How NDS-RAW created ISIS-Khorsan to counter Pakistan, Afghan Taliban

How NDS-RAW created ISIS-Khorsan to counter Pakistan, Afghan Taliban

The Islamic State’s local franchise in Afghanistan and Pakistan, the Islamic State in Khorasan Province (ISKP), has claimed responsibility for the suicide attack on the TUTAP protests in Kabul on 23 July 2016. The attack killed more than 80 people and injured over 230 others in Deh Mazang Square in western Kabul. The target of the attack [on 23 July], a peaceful, civilian protest of Shia Hazaras unrelated to the war and of no military importance, would seem to suggest that this was indeed an IS attack. AAN’s Borhan Osman looks at the emergence and subsequent development of ISKP and its relationship to the Taleban and the Afghan government. Judging by the group’s turbulent past, which saw it cornered in Nangarhar (in contrast to its ambitions of a nationwide expansion), it seems ISKP is now possibly more bent on striking in places like Kabul for the sake of gaining attention and boosting its fighters’ morale.

As of July 2016, the Islamic State Khorasan Province (ISKP) group has established a secure footing in four districts of Nangarhar province in eastern Afghanistan. Elsewhere in the country, it has failed (read an analysis of the country-wide situation in November 2015 here). In Nangarhar, over a year ago, the vanguard of the movement was a group of Pakistani militants who had lived there for years as ‘guests’ of the Afghan government and local people. While initially avoiding attacks on Afghan forces, they made their new allegiances known by attacking the Taleban and taking their territory. Since its emergence in Nangarhar, the group has made many enemies and has seen its sphere of dominance shrink considerably.

The vanguards

In late January 2015, the Islamic State announced its expansion into Khorasan province. The elements of what would become IS Khorasan Province’s (ISKP) main contingent had, however, long existed on the Afghan battlefield. Although the first case of an ISKP presence that grabbed public attention took place in Helmand that January (as discussed below), the actual IS vanguards emerged from Nangarhar province. The IS fighters who pioneered the Khorasan franchise of the IS were Pakistani militants who had long been settled in the southeastern districts of Nangarhar, in the Spin Ghar mountains or its foothills, bordering the tribal agencies on the Pakistani side of the Durand Line.

Before choosing to join ISKP, these militants operated under different brands, mainly under the umbrella of the ever-loosening Tehrik-e Taleban Pakistan (TTP). The bulk of these militants had been arriving in Nangarhar since 2010 mainly from the Orakzai, North Waziristan and Khyber tribal agencies. According to local residents, the first groups of Pakistani militants arrived in Nangarhar from Orakzai following an operation by the Pakistani army that year. They moved into Afghanistan, often with their families, apparently to flee military operations by the Pakistani army. They settled in Achin, Nazian, Kot, Deh Bala, Rodat and Ghanikhel districts, among others. Calling themselves muhajerin (refugees) in search of shelter, they invoked support from the local communities in Nangarhar who deemed it their moral obligation to extend a helping hand to their Pashtun brothers escaping violence in their hometowns. The ‘refugees’ also opened madrasas and schools for their children in Achin and Nazian.

Gradually, the muhajerin turned out to be more than solely oppressed civilians in pursuit of humanitarian assistance. They carried weapons and displayed allegiance to Pakistani militant groups. Hoping to use them against Pakistan, the Afghan government started to woo some of these fighters, according to influential tribal elders involved in helping relation-building from the districts that sheltered the guest militants. Tribal elders feuding against their rivals over land or power also sought to get the support of one group or another. The most well-known case of these militants finding a welcoming home in Nangarhar is that of the Lashkar-e Islam group led by Mangal Bagh. (1) Local residents put the number of this group from the Khyber Agency differently, but a general estimation puts them at no fewer than 500 in the past three years.

The Afghan government’s support to Mangal Bagh’s men is an open secret among residents of the Spin Ghar districts near the Durand Line. Residents from Achin recall the generous hosting of groups of long-haired Lashkar-e Islam fighters at the houses of Shinwari tribal elders, such as Malek Usman and Malek Niaz, in Achin. They had introduced their black flag to the area long before ISKP hoisted a flag of the same colour with different symbols and slogans. According to residents, Lashkar-e Islam’s flags were flying over many houses in the Mamand valley in Achin in the summer of 2014. Today, Lashkar-e Islam remains an implementing partner of ISKP in Nangarhar. Mangal Bagh’s fighters, mainly from the Afridi tribe, who predominantly come from Khyber Agency, have not actually merged with ISKP, but they act in such close coordination with it that many locals perceive them as having morphed into a wing of ISKP. In an apparent power-sharing deal, Mangal Bagh’s fighters have obtained control over Nazian district, which looks like a delegation from ISKP. Lashkar-e Islam has long made up the bulk of Pakistani militants in Nazian.

