In an audio taped speech released earlier this week, Abu Muhammad al-Adnani, a spokesperson for the Islamic State, announced the creation of a shura (or council of leaders) for “Khorasan” — roughly the territory occupied by the modern states of Pakistan, Afghanistan, and parts of Tajikistan. In that same speech (available in translation here with the original audio available as well), al-Adnani notes that former Tehreek-e-Taliban Pakistan (TTP) commander Hafez Saeed Khan will serve as the “governor of this new geographic province of the Islamic State.” Staff over at The Long War Journal have a useful visual breakdown of the remaining members of the Islamic State’s Khorasan Shura. The announcement adds to a growing pool of evidence that the Islamic State is serious about expanding its presence with the South Asian region with a particular focus on Afghanistan and Pakistan.
The announced that Khan will lead the Islamic State’s presence in the region comes just three months after reports that senior elements of the Taliban in both Afghanistan and Pakistan had pledged allegiance to the Islamic State and Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi. As Arif Rafiq wrote then for The Diplomat, the defection of senior TTP officials especially indicated “further divisions within Pakistan’s jihadist community, which has rapidly splintered since the killing of the TTP leader Hakimullah Mehsud last fall in a U.S. drone strike.” Though the organizational aspirations of the Islamic State will concern regional governments, the defections could also indicate a broader state of splintered confusion among jihadists in Afghanistan and Pakistan. Terrorism analysts argued that this confusion and desperation for relevancy manifested in the horrifically brutal attack on a school in Peshawar in late 2014 that killed some 140 Pakistani civilians, most of them children.
The move also brings the spotlight back to an ongoing struggle for relevancy among South Asia’s jihadists between the Islamic State and al-Qaeda. In late 2014, al-Qaeda’s leader Ayman al-Zawahiri declared the creation of a South Asian branch of the global terror network. That announcement coincided with preliminary reports of younger jihadist militants in the region pledging their allegiance to the Islamic State’s then-newly declared caliphate. With the declaration of the Khorasan Shura, the Islamic State will offer a degree of organizational clarity to the many different Taliban-affiliated jihadist groups in Pakistan. Part of the reason the Taliban initially aligned with al-Qaeda was largely out of convenience. Al-Qaeda and the Islamic State are famously bitter enemies, even though the two are self-styled as Salafist jihadi groups.
Al-Adnani’s message, apart from its announcement regarding the creation of the shura, focused primarily on urging rank-and-file jihadists in Afghanistan and Pakistan to pledge their loyalty to the leaders of the Khorasan Shura: “We call upon all the soldiers of the Islamic State who are in Khorasan to listen and to obey the Wali, Hafez Saeed Khan, and his deputy (may Allah preserve them both), and to prepare for the great tribulations they will face. The factions will assemble against you and the rifles and bayonets will multiply against you. But you are up to it, with Allah’s permission,” he noted in his message.
Al-Adnani’s message, if it is to be successful in generating hype among jihadis in the region, will likely do so in Pakistan rather than Afghanistan. Firstly, the core leadership of the Khorasan Shura is Pakistani. These names are well-recognized as former members of the TTP. Secondly, the Afghan Taliban and their related splinter groups remain mostly loyal to Mullah Omar. Since al-Baghdadi has declared himself the Caliph of the global Islamic State, swearing loyalty to him would effectively repudiate Mullah Omar’s status as Amir al-Mu’minin (Commander of the Faithful). This said, cross-border interaction between the former TTP members comprising the new Islamic State Shura and Afghan Taliban members could eventually lead to a change in this current state of affairs.