The Islamic State Will Outlive Baghdadi. Afghanistan Shows How.
The Islamic State-Khorasan offers a powerful case study of the militant group’s ability to create autonomous affiliates that flourish and endure.
A couple of years ago, a conspiracy theory emerged alleging that the United States was backing the Islamic State in Afghanistan. It had a curious mix of propagators: former Afghan President Hamid Karzai, the Russian government, and large numbers of Pakistani Twitter handles, among others.
In 2017, Karzai described the Islamic State as a “tool” of the United States and later claimed Washington was propping up the group in order to justify a long-term military presence in Afghanistan. The next year, Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov suggested that unmarked U.S. helicopters were ferrying in weapons for the group. And in recent months, tweets from Pakistani accounts have asserted that at some point not long ago, U.S. forces airlifted Islamic State leader Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi into Afghanistan.
The idea wasn’t new. Observers from Iran’s supreme leader, Ayatollah Ali Khamenei, to a group of university students listening to me give a guest lecture in the Indian state of Bihar have claimed that America was behind the very creation of the militant group. These assertions aren’t just attributable to psy-ops or hostility toward the United States; they’re also rooted in some relevant facts—such as past U.S. support for Islamist fighters in Afghanistan during the Soviet occupation and the Islamic State’s emergence after U.S. forces invaded Iraq.
In Afghanistan, these theories are particularly powerful, thanks to an implied question: How has the Islamic State-Khorasan (ISK), the group’s affiliate in Afghanistan, managed to stay active and potent despite getting hit so hard and facing so many other obstacles for so long?
ISK is indeed remarkably resilient. It offers a powerful case study of the Islamic State’s ability to create autonomous affiliates that flourish and endure—entities that will help enable the parent organization to live on after the U.S. raid that led to Baghdadi’s death in Syria on Oct. 26 and the losses of territory it has endured in Syria and Iraq.
The roots of the Islamic State in Afghanistan can be traced back to 2010, when Pakistani militants fleeing counterterrorism offensives in the country’s tribal belt began settling across the border in the eastern Afghan province of Nangarhar. These fighters, most of them Pakistani Taliban members, would form the early vanguard of ISK when the central Islamic State leadership formally announced the group’s expansion into Afghanistan in 2015. In subsequent years, ISK has gained additional recruits from the ranks of disaffected Afghan Taliban members and Central Asian jihadis.
Today’s, ISK’s bastions are in eastern Afghanistan, especially Nangarhar and Kunar provinces, though the September arrest of an ISK leader in the western province of Herat hints at the potential for a larger geographical footprint. (It also has a more modest presence in Pakistan.) The group has been implicated in dozens of attacks (though it may well claim some assaults it doesn’t carry out) in Afghanistan since 2015, including 316 claimed attacks in 2018.
Between January 2018 and January 2019, according to a BBC tally, there were more Islamic State attacks in Afghanistan than anywhere in the world other than Iraq and Syria. Many ISK attacks, including a horrific assault on a Kabul wedding hall this past August that killed more than 60 people, have targeted the country’s Shiite minority, though others—including an assault on Afghanistan’s largest military hospital in 2017 and a voter registration center in 2018, both in Kabul—home in on government sites.
ISK has defied the odds. It controls little territory. Additionally, the group’s numbers in Afghanistan are modest; the most recent estimates range from fewer than 2,000 fighters to between 2,500 and 4,000 (significantly lower than an estimated 5,000-8,000 in 2016). By contrast, the Taliban—the king of the hill when it comes to Afghanistan’s militant hierarchy—boasts up to 80,000. ISK has also experienced remarkable turnover at the top; according to a new study by the researchers Amira Jadoon and Andrew Mines, nearly 400 low- to high-level leaders were killed, captured, or surrendered between 2015 and 2018.
The Islamic State is also the odd one out in the Islamist terrorist landscape in Afghanistan. Most militant organizations there, including the Taliban, are allied with al Qaeda, the Islamic State’s rival and former parent group. Meanwhile, ISK has long been pummeled from the sky by a relentless campaign of U.S.-Afghan airstrikes and on the ground by ferocious Taliban offensives. These operations—which famously included the use of America’s largest non-nuclear bomb in 2017—have killed more than a thousand ISK fighters and led to the surrender of several hundred others in the last two years alone.
