The Taliban face a growing insurgency from ISIS-K, a jihadist group inspired by Islamic State and founded by former Taliban fighters in early 2015.
The group, which calls itself Islamic State in the Khorasan Province, locally known within Afghanistan as Daesh, came to global attention in the days after the Taliban takeover of Kabul, when it carried out a massive suicide bombing attack at one of the gates near Kabul airport, killing up to 200 people.
Since then, ISIS-K has carried out a string of attacks, initially mainly in Jalalabad, in the heart of Nangarhar province in eastern Afghanistan that was once the group’s stronghold. But in recent days and weeks, ISIS-K has claimed attacks in Kunar, Kunduz, Kandahar and Parwan, and in Kabul.
Attacks at two Shia mosques at opposite ends of Afghanistan last month that killed dozens illustrated that threat that ISIS-K poses to the country. In the last weeks of October, ISIS through its online propaganda platforms on Telegram claimed 10 attacks against the Taliban.
While no one has claimed responsibility, the Taliban blamed ISIS for an attack on the 400-bed Sardar Mohammad Daud Khan hospital in Kabul on Tuesday. Seven people including three women and a child died in the attack, according to a statement put out by Taliban spokesperson Zabihullah Mujahid on Twitter. Reuters and other news agencies put the death toll much higher, at 25.
Mujahid also wrote that five attackers were killed in a shootout that took 15 minutes, adding that five Taliban guards were injured.
While some jihadist groups such as al Qaeda, Hamas and Syrian-based Hayat Tahir al-Sham (HTS) welcomed the Taliban’s return to power after emerging victorious in a 20-year war against the US and its allies, ISIS-K sees the Taliban as a pro-US group that has – comparatively at least – softened its stance on certain issues and now seeks to establish ties with countries such as China and Russia. While the Taliban are focused on ruling within Afghanistan’s borders, ISIS-K seeks the establishment of a wider caliphate in the region. ISIS-K claims many disaffected former Taliban fighters among its ranks.
Ahmadullah Wasiq, the Taliban’s deputy minister of information and culture, declined to comment when asked by VICE World News about the danger ISIS-K posed to Afghanistan. But previously, Taliban leaders have claimed that ISIS-K was being supported by “regional intelligence agencies” – a direct echo of the claims made against the Taliban by the previous western-backed government of Afghanistan.
Some have predicted bloody clashes between ISIS-K and the Taliban. Russian President Vladimir Putin has claimed – without evidence – that ISIS has about 2,000 fighters alone in northern Afghanistan, but a Taliban spokesperson denied the claims, insisting that in a country “all-controlled” by the Taliban, ISIS can not find a place among the people.
Michael Kugelman, deputy director of Asia Programme at the Wilson Centre, told VICE World News that he fears “some hardline Taliban members, bored and frustrated about the end of a war they can no longer fight, will shift allegiances and move to ISIS.”
There’s a risk that without proper attention paid to the threat posed by ISIS-K, the group could present a bigger challenge for the Taliban and the region. Under the previous western-backed government in Afghanistan, the authorities claimed that detained members of ISIS-K were not just disgruntled Taliban fighters but people from countries including Iran, Pakistan, India, Turkey, Uzbekistan and Tajikistan.
While ISIS-K is intent on waging an insurgency against the Taliban, other jihadist groups have been “emboldened” by the group’s return to power in Afghanistan, Farhan Jefferey, a counterterrorism expert from Pakistan, told VICE World News via email
In September, United Nations experts warned that while the Taliban’s ambition may only extend to Afghanistan’s own borders, their return to power did create conditions where other jihadist groups could flourish, in an almost identical scenario prior to the US-led invasion of the country and start of the 20-year war in 2001. “A safe haven for al Qaeda is assured,” said Edmund Fitton-Brown, coordinator of an extremist monitoring group with the UN Security Council.
Al Qaeda’s core leadership and regional affiliates have repeatedly praised the Taliban’s victory – although some statements do not name the Taliban and instead focus on the defeat of the US and its allies.
“Al Qaeda certainly sees the Taliban victory in Afghanistan partly as its own victory against the US. After all, it was due to al Qaeda that the Afghan war started in the first place,” said Jeffery.
Wasiq, the Taliban deputy minister of information and culture, denied that al Qaeda fighters existed in Afghanistan. But their presence is well documented.
“It is very unlikely that the Taliban will abandon its ties with al Qaeda. Indeed, Taliban officials already acknowledge in private discussions that they have no plans of abandoning ties with al Qaeda,” added Jeffery, who is also the deputy director at ITCT, a London-based counter-terrorism centre.
Kugelman, the deputy director of Asia Programme at the Wilson Centre, said that al Qaeda was realistic that Afghanistan could and should not become its main base of operations.
“This is because [al Qaeda] is not sure about the Taliban’s future relationship with it, and it knows the possibility of US counter-terrorism strikes in Afghanistan is real,” he said, adding that al Qaeda is likely to keep a low profile in the country for now, and focus on aiding its regional affiliates, and other groups in the region such as the TTP – the Pakistani Taliban – and militant groups in Kashmir.
While historically most Taliban fighters have been Pashtun tribesmen, many foreign fighters now operate under their flag too. Reports in neighbouring Tajikistan and Uzbekistan have claimed that in the Afghan provinces of Jawzan and Faryab – both of which have big populations of ethnic Uzbeks and Turkmens – there is a risk of Taliban-linked fighters striking beyond Afghanistan’s borders.
“The terrorism threat to Afghanistan’s neighbours is multifaceted” said Kugelman. “On the one hand, they face the heightened risk of attacks by galvanised jihadists. But there’s also the risk that radicals from these countries will travel to Afghanistan, take advantage of an environment more conducive for terrorism, receive training, and they return home to carry out attacks.”
Shabeer Ahmadi is the former deputy head of news and chief international correspondent of TOLOnews, the largest news channel in Afghanistan. He is based in Europe. Follow him on Twitter here.