Afghanistan Analysts Network – English

War and Peace

ISKP’s Battle for Minds: What are its main messages and who do they attract?

Borhan Osman 18 min

The Islamic State Khorasan Province (ISKP) uses propaganda to carve out new space in Afghanistan and Pakistan’s already crowded jihadi landscape. It uses popular media and promotes a distinct narrative of Salafi-jihadism tailored to local preferences and focused on specific themes. In the first part of this dispatch, AAN’s Borhan Osman analyses the propaganda messages ISKP uses to try to recruit Afghans. In the second part, he takes a closer look at the impact these messages have on their target audience.

IS fighter distributes propaganda material to inhabitants of Kot district.IS fighter distributes propaganda material to inhabitants of Kot district. - - December 2016

In its previous dispatches on ISKP, AAN focused on its emergence as an insurgent group and franchise of the Iraq/Syria-based ‘Islamic State’ (Daesh) in Afghanistan, as well as adjacent parts of Pakistan; why Nangarhar became the locus of the group; and the strength of its Kabul cell that claimed three major attacks (one of them targeting a western embassy’s private guards and two others on Shia gatherings in the capital). With this, we have characterised a new ‘sender’ – the Islamic State Khorasan Province (ISKP) – in Afghanistan’s war theatre (and the wider region to which the ISKP refers as “Khorasan” (1)). This war, importantly, is also a propaganda war. In this part of our series on the ISKP, we turn to its message and the channels over which it is spread in an attempt to assess the impact it could have on its target audience.  

ISKP’s use of media

ISKP uses several media platforms to spread its propaganda. This includes through Afghanistan’s most popular medium, the radio (given the country’s high rates of illiteracy), as well as through social media, which is extremely popular among young Afghans. ISKP maintains an on-and-off FM radio station, Khilafat Ghag (Voice of the Caliphate), diffused throughout most of Nangarhar and parts of Kunar. It has issued dozens of short propaganda films, brochures and e-books and efficiently uses social media – Facebook, Twitter and Telegram – to publicise its statements and reach out to potential recruits. ISKP’s visual media products are professional and sophisticated, and its Dari and Pashto contents are often presented with Arabic subtitles.

From a close monitoring of these various media platforms between early 2015 and autumn 2016, a picture of an agile and deft media operation emerges. From a study of the full archive of Khilafat Ghag broadcasts, the group’s social media feed and its multimedia products, it becomes clear that ISKP has put far greater effort into its media activities than would normally be expected from a nascent group of its size.

ISKP is already outmatching the Taleban in terms of the quality and diversity of the media it employs, as well as the activeness of its loyalists in promoting the group’s message – especially taking into account the differing size of the two groups and their level of establishment in Afghanistan. ISKP is most notably ahead of the Taleban in its usage of FM radio and social media. ISKP employs a dedicated team of broadcasters and reporters who produce reporting on military advances and life under the caliphate that is engaging to its audience. The radio reporters interview fighters, talk to local residents and record reportages featuring life under the caliphate. The language used by the broadcasters is brisk, energetic and focused on attracting listeners and new recruits. Similarly, in their use of social media, ISKP loyalists are dedicated and give the appearance of a well-connected community, although it is not clear if this is centrally coordinated. The Taleban’s De Shariat Ghag (Voice of Sharia) Radio, that intermittently broadcasts throughout Paktika and Ghazni provinces, on the other hand, mainly plays tarane (Pashto plural for tarana, chants performed without instrumental accompaniment) and reads out articles that have been posted on its website.

The four main themes in ISKP’s propaganda

 ISKP’s propaganda – in the media platforms it uses – focuses on four over-arching themes: calling people to jihad, establishing and affirming itself as the only legitimate jihadi force in the region, projecting a transnational cause and casting rival militant groups and antipathetic religious actors as deviant.

