate the presence of ISIS-linked fighters in this zone. Local security officials first claimed ISIS was recruiting and raising “black flags” in Jowzjan and Sar-e Pul Provinces in January 2015. The Islamic Movement of Uzbekistan (IMU), which historically operates in northern Afghanistan and the Afghanistan-Pakistan border area, pledged to ISIS in August 2015. ISIS militants reportedly clashed with security forces in Qush Tepah District, Jowzjan province in July 2016. Another report in August 2016 alluded to a local ISIS commander in Jowzjan. ISIS militants clashed again with security forces in Darzab District, Jowzjan Province in October 2016. ISIS-linked groups also killed a local prayer leader in for assaulting minors in Darzab District in October 2016.  

Timing: ISIS may be exploiting a gap in security by Dostum’s Junbish Militia in northwestern Afghanistan. ISIS’s expansion in the region comes as First Vice President Abdul Rashid Dostum, who maintains significant influence in the North through his Junbish Militia, remains confined to his home surrounded by his militia in Kabul City following a scandal involving the alleged assault of former Jowzjan Provincial Governor Ahmad Eschi in November 2016 by his bodyguards. The lack of reported Junbish militia action to combat ISIS-linked militants in Northern Afghanistan may represent the absence of Junbish militias. Alternatively, Dostum may be sanctioning the expansion of ISIS in the region in order to demonstrate his significance to Afghan security in an attempt to relieve the political pressure to prosecute him for the alleged assault. Meanwhile, the ANSF is currently undergoing a U.S.-led force regeneration process during their 2016-2017 winter campaign. The Afghan National Unity Government has historically relied on a joint force of ANSF units and Junbish militiamen to provide security in northwestern Afghanistan. The lessened presence of Dostum’s militia while the ANSF rests and refits units may be granting ISIS-linked militants increased freedom of movement in the region.  

Assessment: The prison in Qush Tepah District, Jowzjan province is the first indicator of social control by ISIS in Afghanistan outside of its strongholds in eastern Afghanistan. The prison is run by former Taliban shadow governor Qari Hekmat, who reportedly joined ISIS in mid-2016 a few months after he was expelled from the Taliban due to his excessive brutality. Qari Hekmat is one of several ISIS-linked groups operating in the area, including Abdul Rahman Yuldash, the son of the slain leader of the IMU, who has also been implicated by local sources in recent reporting. The Jowzjan Provincial Governor claimed on February 8 that five ISIS factions with up to 200 fighters are present in Qush Tepah District alone. The successful recruitment of former-Taliban and IMU militants in Jowzjan, Sar-e Pul, and Faryab Provinces will allow ISIS to regenerate manpower and absorb losses incurred in its strongholds in eastern Afghanistan, Iraq and Syria. ISIS seeks to take advantage of the vast ungoverned and remote spaces in Afghanistan to establish camps where it can recruit, train, and deploy local and foreign fighters. ISIS Wilayat Khorasan has trained recruits from India, planned successful attacks in Kabul, and deployed expeditionary recruiters to remote provinces from its strongholds in Nangarhar and Zabul according to local sources. ISIS will likely use its growing presence and influence in the northwestern provinces to establish an additional regional base in which it can implement social control and expand ISIS’s Caliphate as it loses territory in core terrain.  

Implications: The expansion of ISIS’s Caliphate in Afghanistan would grant ISIS an additional logistical hub to receive and train foreign fighters as it becomes more difficult for foreign fighters to join ISIS in Iraq and Syria. ISIS Wilayat Khorasan is likely strengthening its ties with IMU militants in order to expand its regional network and coopt local groups and fighters. Russia may use the expansion of ISIS in northwestern Afghanistan, which borders former Soviet satellite states Turkmenistan, Uzbekistan, and Tajikistan, to continue undermining the U.S. and NATO by supporting Taliban militants and claiming that Taliban militants are fighting ISIS rather than the U.S. The expansion of ISIS outside of its bases in eastern Afghanistan will also strain the ongoing U.S. counterterrorism mission as it will have to shift resources to remote northwestern provinces. This shift may allow ISIS in Nangarhar to reconstitute sanctuaries lost to joint U.S.-ANSF operations in 2016. Any remaining Junbish militias under Dostum’s control in the area would further complicate U.S. response if Dostum faces backlash from his alleged assault against Eschi and orders his militias not to cooperate with the U.S. as a result. Both ISIS and Russia stand to benefit from the expansion of ISIS into the northwest at the expense of the U.S.

Indicators: Increased reports of ISIS conducting executions and establishing courts or prisons in the northwestern provinces would indicate ISIS is solidifying social control in the region. Reports that the group is suddenly flush with cash or is able to procure explosive materials may indicate a transfer of capabilities from either ISIS in core terrain, ISIS militants in eastern Afghanistan, or both. Any recognition of these ISIS-linked groups in official ISIS media, either coming from core or with official ISIS Wilayat Khorasan branding, would indicate ISIS is consolidating ties with these groups and attempting to expand the Caliphate in northwestern Afghanistan. The continued successful recruiting of former-Taliban militants would increase the likelihood that ISIS will establish a regional stronghold as it coopts is main competitors in the area. If Dostum’s militia remains disengaged, it could further deteriorate security in the northwestern provinces and allow ISIS to make significant gains in the region. These gains may prompt Russia to take action against ISIS in the northwest, which would severely undermine and complicate the U.S. and NATO missions.