Afghanistan Analysts Network – English

War and Peace

Another ISKP leader “dead”: Where is the group headed after losing so many amirs?

Borhan Osman 9 min

The US military has announced that it has killed Abu Saeed, the amir of Islamic State Khorasan Province (ISKP), in an air strike in Kunar province earlier this month. Abu Saeed was a veteran fighter with a long militant career. His death – if confirmed – deals a considerable blow to the group, which is under growing pressure from the different enemies lined up against it. Nonetheless, it has continued to be able to put up stiff resistance and has clung to most of the territory it has taken from the Taleban in Nangarhar. AAN’s Borhan Osman looks at the state of the ISKP after the reported death of its new leader.

A photo released by the ISKP from the Tora Bora Mountains.A photo released by the ISKP from the Tora Bora Mountains. July 2017

ISKP had not yet recovered from the death in May 2017 of its second leader, Sheikh Abdul Hasib, when his replacement, Abu Saeed, was killed on 11 July 2017, according to the US Department of Defence. The Pentagon statement, issued on 14 July, said Abu Saeed was killed three days earlier in Kunar in a drone strike. Independent sources from the province told AAN the air strike took place in the Katar area of Watapur district, which borders Nuristan province. Two other ISKP militants were also killed in the attack. However, according to a local journalist, relatives of one of the victims told him no senior ISKP members were among those killed. While the group has not commented publicly on the reports of Abu Saeed’s death, ISKP sources have also rejected it; AAN knows from three ISKP sources that they denied these reports categorically.

 Abu Saeed: A brief profile

Abu Saeed, nom de guerre for Mawlawi Abdul Rahman Ghaleb, is (or was) in his (early?) 40s, from Bajaur agency, one of Pakistan’s Federally Administrated Tribal Areas (FATA) that borders Kunar. Unlike most other ISKP commanders, Abu Saeed is (or was) a veteran with a career of more than half of a decade in militancy. He steadily rose through the ranks of at least three militant groups, constantly evolving his affiliation to the latest ‘version’ of the most violent extremist strands. In his late teens, he left his local madrasa, studies unfinished, to join one of the earliest armed Islamist groups operating in the tribal areas, Tahrik-e Nefaz-e Shariat-e Muhammadi (TNSM), which was created in the early 1990s, struggled for the implementation of Islamic law in Swat, Malakand and Bajaur and even took over parts of Pakistan’s Malakand Division for several days in 1994. After the US started its military campaign in Afghanistan in late 2001, TNSM contributed fighters to support the Afghan Taleban. Abdul Rahman aka Abu Saeed was reportedly among them. After the fall of the Taleban regime, he returned to Bajaur to complete his studies and became a mawlawi (someone certified as a religious scholar upon graduating from a madrasa).

Abu Saeed remained close with Faqir Muhammad, one of the TNSM leaders, and was promoted to serve as a judge (qazi) for the group. When Faqir joined the Tahrik-e Taleban-e Pakistan (TTP) upon its emergence in 2007, Abdul Rahman followed suit. He rose through its ranks to become the deputy to the movement’s commander for Bajaur around 2011. In 2012, he was reportedly killed in an air strike by the US military in Marawara district of Kunar, which killed the Bajaur commander, Dadullah. He remained close to Dadullah’s successor Abu Bakr. When the latter joined ISKP in February 2015 along with his key commanders as well as about 200 fighters, Abu Saeed also followed. Abu Saeed studied in a Hanafi madrasa and had remained Hanafi, but when joining ISKP he, like most others who do so, converted to Salafism.

After the death of ISKP’s first amir, Saeed Khan, in late August 2016, Abu Saeed served as the group’s amir for Nangarhar, according to one account based on ISKP sources. According to another account, he was appointed as a deputy to Abdul Hasib.

Abu Saeed and ISKP’s Bajauri commanders, in general, have mostly used the upper Kunar valley as their base, both when they were part of TTP and later. Specifically, many of the commanders kept a constant presence in Sholtan valley which borders Bajaur. The population of the valley, like the population of the districts under ISKP’s influence in Nangarhar, almost entirely belong to the Pashtun tribe of the Shinwari. When Abu Saeed took over the leadership of ISKP, he reportedly wanted to increase the group’s operations and visibility in Kunar; the area was mostly familiar to him and it was also important for him in order to connect to his home base of Bajaur. Among the tribal (FATA) agencies, Bajaur has seen the most ISKP activity, thanks to the Bajauri commanders’ commitment to extend operations to their home areas. Given Abu Saeed’s traditional base in Kunar, it is not surprising that the air strike on 11 July 2017 targeted him in that area.