Theme one: inciting people to jihad  

An important part of the group’s media content is dedicated to direct recruitment, in particular by calling people to join ISKP’s ranks. Radio channel Khilafat Ghag stresses the importance of the caliphate as an alternative form of the world order and emphasises religious obligation to establishing a caliphate through armed struggle. To invite people to experience jihad in its ranks, the radio channel often broadcasts the allegedly “jubilant feeling and the prideful environment” in which ISKP soldiers fight. During reports and interviews in the trenches of Nangarhar, the radio’s broadcasters have celebrated the fighters’ lives in the “prideful peaks of the Spin Ghar mountains.” ISKP has also made articulate appeals targeting specific professions, such as doctors, engineers and journalists. Radio and digital brochures, downloadable from the internet, contain stories of cheerful professionals serving in Syria and Iraq. ISKP has also released films of uniformed, apparently Afghan teenagers conducting military training, carrying ISKP flags and talking about bringing down the infidel rulers of the world. These youths then call on their cohorts, in Pashto and Dari, to join the global cause. ISKP’s romanticisation of living as one of its fighters is unparalleled in the jihadist media in Afghanistan.

An important sub-theme in ISKP’s recruitment appeals is its emphasis on the special status of Khorasan, as portrayed in the apocalyptic jihadi literature. ISKP ideologues constantly refer to apocalyptic narrations attributed to the Prophet Muhammad, which foretell a decisive victory for bearers of the black flag from Khorasan as the world moves towards the end of times. This portrayal fits well into the global IS’s play of the apocalyptic narrative, in which the group depicts itself as the flag-bearer of the righteous party in the final episodes of the sacred wars that will, in ISKP’s thinking, lead to a worldwide establishment of a caliphate. Having Khorasan in its name and operating in the region historically called Khorasan grants ISKP a symbolic significance that makes it stand out from other IS franchises. In its propaganda, ISKP thus portrays the land of Khorasan as a particularly blessed battlefield, a divinely rewarding and prized theatre of jihad. (2)

Theme two: claiming exclusive jihadi legitimacy

A significant part of ISKP’s messaging revolves around claims to exclusive legitimacy. It tries to project itself as the only genuine jihadi force in the Khorasan region, calling on other jihadi groups to dissolve and merge into it. ISKP frequently highlights the aspects of its organisation and ideology that, in its view, make it unique and “the true proprietor of jihad.” This includes an emphasis on Salafi-jihadism (3) and showing off its multinational elements.

The emphasis on Salafi-jihadism: ISKP, in its propaganda, takes pains to project itself as a follower of the global IS’s manhaj (literally: methodology, but in the Salafi usage it means the ultimate true and authentic understanding of Sharia) of Salafi-jihadism. ISKP members, in their discussions, social media feeds and radio interviews find a common language in the manhaj: they refer to themselves as mowahedin (monotheists, but used in an extremely narrow way, which denies the monotheism of non-Salafis) and followers of the pure manhaj. They also find a common language in the pursuit of their ultimate cause of establishing a caliphate and defeating all tawaghit (plural of taghut, which means one who rebelled against God’s rule or sovereignty, that, in the reading of the Salafi-jihadists, includes all incumbent governments and political systems). They frequently talk about al-wala wa al-bara (loyalty and disavowal), a principle in international, interpersonal, inter-social and interfaith relations made popular by medieval ulama and revived by modern Salafi-jihadist theologians. These theologians have redefined the concept of rendering the recognition of any type of friendly relations with non-Muslims and non-Muslim entities, or with ‘deviant’ Muslims, as nullifiers of faith. These concepts are now so ingrained in ISKP’s rhetoric and self-image that illiterate commanders, who most probably know very little about their theological meaning (but do know how to exploit them to justify violence), repeat them verbatim.

ISKP has also translated and published the main Salafi-jihadism works into Pashto, Dari and Urdu, in particular the works by early medieval Muslim theologian Ibn Taymiyyah and 18th century Muhammad ibn Abd al-Wahhab (4) ­– after which Wahhabism is named – on jihad, global relations and the Salafi creed. The translations are distributed digitally in the form of sleek brochures, and in print in Nangarhar, Kabul and Peshawar.

ISKP frames its struggle for the caliphate’s revival as the continuation, by inheritance, of the cause of the previous jihadists who fought in Afghanistan, from the anti-Soviet Afghan mujahedin, to the late Mullah Omar and Osama bin Laden. The latter two are mentioned with respect, while their organisations are described as having deviated after their death from the path they had envisioned.

To prove their commitment to the principles of Salafism beyond mere propaganda, ISKP fighters have intervened in traditional religious practices in areas under their control. They have levelled graves, destroyed saints’ shrines, and, in some instances, forced imams to pray according to the Salafi method. 

