It’s only been a year-and-a-half since the terrorist group Islamic State of Iraq and Syria seized one of Iraq’s largest cities and declared a caliphate in the swathes of territory it held in both countries. Since then, foreign fighters have flocked to join the conflict and ISIS’ leader, Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi, has inspired pledges of allegiance from aspiring insurgents and breakaway factions of militant groups in countries such as Egypt, Yemen and Libya, as well as from well-established groups like Nigeria’s Boko Haram.
Now, it appears ISIS-allied fighters are gaining a foothold in Afghanistan as well. But who are they really? Do they take orders from ISIS’ leadership in Iraq and Syria? And could their ideology and grasp on territory spread like it did in Iraq and Syria? Here is what three experts had to say.
Who is “ISIS” in Afghanistan?
James Cunningham, who served as U.S. ambassador to Afghanistan from 2012 until Dec. 2014, says he first heard rumors of ISIS in Afghanistan as his term was ending. “Just as I was getting ready to leave, there were rumors, but nothing very solid — expressions of concern that ISIS was starting to make contact with Afghans and Pakistanis, and trying to recruit people to come to the fight in Syria and Iraq.”
However, experts say that the entities that now call themselves ISIS in Afghanistan are not fighters from Iraq or Syria. Rather, they’re primarily disaffected Taliban members and insurgents from other groups who seized an opportunity to “rebrand” themselves as ISIS.
“It’s important to look at what we mean when we say ISIS,” says Anand Gopal, author of No Good Men Among the Living: America, The Taliban, and the War Through Afghan Eyes, “because these were groups that were disgruntled and they essentially rebranded themselves as a way of reinvigorating their group or faction, and attracting funding.”
“There’s been increased dissatisfaction among certain elements of the Taliban, and with the media talking about ISIS all the time and the Afghan government playing up the idea of ISIS as a way of keeping the United States interested, all of that sort of set the ground for the groups to rebrand themselves,” Gopal says.
Among the groups that have taken up ISIS’ black flag in Afghanistan are factions of the Pakistani Taliban, known as Tehrik-i-Taliban, or TTP; the Pakistani militant group Lashkar e Taiba; and the Islamic Movement of Uzbekistan. Currently, the leaders of ISIS in Afghanistan are predominantly former Pakistani Taliban members.
Some members and commanders of the Afghan Taliban have also defected, highlighting rising disaffection within the group, which despite being able to briefly take and hold the provincial capital of Kunduz in September, has experienced fragmentation and turmoil over the last several months. Some defectors began joining ISIS because of the long absence of Mullah Omar, the Taliban leader whose stature and mystique held the disparate group together. The confirmation of his death in July has only increased defections. Others, meanwhile, were driven to ISIS by disagreements over whether the Taliban should take part in peace talks with the Afghan government.
“The motivations for people to want to take up arms and fight against the Afghan state haven’t diminished,” Gopal says. “You have the leadership saying, well, it’s time to negotiate, time to look at peace.” The groups that have rebranded themselves as ISIS are able to step in, Gopal says, and claim, “‘We’re not the Taliban … we’re not going to enter these negotiations. We’re part of this global movement now that’s been so successful in Iraq and Syria.”
No one knows exactly how many fighters now call themselves ISIS in Afghanistan, but officials estimate there are around a thousand. The main areas where they hold sway are districts in the eastern province of Nangarhar, which borders Pakistan, and parts of Zabul in the south and Kunduz in the north. By July, it was claimed that ISIS had defeated the Taliban in three districts in Nangarhar — Achin, Shinwar and Khogyani. But the Taliban has been pushing back, leaving civilians caught in the middle of fighting between both groups. The mid-year tally of civilian casualties in Afghanistan hit a record high in 2015, since the United Nations started counting in 2009 — 1,592 dead, 3,329 injured.
Do they take orders from or have ties to ISIS in Iraq and Syria?
While a spokesman for ISIS central in Iraq and Syria announced the establishment of an Afghan affiliate in January, experts say there isn’t much evidence of centralized command and control links between fighters in Afghanistan and the leadership in Iraq and Syria yet.
