The Islamic State Khorasan (IS-K) has been active in Afghanistan since 2015, with its fighters pledging allegiance to ISIS central command that once operated out of the eastern Syrian city of Raqqa, where its members beheaded hostages, raped sex slaves and killed hundreds over a range of accusations including sorcery.
Both the Afghan National Army and the US military, as well as the Taliban, fight the extremist group in Afghanistan, like reported by thenational.ae.
“There are an estimated 4,000-6,000 fighters and one fourth of them are foreigners,” explains Lt General Abdul Hadi Khalid, a researcher at the Afghan Institute for Strategic Studies and former Vice Minister of Interior.
Afghan’s spy agency puts the numbers much lower, saying that only about 3,000 remain after thorough military operations and most fighters enter the country through the Iranian-Afghan border.
A Pakistani native, Bilal, from a religious lower middle class family, came to Afghanistan eight years ago, originally joining the Taliban, but the group’s changing ideology has pushed him away. He eventually joined IS-K two years ago.
As the Taliban and the US negotiate a peace deal in Doha, Bilal says that he is ready for a violent future.
“With ongoing peace talks, IS-K recruitment has increased. This includes recruitment from foreign fighters who are already in Afghanistan, but work with networks in their home countries,” a government security official tells The National.
“We will see if they become bigger once a peace deal is signed, but we estimate that around 5-10 per cent of Talibs might join Daesh then,” he says, using the group’s Arabic name.
Bilal claims that his move to join the group wasn’t a financial calculation but his personal wish to fight ‘jihad’.
“IS-K is giving money and power to people and it’s appealing,” explains Mahmood Marhoon, an author and researcher at Kabul University. “Most of the people who join are young, and while it’s tough to put a finger on exact numbers, the group is definitely stepping up their recruitment.”
The Ministry of Defence’s spokesperson, Zubair Arif insists that 95 per cent of the group has been “finished,” contrary to other expert opinion.
“We fought hard to remove them in Nangarhar and Kunar,” he says. “Many of them are foreigners and enter Afghanistan through all borders, even through Kabul’s international airport.”
The threat is not far-fetched, especially in the country’s eastern provinces of Nangarhar, Kunar and Nuristan, where the group has gained some territory over the past six months, according to a Pentagon report released in July.
“Regionally, the group continues to evade, counter, and resist sustained CT [counter-terrorism] pressure,” the report said.
According to a new UN report, out of the almost 4,000 civilian casualties in the first months of 2019, 11 per cent could be attributed to IS-K.
The Taliban and IS-K have been fighting each other, often for ideological reasons.
Both groups accuse each other of not being Islamic. In the past year, IS-K has taken over large forest areas, previously under Taliban control, with a booming wood and mining industry helping fund their activities.
“Daesh is also gaining strength in eastern Afghanistan because they are fighting ideologically,” explains Nadir, 35, a former Taliban trainer. After 12 years of educating fighters in suicide attack methods, Nadir, has left the insurgents behind to focus on his university studies.
“The Taliban’s ideology is becoming weak and it means that several of their fighters have joined Daesh – including Bilal,” he says.
IS-K territory is mainly constrained to eastern Afghanistan, yet new, small pockets are emerging across the country.
“We see them in the north, in provinces like Takhar and Badakhshan,” explains Lt General Khalid.
“Salafism is active in some northern areas and that’s where IS-K is finding ground.”
Bilal says the Taliban has changed. “They are not fighting infidels anymore, but they come to the negotiation table with them.”
He says that the group has managed to set up a semi-functioning state system, including schools, courtrooms and medical centres. “Some women have even joined their husbands here.”
“Local people see our good Islamic laws and want to join us. The young men I know – some of them are Uzbeks, Indians, Iranians, Chinese, even a few Europeans –want to give their lives for Islam,” Bilal explains.
“People have been brainwashed,” explains former terrorist trainer Nadir, who is using a fake name to conceal his identity. He’s known Bilal for many years, having once taught him how to build suicide vests.
But, for Bilal, joining the holy war was a decision he made after studying in one of Pakistan’s madrassas, religious schools.
“Foreign forces have come here to attack us and destroy our home, so we have to do the same,” the young man explains. “We do this to terrorise people and stir fear,” he says.
A few years ago, his family from Pakistan’s Karachi visited him in Afghanistan, an uncommon move. “My mother came to find me a wife, but I refused,” he says. “I live right on the frontline and if I die, my wife would be alone.” He now shares a house with two other single Pakistani fighters.
Bilal says he has come to Jalalabad to catch up with friends, but he’s manoeuvring through the city by avoiding checkpoints and hiding from the police.
“We’re targeting people, but we’re also a target here,” Bilal explains. “It’s only in the Daesh areas that I feel safe.”