Despatch from Kabul | International

Afghan Islamic State after Baghdadi

Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi in an undated screengrab.   | Photo Credit: -

On October 26, the U.S. announced that the Islamic State leader, Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi, was killed, in an apparent suicide detonation during a raid at his house in Idlib, Syria. Baghdadi was the leader of the IS insurgency since its inception and had executed many gruesome attacks in Iraq, Syria and elsewhere. His death is widely expected to weaken the global IS structure, including in its wing in Afghanistan.

The Islamic State of Khorasan Province (ISKP), as the Afghan IS is referred to, has been on the rise for the last few years. Largely concentrated in Nangarhar in eastern Afghanistan, the group has carried out several suicide attacks, primarily targeting the country’s minorities. Of the 5,117 civilian casualties reported by the UN this year, 1,013 were attributed to the ISKP, including the suicide bombing at a Hazara Shia wedding ceremony in August in Kabul that resulted in the death of more than 90 people.

A struggling insurgency

The rise of the IS in Afghanistan, a country ravaged by conflicts, is a complicated one. The IS is still a struggling insurgency that’s fighting several battles at the same time. “While the larger ideology of the group has managed to find some in-roads into the radicalised segments in Afghanistan, the lack of a nationalist sentiment, such as that offered by the Taliban, has prevented it from growing stronger,” according to Omar Sadr, Assistant Professor at the American University of Afghanistan in Kabul. “The ideological influence is there, they [ISKP] haven’t been able to locate themselves within the social and cultural fabric of the Afghan society. Here, it is much different socially, tribally, and ethnically, compared to Iraq and Syria, and that is why they have had challenges in finding a stronghold here,” Mr. Sadr added.

But at the same time, the ISKP is organisationally independent from the IS core in Iraq and Syria. “While talking about Afghanistan, there is kind of a disagreement among many in the intelligence community about the roots of IS in the region. For example, Amrullah Saleh [the former Afghan spy chief], says the IS in Afghanistan is not organically or organisationally linked with the IS in West Asia. A segment of policy analysts proposed that the ISKP was manufactured or contracted out by an intervention of ISI (Inter Service Intelligence) in Pakistan and some other countries,” Mr. Sadr told The Hindu.

Still, Baghdadi’s death gives governments of the countries affected by the IS insurgency an opportunity to tackle the problem. “ISKP fighters, who have lost their leader, will likely be disappointed or demoralised. It is also possible that many will revert back to their original activities or other groups they were aligned with,” Hussain Ehsani, a senior researcher at the Kabul-based Afghan Institute of Strategic Studies, told The Hindu, adding that this lack of leadership and chaos could also pave the way for another jihadist organisation to take its place. “For example, in the case of Osama bin Laden, after his death, al-Qaeda grew weak, while a new, resurgent IS emerged as a stronger terrorist group.”

Both analysts agreed that there was an urgent need to target the roots of radicalisation to ensure that the ISKP is defeated.

“These groups look for countries with weaker governance and institutions to establish themselves. If the Afghan government reinforces its presence, especially during this period when their leadership is unstable, the ISKP can be subdued. Also, the government should target the ideology and not just the group,” Mr. Ehsani said.

Mr. Sadr, of the American University, advised the government to utilise the power of Afghan nationalism against the foreign nature of the ISKP. “There will be a crisis of leadership and legitimacy for a while. The government of Afghanistan should seize the moment, and mobilise the nationalistic sentiment against the group. There are many instances where the communities rose against the IS within Afghanistan,” he said.

However, the Afghan state remains fragile, and will need concentrated efforts that go beyond military operations to tackle the IS. “The ISKP is operating in those pockets and districts where there is no state at all. The state fragility has provided such non-state actors space to operate. So, countering them militarily is not enough. State structures and governance need to be strengthened, along with counter-radicalisation through education,” Mr. Sadr added.

“More work is needed at different levels within the community, education, culture, and to understand why certain segments of fighters are converting to the IS ideology.”

(Ruchi Kumar is a journalist based in Kabul)

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Printable version | May 18, 2021 11:33:24 AM |

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