By Giriraj Bhattacharjee*
On May 14, 2021, at least 12 civilians, including Mufti Numan, the imam of the mosque, were killed and more than 15 others injured in an Improvised Explosive Device (IED) explosion at the Sharif Haji Bakhshi Mosque in the Qala-e-Muradbek area of Shakar Dara District of Kabul Province. On May 16, claiming responsibility for the attack, the Islamic State – Khorasan Province (ISKP) alleged that the targeted mosque was “a worship place for disbeliever Sufis.”
On May 13, 2021, two civilians, including a child, were killed in a remote-controlled explosion in Sardawra town in Kunduz Province. Another 14 persons were injured. IS-KP claimed responsibility for the incident, asserting that the victims were from Shia Hazara community.
On May 10, 2021, two civilians were killed and nine were wounded in a bomb explosion in a bus in the Pul-e-Matak area of Jabul Saraj District, Parwan Province. IS-KP claimed responsibility for the incident, declaring that most of the occupants of the bus were Shia’s.
On May 8, 2021, terrorists carried out a Vehicle-Borne Improvised Explosive Device (VBIED) attack and two near simultaneous rocket attacks in front of the Sayed Al-Shuhada School, located in the Shia Hazara dominated area, in the Afghan capital city, Kabul, killing at least 100 civilians, mostly children, and injured 160 others. Taliban denied its role in the incident and condemned it. US Special Envoy for Afghanistan, Zalmay Khailizad, blamed IS-KP for the incident.
Indeed, in a release on May 4, 2021, IS-KP spokesperson Sultan Aziz Azzam, had warned the Afghan Government of serious consequences, such as massacres of Shias and destruction of the economic infrastructure [including targeting of electricity networks and gas tankers], if the Government handed over Pakistani prisoners of IS-KP to Pakistan. IS-KP threatened it would turn Kabul and some other areas into a ‘Shia slaughterhouse,’ if their warning was ignored. The letter emphasized that “you know, we are people of action!” Significantly, of 407 foreign fighters presently lodged in Afghan jails, 299 are Pakistanis.
The inclination to attack civilians of religious minority community is significantly associated with the IS-KP. The United Nations Assistance Mission in Afghanistan (UNAMA) report, Protection of Civilians – Midyear Report 2020, released on August 10,2020, thus noted, “UNAMA continued to document attacks from IS-KP on religious minorities in Afghanistan, including the Sikh community and the Shi’a Muslim population, most of whom also belong to the Hazara ethnic group.”
The 2020 edition of United States Commission on International Religious Freedom (USCIRF) noted, “IS-KP, which emerged in 2015, continued attacks against religious minority communities, in particular Shi’a Hazara who were denounced as infidels.”
Meanwhile, according to the UNAMA Afghanistan Protection of Civilians in Armed Conflict First Quarter Update: 1 January to 31 March 2021, IS-KP was responsible for 91 civilian casualties (44 killed and 47 injured) during the quarter. There were 173 civilian casualties (63 killed and 110 injured) in the corresponding period of 2020.
IS-KP was responsible for 673 civilian casualties (213 killed and 460 injured) in 2020; 1,233 civilian casualties (309 killed and 914 injured) in 2019; 2,181 civilian casualties (681 killed and 1,500 injured) in 2018; 1,000 civilian casualties (399 killed and 601 injured) in 2017; 899 civilian casualties (209 killed and 699 injured) in 2016; and 82 civilian casualties (39 killed and 43 injured) in 2015, the first year that UNAMA attributed civilian casualties to IS-KP.
IS-KP which was responsible for 20 per cent of the total of 10,994 civilian casualties in 2018, accounted for eight per cent of the 8,820 such casualties in 2020. Only five per cent of the 1,783 casualties in the first quarter of 2021 has been attributed to the IS-KP.
As the numbers suggest, IS-KP-led violence has resulted in declining numbers of civilian casualties in Afghanistan over the past couple of years, after a continuous surge between 2015 and 2018. The significant drop in IS-KP led violence since 2019 has substantially been due to the rising turf war between the Taliban and IS-KP, on one hand, and the major assault launched by Government Forces against IS-KP, on the other. The group’s problems were compounded by the reverses faced by its parent organization, the Islamic State, in Syria and Iraq.
