After Attack in Russia, Focus Turns to ISKP in Afghanistan and Central Asia

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After Attack in Russia, Focus Turns to ISKP in Afghanistan and Central Asia

The focus on and understanding of ISKP’s core area in Afghanistan and Pakistan needs to be expanded to include the large frontiers of Central Asia.

After Attack in Russia, Focus Turns to ISKP in Afghanistan and Central Asia

In this photo released by Russian Emergency Ministry Press Service on March 23, 2024, firefighters work in the burned concert hall after an attack on the building of the Crocus City Hall on the western edge of Moscow, Russia.

Credit: Russian Emergency Ministry Press Service via AP

The March 22 terror attack in Russia, on the outskirts of Moscow, which killed 139 people has brought attention back to the Islamic State Khorasan Province (ISKP). Notwithstanding the Kremlin’s proclivity to link the attackers to Ukraine and not ISKP, the group’s involvement in the attack is clear from its claim and the evidence that has emerged in the aftermath. However, the focus on and understanding of ISKP’s core area in Afghanistan and Pakistan needs to be expanded to include the large frontiers of Central Asia, where the group seems to be thriving and expanding its area of operations.  

While for many the threat of the Islamic State ended in 2019 with the American military campaign that disintegrated the Caliphate in Iraq and Syria, the group’s capacity remained intact in many parts of Central and South Asia. The recent attack in Krasnogorsk isn’t so much an extension of ISKP’s presence, but a power projection of its existing presence and influence in Central Asia, where the group has been building its strength since 2014. This needs to be understood in attempts to understand the threat potential and construct strategies to tackle the group.

ISKP, which was formed in 2015 and started operating in Afghanistan in 2017, four years before the Taliban took power, has been prevented by the latter from acquiring territory in Afghanistan or increasing its violence levels in any significant manner. The shortcomings in the Taliban’s approach and its intention of underplaying ISKP’s potential notwithstanding, periodic raids, arrests, and killings have in a way diversified the group’s activities to other areas. In 2023, the Taliban claimed to have arrested and imprisoned up to 1,700 ISKP militants and killed close to 1,100 others, including key commanders, since August 2021. 

The U.N. has termed ISKP “the greatest threat within Afghanistan,” but this needs to be seen in the context of the comparative weakness of other terror groups, except the TTP, that operate in Afghanistan. ISKP’s leader, 29-year-old Sanaullah Ghafari a.k.a. Shahab al-Muhajir, is now believed to be living in Pakistan’s Balochistan province, after surviving a Taliban intelligence-led operation in June 2023 in Kunar province. In September 2023, U.S. officials acknowledged that the Taliban’s sweeping operations, with a zeal to demonstrate its achievements, have increased pressure on ISKP, forcing many of its key leaders to flee the country. Further, there is little evidence that the group’s recruitment capacities within Afghanistan have been blunted after the initial surge that attracted disenchanted Taliban members into ISKP’s fold. 

What may have remained undisturbed, however, are ISKP’s capacities within the Central Asian states. A U.N. report in June 2023 estimated ISKP fighters and their families number between 4,000 to 6,000, including citizens of Central Asian countries. Other estimates regarding ISKP’s Central Asian cadres being only a “few hundred” have coexisted with the group’s successful periodic recruitment campaign in Tajikistan and other Central Asian states since 2014. In 2023, such a campaign targeted experienced members of existing militant groups with a long history of terrorist attacks. As a result, members of Tajik extremist groups like Jamaat Ansarullah may have joined ISKP in large numbers.

This surge in the Central Asian component within ISKP also needs to be seen along with the group’s activities and radicalization targeting Central Asian states, Iran, and Turkey, which does not get much media attention. This includes the nightclub attack by an Uzbek gunman on New Year’s Eve 2017 in the suburbs of Istanbul which killed 39 people. Before that, in June 2016, three ISKP members – a Chechen, a Kyrgyz, and an Uzbek – killed 41 people at Turkey’s Ataturk airport.

A notable Islamic State recruit from Tajikistan was Colonel Gulmurod Khalimov, a 41-year-old U.S.-trained former police officer who had commanded an elite police unit. Khalimov left for Syria in April 2015 and in May 2016 appeared in a YouTube video “vowing to bring jihad to Russia and the United States.” 

In September 2017, Russia claimed to have killed Khalimov in Syria. However, several past attacks like the 2017 bombing in the St Petersburg metro, which killed 15 and injured 45, reveal that it has performed poorly in preventing the Islamic State’s recruitment within Russia – both among Central Asian migrant workers, many of whom are poor and face significant discrimination, and its own ethnic minority Muslim population. This time too isn’t different as Ukraine remains Moscow’s prime target and every effort is being made by the Kremlin to link Kyiv with the attack.

Similarly, the fight against the Islamic State within Central Asia has been far from sincere. For instance, as this report from the Mantraya Institute for Strategic Studies reveals, Tajik authorities have used the threat of the Islamic State to repress domestic opposition.

ISKP’s influence remains far-reaching. It transcends the borders of Afghanistan and Pakistan and its capacities, as the recent attack in Russia demonstrates once again, can potentially reach new territories. This needs to be factored into the fight against the group and counter-radicalization efforts within the region.