However, efforts by the Afghan intelligence service, the National Directorate of Security (NDS), to woo Pakistani militants in Nangarhar have not been confined to Lashkar-e Islam or to militants from Khyber. Tribal elders and ordinary residents of Achin, Nazian and Kot testify that fighters from Orakzai and Mohmand agencies belonging to different factions of the TTP have been allowed free movement across the province, as well as treatment in government hospitals. When moving outside their hub in Nangarhar’s southern districts, they would go unarmed. In off-the-record conversations with AAN, government officials have verified this type of relationship between segments of the Pakistani militants and the NDS, as have pro-government tribal elders and politicians in Jalalabad. They described this state of affairs as a small-scale tit-for-tat reaction to Pakistan’s broader and longer-ranging, institutionalised support to the Afghan Taleban in their fight against the Afghan government.

In late 2015, Afghan government sources estimated the number of muhajer families in Nangarhar at over 2,000. Apparently, not all of the men from these families engaged in armed activities. Therefore, the exact number of active ‘guest’ militants at any given point is difficult to quantify. However, in early 2015, their number seems to have been well over 1,000.

The NDS, these sources claim, expected their protégés to fight against the Pakistani government. It also saw a role for them to fight, or at least stand, as a bulwark against the Afghan Taleban in the areas where they were hosted, something only few of them actually did. While Mangal Bagh’s men would engage casually in not-so-bloody confrontations with the Afghan Taleban, other militants under the TTP umbrella initially avoided confronting their Afghan counterparts at all, keeping, at times, rather cordial relations with them. 

The break with the Afghan Taleban

While, since as early as 2010, the mainly TTP militants from various tribal districts on the Pakistani side of the Durand Line existed in Nangarhar’s Spin Ghar districts, their attitudes mirrored the overall lack of cohesiveness within the TTP, which usually had little control and command over the fighters, including those scattered across Nangarhar. As wider splits within the TTP ranks emerged following the death of the group’s leader Hakimullah Mehsud in November 2013, militants in Nangarhar also turned into autonomous, often ruthless factions, further divided in smaller groups. That was the pattern throughout 2014. The chain of command with the TTP centre, as well as relations with the local Afghan Taleban, were stained by the increasingly predatory behaviour of these militants, who started to regularly engage in money extortion, kidnappings and ransom-taking, targeting both Afghans and Pakistanis. They would send messages to actual or presumed rich sympathisers of the Afghan Taleban and of the TTP in Pakistani and Afghan towns, asking them for huge amounts of money. If the recipients failed to heed the request, they would be threatened.

It was from these ‘guests’ that the bulk of the Nangarhar-based ISKP foot soldiers emerged, following the official announcement of IS’s expansion to ‘Khorasan Province.’ (2) Before they openly changed their allegiance (or sympathy) to IS, they exhibited other signs of regrouping under a new modus operandi. From the autumn of 2014, they started to act more autonomously of the TTP and as if trying to establish some sort of control over the areas they lived in, for instance by casually setting up checkpoints. They also appeared to be preparing for a major battle, transporting huge shipments of weapons from Tirah valley in Khyber Agency with unprecedented quantity and frequency. This coincided with a new wave of muhajer families arriving from Khyber Agency and North Waziristan. In part, this was triggered by the Pakistani army’s Operation Khyber 1, which started in October 2014, and the subsequent Operation Khyber 2, which started in March 2015. According to Pakistani officials, the two-phased Khyber operations, which targeted Khyber and parts of Orakzai agencies, were aimed at repelling militants who had fled there from the Zarb-e Azb operation in North Waziristan. This increased relocation was concentrated in Achin, Nazian and, to a lesser extent, Deh Bala and Kot districts. The weapons were transported by mules and spread in the above-mentioned districts, but also ferried as far as into Azra district in Logar. Huge amounts of these weapons were cached in Achin’s Mamand valley. According to the estimate of local residents, more than 30 mule loads of weapons arrived in Nangarhar from or through Tirah to Mamand alone, from (late) summer 2014 to June 2015. They cited the militants as stating that the weapons had been confiscated from the Pakistani army and would be used against it in future operations.