In Afghanistan, towards the end of 2019, IS-KP was virtually expelled from what had been its Afghan headquarters in Nangarhar Province. Not surprisingly, on November 19, 2019, Afghanistan President Ashraf Ghani buoyantly declared, “No one believed one year ago that we would stand up and remain in Nangarhar, and thank God that today we have obliterated Daesh [IS-KP].” Adding to the optimism, Nangarhar Governor Shah Mahmoud Miakhel asserted, “It’s not possible that they once again equip themselves in other areas of Afghanistan and threaten other parts of the country.”
Most recently, the United Nations Security Council (UNSC) report released on February 3, 2021, noted,
Following its setbacks in Nangarhar and Kunar Provinces, ISIL-K [Islamic State in Iraq and Levant-Khorasan, IS-KP] has suffered from degraded combat capability, reduced support on the ground and insufficient funding. The group seeks to restore influence, secure new locations, update its organizational structure and logistics, and identify additional financing sources. Without stable support, the prospects of ISIL-K reviving its former offensive activity and holding territory appear remote, considering the pressure it faces from the Afghan National Defence and Security Forces (ANDSF), their allies and the Taliban.
However, the recent attacks and other developments clearly demonstrate that the group is on the road to revival.
Indeed, the UNSC report released on February 3, 2021, also noted, “Despite its significant loss of territory, ISIL-K has not been entirely eradicated from the districts of Manogay, in Kunar, and Achin, in Nangarhar. Sleeper cells are active in other parts of the country, particularly in Kabul… ISIL-K will continue to undertake terrorist attacks, predominantly in Kabul, provincial capitals and urban areas in the east of Afghanistan.”
A report by the US Government released on May 18, 2021, quoted the Commander of the US Central Command (USCENTCOM), General Kenneth F. McKenzie, stating, “New leadership allowed [ISIS-K] to stabilize and increase localized and lone wolf attacks throughout the second half of the year .”
Another unnamed official added, “The group maintains a steady operational tempo and probably retains the ability to conduct attacks in Kabul and other urban centers.” He added that IS-KP is still one “of the largest and most lethal branches of ISIS’s global network and maintains a direct relationship with ISIS leaders in Iraq and Syria.”
Meanwhile, according to a May 18, 2021, report, IS-KP has gained influence in the Kohdaman region, which encompasses seven districts of Kabul Province, all north of the city, including Mir Bacha Kot, Kalakan, Qara Bagh, Istalif, Guldara, Farza and Shakar Dara.
In June 2020, Shahab al-Muhajir aka Sanaullah, was appointed by the Islamic State to lead IS-KP. Shahab al-Muhajir also heads the Al-Sadiq office of the Islamic State, which covers the “Khorasan” region, including Afghanistan, Bangladesh, India, Maldives, Pakistan, Sri Lanka and the Central Asian States. Shahab al-Muhajir is a former ‘commander’ of the Haqqani Network that “acts as a veritable arm of Pakistan’s Inter-Services Intelligence Agency [ISI].” Further, the previous head of IS-KP, Mawlawi Abdullah aka Aslam Farooqui, who was arrested on April 4, 2020, is a Pakistani national.
Further, a look into the number of foreign IS-KP fighters arrested by authorities points to greater Pakistani involvement. As stated above, of 407 foreign fighters presently lodged in Afghan jails, 299, i.e., 73.46 per cent were Pakistanis. The rest belonged to Uzbekistan, 37; China, 16; Tajikistan, 13; Kyrgyzstan, 12; Russia, Indonesia and Jordan, 5 each; Iran and India, 4 each; Turkey, 3; Bangladesh and Maldives, 2 each, and Algeria 1.
IS-KP was on the brink of collapse, but has revived with increasing support from ISI. With the final drawdown of foreign troops announced, the ISI-backed IS-KP is expected to become more lethal. The May 8, 2021, attack in Kabul underlines this resurgent threat.
Research Associate, Institute for Conflict Management