“They embrace the label, and they swear allegiance to Baghdadi, but it doesn’t appear there is any direction, control or instructions coming from Syria, Iraq or Baghdadi,” explains Vanda Felbab-Brown, a senior fellow at the Brookings Institution.
“If you look at the way in which this group has operated on the ground, it operates very differently from the ISIS in Iraq and Syria,” Gopal says. “They’re not acting like ISIS central … They’re not destroying shrines and doing things against local culture.”
However, that could change, and the things to keep an eye on are capabilities or behaviors of the group changing over time, experts say.
Could they spread like ISIS in Iraq and Syria?
The startlingly rapid rise of ISIS rattled Western officials. In 2011, the group emerged from the ashes of Al Qaeda in Iraq in 2011 and gained recruits and fighting experience in the Syrian civil war before launching a lightning offensive on Mosul and establishing its caliphate. The group took advantage of power vacuums and weakened state security forces in Syria and Iraq, as well as harnessing sectarian tensions in Sunni majority areas.
With fighters in Afghanistan now flying the flag of ISIS too, the natural concern is whether what happened in Iraq and Syria could happen in Afghanistan.
It’s still to early to tell, experts acknowledge, but there are fundamental differences between ISIS in Iraq and Syria and the situation in Afghanistan that could impede ISIS’ spread in the latter.
ISIS’ ideology, which is Salafist, is antithetical to the Taliban’s ideology, which has origins in Sufism and Deobandi. Salafist ideology is a very austere interpretation of Islam that’s “supposed to harken back to the way they imagine the Prophet lived,” Gopal says. However, in Afghanistan people worship holy shrines and saints, and the beliefs are more mystical. “That’s the way Islam functions in southern Afghanistan, but it’s all considered heretical by the Salafists.” These ideological differences make it harder to recruit and gain the acceptance of the public.
Gopal offers the example of an Afghan Taliban commander who allied with ISIS and was killed in a drone strike. Mullah Raouf Khadim had a lot of difficulty recruiting people in Afghanistan, because “he went back to his village and told people, ‘You shouldn’t worship graves. You shouldn’t go to the holy men.’ And they all thought he was crazy.” He was only able to get people to come around after mollifying some of the Salafist interpretations.
Afghanistan also doesn’t have the same kinds of sectarian tensions that ISIS can exploit, Felbab-Brown points out. “Although the Pashtuns often feel excluded from the government, and mobilizing along the lines of Pashtun ethnicity has been a factor, there’s already an alternative that exists — the Taliban — and that’s the big difference compared to Iraq and Syria.” While Syria’s militias were fractious, and Iraq’s sectarian tensions boiled over, in Afghanistan “you have a pan-Afghan, national, potent, long-established insurgency” in the Taliban. So far, the fiercest fighting has not been between ISIS and government security forces, but between ISIS and the Taliban.
ISIS and the Taliban not spreading in Afghanistan is also contingent upon the stability of the government and the strength of Afghan security forces, who seemed to struggle in regaining control of Kunduz when the Taliban briefly overran it for two weeks in September.
To help prevent their spread, President Barack Obama announced last month that the United States would keep 9,800 troops in Afghanistan through 2016, and maintain about 5,500 going into 2017. In announcing the decision, Obama said, “I will not allow Afghanistan to be used as safe haven for terrorists to attack our nation again.”
Withdrawing all troops as planned, given the current situation, “would have led to a very dangerous situation for the region and for us,” Cunningham, who now serves as the Khalilzad Chair on Afghanistan at the Atlantic Council, says. “I think the outcome would have been one in which the Afghans were not able to sustain their security effort in the way it needed to be done.”
Such concerns have only grown in the wake of the Nov. 13 attack on Paris that killed at least 129 people — an assault that Iraqi intelligence suggested was at least partially planned in Raqqa, ISIS’ self-appointed capital in Syria. As Cunningham says, if the growing brand of ISIS in Afghanistan isn’t somehow defeated, the danger is that “there will develop a more organic connection with ISIS as it exists in Syria and Iraq.”