The South Asia Channel
Is There an Islamic State of AfPak?
Will an IS branch in AfPak take hold, even after the death of its deputy chief Abdul Rauf Khadim?
On Feb. 9, Afghan officials killed Abdul Rauf Khadim, the former Afghan Taliban commander and deputy chief of the Islamic State (IS) of Khorasan, AfPak’s IS branch, in a drone strike less than a month after his confirmation as the deputy chief.
Though yet to be called an eminent and formidable threat, the presence of an IS franchise in the Afghanistan-Pakistan region is no longer a myth.
The formal announcement of IS-Khorasan — Khorasan is a region spanning Afghanistan, Pakistan, and parts of Iran, Central Asia, India, and Bangladesh — came in early January when a group of Pakistani Taliban, some on the back of horses and brandishing swords, released a video announcing the appointment of a former commander of Pakistani Taliban, or TTP, as its chief (Ameer) and declaring allegiance to the self-proclaimed caliph Ibrahim Abu Bakar al-Baghdadi.
Unlike a previous video released in October 2014, showing five Pakistani Taliban commanders declaring allegiance to al-Baghdadi, confirmation of the fresh allegiance was made public by the central IS media wing, al-Furqan.
Quoting the group’s spokesman Abu Muhammad al-Adnani, the statement announced the “Islamic State’s expansion to ‘Khorasan’” with the appointment of former Pakistani Taliban commander Hafiz Saeed Khan as its chief and Rauf as the deputy chief.
Days before the announcement, Pakistani authorities charged Yousaf al-Salafi, a Pakistani Syrian, for recruiting individuals and sending them to Syria for “jihad.” Intelligence officials claim that he was arrested in the eastern city of Lahore, located approximately 600 miles from the Afghanistan-Pakistan border, where Taliban commanders gather to express loyalty to al-Baghdadi.
How the emergence of this new group will change the dynamics of militancy in this region, wracked by violence and home to a host of armed groups with agendas focused not only on Pakistan and Afghanistan but as far away as China, India, Iran, and Central Asia, remains to be seen.
There are solid reasons why the newly-forged alliance will face opposition in the region. This opposition will likely be derived from conflict with the co-religionists fighting for the past 14 years, with the governments, or with the local customs, traditions, and religious beliefs of the region.
But if the past is a predictor of the future, certain factors could help the group gain a foothold in parts of Afghanistan and Pakistan. These factors include: the vast monetary resources enjoyed by IS central, sectarian hatred, fight for survival, and the rivalries among regional players.
Let’s review in detail:
The Afghan Taliban:
To the Afghan Taliban and their namesake in the Pakistani tribal areas, the reclusive Mullah Omar is the undisputed supreme leader of the faithful (Ameerul Momineen). Despite not being shown in a video since 2001, and not being seen by a majority of the Taliban foot soldiers or even high-ranking commanders, his leadership is undisputed.
However, IS believes: “Mullah Omar does not deserve a spiritual or political credibility.” The self-proclaimed caliph al-Baghdadi, who carries a doctorate degree in Islamic Studies, views Mullah Omar as a “fool” and an “illiterate warlord.”
On the day the Afghan media carried al-Baghdadi’s comments about Mullah Omar, a Taliban commander from Afghanistan’s Helmand province told Pajhwok Afghan News in Kabul that the Taliban had arrested the IS-Khorasan deputy chief Rauf (now dead) and 45 of his supporters at the direction of Taliban shadow governor for Helmand Mullah Abdul Rahim Akhund.
Earlier, locals from Helmand’s Kajaki district, where Rauf was campaigning for IS, say tensions ran high between the local Taliban and the IS supporters. Besides Rauf, IS-Khorasan also has other former Taliban leaders, such as Abdul Rahim Muslimdost and Saad Emarati, in its fold.
In contrast to the white flags of the Afghan Taliban, the black flags of IS have been reported in parts of Afghanistan’s Ghazni province, south of Kabul, and Farah and Nimroz provinces in the southwest near the Iran border. This is clearly a concern for the Afghan Taliban although Rauf’s death is likely to prove a serious blow for the newly-emerged group. The Taliban will not stay silent as the new group to sweeps their support bases.
Pakistan and its security establishment:
Notwithstanding the past policies of sparing some while hitting others, Pakistani security forces have effectively hit, although not fully eliminated, the Tehrik-e-Taliban Pakistan (TTP), the ‘bad’ Taliban in Waziristan, where the Taliban militancy in the tribal belt is headquartered.
All commanders who joined IS in early January are former members of the TTP who parted ways with the group either because of monetary disputes, clan and tribal feuds, or differences over the question of leadership.
IS-Khorasan chief Hafiz Saeed Khan was among the aggrieved leaders of the TTP. Hailing from Pakistan’s Orakzai tribal district, Saeed was not happy with the appointment of Hakimullah Mehsud as TTP chief after the killing of its founder, Baitullah Mehsud, in August 2010.
When Hakimullah was killed in a drone strike in November 2013, the question of leadership once again emerged. Saeed put his weight behind Khan Said Sajna, the Taliban commander from the Mehsud tribe, which provides most of the fighters to the TTP ranks, instead of the present TTP chief Mullah Fazlullah, who does not belong to the tribal areas.
Since the former TTP commanders have come together to join IS-Khorasan, the policy of the Pakistani state is the exact same as the policy for the ‘bad’ Taliban — zero tolerance.