Theme three: projecting a borderless struggle

Entertaining transnational goals: ISKP, in the first instance, projects itself as the local representative of the Islamic State with a mandate to topple the taghuti regimes of the Khorasan region. It talks of “liberating” Afghanistan and Pakistan. But ideologues have also occasionally spoken about the group’s plans for other (historical) parts of the region. On Khilafat Ghag, members have mentioned Central Asian republics, such as Uzbekistan and Tajikistan, and have talked of fighting Russia and China and liberating East Turkistan, before joining other IS armies in toppling western super-powers.

Showing off foreign fighters to prove its multinational face: ISKP proudly talks of having members from various ethnic groups of Afghanistan as well as from other nationalities in its ranks. It projects the existence of these fighters as proof of it being unbound by modern borders and nationalities. While the majority of ISKP’s fighters are Pashtuns from Afghanistan and from Pakistan’s tribal areas, the presence of a minority made up of Afghans from other ethnic groups, non-Pashtun Pakistanis and Central Asians, is forcefully highlighted as evidence of a transnational, umma-wide face. Some propaganda films feature fighters who speak in heavily accented, non-native Dari (with Central Asian facial features), sometimes overseeing executions. Khilafat Ghag radio has given airtime to reporters who speak Dari in Herati, Badakhshani or Tajikistani accents, as well as those reporting in Urdu and Pashto. There are interviews with fighters who speak Pashai, a small language spoken in some parts of eastern Afghanistan. One Salafi sheikh who incites people to jihad in a Nuristani language, (5) has been a regular speaker on the radio. Epic jihadi anashid (Arabic for songs performed without instrumental accompaniment) are produced and broadcast in Uzbek, Punjabi and Arabic. On social media, ISKP activists have published pictures and names of “comrades and martyrs” described as being from Turkmenistan, Uzbekistan, Myanmar and Gilgit-Baltistan (in the north of Pakistan).

Theme four: discrediting rival jihadi and religious groups

Disclosing ‘aberrations’ of rival jihadi groups accounts for a substantial part of ISKP’s propaganda, as shaking the faith of rival groups’ supporters in their current organisations is an important means of persuading them to join ISKP. ISKP’s criticism of its rivals is conspicuously more prominent than its propaganda against its supposed main enemy, the government. This is particularly salient when compared to ‘IS Central’ in Syria and Iraq, which also dedicates a sizeable part of its propaganda to the criticism of rivals, but to a much lesser proportion. In its rhetorical war, ISKP has also directed its publicity against non-violent religious actors and has, in particular, tried to challenge the religious authority of ulama and Islamists opposed to the group’s ideology. These include the Pakistani political parties Jamiat-e Ulama-ye Islam and Jamaat-e Islami as well as the violently sectarian Salafi group, Jamaat-ud Dawah of Pakistan. Similarly, in Afghanistan, the group has lambasted leading Afghan Islamists who started their career in the anti-Soviet jihad era, such as Abdul Rab Rasul Sayyaf and the late Burhanuddin Rabbani, whom it mocked for having “sold out their jihad.”

Rejecting the Taleban for betraying Islamic principles: In its messaging, ISKP frequently castigates the actions, ideologies and policies of the Taleban. For example, on its radio and social media platforms, ISKP members have ranted about the Taleban’s “un-Islamic” attitudes towards the population in the areas they control. The movement’s tolerance of farmers cultivating opium, its recognition of adjudications of tribal councils and its subsistence on food from local residents are some of the ‘aberrances’ ISKP members in their propaganda frequently mention. The understandable aim of the criticism is to invalidate the jihad of its main rival group.

ISKP has also condemned the Taleban on the grounds of its relations and alliances with regional governments. The Taleban’s relations with the ‘rafidhi’ (literally: rejectionist, used in a derogatory manner for the Shia) Iran and with the ‘murtad’ (apostate) regime of Pakistan, are regularly repeated. The Taleban’s friendly relations with the ‘taghuti’ states of Central Asia, China and Russia and its maintaining of a political office in Qatar are rebuked as stances that have invalidated the Taleban’s claim to being a true jihadi organisation.