Being a veteran militant and mawlawi as well as having served as a militant judge plus being experienced as a deputy chief commander for one of the most important TTP strongholds supplied him with both ideological clout and strategic know-how. As a sign of respect for his scholarly credentials, he was referred to as “Sheikh” Abu Saeed among ISKP members. In one of the interviews aired by ISKP’s Khilafat Ghag Radio in early April, he seemed to be posing as an ideologue, vowing that ISKP’s jihad will continue “until conquering the United States and converting its citizens to tawhid (oneness of God as perceived by Islam, but narrowed to a sectarian concept by the Salafis).” All that made him a good fit for the job of ISKP amir – and possibly a more effective leader than his predecessor, Abdul Hasib.

How was he appointed?

Abu Saeed became the amir of ISKP less than three weeks before his reported death. His appointment took more than one month, after the death of Abdul Hasib in late April 2017 (see AAN analysis here), as members differed over several candidates for Hasib’s replacement proposed by senior ISKP members. The Central Asian fighters, generally suspicious of many former TTP fighters for their possible secret ties with the Pakistani government, objected to the nomination of candidates with that background. At the heart of the dispute was Abdullah Orakzai, aka Aslam Faruqi, a former mid-level TTP commander from Orakzai agency, who has been close to the first ISKP leader, Saeed Khan. The Central Asian contingent, which possibly constitutes less than a third of ISKP’s fighting force, presented its own candidate, Muawiya Khorasani, a nom de guerre not heard before; he is thought to be from Uzbekistan.

Since the Central Asians objected to all the candidates with TTP background, and in effect wanted leadership for themselves, ISKP reached a deadlock over appointing a new amir. According to one source close to ISKP, the issue was referred to IS Centre (In Syria or Iraq), with a request to guide ISKP with a mechanism for the appointment. From there then an order came to elect a 40-member shura to make such appointments who, then, would be finally confirmed from IS Centre. This is a single source, and AAN could not corroborate it through other reliable accounts. The shura agreed over Abu Saeed as a compromise candidate, and he was then quickly endorsed by IS Centre, according to the source.

The state of ISKP’s influence in Nangarhar

For the past one and a half months, ISKP has been engaged in intense battles, some of which have been on and off, in three districts of Nangarhar: Achin, Deh Bala and Pachir wa Agam. The fiercest fighting has happened in Achin district, the centre of a concentrated ground operation by Afghan National Security Forces (ANSF) accompanied by intensified air strikes and supported by the US military. The operation has focused on Pekha and Mamand valleys, in both of which the joint forces have faced heavy resistance from ISKP. The offensive has not forced the group to yield much territory. The progress of the joint forces has been described by local officials and residents as happening at a snail’s pace. ISKP has also put up similar resistance in Deh Bala district, which previously had been largely spared from ground offensives (also from air strikes). Most of the territory in this district under the control of ISKP has remained so for the past two years. The joint forces in June penetrated deep into that territory for the first time and even managed to briefly hold parts of Oghuz and Gurgury, the two areas that have served as the centre for the group in the district. But later, the combined forces retreated from these areas apparently due to tough resistance from the group. The US military suffered two casualties in the operation in the district on 7 July.

Pachir wa Agam district, with the Tora Bora mountains and its cave complexes, was the focus first of an ISKP offensive and later of a counter-offensive by the joint forces. ISKP had extended its presence to Tora Bora in mid-June after defeating the Taleban along the way from Deh Bala. Given the symbolic importance of Tora Bora, which has remained the strategic hideout (and launch pad for attacks) for the anti-Soviet mujahedin and later for Arabs from al Qaeda, including its leader Osama bin Laden, the ANSF moved quickly to contain ISKP’s advance. Within days of ISKP’s move into Tora Bora, the ministry of defence announced that the ANSF had cleared the strategic area of ISKP. However, the operation only took back the parts of Tora Bora that are closer to populated areas; the bulk of the most important valley, the uninhabitable Milawa valley, still remains under ISKP control.

