ISIS-K: From Afghanistan to the World’s Capitals

Later in the same month, the Security Council supported a report from the UN’s special coordinator for Afghanistan, which advocated for an overhaul of the outdated 1988 sanctions regime. According to Smith, this regime should be revamped into a series of incentives designed to encourage the Taliban’s cooperation on counterterrorism efforts.

A marked increase in terrorist activities and plots by the Islamic State through its affiliate in Afghanistan, Isis-Khorasan (Isis-K), this year indicates a significant change in the group’s tactics, demonstrating a more lethal approach by the former caliphate.

Following their ousting from strongholds in Iraq, Syria, and Afghanistan in 2019 and with its leaders going underground to escape targeted killings by American and Taliban forces, Isis has reactivated its network of terrorist cells. These cells are staffed by militants from across Eurasia.

Investigations into deadly Isis assaults in the last three months across Iran, Pakistan, Russia, and Turkey have found that these attacks were carried out by Isis fighters from Central Asia, particularly Tajiks.

Turkish authorities have reported that Uygurs from Xinjiang played a role in some recent attacks. Additionally, Isis-K has been urging members of the Turkistan Islamic Party, an al-Qaeda-linked group aiming to establish a caliphate in Xinjiang, to join its ranks.

Uygurs from Xinjiang refer to the ethnic Uyghur people who are primarily Muslim and live in the Xinjiang Uyghur Autonomous Region in the far west of China. The Uyghurs are a Turkic ethnic group, and their region, Xinjiang, has been the focus of significant ethnic and political tensions, including disputes over religious and cultural rights, surveillance, and allegations of human rights abuses by the Chinese government.

The information provided by SCMP media house, indicates that ISIS has been utilizing Afghanistan as their main base and Turkey as a logistical center. They have collaborated with various national and regional branches to execute deadly attacks in four countries this year.

Terrorism analysts have informed This Week in Asia that ISIS-K has taken over as the primary force for the jihadist movement, stepping into the role previously held by the significantly weakened groups in Iraq and Syria, according to a report by the media outlet. This transition highlights ISIS-K’s emergence as a key player within the broader jihadist network.

Riccardo Valle, the research director for The Khorasan Diary, a security news and analysis platform based in Islamabad with a focus on Afghanistan and Pakistan, stated that various attacks can be linked back to ISIS-K in different ways, according to a report by SCMP. He mentioned that it has played a significant role in rallying supporters and possibly coordinating attacks abroad.

Analysts indicate that ISIS has attempted to leverage the Israel-Gaza conflict and the widespread indignation it has provoked among Muslims worldwide.

“According to the South China Morning Post, Lucas Webber, co-founder and editor of Militant Wire — a news and analysis provider on global terrorism — has observed that the recent acts by Hamas and the counteractions by the Israeli military have profoundly changed the international security environment.”

He mentioned that jihadists have actively pursued opportunities to exploit the resulting grievances, aiming to motivate their supporters towards violence and orchestrate attacks abroad.

Webber stated that Isis-K has become the branch of Isis most focused on international concerns, both in its media output and militant activities.

He explained that it is adopting a strategy that emphasizes both regional and international themes in its propaganda, focusing on domestic attacks against foreign interests and citizens, as well as carrying out operations abroad.

Severely Tense Relationships

The activities of Isis and other international groups operating within Afghanistan, Pakistan, and Iran – such as al-Qaeda in the Indian Subcontinent, Tehreek-i-Taliban Pakistan (TTP), and ethnic Baloch separatists who utilize the same logistical networks as jihadists – have significantly worsened the diplomatic relations among the governments of these three nations.

Iran and Pakistan, nations that typically maintained amicable, if not overtly friendly ties, breached each other’s airspace in January. They targeted camps of Baloch militants, whom they blamed for recent cross-border assaults. Iran initiated the exchange of fire shortly after over 90 individuals were killed in two suicide bombings by Isis in Kerman, a southeastern city, on January 3rd. These attacks were aimed at a gathering remembering Qassem Soleimani, the former leader of the Quds Force, which operates internationally as part of the Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps.

In response to the attack on the memorial service for Soleimani, who was killed by a US drone strike in Iraq in 2020, Iran executed counterstrikes with missiles and drones against locations in Iraq and Syria as a form of retribution.

Frustrated with the Afghan Taliban’s inaction against the TTP, which had been conducting cross-border terrorist attacks, Pakistan responded on March 18 by deploying fighter jets to strike terrorist encampments in southeast Afghanistan. These strikes were aimed at a TTP faction that had claimed responsibility for the deaths of seven Pakistani soldiers, among them an army colonel and captain, just two days earlier.

Following a vehicular suicide bombing that resulted in the death of five Chinese nationals working on a hydropower project in northern Pakistan on Tuesday the 26th March, Defence Minister Khawaja Muhammad Asif directed blame at Afghanistan’s Taliban government.

In a Baloch separatist attack on the southwestern port of Gwadar in Pakistan on March 21, Chinese nationals working there found themselves targeted, resulting in the death of two soldiers before the assailants were ultimately halted.

Operated by China, Gwadar port is a crucial hub for connecting Xinjiang to the western Indian Ocean. The only terrestrial connection between the two countries, the Karakoram Highway, was where the five Chinese contractors met their demise. Given the rise in terrorist activities, there’s a pressing requirement for significant alterations at the border. The origin of terrorism in Pakistan traces back to Afghanistan, and despite our endeavors, there’s been no forward movement from Kabul on this issue,” stated Asif, following his participation in a high-level security conference in Islamabad on Wednesday.