Additionally, ISKP’s propaganda makes references to the Taleban’s Deobandi creed, casting it as impure, superstitious and even idolatric. (6) ISKP uses these Taleban stances to argue the movement’s deviance from the Ahl us-Sunnah wa al-Jamaah (Sunni) manhaj, or path.

Casting the Taleban as nationalists: ISKP, with its emphatic highlighting of trans-nationalism, often depicts the Taleban as “filthy nationalists.” It criticises the movement for confining its armed struggle to Afghanistan’s borders, for its statements of non-intervention as part of its policy towards other countries and for its respect for international bodies such as the United Nations.

Declaring the Taleban infidels: While the official IS and ISKP literature often derogatorily uses the term “nationalist” to describe the Taleban as an essentially anti-caliphate force, their followers tend to be more ruthless. Through both radio and social media, they often rampantly declare individuals, communities and entities unsympathetic with their own group as “apostates” (their ideologues even wrote an e-book dedicated to a single argument: why those who fight IS(KP) are apostates). Foot soldiers have been particularly ruthless in declaring people murtadin (apostates) and mushrekin (idolaters) and have expressed the view that working with the government, even as teachers or doctors, can make people apostates. The Taleban do not escape this harsh judgement. In daily discussions or reporting and interviews on Khilafat Ghag, Taleban fighters are mentioned in the same breath as Afghan government forces, members of the arbaki or lashkar (both referring to the so-called public uprisings or local pro-government militias), the Pakistani army and even international forces, which are collectively described as murtadin (apostates). Takfir (declaring a Muslim an apostate) seems much more prevalent in Afghanistan and Pakistan’s ISKP than at ‘IS Central’ and it is done mainly on political grounds, such as when referring to friendly relations and alliances with, or getting help from, non-Muslims.

Vilifying ulama as courtiers: ISKP has also unleashed a vicious campaign of threats targeting different categories of vocal people in society, ranging from civil society organisations to the media, and from tribal elders to politicians and religious scholars. Ulama unsympathetic to ISKP have received a particularly large share of threatening messages. The virulent propaganda campaign is mainly carried out through Khilafat Ghag radio. It regularly runs programmes dedicated to the condemnation of pro-state ulama and vocal non-Salafi clerics. Those ulama have frequently been referred to as ‘darbari’ (courtiers) and ‘PRT ulama’, ie as having lost their independence and respect because they have been co-opted by the ruler and are allegedly being bankrolled by the international military. (7)

Radio broadcasters and ideologues issued threats in recorded sermons against the ulama, such as these: “The knives of the caliphate will soon reach your necks” and “You are under the surveillance of the caliphate’s alert eyes that monitor everything carefully.” According to the ISKP’s ideologues, the group has so far observed “self-restraint” against their opponents, but they could act in a far harsher and more brutal manner should ISKP’s antagonists continue their hostility against the group.

The appeal: who is lured by the propaganda?

ISKP’s media efforts seem tailored to local audiences and their preferences. By focusing their propaganda on the above-mentioned themes, ISKP targets different categories of potential recruits. In Khorasan’s ‘jihad-dense’ arena, many of those who are potentially – in ISKP’s eyes – amenable to joining the group are already in jihadi groups or following radical (but hitherto non-violent) trends (see author’s previous paper for more background).

There are certain categories of people who seem potentially receptive to the group’s appeal, each for their own reasons. These are the following:

Young men who are not yet in jihadist groups but who are receptive to the group’s romantic and apocalyptic appeal: To attract those who are not yet in jihadi groups but who may be interested, ISKP uses messaging that romanticises life as a mujahed and emphasises the religious obligation of jihad, playing up the symbolic significance of Khorasan’s past characterised by jihad. The claim of an apocalyptic prediction that victorious forces will rise from Khorasan is perhaps seen as the most important bait for potential recruits who would wish to be a part of this prophesised divine army. Throughout the Islamic period of history, there have been many movements in the region (which, historically, included parts of Iran), bearing black flags, trying to incite people to jihad and claiming to be the prophesised armies of God. ISKP is the latest iteration that has tried to project itself as the materialisation of that prophecy.

