GP Short Notes

GP Short Notes # 851, 28 March 2024

Islamic State Khorasan (IS-K): A profile
Alka Bala

On 22 March, the Islamic State of Iraq and Syria in a statement claimed responsibility for the attacks through the ISIS-affiliated news agency Amaq on Telegram. According to the statement, which was not backed by evidence, ISIS stated that its fighters attacked Moscow “killing and wounding hundreds and causing great destruction to the place before they withdrew to their bases safely.” On 23 March, ISIS stated the attacks to be part of its war against countries fighting Islam

Since its inception in 2014, the Islamic State Khorasan (IS-K) has acted as an IS affiliate in Central Asia. Khorasan refers to a geographic region comprising parts of present-day Iran, Central Asia, Afghanistan and Pakistan. Post IS-K declaration of allegiance to the IS’ global “Ummah,” its leadership has extended support and financial resources to develop its Central Asian network. 

Base in Afghanistan
The IS-K is believed to have its primary presence in the eastern Nangarhar province of Afghanistan, focusing its activities around Kabul and the provinces of Kunar, Jowzjan, Paktia, Kunduz, and Herat. Its objectives include establishing Islamic Caliphate in South and Central Asia and implementing Sharia. By 2016, the number of IS-K fighters was estimated to be between 3000 to 4000; however, this declined subsequently. 

Leadership and support base
According to reports available, in 2014, IS-K was led by Tehrik-e Taliban Pakistan (TTP) commander Hafiz Saeed Khan and former Taliban commander Abdul Rauf Khadim as the deputy. Khan engaged other significant TTP members, its spokesperson Sheikh Maqbool, and district chiefs to form the first Khorasan Shura, the leadership council. Tehrik-e Taliban Pakistan, also referred to as Pakistani Taliban, was formed to fight against NATO forces in Afghanistan, undertaking “defensive jihad” against Pakistan and enforcing Sharia. 

Its membership and support base comprised of Pakistani militants, estranged members of TTP and Lashkar-e Islam. According to the Combatting Terrorism Center at West Point, certain “members of  had also defected to IS-K.” IS-K’s founding emir, Hafiz Saeed Khan, and the chiefs, including Abdul Hasib, Abu Sayed, and Abu Saad Orakzai, were exterminated in targeted strikes by the US in the years 2016, 2017 and 2018, respectively. These leaders were part of militant movements in Afghanistan, Pakistan and Uzbekistan. Sanaullah Ghafari, the emir who led IS-K since June 2020, was killed by Taliban’s security forces in Kunar province of Afghanistan. Taliban spokesperson Zabihullah Mujahid stated that since August 2021, “their security forces have arrested and imprisoned up to 1,700 IS-K militants and killed close to 1,100 others, including key commanders.” 

Areas of operations, ideology and strategies involved
IS-K’s operations in Afghanistan and Pakistan are aimed at questioning the legitimacy of the government. It views nation-states as illegitimate and disrupts democratic processes. Clashes between IS-K and Taliban exist and IS-K pose security threats to the Taliban government. Under Sanaullah Ghafari’s leadership, IS-K focused on expansion and recruitment in Central Asia and increasing attacks in Kabul, mostly targeting Shia Muslims and other religious minorities.

IS-K and the Taliban adhere to contrasting ideologies and ideas of nationalism. IS-K is committed to Salafism and considers the Taliban’s commitment to the Sunni Islamic sectarian school, as flawed. The Taliban’s aim included rule over Afghanistan and the strictest interpretation of Sharia for governance, whereas IS-K believes in expanding the Caliphate beyond the internationally ordained borders. IS-K also has accused the Taliban of carrying out peace negotiations in “posh hotels” in Doha, instead of continuing jihad on the battleground. Although the groups carry out operations against each other, there remains scope for local collaboration as they are connected via the Haqqani network, which mainly consists of Taliban defectors.

IS-K believes that the jihad in Khorasan is a blessing of Allah and further justifies its fights with disbelievers. Since IS-K believes that the Islamic Caliphate is not limited to a country, IS-K does not recognise the legitimacy of international borders. It views its territories beyond the national borders of Afghanistan and Pakistan and aims to establish and expand the Caliphate in Southern and Central Asia. The end goal remains to be the implementation of Shariah in these regions. Although  IS-K has been involved in acts abroad it majorly carries out violence locally. 

Its strategies include deepening existing sectarianism, exiting poor economic conditions to create instability further and delegitimising the governments of Pakistan and Afghanistan. It uses methods such as military-style assaults, ambushes, beheadings and bombings to achieve its goals, targeting foreign aid workers, ethnic minorities and civilians, who appear opposing to the interpretation of Sharia. Between 2017-2018, IS-K launched 84 attacks in Afghanistan and 11 in Pakistan, killing 819 and 338 civilians, respectively. Abroad, IS-K has conducted attacks in Tajikistan and Uzbekistan and it has claimed responsibility for carrying out two explosions in Iran in January 2024, killing 100 people and wounding 284 people on the fourth death anniversary of Iran’s top commander Qassem Soleimani. It also targeted Russia by bombing the Russian embassy in Kabul in September 2022 and in 2024, by directly attacking civilians at the concert in Moscow.

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