It took the local population several months to understand what their muhajer ‘guests’ were actually up to. In May 2015, they woke up to the fact that the guests had changed their own flags to those of the IS. The militants then turned Mamand, which had been the centre of the increased migration, into ISKP’s headquarters. The highly mountainous terrain, hard to conquer for outsiders but providing easy supply and exit routes to Tirah, was the perfect choice for the command centre of the new group, which had previously cached huge amounts of weapons transported from Tirah in Mamand’s Takhta and Kharawy areas. The castle of a tribal elder, Malek Niaz, who had long fed and sheltered some of these militants, virtually turned into ISKP’s command centre. The group’s leaders were widely reported to be staying in the valley, at least during the initial two months when they oversaw ISKP’s expansion into several districts. However, after the group’s meetings were targeted by drone strikes in early July 2015, they seem to have chosen a more mobile approach.

Mamandis (residents of the valley) remember ISKP’s initial rule from mid-May until early July 2015 as a period of great relief. They initially thought that ISKP was a pro-government force in a new garb and cited the group’s commanders as stating that “we are here to fight the ISI Emirate,” referring to the Afghan Taleban and their link to the Pakistani intelligence service. Their reaction to the ANSF made the new group of old fighters look even more benign to the residents who also cited the ISKP fighters as saying “we have nothing against government forces.” Members of the ANSF who had earlier gone home stealthily and fearing interception from the Taleban, started to roam freely in the area. Government schools remained open and their employees enjoyed free movement. Adding to ISKP’s perception as less troubling than the Taleban was the fact that it provided its own food and shelter. The Taleban, in contrast, would request – or take – it from the residents. The only major policy change that affected people’s lives was the ban on poppy cultivation and drug sales. An Afghan National Army soldier from Mamand told AAN: “We celebrated the coming of Daesh and the disappearance of the Taleban. We could come home and roam around without any fear of being stopped by Taleban.”

In early July 2015, however, things changed drastically and rapidly when a series of popular ‘uprisings’ against ISKP kicked off with the support of the Taleban, marking a shift in the Taleban’s approach towards its rival group, from passive resistance to head-on confrontation.

Facing the Taleban 

In the wake of open TTP factionalism following Hakimullah Mehsud’s death, the Afghan Taleban lost control over most of the Pakistani fighters who would make up the ISKP group. In 2013 and 2014, the Afghan Taleban had expelled, disarmed and banned some of the commanders and groups engaged in extortion (using the Afghan Taleban’s name) and other criminal activities. Despite these measures, the Afghan Taleban were not fully in control of the militant landscape in Nangarhar.

In addition, due to ideological and political differences, the Afghan Taleban had also earned the wrath of another segment of Pakistani militants, according to communiqués obtained from some of these militants as well as from Taleban sources. The Pakistanis would usually criticise the Afghans’ friendly relations with the Pakistani government, as well as their failure to declare the Afghan government (and its employees) apostates. At times, these differences turned violent. Objectors to the Afghan Taleban were not only found in Nangarhar. Sa’id Khan, (3) the TTP commander for Orakzai agency, who would later lead ISKP, was described by Afghan Taleban sources as being at odds with the movement based on what he considered to be the Taleban’s impure creed and lenient attitude towards the Afghan government. According to these sources, Sa’id Khan is a Salafi (trained in a local Salafi madrassa founded in the 1940s with Saudi support). They described him as having a past characterised by virulent sectarianism, as someone who, they said, was involved in attacks on Hanafi ulama in Orakzai when he was the TTP emir for that tribal agency. (4)

When IS in Syria and Iraq announced its caliphate in June 2014, followed by suspicious moves by the Pakistani militants in Nangarhar, the Afghan Taleban began watching them with added concern. The movement was aware that disgruntled militants, should they align themselves with the newly announced IS, could pose a threat to their dominance in the insurgency.

First clashes

Tensions between the ‘guest’ militants and the Afghan Taleban started in December 2014. The Taleban asked the guests to leave the area and close the madrassas where the muhajer children were being trained. They also confiscated a shipment of weapons in Mamand, consisting of six mules and reportedly worth five million Pakistani rupees (50,000 US dollars). A series of negotiations between the two sides kicked off, apparently from March to May 2015. The settlers refused to leave and, when fighting erupted in early 2015, the two sides irreversibly entered into open hostilities. At the same time, the Pakistani militants based in Nangarhar publicised their allegiance to IS.