ISKP’s presenting of itself as the true and exclusive jihadi force by the virtue of its ‘pure’ ideology and manhaj, its stated strict adherence to the principles of jihad and its transnational vision and composition is meant to resonate both with hitherto non-violent radicals and with members of existing militant groups. The group’s grandiose talk about liberating the region’s countries seems aimed not only at strengthening the morale of its members, but also of luring more delusional radicals away from other groups, who may find the aims of their own groups too weak in comparison. Attempts to discredit the armed struggle of rival jihadi forces and the calls to shun the authority of religious leaders who preach against ISKP seem aimed at planting doubts in the minds of their (potential) followers. By calling into question the very raison d’être of their rivals, ISKP’s propaganda offers potential new recruits an ‘authentic’ alternative, in the form of a narrative to embrace and an organisation to join.

ISKP’s propaganda tactics are not without impact. There have been instances of educated youths who have joined the group after having been impressed by its public communiqués. AAN knows of several students in Nangarhar University who gave up their studies after having been regularly exposed to ISKP radio broadcasts and online publications (there may be more cases, as yet unknown). In Jalalabad, young men from various social backgrounds told AAN they were listening to Khilafat Ghag, some of them out of curiosity, others because they were genuinely interested in the new narrative of jihad. These included both students and professionals. In January 2016, a local TV channel interviewed a policeman in Jalalabad, who admitted that he found the radio sermons quite convincing and that they had made him question the wisdom of working for the government, instead of for ISKP.

ISKP’s adroit use of social media is not only paying off in urban centres, where there is easy access to the internet, but apparently also in prisons. People recently freed from Afghanistan’s largest prison, Pul-e Charkhi, told AAN that IS(KP) was being discussed among segments of the prison’s population as a favourite group to fight for in the future. There have been at least two verifiable cases of former Taleban who ideologically defected to ISKP while imprisoned in Pul-e Charkhi. One of them, Hujatullah Said from Paghman, was among the six Taleban fighters who were executed after being prosecuted by the Afghan government on 8 May 2016 for their involvement in “major attacks.” Said already had Salafi inclinations when fighting alongside the Taleban, but his allegiance to ISKP emerged while he was in prison. After his execution, ISKP sources claimed that he had defected to the group after reading their propaganda on the internet and interacting with them online. His postings on social media confirmed that. (Spending time on social media appears to be one of the main pastimes for many prisoners, who use smartphones that have been smuggled in to them by visitors and relatives.)

Local jihadists who view ISKP as a defiant brand: ISKP markets distinct ideas as the basis of its struggle, which are not found elsewhere among armed groups, especially in the Afghan sphere of jihad. The group’s rants against Pakistan – on which it is publicly much more outspoken than the Taleban – resonate with fighters (and with so-far non-violent radicals) who have deep grievances against Islamabad for helping the US ‘invade’ Afghanistan and hand over the Afghan Taleban and Arab jihadists to the Americans after 9/11. ISKP’s defiance against the governments of the region and their rejection of the current world order makes it potentially attractive to jihadists and extremists who seek a radical remapping of the world. This defiant stance particularly attracts fighters who are not happy with the Taleban’s close relations with Pakistan and Iran, or the movement’s ‘nationalism’. One reason cited in an interview on Khilafat Ghag by a former Taleb who defected to ISKP, was the fact that the Taleban movement was “in tandem” with the governments of Pakistan and Qatar. Another former, and higher-ranking Taleb, who first defected to al Qaeda and then to ISKP, sharply criticised the fact that the movement had grown too pragmatic in its relations with the tawaghit. In a memoir he published online, he said that after the disappearance of Mullah Omar, the Taleban had leapt towards nationalism at the cost of a borderless jihad.

Central Asian jihadists who view ISKP as an alternative to the ‘nationalist’ Taleban: The Taleban’s ‘nationalism’ seems, in particular, to have hit a nerve with some of the foreign fighters who have long fought in Afghanistan. A group of the Islamic Movement of Uzbekistan (IMU) with dozens of fighters who switched their allegiance from the Taleban to IS(KP) in 2015 in Zabul, justified their move by referring to the increasing disregard for the muhajer (guest/migrant) mujahedin, especially compared to the late 1990s, when Mullah Omar held the Central Asian (and Arab) fighters in high regard. (More than a hundred of these IMU-cum-ISKP fighters were killed by the Taleban in November 2015, while others made it safely to Nangarhar.) In letters and memoirs seen by AAN, IMU-turned-ISKP members, moreover, described the Taleban’s statements of non-interference in neighbouring countries as deeply disturbing. They pointed, in particular, to what it alleges are the movement’s covert relations with some Central Asian countries.

