The so-called Islamic State (IS), routed in Syria and Iraq, has been present in Afghanistan, mainly in the eastern province of Nangarhar, since 2014 under the name of IS-Khorosan province (ISKP).
Whilst fewer in number than had amassed in the Middle East, Afghan security forces believe that the group has spread into several provinces across Afghanistan: Nangarhar and Kunar in the east, Badakhshan, Jowzjan and Faryab in the north and Badghis and Ghor in the west. While a BBC study tracks their presence in 30 districts across the country.
Last April, when US military dropped the biggest non-nuclear bomb, known as the ‘mother of all bombs’ (MOAB), on IS’s cave complex in their main foothold in Nangarhar, the IS numbers were expected to decline. From a combat perspective, IS has been less of a threat to Afghan government in comparison to the Taliban. But in 2017, across the country, they claimed at least 15 high profile attacks.
Tracking the retreat from Syria and Iraq
It is feared following the Islamic State’s defeat in Iraq and Syria that IS fighters may surge and regroup in Afghanistan. The IS’s attack on the Iraqi embassy in Kabul last July, just three weeks after the recapture of Mosul, was one of the few early indications that violence related to IS could spill over into Afghanistan.
Some analysts have argued that after their demise in Mosul and Raqqa, IS’s main commanders and top leadership will stay in Iraq and Syria and join the underground resistance until they are equipped to fight again. However, their foreign fighters, who cannot return to their countries of origin, may it is argued, embark upon another jihadi adventure to countries like Afghanistan with a mission “to protect, sustain and expand the boundaries of the so-called caliphate.”
The NATO coalition has estimated there are as many as 600 IS fighters inside Afghanistan while the Afghan Government told Voice of America that “Islamic State may now have as many as 3,000 foreign fighters in the country, many of them coming from Pakistan and Uzbekistan” and that the number was likely to increase with the influx from the Middle East.
What do we know about Darzab
The recent presence of IS in Darzab district in the northern province of Jowzjan in Afghanistan has raised serious concerns. A former prominent Taliban leader in Jowzjan, Qari Hekmat, has pledged allegiance to IS, helping to pave the way for its presence in the north.
In addition, a considerable number of IS trainers in Afghanistan come from Uzbekistan (the Islamic Movement of Uzbekistan or IMU). For that reason, it is expected that the Central Asian fighters of Islamic State that have been fighting in the Middle East will make use of this Uzbek network to more easily travel across the borders into Afghanistan. Additionally, there are reports of French and Algerian IS fighters entering Darzab largely for the purpose of training local recruits.
If IS is trying to move their headquarters from the Middle East to Afghanistan, they will meet resistance on many levels including pressure from the coalition forces, the lack of support from the local population and tensions and conflict with the Taliban. However, given their gruesome record of barbarism and extreme violence and their use of innocents as bombs, the risks they pose to the Afghan people, and the international community and forces that support and protect them, warrant constant vigilance.
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