In June 2015, a few months after the Islamic State announced its Khorasan Wilayat (Province), the Taliban wrote a letter to the IS chief, Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi, asking him to stop recruiting jihadists in Afghanistan. The letter, signed by the then political committee chief of the Taliban, Mullah Aktar Mansour (who would take over the insurgency’s leadership in a month), said there was room for "only one flag and one leadership” in the fight to re-establish Islamic rule in Afghanistan.
But the IS faction, which came to be known as the Islamic State of Khorasan Province (ISKP), did not stop recruiting disgruntled Taliban fighters. Nor did it stop attacking the Taliban or launching terror strikes across Afghanistan, mainly targeting the Shias and other minorities.
In the last five years, the ISKP has built an organisational network in Afghanistan from the eastern Nangarhar province, attracted followers from across South, West and Central Asia, and killed hundreds. In their latest attack, three gunmen stormed the Kabul University on November 2, killing at least 35. A week earlier, a suicide bomber struck an education centre in one of the capital’s Shia populated areas, killing 24, many among them teenagers.
When the Islamic State announced the formation of the Khorasan Province - referring to an area encompassing Afghanistan, Pakistan and Central Asia - in January 2015, the group’s immediate strategy was to exploit the divisions within the jihadist groups operating in the region. It appointed Tehrik-i-Taliban Pakistan (TTP) commander Hafiz Saeed Khan as its leader and former Afghan Taliban commander Abdul Rauf Aliza as his deputy (both were killed in U.S. strikes). It attracted members from different militant organisations such as Lashkar-e-Taiba, Jamaat-ud-Dawa, the Haqqani Network and the Islamic Movement of Uzbekistan into its fold.
The ISKP declared its allegiance to Baghdadi. In operational tactics and ideology, it followed its parental organisation. The key goal is to establish “Islamic rule” in the “province”. “There is no doubt that Allah the Almighty blessed us with jihad in the land of Khorasan since a long time ago, and it is from the grace of Allah that we fought any disbeliever who entered the land of Khorasan. All of this is for the sake of establishing the Shariah,” the ISKP said in a video message in 2015.
When the IS in Iraq and Syria came under pressure in 2015 and 2016, the core organisation shifted its focus to Afghanistan. The IS was losing territories to Kurdish militias in Syria and government forces and Shia militias in Iraq. In Afghanistan, a divided country with the government’s writ hardly reaching its hinterlands, the IS saw an opportunity to build a branch. Having built its base in eastern Afghanistan, the ISKP issued propaganda videos in which its militants appeared holding the group’s notorious black flags, and called on Muslim youth across Asia to join them.
The IS came under pressure in Afghanistan as well. The Taliban did not like its monopoly over violent jihand being challenged by another organisation. The Taliban are a tribal, nationalist militant force whereas the ISKP doesn’t believe in national borders, and stands for a global Islamic Caliphate. The Taliban fought back. The U.S. carried out a number of targeted attacks, killing several of the ISKP’s leaders. In April 2017, U.S. President Donald Trump ordered troops to drop the ‘Mother of all Bombs’, the most powerful non-nuclear bomb, on IS caves in eastern Afghanistan. One of the terms of the U.S.-Taliban agreement, reached in February, was that the Taliban would not allow transnational terrorist groups such as al-Qeada and the IS operate in Afghan soil.
But despite the U.S.’s targeted bombings and the Taliban’s counter-attacks, the ISKP has continued to expand its operations. While the Taliban have shifted the focus of its war to the police and security officials, the ISKP is waging a sectarian war on the Afghan public.
As much of the country remains lawless, the conditions favour the ISKP to grow, like they did in Iraq and Syria in 2013-14. Also, when the Taliban are involved in direct talks with the Kabul government, the ISKP would try to wean the hardline factions away from the insurgency. When the Taliban want to be back in Kabul, the ISKP wants to be the new Taliban.