The first clashes took place in Nazian district, triggered by an ambush by the guests-turned-ISKP fighters against the Afghan Taleban, killing two of their district chiefs. This incident was followed by Taleban attacks on ISKP in Kot and later in the Mamand valley. By mid-May 2015, the Afghan Taleban, being a minority in all three districts, quickly withdrew. ISKP forces went after the Taleban in Bati Kot, Chaparhar, Deh Bala, Khogyani, Sherzad, Pachir wa Agam, Rodat and Ghanikhel districts, capturing or heavily contesting most of their territory in the first five districts. By the end of June, ISKP was in a comfortable position in eight districts – and this represented the peak of the group’s territorial control.

Before the guest militants turned against the Taleban, the latter had kept a more balanced and optimistic outlook about global IS, with many Taleban seeing it as a defender of the Sunnis in Iraq and Syria. After the May encroachment by ISKP fighters on Taleban territory, the movement’s leadership opened communication channels with both the IS leadership in Syria and with ISKP leaders in the Afghan-Pakistani tribal belt. A number of messages were exchanged between the Taleban leadership and the IS centre in Raqqa through personal channels. At the local level, negotiations that had already started in early 2015 between the Taleban governor for Nangarhar, Mir Gul Ahmad Hashemi, and the ISKP governor, Sa’id Khan, resumed. The Taleban tried to convince IS to stay away from Afghanistan and leave it to lead the jihad in this country. Sa’id Khan, on the contrary, demanded that the Taleban movement disband itself and pledge allegiance to the caliphate. The negotiations failed.

On 11 June 2015, Hashemi was assassinated by ISKP in Peshawar. Four days later, the Taleban’s then-acting leader Akhtar Muhammad Mansur sent out a long, impassioned public letter to the IS Caliph Abu Bakr Baghdadi, asking him to either disown those fighting under the IS flag in Afghanistan or to join forces with the Taleban. The IS response came a week later, when its spokesman Abu Muhammad al-Adnani referred to the Taleban as allies of the Pakistani intelligence agencies and asked the movement to repent or face the wrath of the IS mujahedin. Subsequently, the Afghan Taleban’s ulama in Pakistan issued a fatwa allowing the movement’s fighters to act in self-defence against IS, according to Taleban sources. After securing agreements with local ulama and tribal elders, who vowed to support the Taleban’s drive and contribute fighting men if needed, the Taleban started their ‘defensive’ campaign against ISKP in the last week of June.

The Taleban’s counter-attack

The local Taleban fighters were joined by some of the movement’s new elite forces under brutal commanders from Loya Paktia and Loy Kandahar. Within two weeks, ISKP had lost most of its territory to the Taleban in the southwestern districts, such as Pachir wa Agam, Khogyani and Deh Bala as well as in Chaparhar, on the outskirts of Jalalabad. The Taleban also seized a huge ISKP cache of weapons in Deh Bala. The movement’s campaign in the southeastern districts, such as Achin, Kot, Bati Kot and Nazian, however, was less successful. While they managed to mobilise popular support in Achin and reportedly in Kot, and tried to clear these districts of ISKP, only limited or no gains were achieved. This proved disastrous for the population who had supported the Taleban, or were suspected by ISKP of having done so, at least in Achin and Kot. Mamandis recall how their cooperation with the Taleban against ISKP ended the one and a half month-long period of calm under the caliphate.

In early July 2015, Taleban fighters sneaked into Mamand and, during the night of 2 July, talked to their sympathisers about staging a coordinated attack against the ISKP fighters. They managed to secure the help of various tribal elders. One morning during Ramadan, on 3 July 2015, local men (including those not usually sympathetic to the Taleban) and Taleban rose up together against ISKP, with calls by the Taleban via the mosque’s loud-speakers for all men of fighting age to come out and participate, or face seeing their homes burnt down. Taken by surprise, the ISKP fighters retreated from most of Mamand valley by the end of that day.

However, less than a week after being evicted from Mamand, they struck back, suppressing the local population and forcing the Taleban to hide among the people. The ISKP fighters, having broken the Ramadan fast in the middle of the day, were at their cruellest, according to local residents. According to various residents AAN talked to, ISKP gave them ten minutes to leave their houses without taking anything with them. They killed around a dozen Taleban on the spot and detained 80 local men, both young and old. Eleven of the detained were blown up in a field by explosives planted underneath the blindfolded hostages. The scenes of the brutal killings, released in a propaganda film on 10 August (the killing actually happened on the eve of Eid, 16 July), was widely reported in the Afghan and international media and has since become the brand image of the ISKP.

