Afghanistan Warning Update: IS-KP in Afghanistan is Expanding Faster than Anticipated
Key Takeaway: Islamic State Khorasan Province (IS-KP) is expanding its support zones and attack zones across Afghanistan as part of a campaign to undermine and replace the Taliban government. Most IS-KP attacks target Taliban fighters and officials in Nangarhar and Kunar Provinces. The presence of IS-KP propaganda materials indicates that IS-KP is expanding in northern and southern Afghanistan. Bombings at major Shi’a mosques in Kunduz on October 8 and Kandahar on October 15 indicate that IS-KP is attempting to incite sectarian conflict in Afghanistan. Taliban land expropriations from largely Shi’a communities to Sunni Taliban fighters are also increasing sectarian tensions. The contradictory efforts to protect these communities while redistributing their land will complicate the Taliban’s efforts to pose as a defender of Afghanistan’s Shi’a. If IS-KP continues to expand and strengthen, it could develop havens that enable it to conduct attacks outside Afghanistan.
IS-KP Efforts to Undermine the Taliban Government
IS-KP rejects the legitimacy of the Taliban government and is attempting to prevent the Taliban from gaining legitimacy in the eyes of Sunni Afghans. IS-KP is attempting to achieve this goal through frequent kinetic attacks that undermine the Taliban’s ability to govern, guarantee security, and respond to the ongoing catastrophic economic crisis.
IS-KP is prioritizing kinetic attacks against the Taliban government over its secondary campaign to stoke a sectarian conflict within Afghanistan. The majority of IS-KP’s attacks within Afghanistan are improvised explosive device (IED) attacks against isolated Taliban patrols and assassinations of officials. These attacks occur on a near-daily basis, mostly within Kabul, Nangarhar, and Kunar provinces. The Taliban responded to these attacks with retaliatory killings of individuals accused of being affiliated with IS-KP. The Taliban committed these killings without following its own stated judicial procedures. This approach to fighting IS-KP may fuel IS-KP recruiting rather than weaken the group.
IS-KP Operational Campaign in Afghanistan
IS-KP is expanding its attack zones and support zones across Afghanistan. IS-KP currently has attack and support zones within Nangarhar, Kunar, Kabul, and Parwan provinces. Recent attacks in Kunduz and Kandahar indicate that IS-KP is expanding attack zones to those provinces and likely has support zones in or near those provinces.  IS-KP’s activity in Jowzjan, Uruzgan, Zabul, Khost, and Paktia Provinces indicates that it is attempting to expand support zones to those provinces.  Taliban splinter groups appear to be defecting to IS-KP, helping enable its expansion. Fighters previously affiliated with Mullah Manan Niazi’s Taliban splinter faction in Herat Province allegedly defected to IS-KP. These defections may have prompted a firefight between Taliban forces and IS-KP in Herat City on October 24. Expanding IS-KP support zones and attack zones will likely lead the Taliban to spread out its security forces, opening space for IS-KP to develop havens from which it could launch attacks beyond Afghanistan.
IS-KP is attacking economic infrastructure in Afghanistan to worsen the economic crisis and to undermine Taliban efforts to maintain Afghan government institutions. IS-KP repeatedly destroyed electricity pylons in Parwan Province in June and July 2021, threatening the supply of electricity to Kabul. IS-KP carried out similar attacks near Jalalabad when it resumed its offensive against the Taliban on September 18 and was responsible for a blast on October 21 that shut off power to Kabul. 
IS-KP Efforts to Gain Strength
Younger fighters and mid-level commanders in the Taliban movement are consistently reported to be more radical than the Taliban leadership. The Taliban government showed a certain willingness to compromise on its most hardline values by allowing high school-age girls to go back to school in certain parts of Afghanistan. The Taliban also offered a general amnesty for Afghan government officials and encouraged many of them to return to their old positions. The Taliban likely intend for these compromises to help it maintain government institutions and gain international support, but these actions also support IS-KP’s messaging campaign portraying the Taliban leadership as apostates and false jihadists. This dynamic could fuel increased defections by younger and more radical Taliban fighters to IS-KP. Such defections will increase internal turmoil within the Taliban movement, possibly worsening ongoing power struggles within the Taliban movement and increasing the likelihood of serious infighting.
