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Is the Taliban’s Campaign Against the Islamic State Working?

The Taliban claim to have defeated the self-declared Islamic State’s Afghan chapter, but exclusive information obtained by The Diplomat indicates that its success is not what it seems.

Is the Taliban’s Campaign Against the Islamic State Working?

Islamic State Khorasan members before purportedly executing a Talib (kneeling in center) in Jalalabad, the capital of the eastern Afghan province of Nangarhar; published in the ISK newsletter An-Naba on October 7, 2021.

JALALABAD, AFGHANISTAN — The self-declared Islamic State’s Afghan chapter, one of the most prolific branches of the notorious jihadist group in recent years, “no longer exists” in its erstwhile stronghold in the eastern Afghan province of Nangarhar, Dr. Bashir, the chief of the Taliban’s General Directorate of Intelligence (GDI) in Nangarhar, recently told AFP. Previously, on December 9, the main Taliban spokesman Zabihullah Mujahid asserted that “Daesh is no longer a big threat in Afghanistan.” Daesh is the Arabic acronym of the self-declared Islamic State and locally used to refer to the group’s Afghan chapter, also known as Islamic State Khorasan (ISK). Mujahid further added that ISK “was a small group that has now been dismantled in Kabul and Jalalabad,” the capital of Nangarhar.

Often information, some exclusively obtained by The Diplomat, shows that the Taliban’s declarations of victory are overstatements and that apparent Taliban successes against ISK in Nangarhar are likely deceptive.

The Islamic States Fight Against the Taliban

In early August, the Taliban captured practically all of Afghanistan in a lighting offensive, eventually marching into the capital Kabul on August 15, after then-Afghan President Ashraf Ghani fled the country and the forces of the Afghan Republic evaporated. But in ruling Afghanistan once again, the Taliban face myriad problems. One of the more peculiar ones was and still is that the Taliban, who fought as an armed insurgency against a government for almost 20 years, now see themselves in the position of a government targeted by the insurgency of ISK.

Islamic State Khorasan, which first appeared in late 2014 in Afghanistan, has always openly opposed and attacked the Taliban. “They don’t implement Islam and Sharia [the Islamic law system] properly but work for infidels,” Abu Ahmad, an active member of ISK in Jalalabad told The Diplomat, explaining why he fights against the Taliban. Abu Ahmad is not his real name, but a pseudonym used for the exclusive interview that took place on open ground on the outskirts of Jalalabad in late November 2021.

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Asked what “infidels” the Taliban work for, Abu Ahmad said, “Pakistan – everyone knows it.” This echoes longstanding accusations from inside and outside Afghanistan that the Taliban are a Pakistani proxy, something the Taliban themselves vehemently reject.

In addition, ISK propaganda derides the Taliban for having negotiated a “peace,” or rather, a withdrawal agreement with the United States; for stating they do not have any problems with Shiites, followers of an Islamic creed whom ISK sees as apostates; and for only having a national agenda and not striving for the creation of a worldwide caliphate.

In view of this as well as the Taliban’s more open and prominent position since their return to power, ISK attacks against Taliban have increased. Abu Ahmad asserted himself to be a key figure in ISK’s campaign of targeted killings of Taliban in Jalalabad. “We kill the Taliban with whatever means available: pistols, rifles, mines [improvised explosive devices],” he explained. “We often do this from rickshaws,” he added, which has indeed frequently been the case in numerous drive-by-shootings against Taliban in Jalalabad.

To prove his story, Abu Ahmad showed two videos of such shootings to The Diplomat. The videos are, as far as it could be determined, not available online or elsewhere, which validates Abu Ahmad’s claim to be an ISK insider.

The Taliban’s Reaction: “Brutally Ineffective”…

Faced with such attacks, the Taliban have intensified their clampdown on ISK. On December 9, Taliban spokesman Zabihullah Mujahid claimed that the Taliban had arrested over 670 ISK members in the preceding three months. He also said that Taliban security forces had destroyed 25 ISK hideouts in Kabul and Jalalabad.

These assertions from Mujahid are, however, questionable, as the Taliban’s heavy-handed operations against ISK, in particular in Jalalabad, often hit innocent people and not ISK members. “Five personal friends of mine have been killed during the past months. They were Salafists, but had nothing to do with Daesh,” a man who requested anonymity for fear of Taliban reprisals told The Diplomat in Jalalabad in late November. The man is, as his killed friends were, an adherent of Salafism, a puritan creed of Islam that is also the basis of ISK’s ideology.

Two other regular Salafists The Diplomat spoke with in Jalalabad also stated that they personally knew innocent people that have been killed. And that, they claim, is only the tip of the iceberg. “Every day several innocent Salafists are killed in Jalalabad,” one of the Salafists said in late November 2021. While the perpetrators of such killings often could not be identified, there is little doubt that the Taliban were behind them, as they regularly equate Salafists with ISK fighters, despite the fact that the vast majority of Salafists have nothing to do with ISK and reject the group.

These indiscriminate killings, among other reasons, are what led experts to term the Taliban’s counterinsurgency “brutally ineffective.” Critics point out that the Taliban’s violent clampdown threatens to push regular Salafists as well as others to join ISK, thereby creating more insurgents than they kill or neutralize.

…or a Success?

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While this was and still is a possibility, the fact that ISK attacks have significantly decreased in Nangarhar since December challenges such a view and suggests that the Taliban’s brutal clampdown might, after all, have been effective. Indeed, the last attack claimed by ISK in Jalalabad took place on December 9. Since then there have also been only five attacks elsewhere in Nangarhar for which ISK took responsibility – a stark contrast to the between 17 and 20 attacks claimed by ISK in the province in each month between September and November. Random killings of Salafists also ceased, as a resident of Jalalabad told The Diplomat on January 12.