Similar to the situation with the TTP, the Taliban government in Afghanistan has disregarded Tajikistan’s demands to halt cross-border assaults by a Taliban affiliate. According to Iranian officials, a Tajik based in Afghanistan was also among the suicide bombers in Kerman.

Turkish authorities have determined that the individuals behind the Kerman attack were part of the same Isis group that attempted an unsuccessful strike on a church in Istanbul on January 28. This group also included Isis-K members who came from Afghanistan.

“Every neighboring country of Afghanistan has security worries related to militant factions that remain within Afghan borders,” stated Maleeha Lodhi to SCMP, who has served as Pakistan’s ambassador to the UK, US, and the United Nations.

She mentioned that despite both bilateral and regional efforts, the Taliban have not been compelled to take decisive action against these groups, which possess transnational influences and goals. The only exception is Isis-K, against whom the Taliban has taken vigorous action.

The recent terror incident in Moscow on March 22 has underscored the extensive reach of these militant organizations, particularly Isis-K. This group has shown it can pose a threat to Western interests far from its base, according to what Lodhi stated.

Lodhi observed that the conflict in Ukraine has hindered the East-West collaboration on counterterrorism that is essential for addressing this escalating threat. However, she also noted that there is “significant sharing of intelligence on terrorism, even among rival nations.”

Lodhi emphasized that there is a greater need now for increased international cooperation due to growing concerns over the cross-border actions of militant groups based in Afghanistan, which the Taliban appears either incapable of or unwilling to control.

Endangering Chinese Investments

Militant Wire’s Webber, as cited by SCMP, mentioned that Isis-K has aggressively targeted the Taliban’s international relationships with nations like Russia, China, and Iran. Their goal is to stir tensions and weaken these diplomatic connections.

He explained that in pursuing this objective, it has put foreign commercial ventures at risk, including Chinese pipelines in Central Asia and the China-Pakistan Economic Corridor, which is valued at an estimated US$62 billion and forms a part of Beijing’s Belt and Road Initiative.

He noted that Isis-K has expanded its criticism, threats, and calls for attacks against a widening circle of adversaries, which now includes China, Russia, Iran, Uzbekistan, Tajikistan, India, and Turkey.

Webber stated that the Moscow attack appears to signal future events and represents an ongoing pattern, as evidenced by the increase in thwarted and successful external plots related to this trend.

Valle from The Khorasan Diary mentioned to SCMP that the transnational nature of groups like Isis is precisely what complicates efforts to locate and disrupt them.

He explained that Isis-K operates an extensive network that spans from Afghanistan and Pakistan, stretches through Central Asia, and extends to Iran and Turkey. This network has further connections that reach into Europe, and now, it might also be making inroads into Russia.

Despite existing differences and tensions, countries in the region do exchange intelligence and offer mutual assistance, which has been crucial for counterterrorism efforts in Central Asian nations and Russia. Valle noted that collaboration against militant organizations typically intensifies following significant attacks, like those in Iran and Turkey. This reactive pattern, however, diminishes the chances of breaking apart larger networks.

“Acquiring a comprehensive overview would necessitate a unified framework involving not just the intelligence agencies of the countries directly affected, but also those of neighboring and other nations,” he stated.

Valle mentioned that often, “political tensions and a lack of trust between countries serve as barriers” to establishing such collaborative frameworks.

Graeme Smith, a senior consultant at the Crisis Group’s Asia program with a focus on Afghanistan, observed that geopolitical dynamics have restricted the scope for multilateral collaboration. However, he noted that there’s still a small opportunity to bridge the gaps in global rivalry for cooperation on fundamental issues related to peace and security.

He mentioned that since the events of 9/11, there has been a prolonged period during which the US, Russia, China, and even nations like Iran have managed to find methods to work together against transnational militant groups.

The US issued warnings to Iran and Russia prior to the attacks in Kerman and Moscow.

Smith, author of “The Dogs Are Eating Them Now: Our War in Afghanistan,” highlighted to SCMP that the attacks in Moscow emphasize the need to maintain these security-focused collaborations.

He noted that “global actors” are increasingly considering the Afghan Taliban government as a defense against Isis, even though it has declined to heed the requests of neighboring countries like Pakistan and Tajikistan to address the issue of Taliban affiliates operating within Afghanistan. In December, the United Nations Security Council requested that terrorism monitoring teams be sent back to Afghanistan, marking their first return since the Taliban’s ascension to power in August 2021.

Later in the same month, the Security Council supported a report from the UN’s special coordinator for Afghanistan, which advocated for an overhaul of the outdated 1988 sanctions regime. According to Smith, this regime should be revamped into a series of incentives designed to encourage the Taliban’s cooperation on counterterrorism efforts.

However, implementing such a recommendation would necessitate collaboration among the five permanent members of the Security Council – China, France, Russia, Britain, and the US. He mentioned that it’s still uncertain whether this suggestion can be put into action during these times of heightened tension.

Smith emphasized that the latest Isis-K assaults highlight the importance of engaging with the Taliban to address these paramount security issues.

He further suggested that the Shanghai Cooperation Organisation, led by China, should entertain the Taliban’s request to participate in its meetings, especially given the critical nature of the discussions concerning regional stability.

(The author Girish Linganna of this article is a Defence, Aerospace & Political Analyst based in Bengaluru. He is also Director of ADD Engineering Components, India, Pvt. Ltd, a subsidiary of ADD Engineering GmbH, Germany. You can reach out to him at: [email protected])

(Views expressed in the article are of author’s own and do not reflect the editorial stance of Business Upturn)