For these foreign jihadists, their distant future probably looks more promising with an ally that promises to break down borders, than one they fear may abandon them after victory or a political settlement (ie the Afghan Taleban).

The foreign jihadists, although proportionally small in numbers, are a dangerous contribution to the ISKP phenomenon. They are the fighters who have lived in the border areas between Afghanistan and Pakistan over the past decade and a half, and who seem to have gone through an evolution of ideologies and objectives, moving from a struggle to ‘liberate’ their countries of origin from their ‘infidel’ governments to a transnational jihad, as manifested by their recent publications. Now, when faced with the stark reality of being unable to ‘liberate’ anywhere, let alone establish a transnational caliphate in the near future, the aim for many of them has become more reckless and deadly: martyrdom in hijra (away from home), making them potential suicide bombers. In two instances, Uzbek fighters from ISKP blew themselves up to kill Afghan Taleban commanders. In Zabul, one of the fighters ended up killing his own comrades who were surrendering to the Taleban.(8)

‘Non-violent’ radicals who view ISKP as bringing a ‘clear vision’: So far, ISKP seems to have struck a chord not only among existing armed militants, but also with members of a new generation of, so far, non-violent extremists (see author’s previous paper for more background). With ISKP’s emergence, some of the hitherto non-armed radicals who wish to replace the incumbent government with a more radical Islamic version, appear to have discovered an address for their struggle. (See also earlier reporting by AAN on ISKP recruitment in Kabul).

Is ISKP’s ideology here to stay?

ISKP’s cause and methods continue to hold little appeal for most Afghans. Its ideology is largely alien to Afghan culture. Its traditional conceptions of Islam and propaganda often fall flat with its listeners and its brutal tactics are off-putting to most Afghans who are weary after decades of war. As a result, even among those who are attracted by (parts of) their messaging, there will often be a reluctance to join. But this does not necessarily mean the group will have no staying power. It can still try its luck within Afghan society by capitalising on the breakdown of traditional power structures (as described in an earlier piece). The erosion of communities’ resilience against intruders and predators means that even the most out-of-the-way trends may endure, as long as their proponents manage to muster a critical mass of committed followers.

While ISKP’s influence on the battlefield seems to be waning – at least for now – its ideological potential does not seem to be in a concordant state of decline. The Afghanistan-Pakistan region is dense with extremists of all sorts. Among this spectrum of radicals, there are those who feel that there is a void in the existing landscape of extremist groups, whether in terms of ideological purity, internationalist appeal or brutality. ISKP seeks to reach out to this segment of extremists by investing in its propaganda. ISKP’s ideology, for now, remains a fringe phenomenon, an outlier in extremism and brutality, even when compared to the dominant radical trends in Afghan Islamism and jihadism. While it has only been adopted by a small constituency, it is, however, a by-product of the build-up of extremist ideas over decades. In this sense, it is rooted in Afghanistan’s history and society. It will probably not go away that easily. The fact that IS(KP)’s message and deft use of propaganda has resonated with a part of the diverse spectrum of radicals means that ISKP’s ideological impact may well outlast its waning success on the battlefield.

Edited by Sari Kouvo, Martine van Bijlert and Thomas Ruttig




(1) Khorasan, originally, refers to the region which is now northeastern Iran, Afghanistan north of the Hindukush and parts of Central Asia, up to the Iaxartes River (Syr Darya), also known as Mawara an-Nahr, or Transoxiana. The use of the term has frequently been extended to all of Afghanistan and adjacent areas of Pakistan, as it is known today. ISKP, in its name, refers to this extended version.