Nevertheless, the group has survived. That’s thanks to a mix of factors, such as the use of rugged terrain to evade strikes; recourse to a ready supply of fresh recruits drawn from disaffected Afghan, Pakistani, and Central Asian militants; and an ability to form opportunistic, even if short-lived, partnerships with local Islamist Deobandi militant groups (including several factions of the Pakistani Taliban and a splinter faction of the sectarian extremist group Lashkar-e-Jhangvi). Jadoon’s research finds that ISK cooperated ideologically, logistically, or operationally with more than 10 groups in Afghanistan—and Pakistan—between 2014 and 2017.
ISK has also become a strongly autonomous group. There are, to be sure, deep ISK links with the parent Islamic State. According to a recent U.N. report and other research, this includes some financial backing, coordination with ISK on personnel decisions, and the sharing of propaganda videos. In his 2018 book on ISK, Antonio Giustozzi describes how the Islamic State was very hands-on in helping to get ISK off the ground. Funds were provided, directions were given, and advisors were sent.
However, beyond this, there is evidence that ISK is not terribly dependent on the Islamic State for financial and labor resources. The group’s revenue in Afghanistan, according to the U.N., is largely drawn from local sources—such as illegal mining, timber logging, extortion, and household taxation. According to Giustozzi, ISK also receives financial aid from Qatar and Saudi Arabia and private donors in the Gulf. Its recruits are mainly local and regional (predominantly South and Central Asian). Additionally, only about 10 percent of ISK fighters are estimated to have experience in Iraq or Syria.
Baghdadi’s death may impact morale among some ISK fighters who had sworn allegiance to their supreme leader. However, to claim—as Afghan officials have in recent days—that his demise will deliver a major blow to ISK’s prospects beggars belief. ISK has weathered the challenges of small numbers, many leadership decapitations, powerful rivals, and punishing military offensives. It should be quite capable of overcoming the loss of its supreme leader—one described by some Islamic State members as an “absentee caliph” and at any rate one who had presided over an increasingly decentralized organization that didn’t require his day-to-day oversight.
In fact, under several possible scenarios, ISK could get stronger in the post-Baghdadi era. If ongoing efforts to launch a peace and reconciliation process in Afghanistan gain steam, resulting in a cease-fire or deal, disaffected Taliban hard-liners opposed to peace could jump to the ISK camp and swell the group’s ranks with hundreds, perhaps thousands, of battle-hardened fighters who know Afghanistan’s terrain. Additionally, some terrorism experts have predicted that a weakened Islamic State could seek a reunion with al Qaeda, which has already proposed a remerger.
Proponents of this view contend that Baghdadi’s death, coming on the heels of the group’s lost caliphate, may provide the spark. If the world’s two prime jihadi juggernauts join forces again, the implications for Afghanistan’s stability—and the challenges for counterterrorism efforts—would be devastating. The Taliban, Afghanistan’s most powerful militant force, would become ISK’s ally.
Even setting such hypotheticals aside, ISK is poised to remain potent. Ominously, its recent efforts to recruit new members from university campuses, prisons, and internally displaced persons camps suggest a strategy to exploit homegrown radicalization to expand its membership base.
If there’s a silver lining, it’s that recent months have seen a modest decrease in the number of ISK attacks in Afghanistan—suggesting some effectiveness in ongoing counterterrorism efforts. And there’s a major diplomatic opportunity here. When it comes to combating ISK, the United States finds a rare common cause with top strategic rivals and difficult partners—China, Iran, Pakistan, and Russia—that happen to be key regional players in Afghanistan. Stepped-up U.S. counterterrorism cooperation with these countries and Kabul, along with Washington’s friend India, can help deliver further blows to ISK.
For Washington, the stakes are high. According to an assessment provided by an Afghanistan-based U.S. intelligence official in June, ISK represents “the most near-term threat” to the U.S. and European homelands. Attacks in those areas, he warned, are “just a matter of time.” Over eight people have already been arrested in the United States for alleged ties to the affiliate.
ISK isn’t the biggest militant threat in Afghanistan, but it is arguably the Islamic State’s most resilient affiliate—and one with designs on U.S. targets outside of Afghanistan. That’s nothing to sneeze at, and the elimination of Baghdadi will do little to diminish that threat.