The Islamic State Khorasan Province (ISK) has acted as a subsidiary of the Islamic State (IS) within Afghanistan and Pakistan since 2015. The group formed due to defections from the Taliban, al-Qaeda (AQ), and Tehrik-e-Taliban (TTP) in 2014 (1). The group has operated primarily within Afghanistan and Pakistan and has regularly come into conflict with local and more established groups such as the Taliban, and security forces of the former Afghan government as well as with coalition troops, as it has attempted to expand and take control of territory. ISK is estimated to be comprised of between 1500-2200 fighters based primarily in Kunar and Nangarhar provinces of Afghanistan, but their activity has spanned every province of Afghanistan and Pakistan (2). Despite significant losses of personnel and territory from 2016-2020, the group has experienced a resurgence. Since the Taliban took control of Afghanistan and the international coalition pulled out, ISK has had increased freedom to recruit, build its capabilities, and conduct operations, and now conducts guerrilla operations against both government and civilian targets.
History & Foundations
ISK formed officially in January of 2015 with a statement released from the Islamic State Central (IS), but defections of TTP, AQ and Taliban members and commanders, along with discussions with IS emissaries, had been ongoing since 2014 (3). Hafiz Khan Saeed, a senior TTP commander formerly responsible for TTP operations in Orakazi in Pakistan’s FATA, was appointed by Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi as the emir of ISK around the same time (4). He would later be killed in a US drone strike in 2016.
ISK, though active all over the region, has its roots in the Nangarhar province, which borders both Kabul and Pakistan. Most of ISK’s original members in the province came from Pakistani militants who had sought refuge there from Pakistani military operations in the FATA and had gradually began shifting their allegiance from TTP to IS for a myriad of reasons including infighting in the TTP and increasing tension due to ideological and political differences between the Pakistani militants and the Afghan Taliban (5). The Taliban initially attempted to negotiate with IS Central and with ISK in an effort to protect and consolidate their dominant position, but failed and was forced to retreat from 8 districts in Nangarhar as ISK grew, by June 2015 (6). ISK continued to expand until 2016, when increased fighting between them, the Taliban, and government security forces backed by U.S. airstrikes, began to check, and eat away at their territory and growth.
ISK attacks peaked initially in 2017 and began to fall off until 2019 as its opponents intensified their efforts to counter it (7). These efforts severely degraded ISK’s manpower and resources, and from 2015-2018 over 10,000 of the group’s members in Afghanistan and Pakistan were captured, killed, or surrendered, including more than 500 of its leaders (8)(9). By 2020, ISK had ceased to maintain any territorial holdings, and its’ remnants dispersed or retreated North to Kunar Province (10). After these setbacks, ISK underwent internal changes, including the appointment of a new leader by IS Central in June 2020, Shahab al-Muhajir, a former member of a Taliban faction linked to the Haqqani Network, following the capture of his predecessor Aslam Farooqi (11). Muhajir, whose real name is Sanaullah Ghafari, is the current governor and leader of ISK (12). Muhajir is both a Salafist and a lifelong jihadist who is experienced in urban warfare and is reported to have an extensive network within Kabul (13). Attacks continued and increased through 2020 and 2021 as negotiations ensued between the Taliban and U.S., which worked to cause chaos across the country. Following the Taliban takeover in 2021, ISK has been focusing its efforts squarely on undermining the new Taliban government and its legitimacy in the eyes of the population.
Objectives & Ideology
ISK adheres to IS Centrals goal of eliminating national boundaries in the pursuit of a global Islamic caliphate and has aggressively targeted government forces and infrastructure within Afghanistan and Pakistan in an aim to undermine their legitimacy. ISK adheres to a stricter interpretation of Islam than the Afghan Taliban, with ISK criticizing the Taliban in 2014 and 2015 for its seemingly lenient attitude towards the Afghan government, its failure to declare the government and its employees’ apostates, and its relationship with Pakistani intelligence, all of which worked to drive the rift in Nangarhar that would eventually lead to conflict (14). They also subscribe to the concept of tawhid al-hakimiyyah which calls for a single Muslim leader who rules using the entirety of Shari’a, which has led them to refuse to compromise with other Islamic organizations such as the Taliban.
