April 23, 2015

TSG IntelBrief: The Islamic State of Khorasan

• The Islamic State of Khorasan (ISK) has reportedly claimed responsibility for last week’s suicide bombing on a bank in Jalalabad, Afghanistan, which killed 35 people and injured over 100 others

• The divide between loyalty to Taliban leader Mullah Omar and Islamic State leader Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi is becoming the most contentious issue amongst violent extremists in the region

• ISK was formally announced as a waliyat (state) of the Islamic State in January 2015; it is less a monolithic branch and more a group of actors spread across parts of Pakistan and Afghanistan that have pledged allegiance to al-Baghdadi

• ISK leader Hafiz Khan Saeed was previously a long-time senior leader of the Pakistan Taliban (TTP), and his departure, along with those of several other senior TTP members, shows that the Islamic State has made some inroads into high-level extremist circles in the region—though perhaps not as much as the group would like believed.


The overlapping and intricate network of extremist groups operating in Afghanistan and Pakistan is intensely complicated, with local loyalties and tensions coloring national and regional ideological battles. The battlefield got even more complex with the first reported attack by an affiliate of the Islamic State in Afghanistan-Pakistan, at a bank in the eastern Afghan city of Jalalabad. At a time when the Afghan government is seeking to bring the Afghan Taliban to the negotiation table, the emergence of an operational Islamic State of Khorasan (ISK) threatens to add a new level of brutality to a country and region with far too much experience in suffering as it is.

The presence of the Islamic State in the region is a nasty mix between officially recognized operatives such as ISK leader Hafiz Khan Saeed and other former senior leaders of the Pakistan Taliban (TTP) and those merely claiming to kill in the group’s name. This is a combination of the old-school model of network by official affiliation and the newer network model of inspiration and motivation. The Pakistani component of ISK is relatively concentrated in the tribal region surrounding Peshawar, with a sizable number of fighters both from TTP and a group called Amr Bil Maroof group. These are personalities with serious connections and extensive experience fighting in the tribal areas against the Pakistani government and one another.

It makes sense that the Islamic State would eventually come to Afghanistan and Pakistan which, along with parts of Iran, make up a historic region extremists refer to as 'Khorasan.' After all, part of the schism between al-Qaeda and its rebellious offshoot the Islamic State was over loyalty and allegiance to Taliban leader and self-proclaimed 'Amir-ul-Momineen' (Commander of the Faithful) Mullah Omar. The Islamic State did not see the logic in swearing allegiance to a leader not seen publicly in 13 years and who has no influence over his affiliates' operations. In fact, Taliban supporters of Mullah Omar released a biography of their leader earlier this month in a bid to remind its members that their leader is still relevant, if invisible.

The Afghan Taliban reject the Islamic State, both because of its refusal to acknowledge the supremacy of Mullah Omar and because of the savagery the group inflicts on civilians. The Taliban try to focus on fighting police and military personnel, and while they do still kill civilians they tend not to boast about it. The Islamic State, of course, does not distinguish between civilian and non-civilian, and views everybody as a legitimate target of publicized violence. The concern is that disillusioned or discouraged Taliban members might seek to emulate the tactics of the Islamic State and heighten the level of brutality and extremism on all sides.

It is uncertain whether there are distinct and effective channels of command and control between the Islamic State and ISK, either based in the Pakistani tribal regions bordering Afghanistan, or likely less so with alleged cells in Kunar Province in eastern Afghanistan and Helmand and Kandahar provinces in the west. This diffused chain of command likely suits the Islamic State’s purposes well enough, as it has its ‘official’ group with well-known extremists in ISK, as well as  unconnected cells acting in its name.

The debate over whether or not the Islamic State has ‘truly' come to Pakistan and Afghanistan is, to a degree, outdated. The ideology of the group is certainly there in force, scattered among violent extremist groups fighting under different names but under the common banner of bin Ladinism. By franchising local players, the Islamic State can plug into existing power dynamics without the disruption of introducing foreign Arab fighters into the mix, something al-Qaeda did to its detriment years ago.

As in Libya, the Islamic State faces significant local and tribal challenges in its quest to seize and hold territory in both Pakistan and Afghanistan. Unlike in Libya, both Pakistan and Afghanistan have relatively functioning governments that will oppose the Islamic State’s rise, and a U.S. counterterrorism strategy that conducts drone strikes in both countries. Still, there is no shortage of armed groups looking to make their mark such as it is, and the brand name of the Islamic State is a powerful magnet for violent extremists. To many younger Afghan and Pakistani fighters, Mullah Omar is little more than a blurry old picture, while the Islamic State has created a misleading but slick image of terror celebrity and spectacle. It might not seize and hold land in either country but it will seize the hearts and minds of enough people to conduct more attacks such as the bombing in Jalalabad.


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