Ahmad, 26, was exhausted and dizzy. Kandahar was hot and for the past six days and nights his unit of 50 men had been working around the clock. The National Directorate of Security, Afghanistan’s primary intelligence agency, had been planning the operation for a while and Ahmad realized that the stakes were high.
Intelligence sources suggested that in early April, the leadership of the Islamic State in Khorasan Province (ISKP), the local branch of the Salafist armed group, was gathering in Kandahar to discuss the movement’s future.
In the previous months, after a prolonged U.S. and Afghan military operation, ISKP had lost its main stronghold in Nangarhar, close to the Pakistani border. Much of the group’s leadership was killed or captured and many of its members went underground. Others moved to neighboring Kunar province or fled across the border to Pakistan.
However, despite significant loses, ISKP kept operating.
In March, the group organized two terrorist attacks in Kabul against Shia and Sikh communities, killing more than 50 people. While significantly weakened, ISKP is far from defeated.
It was April 4 and Ahmad’s unit was getting ready for the final phase of its operation. Ahmad has been working for the special forces for the past seven years, the last four spent on efforts to capture the ISKP leadership.
After days of operations, the NDS detained more than a dozen high-profile members of ISKP in Kandahar. On April 4, Ahmad was standing in front of a house crucial to the operation; a hideout of Abdullah Orakzai, alias Aslam Farooqi, a Pakistani national and ISKP’s leader in Afghanistan.
“It was an ordinary village house. We forced the door. They were aware that we were fully armed and have backup, so they were not resisting. When they saw me and our forces they submitted themselves but they were surprised,” Ahmad says. “The room was small and it was full of weapons and explosives. When I handcuffed Farooqi, I took a deep breath. I was proud of my unit.”
Capturing the head of ISKP in Afghanistan quickly made the news. Farooqi had been the group’s leader since July 2019 and he had managed to survive the recent raids against the group. Along with Farooqi, the Afghan forces captured 19 other prominent ISKP members in several operations in Kandahar.
“I think that currently the ISKP has lost its chain of command. But they have shelters to hide everywhere. They might not have heavily mobilized units to conduct operations but they do have individual units,” an NDS official told The Diplomat under the condition of anonymity.
“ISKP has no base or command center in Afghanistan. That’s why Farooqi went to Kandahar; he wanted to mobilize the forces once again. Based on our intelligence, some ISKP fighters are moving to Kunar, some of them are hiding in Nangarhar but there is no one place to command the forces.”
The first black flags appeared in Afghanistan’s Nangarhar province in 2015, a year after Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi declared himself caliph of the Islamic State in Iraq. In 2014, the region had faced a huge influx of refugees from Pakistan following an operation the Pakistani army launched against Islamic militant groups in North Waziristan.
Many of the fighters who found refuge across the border were members of Tehrik-i-Taliban Pakistan (TTP) and according to sources some of them later formed the core leadership of ISKP.
A number of local militant groups, foreign fighters, as well as some local Taliban soon joined up. While it is hard to estimate the group’s membership, the UN claimed in the summer of 2019 that ISKP had between 2,500 and 4,000 fighters in Afghanistan.
Over the years, ISKP managed to take control of a large territory in Nangarhar and Kunar provinces. Mountains and the relative remoteness of the area helped them to extend their control without major obstacles. ISKP gained access to local mines and trade routes to Pakistan, which helped them survive despite raids by both the Taliban and the Afghan army, along with U.S. airstrikes.
“The Islamic State had two different kinds of operational capacity. One is a more conventional or traditional battlefield or military capacity. The group is an insurgent force and uses guerrilla tactics, but its capacity in a military sense was always limited to the area in eastern Afghanistan,” Andrew Watkins, senior Afghanistan analyst at the Crisis Group, told The Diplomat.
“But you also have a capacity that seems almost separate, which is organizing complex attacks, [including] suicide bombings in Kabul.”
Over the years, ISKP conducted dozens of deadly attacks against civilians across Afghanistan. Hazaras, a local Shia community that the group views as infidels, are the most common target. But ISKP spread fear among local communities in Nangarhar, too. And its brutality exceeded what many of its victims had ever seen.
Naser, 40, worked as a hairdresser in Khogyani district, Nangarhar, when ISKP took over control of his village. He still has a bullet scar from the injury he sustained before he left, a lasting reminder of his family’s ordeal. He sits on the floor in a clay house in a camp for internally displaced persons in Kabul with his wife and children. When he talks, his eyes fill with tears.
When ISKP arrived in his village, Naser remembers, at first not much changed and people continued to go about their business. Slowly, however, the first bans appeared. The group forbade cultivation of poppies, which for many villagers was the only source of income. Soon after, the terror began.
“There was a man called Namat, who had seven daughters. When his wife finally gave birth to a son, he fired a shot in the air out of happiness. Daesh [a local name for IS] came and asked him what happened, he explained that he has just had a son. They took the baby, each of them was holding one leg and they tore him apart in front of the parents,” Naser recalls.
The new authorities also began looking for spies working for the Taliban. They came to Naser, too. When he said that he did not know who in the village worked with the Taliban, the fighters shot him in the leg. Then they killed his 20-year-old son in front of him and set his house on fire. His newly born son died in the flames.
“This is why we left, it was no longer a place to live,” Naser says. “I was in the hospital because of the wound and my relatives brought my wife and kids secretly. We only took the clothes we were wearing and left. Ever since we’ve had nothing.”
According to Watkins, ISKP never sought to get close to the populations of the districts under their control. They did not provide services or connect with Afghans on an ideological level. The kind of extremist ideology the Islamic State in Afghanistan practiced, Watkins says, was foreign even to some of the most conservative Afghans.
With the detention of Farooqi in early April, hopes rose that the group’s ability to organize attacks in Afghanistan has weakened. It is unclear whether ISKP has designated a new head in the country. But only five days after Farooqi’s capture, the group claimed responsibility for launching five rockets against Bagram airfield, the main U.S. base in Afghanistan.
“Over the last five years, the United States has claimed that it has killed several different leaders of the Islamic State, Khorasan Province branch, through airstrikes and special operations. None of these previous deaths or removals of a leader of this group were enough to eliminate its ability to strike Kabul and to create mass casualty attacks,” Watkins says.
“Battlefield losses, just like the deaths or arrests of leadership, don’t necessarily mean that it will change the group’s ability to organize suicide attacks or attacks against civilians. But all combined together, this is yet another sign that the group is facing difficulties.”
Agnieszka Pikulicka-Wilczewska is a journalist focusing on the post-Soviet space.