Additionally, a significant amount of the ISK leadership is comprised of Afghani Salafi scholars. The Taliban has had a complex and tense relationship with Afghani Salafi’s since the 1990’s has turned ISK into a magnet for Afghani Salafi’s (15). ISK has been able to frame the conflict as a religious struggle between the ideologically corrupt Taliban and morally superior Salafist’s of ISK and utilize this as a recruiting tool (16). ISK criticized the Taliban for their willingness to compromise and negotiate with the U.S. and sees the Taliban as a nationalistic group that appeals to a narrow base (17). ISK has also targeted religious minorities such as the Hazaras, signaling its emphasis on Sunni, and likely more specifically, Salafi, primacy in the region.
In the short term though their objectives appear to be to continue to undermine the legitimacy of the Taliban government, gain access to resources and personnel, build resilient networks, and gain strength steadily while waging a, primarily urban, guerrilla campaign. Despite the complex environment in which ISK operates, which see a mix of tribal, national and regional interests and relationships competing against each other, ISK’s long-term goals remain transnational and aligned with IS Central.
Approach to Resistance
Throughout 2014-2018, most of ISK’s attacks were concentrated in Nangarhar and Kabul Provinces in Afghanistan, and Balochistan and KPK in Pakistan (18). In Kabul and Balochistan, ISK’s attacks were disproportionately lethal as a result of an intensive suicide attack campaign which was enabled by the high population density of Kabul and the porous borders, permissive operating environment, and density of appealing targets such as religious minorities in Balochistan (19). In Nangarhar, ISK fighters used cached weapons, possibly at least partially composed of captured weapons from the Pakistani army, to launch ambushes on local Taliban leadership in late 2014, triggering a response from the Taliban and a start to negotiations between the groups. Once negotiations failed, clashes continued and a vicious turf war ensued, with ISK and the Taliban both using brutal tactics to suppress resistance such as burning houses, forcing families of enemy fighters to flee, and publicly executing captured fighters (20). In some villages in 2015, ISK fighters went underground and waited for an opportunity to rise up suddenly and catch the local Taliban by surprise (21). By 2016, ISK was in conflict with the Taliban and Afghan government, engaging them in skirmishes and overrunning, but not occupying some government positions. The group was attempting to hold territory until 2018 and 2019 when it was forced to disperse due to increased pressure from multiple groups.
As the U.S. pulled out of Afghanistan in 2020 and 2021 a security vacuum appeared, and ISK began working to undermine Taliban influence by concentrating almost 60% of its attacks in Nangarhar (22). The group began focusing on targeting Taliban checkpoints, energy infrastructure, convoys, members of the media, activists, local elders, schools, mosques, and Salafi ideologues who criticize them in Nangarhar and elsewhere (23). The group demonstrated it maintained the capability to conduct tactically and operationally complex operations during its 2020 prison break operation in Jalalabad, which led to the release of 280 ISK inmates (24). It gained international attention for its suicide attack against U.S. forces and fleeing Afghan civilians at HKIA in August of 2021. Al-Muhajir has adopted a new strategy of guerrilla warfare and urban terrorism, focusing on conducting prison breaks, reintegrating former members who had surrendered to the government, and attempting to widen its recruiting net, all while conducting attacks to destabilize and delegitimize the Taliban’s hold on power (25).
ISK has a Shura Advisory Council that serves as a decision-making body, led by an emir, and a bureaucracy that supports it in various areas such as intelligence, logistics, finances, religious matters, recruitment, media and others, with commanders at the provincial level (26). ISK is reported to have been generating income from extortion as early as 2014 and from participation in the illegal mining and export of talc in Nangarhar as early as 2018 (27). They’re also assessed to receive income via extortion, donations and possibly from IS Central, and to possess modest financial reserves (28).
Alliances & International Connections
During the Taliban takeover over 400 ISK fighters from 14 countries escaped from government prisons, confirming the growing presence of foreign fighters within the organization (29). ISK has a close relationship with IS Central and captured documents indicate an attempt to mimic the organizations and structures that have worked for and been used by IS Central (30). IS Central also appeared to be attempting to play a role in shaping ISK’s development by providing them generic guidance on a variety of matters such as arbitrating disputes, distributing propaganda, and dealing with inappropriate forms of media (31). IS Central also requested reports from ISK on battlefield performance, and has featured them heavily in their propaganda, especially following the Jalalabad prison break and suicide attack at HKIA (32). Overall IS Central and ISK are connected, potentially financially, and ISK is dedicated to the cause of the IS, though the extent of their cooperation now is unclear. In May 2019, IS Central announced the formation of IS-Pakistan and IS-India, which may shift responsibility from ISK and enable them to focus their efforts (33). ISK began in a crowded operating environment, competing against the TTP, Taliban, Al-Qaeda and other groups. They grew increasingly confrontational against all groups, as they see themselves as the sole legitimate group for waging jihad in the region and thus have aimed to coopt instead of cooperate with local groups.