IS-KP aims to incite sectarian conflict within Afghanistan by repeatedly attacking Shi’a mosques. IS-KP group released a statement that it intended to strike Shi’a communities “from Baghdad to Khorasan” shortly after it carried out a suicide bombing at the Shi’a Fatima Mosque in Kandahar on October 15. The statement also cast the Taliban as “allies of the Rafidha (Shi’as).” The Taliban government pledged on October 17 to increase security at Shi’a mosques. In Helmand and Kandahar, local Taliban security officials met with Shi’a communities and pledged to protect their religious centers.  The Taliban explicitly taking a stance to defend Shi’a communities may further encourage radical Sunni elements within the Taliban to defect to IS-KP.
The Taliban rewards its fighters with land expropriated from Hazara (Shi’a) communities, undermining its efforts to pose as the defender of Afghanistan’s Shi’a against IS-KP. Local Taliban officials are rewarding their supporters by expropriating land from Hazaras and other peoples perceived to be opposed to the Taliban government. These expropriations started in September in Daikundi and Uruzgan provinces, where the Taliban and local Pashtuns evicted at least 2,800 Hazaras and seized their homes and crops. Similar evictions are taking place in Kandahar, Helmand, and Mazar-e-Sharif. The Taliban will need to expropriate land (although not necessarily from Shi’as) if it is to fulfill promises, such as those made by the Taliban’s interior minister, Sirajuddin Haqqani, to reward the families of suicide bombers with allotments of land and money. The Taliban risks alienating members of its hardline base if it fails to fulfill these promises and prioritizes protecting Shi’a communities. If the Taliban continues to victimize Shi’a communities as IS-KP attacks them, however, it risks damaging its relations with Iran and causing Shi’a communities to mobilize to protect themselves.
IS-KP attacks are already encouraging Shi’a community mobilization. A new Hazara militia announced itself as “The Anonymous Soldiers of Hazaristan” on October 8. This group declared that it saw no difference between the Taliban and IS-KP and would fight both groups. Such mobilizations may encourage revenge attacks by Shi’as and consequently lead to Sunni Afghan communities arming themselves. If regional actors such as Iran become involved in protecting Shi’a communities, this dynamic may strengthen IS-KP’s rhetoric that Hazara groups will seek to dominate Sunni communities in the same manner as other Iranian proxies, such as Hezbollah. A sectarian war within Afghanistan could open new areas of recruitment and support for IS-KP. This course of action would be a historical aberration in recent ethnic relations in Afghanistan and is a most dangerous rather than most likely scenario.
Possible Future Courses of Action
IS-KP could develop a haven in Afghanistan and begin planning attacks in Europe and the Middle East. US Department of Defense Undersecretary for Policy Colin Kahl stated on October 26 that IS-KP could generate the capability to conduct attacks abroad within six to 12 months. A haven in Afghanistan could encourage Islamic State (IS) leadership across the globe to migrate to Afghanistan and make it the preeminent hub for organizing IS activity. The migration of skilled and experienced leaders and fighters would increase the capability of IS-KP forces within Afghanistan. Encouraging a regional sectarian war could be a way for IS-KP to disrupt its rivals and establish the havens needed to plan attacks abroad in the Middle East and Europe.
A major sectarian conflict in Afghanistan could draw Iran into more active military engagement in Afghanistan. The official Iranian position on Afghanistan remains supportive of working with the Taliban and refraining from sending forces or fighters into the country. Continued IS-KP attacks against Afghanistan’s Shi’a could cause elements of the Afghan Fatimiyoun forces that Iran has developed and used to fight for the Assad regime in Syria to return to Afghanistan to protect Shi’a Afghans. These attacks could also raise pressure among Iran’s hardline factions to defend Shi’a communities under attack. IS-KP may be seeking to draw Iran or Iranian-backed forces into the fight in Afghanistan as a way of mobilizing Sunni support for its cause.
IS-KP supporters claimed they raised IS flags over government buildings in Aqcha District in Jowzjan Province
Local sources stated that IS-KP raised their flag and distributed propaganda material in Deh Rawood District, Uruzgan Province. IS-KP promised 30,000 AFN to anyone who joined IS-KP.
There were reports of a firefight between IS-KP and Taliban forces in Arghandab District, Zabul Province, with 17 Taliban fighters and 4 IS-KP fighters killed in action.
It is possible this IS-KP cell carried out the October 6 grenade attack at a mosque in Khost which caused several Taliban casualties.
Taliban officials arrested 5 suspected IS-KP militants who were planning attacks in Paktia Province
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Abdul Khalid, Taliban intelligence chief for Helmand Province, met with representatives of the Shi’a community and assured them the Taliban would protect their religious centers day and night.
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