(2) In fetishising Khorasan, ISKP builds on (or recycles) the literature of previous jihadist forces, which used to be based in or around Afghanistan. Perhaps, in the initial stage, it was the Arab fighters who had flocked to the Pakistani training camps to fight the Soviets in Afghanistan during the 1980s, who rediscovered the apocalyptic narrations about Khorasan. The Arabs, from which al-Qaeda later emerged, used these narrations and expanded them at great length. Later on as the Afghan jihad ended, these fighters disseminated their memories of Afghanistan with nostalgic depictions of the life, terrain and people, adding another layer of literature that romanticised the Afghan jihad-field. Their portrayal of the land of Afghanistan made many Middle Eastern jihadists who had missed the earlier Afghan experience of jihad yearn to fight there, before Iraq and other destinations close to their homes emerged as more urgent hot spots of jihad. ISKP is now building on precisely those layers of literature to propagate the value of the struggle for the caliphate from Khorasan.

(3) Salafi-Jihadism, as described by Shadi Hamid, an expert of modern Islamism at the Brookings Institution, is an approach to jihadism that is coupled with an adherence to Salafism. Salafi-jihadists tend to emphasize the military exploits of the Salaf (the early generations of Muslims) to give their violence an even more immediate divine imperative. Most jihadist groups today can be classified as Salafi-jihadists, including al-Qaeda and ISIS. Given their exclusivist view that their approach to Islam is the only authentic one, Salafi-jihadists often justify violence against other Muslims, including non-combatants, by recourse to takfir, or the excommunication of fellow Muslims. For these groups, if Muslims have been deemed to be apostates, then violence against them is licit. Only a minority of Salafis are Salafi-jihadists, according to Hamid.

(4) Ibn Taymiyyah (1263 – 1328) was a controversial theologian and jurisprudence-practitioner who lived during the Crusade wars. Among medieval Muslim clerics, his views are some of the most extreme on takfir and jihad, with takfir targeting Muslims and jihad being waged against non-Muslims or rulers found to be not up to Islamic laws. Ibn Taymiyyah’s works slid into obscurity after this period, but were reinvigorated during the rise of jihadism in the second half of the 20th century.

Muhammad ibn Abd al-Wahhab (1703 – 1792) is the founder of modern Salafism. He echoed and revived some of the medieval theology and law, but also added his own views. He is considered the theological founding father of the modern state of Saudi Arabia. His views, as those of Ibn Taymiyyah, are most extreme when it comes to takfir and his works have been used as a source by modern ultra-sectarian Sunni groups to declare Shias and Sufis, and some traditionalist Muslims, as non-Muslims. Wahhab, from which the (derogatory) label Wahhabism is derived, and Ibn Taymiyyah are at the core of the current Salafi-jihadism movement’s discourse, with Wahhab mostly inspiring the theology, and Ibn Taymiyyah embodying the jihadist scholar.

(5) Nuristani is actually a group of several languages spoken by small groups of people in eastern Afghanistan and adjacent areas of Pakistan.

(6) The Taleban, in their theology and interpretation of Islamic law, follow the dominant scholastic tradition of South Asia rooted in the Darul Uloom Deoband, which is situated in India’s Uttar Pradesh and founded in 1867. In theology, Deobandism follows the Maturidi school and, in Islamic law, they are strong proponents of the doctrine of taqlid, ie strict adherence to one of the four schools (madhhabs) of Sunni jurisprudence, which is predominantly the Hanafi madhhab in the context of South Asia and Afghanistan. Deobandism generally discourages inter-school eclecticism. While essentially a legal-theological tradition, Deobandism has also integrated Sufism as a strong element of the school. It is usually this Sufi element, but also the strict adherence to interpretations of Hanafi scholars, that sectarian Salafis, and in this case ISKP, attacks as impure.

(7) PRTs (Provincial Reconstruction Teams) were made up of civilian and military teams that coordinated and sometimes implemented projects as part of a stabilisation and counterinsurgency effort, until the drawdown of the international forces in late 2014. They often worked with and through religious figures, in an attempt to avoid these projects being labelled as ‘un-Islamic’ by the insurgents.

(8) The two attacks were reported by the media, but without much detail. The attack against a senior Taleban commander in Zabul in November 2015 was reported to have killed the commander. However, according to local sources and Taleban members, the Uzbek suicide bomber ended up killing his own comrades who had gathered at the commander’s base, for surrendering themselves. Another Uzbek bomber blew himself up in Nangarhar in February 2016. The bomber was identified by both Taleban and ISKP sources as an Uzbek formerly affiliated with IMU.