Works Cited (Chicago-style)
(1) - Catrina Doxsee and Jared Thompson, “Examining Extremism: Islamic State Khorasan Province (ISKP),” CSIS, n.d., https://www.csis.org/blogs/examining-extremism/examining-extremism-islamic-state-khorasan-province-iskp.
(2) - Ibid.
(3) - Ibid.
(4) - Amira Jadoon, Abdul Sayed, and Andrew Mines, “The Islamic State Threat in Taliban Afghanistan: Tracing the Resurgence of Islamic State Khorasan,” The CTC Sentinel 15, no. 1 (January 2023), https://ctc.westpoint.edu/the-islamic-state-threat-in-taliban-afghanistan-tracing-the-resurgence-of-islamic-state-khorasan/.
(5) - Borhan Osman, “The Islamic State in ‘Khorasan’: How It Began and Where It Stands Now in Nangarhar - Afghanistan Analysts Network - English,” Afghanistan Analysts Network - English, May 4, 2020, https://www.afghanistan-analysts.org/en/reports/war-and-peace/the-islamic-state-in-khorasan-how-it-began-and-where-it-stands-now-in-nangarhar/.
(6) - Ibid.
(7) - Jadoon, Sayed, and Mines, “The Islamic State Threat in Taliban Afghanistan: Tracing the Resurgence of Islamic State Khorasan.”
(8) - Ibid.
(9) - Amira Jadoon and Andrew Mines, “Taking Aim: Islamic State Khorasan’s Leadership Losses,” CTC Sentinel 12, no. 8 (September 2019), https://ctc.westpoint.edu/taking-aim-islamic-state-khorasans-leadership-losses/.
(10) - Jadoon, Sayed, and Mines, “The Islamic State Threat in Taliban Afghanistan: Tracing the Resurgence of Islamic State Khorasan.”
(11) - Doxsee and Thompson, “Examining Extremism: Islamic State Khorasan Province (ISKP).”
(12) - Jadoon, Sayed, and Mines, “The Islamic State Threat in Taliban Afghanistan: Tracing the Resurgence of Islamic State Khorasan.”
(13) - Ibid.
(14) - Osman, “The Islamic State in ‘Khorasan’: How It Began and Where It Stands Now in Nangarhar - Afghanistan Analysts Network - English.”
(15) - Jadoon, Sayed, and Mines, “The Islamic State Threat in Taliban Afghanistan: Tracing the Resurgence of Islamic State Khorasan.”
(16) - Ibid.
(17) - Doxsee and Thompson, “Examining Extremism: Islamic State Khorasan Province (ISKP).”
(18) - Amira Jadoon, “Allied & Lethal: Islamic State Khorasan’s Network and Organizational Capacity in Afghanistan and Pakistan” (Combatting Terrorism Center at West Point, 2018).
(19) - Ibid.
(20) - Osman, “The Islamic State in ‘Khorasan’: How It Began and Where It Stands Now in Nangarhar - Afghanistan Analysts Network - English.”
(21) - Ibid.
(22) - Jadoon, Sayed, and Mines, “The Islamic State Threat in Taliban Afghanistan: Tracing the Resurgence of Islamic State Khorasan.”
(23) - Ibid.
(24) - Ibid.
(25) - ibid.
(26) - Doxsee and Thompson, “Examining Extremism: Islamic State Khorasan Province (ISKP).”
(27) - Jadoon, “Allied & Lethal: Islamic State Khorasan’s Network and Organizational Capacity in Afghanistan and Pakistan.”
(28) - Doxsee and Thompson, “Examining Extremism: Islamic State Khorasan Province (ISKP).”
(29) - Jadoon, Sayed, and Mines, “The Islamic State Threat in Taliban Afghanistan: Tracing the Resurgence of Islamic State Khorasan.”
(30) - Ibid.
(31) - Ibid.
(32) - Ibid.
(33) - Ibid.