Further, TTP flourished over the past seven years because of the Pakistani security agencies’ policy of using some militants as its strategic assets in Afghanistan and India. The double standard in dealing with militants resulted in the signing of several peace agreements with TTP leadership in the tribal areas. The double standard also helped to raise the profiles of militant commanders such as Baitullah Mehsud, Nek Muhammad Wazir, Hafiz Gul Bahadar, Hakimullah Mehsud, and the current TTP chief Mullah Fazlullah, increasing their strength and support among the tribesmen.
The threat level is high, this time on the Pakistani side. In addition to concern over Pakistan’s tribal areas from India, Afghanistan, and the United States, China, the country’s close ally and neighbor, has also expressed reservations about the presence of militants. China is particularly concerned with the Eastern Turkistan Islamic Movement (ETIM) in the AfPak border region.
Operation Zarb-e-Azb, launched in North Waziristan in June 2014, has not only hit TTP and IMU, but has also dislodged the China-focused ETIM from the border region. Pakistan does not seem ready to let the heat go, particularly in the aftermath of the Dec. 16 Peshawar school attack. The ongoing operation will keep militants on the run and will not let them establish an operational command center, as they have previously done in the North and South Waziristan tribal districts.
Public opinion and clash with local customs and traditions:
Over the past few years, violent attacks, mainly targeting civilians in Afghanistan and Pakistan, have reduced the support level for the Taliban and turned away the somewhat sympathetic public opinion. The latest attacks were carried out on a school in Peshawar on Dec. 16 that killed 148 people, mostly school children. The other attack, occurring in Afghanistan’s southeastern province of Paktika in November, targeted a volleyball match killing over 50 individuals.
Additionally, the IS Salafi practices contrast with the traditions of Pashtun tribes straddling the Durand Line, the British-era border between Afghanistan and Pakistan. Reports and local accounts from some Afghan districts suggest that IS supporters even discourage offering fateha, a common practice where people gather to offer sympathy with the family of a deceased and pray for the departed soul.
Similarly, widespread resentment was registered in March of 2009 when mausoleum of 16th century Sufi Pashto poet Rahman Baba was bombed in Peshawar by militants influenced by Salafist views of Islam.
Taking a look at history, in 1831 Syed Ahmed Barelvi, the 19th century reformer in Indo-Pak region, was killed. His defeat and killing was attributed to his efforts to replace the local Pashtun traditions with Islamic ones, after capturing some areas in today’s Pakistan and declaring himself the Ameerul Momineen.
However, there are other factors that could contribute to the strength of IS-Khorasan. These factors include the rich ground for religious propaganda, the people’s disappointment with the Afghan and Pakistani governments to ensure good governance — including employment opportunities, low literacy rate, and regional politics and rivalries.
One of the reasons al Qaeda flourished in the AfPak border region was its significant monitory resources that enabled it to win the loyalties of local tribesmen. The same could prove a game changer once again, at least in the case of Taliban commanders and groups who have yet to align with the TTP-Afghan Taliban alliance or IS.
Recently, a group in the Qambar area of the Khyber tribal agency, located 12 miles west of Peshawar, has joined IS-Khorasan. Commanders such as Khan Said Sajna, who opposed Mullah Fazlullah as the TTP chief, remain silent. It is likely that they will make an announcement in the days ahead.
Many Afghan Taliban leaders oppose the Taliban’s reconciliation with the Afghan government. Sources close to the Afghan peace council say the Afghan government is in contact with the Taliban leadership in Doha, Qatar. The aggrieved leaders might raise questions if the two sides reach a conclusion.
In recent months, reports suggest that, after almost 14 years of fighting, the Afghan Taliban is questioning the existence of their chief, Mullah Omar. Rauf, the now deceased deputy chief of IS-Khorasan, was heard telling people in Helmand province that Mullah Omar does not exist and the people should follow al-Baghdadi.
Sectarian divide in Pakistan:
The majority of the Pakistani Taliban are Sunni Muslims, against the Shiite sect of Islam. Since those who joined IS-Khorasan are former TTP commanders, they are attracted to the anti-Shiite groups such as the Lashkar-e-Jhangvi — the group based in southern parts of Pakistan’s Punjab province.
The Jundullah group, which has already declared allegiance to IS, claimed responsibility for the Jan. 30, 2015 attack on a Shiite worship place in Pakistan’s Sindh province that killed nearly 70 worshippers. Previously, the same group had carried out attacks against the Shiite-Hazara community in Balochistan province.
The activities of anti-Shiite groups in Balochistan province, which borders Iran, have always concerned the Iranian government. Recently, reports that fire has been exchanged between Iranian and Pakistani border security forces have surfaced.
The activities of the Salafi-influenced Khorasan group, based in Balochistan and the Helmand, Farah, and Nimroz provinces of Afghanistan, which are also located close to the Iranian border, are incompatible with Shiite Iran. Afghanistan and Iran narrowly avoided a war after nine Iranian diplomats were murdered by the Taliban in Afghanistan’s northern city of Mazar-e-Sharif in September 1998.
Analysts in both Afghanistan and Pakistan agree that IS does not going to pose a serious threat to the region at the moment. However, after recruiting more splinter groups and forging alliances, the group may create trouble in the future. Pakistani officials, on the other hand, believe that their efforts to combat the militants in the region have been effective and will not provide any chance for armed groups to flourish. Pakistan’s National Security Advisor Sartaj Aziz summed up the government’s position: “We have military operations in tribal areas. IS would not become a serious problem, if the situation remains stable.”
TAUSEEF MUSTAFA/AFP/Getty Images