Following the return of ISKP, according to a local Mamand resident, the majority of the villagers from the targeted upper parts of the valley left their homes, cattle and farms and relocated to Jalalabad or other safer areas. The militants confiscated vacant properties as ghanimat (bounty), and new fighters, arriving from Orakzai and Bajaur agencies, settled in these houses along with their families. It became impossible for pro-government people or ANSF members to return to the area. Schools were subsequently closed. ISKP’s previously tolerant stance towards the government was replaced by open hostility to anyone or anything representing the government.

In the following months (and until recently), clashes between the Taleban and the ISKP took up most of the energy that the two groups would otherwise have directed against the Afghan government. In the intense turf war, districts such as Pachir wa Agam, Chaparhar, Bati Kot and Deh Bala, changed hands three to four times. In captured territory, each of the parties resorted to diverse tactics of brutality and purges against their opponents. These included the burning of houses of people allegedly linked to the rival group, public executions of alleged enemy fighters and forcing sympathisers of the rival party to flee their homes.

However, the purging of conquered lands did not always result in the immediate control of those areas. In one instance, in Chaparhar, ISKP fighters, having masked their affiliations and hidden their weapons, remained under the Taleban’s control for months. They suddenly rose up and expelled the movement from most of the district in early December 2015. This coordinated move resembled a counter-uprising. The Taleban suffered a high number of casualties as they tried twice, in vain, to take back lost territory. Only when the movement mobilised elite forces from several provinces in early January 2016, did it manage to recapture Chaparhar.

The fight over Chaparhar reminded the Taleban of ISKP’s resilience and effective fighting ability and prompted it to take its rival more seriously. On 4 January 2016, after receiving a fatwa from the pro-Taleban Afghan ulama in favour of an offensive ‘jihad’ against ISKP, the Taleban mounted a large-scale operation, which involved units of the Taleban ‘elite forces’ dispatched from ten provinces plus Nangarhar, totalling over 3000 fighters. Within three days, they had routed the ISKP from Chaparhar and Bati Kot, restricting the group’s control to Achin, Deh Bala, Kot and the tiny district of Nazian.

ANSF join the fight against ISKP

While the fight over territory pitted ISKP against the Taleban, who had traditionally claimed control in the countryside (the government had long ceased to hold much sway beyond the district centres in the south of Nangarhar), skirmishes also took place between ISKP and the ANSF. However, two months elapsed after the ISKP had established dominance over large swaths of territory before the two sides started to engage in fighting on a regular basis. An exception to this virtual ceasefire was an attack by the police at a Kot checkpoint in early June 2015, which was reportedly unprompted by ISKP. The group lost two of its fighters in the clash, one of them reportedly executed by the police after being wounded. Later, when the two sides started to engage each other, ISKP was able to overrun the ANSF, but also Afghan Local Police and so-called uprising militias’ checkpoints in about 12 cases, killing at least four dozen members of pro-government forces, including a district police chief for Deh Bala in June 2016.

In all these cases, however, ISKP occupation of ANSF positions has been short-lived, serving only as immediate morale boosts. In the largest of ISKP´s efforts aimed at ANSF, the overrunning of about a half dozen posts in Kot in late June 2016, the group suffered a devastatingly high number of casualties resulting from US air strikes and face-to-face fighting. ISKP seems to have lost more than 50 of its fighters (although government sources claim five times that number).

More recently, Afghan government forces seem to have been engaged in their fiercest fighting against ISKP so far, again supported by US forces in Kot district and parts of Achin. This followed President Ghani ordering a decisive operation against the group to eliminate its threat and a visit of the defence minister to Nangarhar province in mid-July. The ANSF operations have, for the first time, overtaken ISKP’s fighting focus from the Taleban to the Afghan government.

The ANSF had been engaged in offensive operations against ISKP several times in Achin, Kot, Nazian and Bati Kot prior to these current operations. In the first two districts, previous operations have, a number of times, led to territory being retaken from ISKP. However, in other cases, the offensives have made no lasting gains, as some retaken territory was again recaptured by ISKP. The government has increasingly relied on so-called popular forces, ie militias raised by local power-brokers and run by the NDS. These forces have proved to be effective, at least in stopping ISKP from further advances. Lately, these local militias have become the prime targets of ISKP’s major attacks. In June 2016, ISKP and its ally Lashkar-e Islam carried out three suicide attacks against these militia commanders, corresponding to one third of all the suicide attacks that ISKP has carried out so far.