One possible explanation for this decrease is that, although the Taliban’s anti-ISK operations caught many innocents, they also hit ISK members and degraded the group’s capabilities. For example, during a raid on an ISK safe house in Jalalabad on November 30, the Taliban’s GDI killed Wahdat alias Anas Jon ut-Tariq and arrested Atta ur-Rahman. Both were described as capable members of ISK by a former jihadist who is in contact with active followers of the group. Furthermore, Abu Ahmad, who had boasted to The Diplomat that “Taliban operations are no problem at all” as “we [ISK fighters] are used to [being targeted] and know how to move and behave to remain safe,” was arrested by the Taliban in mid-January.

The aforementioned former jihadist also claimed that the Taliban had detained several other locally important ISK members in Nangarhar, saying that Atta ur-Rahman, the ISK fighter captured on November 30, has been collaborating with the Taliban’s GDI and betraying his former brothers-in-arms.

Another explanation for the decrease in ISK attacks in Nangarhar was relayed to The Diplomat by Abu Ahmad in mid-December – a considerable time before his arrest and right at the beginning of the decrease in attacks. Abu Ahmad asserted that he and other members of ISK were ordered by their leadership to at least temporarily suspend operations in Jalalabad. The reason for this was allegedly that the Taliban – every time ISK conducted an attack in Jalalabad – severely mistreated ISK members held in the Taliban prison in Jalalabad. Those inmates apparently had asked the group’s leader for a respite.

Later, Abu Ahmad, as well as a former ISK member who is now critical of the group, claimed that ISK would only lie low to prepare for broader attacks in spring. These assertions have to be viewed with a grain of salt though. Abu Ahmad obviously had a motive to explain the current decrease of his group’s prowess with other reasons than an actual weakening, and the former ISK member has no inside connection anymore.

The End of ISK?

However, seeing this decrease of ISK attacks in Nangarhar as a sign of the impending end of the terrorist group would be dangerous. Such lulls in ISK operations were also observed in the past but never lasted.

This derives in part from the fact that ISK is compartmentalized, meaning that successes against one part of the group don’t translate into successes against others. “We operate in small cells that are independent from each other. Each cell comprises between five and 15 men,” Abu Ahmad explained before his arrest. Groups are so separated and ISK fighters so frequently change their noms de guerre or use different names at the same time that often one does not know the real identity of another one, Abu Ahmad added.

This is also the case for ISK leader Shuhab al-Muhajir. “I have met Shuhab al-Muhajir personally,” Abu Ahmad asserted, confirming the authenticity of a photo of the elusive ISK leader shared by U.S. authorities in late November. “I don’t know his real name or identity though,” he added.

According to U.S. officials and other sources, the real name of Shuhab al-Muhajir is Sanaullah Ghafari and he hails from Kabul province. Other available information indicates different exact places of origin.

This resilience of ISK is – despite their public statements to the contrary – also acknowledged by the Taliban. An internal Taliban letter dated January 8, and seen by The Diplomat, informs Taliban officials in Nangarhar that ISK, while weakened in Jalalabad, is not finished in the province. Specifically, the letter warned Taliban officials that ISK members are likely to attack Taliban in the districts of Nangarhar and on the roads from Jalalabad to the district centers of Nangarhar.

Furthermore, while ISK operations in Nangarhar have decreased, the group is still frequently claiming attacks elsewhere in the country. Specifically, during January, ISK took responsibility for 18 attacks in five other Afghan provinces, with almost half of these attacks taking place in the capital, Kabul.

An internal Taliban document shows that the Taliban are much more concerned about ISK than they publicly admit. As The Diplomat has exclusively learned, in early January, the Taliban’s GDI distributed a list of names of alleged ISK commanders to all their provincial departments, ordering them to check the veracity of claims that ISK has a presence in all of Afghanistan’s 34 provinces. The names on this list are apparently at least partly based on an earlier fake list of alleged ISK commanders in all Afghan provinces.

In this regard, it has to be noted that the notion that ISK is active in all or even most Afghan provinces is contradicted by the evidence. There have not been any claims of responsibility or credible reports of an ISK presence from most Afghan provinces, and longstanding allegations about ISK in some provinces such as Badakhshan have always been and remain questionable. However, the fact that the Taliban’s GDI took the mentioned list seriously shows that they are – contrary to their public assurances – concerned about ongoing ISK activities and a potential resurgence of the group.

The Taliban have reason to be cautious: ISK has been declared defeated several times in recent years, but always survived and sometimes even resurged. This is all the more the case as sometimes in Afghanistan even seemingly obvious outcomes are not as clear as they seem.

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For example, before his latest arrest, Abu Ahmad told The Diplomat that in his almost seven years with ISK, he had been imprisoned three times. “I paid bribes and got out every time,” he explained. While Abu Ahmad’s prior arrests and releases all happened under the now toppled Afghan Republic, he insisted that ISK fighters can still buy themselves out of prison under the Taliban. The latter was confirmed by the aforementioned former jihadist as well as a regular Salafist in Jalalabad who had direct knowledge of a case where a man accused of being an ISK member had bought himself out of Taliban prison. As such, it is possible that the latest Taliban clampdown is not only not the end of ISK, but not even the end of the arrested ISK members.

Abu Ahmad himself will not resurface again, though. In the last days of January, his corpse was found in Jalalabad and identified by his brother. What exactly happened remained unclear, but his killing after being arrested by the Taliban indicates that the Taliban’s brutal campaign against ISK is far from over.