Government officials and media reports portrayed Tora Bora as one re-enforced stronghold, similar to the network of caves that the “mother of all bombs” (see AAN analysis here) airstrike (mostly) destroyed in Achin. However, Tora Bora is a much larger area, a series of valleys surrounded by mountain ranges, and the place where bin Laden’s fortress was built is not the most important part of it. The joint forces have been trying hard in recent weeks to lay siege to the ISKP fighters inside those valleys, but have faced tough resistance. ISKP seems to be tucked away in a remote and naturally uninhabitable point in Tora Bora that is a several-hour foot journey from its last supply point in Deh Bala. Therefore, ISKP will also be unable to retain it for any length of time. For the time being, the group might keep a mere presence there to use it as a hideout and to show off that it controls a place of such huge symbolism.

In Chaparhar district, where ISKP fighters have only intermittent control over parts of the district close to Deh Bala, the group has been engaged in fierce fighting with the Taleban. The Taleban have never been able to fully clear the district of ISKP. Major parts of it to the south have changed hands between the two groups numerous times, with huge suffering inflicted on locals. Every time following a takeover, the victorious group will conduct a witch hunt against suspected or actual supporters of the rival group.

Nazian, the district in Nangarhar where ISKP’s close ally Lashkar-e Islam led by Mangal Bagh is present, has largely been spared from military operations and fighting for a long time.

Pakistani operations against ISKP: Eliminating militants? Or pushing them into Afghanistan?

ISKP is also facing the threat of losing its most important retreat and supply centre on the Pakistani side of the Durand Line. Its Khyber 4 Operation launched on 16 July 2017, the Pakistani army says (see here and here), aims at preventing ISKP from spreading its influence into Pakistani territory. In fact the operation is about clearing those parts of Khyber agency still out of the government’s full control of militants. The operation is said to be specifically targeting the Rajgal valley in the Khyber agency. Rajgal, which borders Achin and Nazian districts on the Afghan side, has remained a constant hideout of various militant groups for over a decade. Through the valley, ISKP militants have been freely crossing the line with supplies of weapons and fighters, effectively eliminating the border between the two countries. Numerous sources told AAN that ISKP transported ammunition into Nangarhar from Khyber agency on backs of mules. It also gives access to vast areas in other valleys in Khyber.

Previous operations by the Pakistani military, namely the Khyber 3 Operation, that targeted militants in the agency, failed to displace them from Rajgal valley. Capturing the valley would deny ISKP a key strategic retreat and supply route.

On the other hand, if successful, the operation in Rajgal would most likely sweep the militants currently based there into Afghanistan. They would then swell the ranks of the militant groups operating here, particularly ISKP and its ally Lashkar-e Islam. The Pakistani army’s previous operations in the Khyber agency had a similar effect: Rather than being killed and captured, militants were mostly dislocated from their old bases and pushed into Afghanistan. They could easily cross the unmanned porous border in the districts of Nazian and Achin. Additionally, if the Pakistani military manages to clear Rajgal valley, the militants will still have access to Khyber agency through the adjacent Tirah valley, which borders the ISKP-controlled Deh Bala district; although that is a much longer route with harder terrain. Rajgal is not the only valley still out of the Pakistani government’s control; parts of Tirah continue to serve as hideouts for militant groups.

Decapitated, but not demoralised

The death of veteran ISKP leader Abu Saeed, if confirmed, would deal a significant blow to the embattled group. The ‘decapitation’ of ISKP has been well underway over the past two years as the US military has stepped up its military campaign, mainly through air strikes, against the group in Nangarhar. It has lost about 20 of its founding and some of its ‘second-generation’ leaders, the overwhelming majority by air strikes. ISKP is also too overstretched to fight front-line battles in three districts simultaneously for long. The Pakistani operation further adds to the group’s woes, as losing one of its key retreats and supply hubs would tighten the siege around the group in Afghanistan. The group is also facing emerging internal differences, mainly between the more radical Central Asian fighters and the locally better entrenched and therefore more powerful Pakistani leaders.

In the face of all these threats, ISKP has shown it is resilient. Recruits continue to pour in to Nangarhar from various provinces of Afghanistan as well as from Pakistan. No signs are visible yet that its appeal to some radicalised sectors is fading. Additionally, local residents describe the group’s fighting vigour as exceeding that of any militant group they have seen previously. The group can be expected to put all its efforts into holding out against ANSF and US forces to retain its most important stronghold in Nangarhar. ISKP might be less smart than the Taleban in protecting its leaders, but it has proved to be a much tougher fighting force than many could anticipate.