In a development that further complicates the fragmented allegiances and deteriorating security situation in Afghanistan, several defectors from the Taliban have pledged allegiance to the Islamic State. These disgruntled ex-Taliban members have reportedly stepped up their recruiting efforts in recent weeks, and even launched military operations in Afghanistan's south.
A group of self-proclaimed Islamic State fighters in Helmand province have reportedly been drafting new members, flying the militant group's trademark black flag, and battling their former comrades in the Taliban.
There's no evidence, however, that the group has any actual connection to the militants in Iraq and Syria beyond a verbal pledge of allegiance. But the possibility that the Islamic State, also known as ISIS, is taking root in Afghanistan could point to growing divisions among the country's hardline Islamist groups.
"We should treat reports of ISIS in Afghanistan with caution, because of the historic weakness of foreign-linked Islamist groups in the country, and because Afghan officials have a tendency to play up the ISIS threat as a way of trying to capture the West's flagging attention," Anand Gopal, an analyst and author of a book on the US war in Afghanistan, told VICE News. "With that being said, however, it does appear that a few disgruntled Afghan Taliban members are rebranding themselves as ISIS."
Gopal said the emergence of the Islamic State in Afghanistan "appears to be a branding exercise, a way to differentiate yourself from the old school Taliban and inject some excitement into your project."
"We have no evidence, as yet, of operational links between such groups and ISIS proper," Gopal added.
In a video released over the weekend, Afghan and Pakistani militants — including former members of the Taliban who had already publicly switched allegiance to the group led by Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi — reaffirmed their loyalty to the self-proclaimed Caliph and introduced their purported leaders in Pakistan and Afghanistan. It is not clear where the video was filmed.
In the video, the group introduced Hafez Sayed Khan Orakzai as its regional leader, showing him flanked by men wearing balaclavas and carrying Kalashnikovs with the Islamic State flag in the background. Orakzai is a former commander of Tehreek-e-Taliban Pakistan (TTP), also known as the Pakistani Taliban. Shahidullah Shahid, a former TTP spokesman, is also featured in the video.
"We inform you that we have gathered 10 commanders from among those who want to pledge allegiance to the Caliph Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi," Shahid says, speaking Arabic rather than his native Pashto. "The leaders of these groups have chosen Hafez Sa'eed Khan as their emir, after a long consultation among them."
The video opens with a procession of people waving Islamic State flags while walking and riding on horseback. It ends with the beheading of a man described by the militants as a Pakistani soldier.
A separate group claiming allegiance to the Islamic State has also attempted recently to boost its ranks in Afghanistan's south. Afghan officials said this week that the Islamic State is active and recruiting in the area, the Associated Press reported.
A man identified as Mullah Abdul Rauf has actively been recruiting fighters throughout Helmand province, the officials said.
"A number of tribal leaders, jihadi commanders and some ulema and other people have contacted me to tell me that Mullah Rauf had contacted them and invited them to join him," said Mahmood Khan, an army commander. He added that the Taliban had also reached out to people in the area and warned them against making contact with Rauf.
As foreign troops have withdrawn from the country, the Taliban has made new gains in Helmand province, one of their traditional strongholds. But the movement has grown increasingly divided, and its spiritual leader — Mullah Omar — hasn't been seen in public since shortly after the US invasion began in 2001. If the reports about the emergence of the Islamic State are confirmed, the Taliban may now face competition from former members — a grim prospect for residents caught in the middle of the fighting.
Rauf, a former commander during the Taliban rule in Afghanistan, was arrested after the US invasion. The US detained him at Guantanamo Bay for years before releasing him back into Afghan custody in 2007. He has now established his own armed group and asked other Taliban members to join him, saying that Mullah Omar is dead, the Wall Street Journal reported.
"Mullah Abdul Rauf Khadem is a case in point," Gopal said, referring to the militant's disgruntlement with the Taliban. "He was fired by the movement a few years ago, either because of insubordination or, according to some accounts, because he embraced a Wahabist strain of political Islam. He's been a freelance operator for some years, and he might have benefited by rebranding his group as ISIS."
Residents of Helmand's Sangin and Kajaki districts have also reported that a group of insurgents in black uniforms has began operations in the area and engaged in gun battles with local Taliban fighters, according to local news organizations.
"People are saying that he has raised black flags and even has tried to bring down white Taliban flags in some areas," Saifullah Sanginwal, a tribal leader, told the AP. "There are reports that 19 or 20 people have been killed."
President Mohammad Ashraf Ghani expressed concern last week about the potential threat posed by the Islamic State's reach into Afghanistan. According to Afghan government estimates, more than 3,000 Afghans have already joined militants from all over the world in Syria — raising fears about their eventual return.
But Afghanistan's deteriorating security has more to do with internal divisions than outside influence, Gopal suggested.
"More generally, this is part of the steady fragmentation of the Taliban that began four years ago and continues apace today," he said. "There are a growing number of splinter groups, and increased reports of infighting, all of which does not bode well for the prospects of a negotiated settlement or for the security of ordinary people.
"This fragmentation has been hastened by Pakistani manipulation of the leadership, including the arrest or assassination of senior figures, and by America's policy of targeted killings of field commanders," Gopal said.
Follow Alice Speri on Twitter: @alicesperi