War & Peace

Messages in Chalk: ‘Islamic State’ haunting Afghanistan?


Pro-IS/Daesh slogan on a wall at Kabul University. Photo from social media.

Pro-IS/Daesh slogan on a wall at Kabul University. Photo from social media.

Rumours of the presence of Islamic State (IS) elements in Afghanistan have repeatedly made it into the media over recent months, sparking public debate and adding to the anxiety about what course the insurgency might take. AAN researcher Borhan Osman says that IS has support among limited numbers of Afghan radical youth – although even here, it is on social media rather than ‘the battlefield.’ He has also identified what he thinks is the first group of Afghans joining the fight on the side of IS in Iraq (they were recruited from refugee camps in Pakistan). However, he warns there is no solid evidence for the presence of IS inside Afghanistan and media reports have overblown its influence.

Over the past few months, the Iraq and Syria-based Islamic State (IS) (1) has been making inroads in media-reporting, at least, in Afghanistan. In July, Reuters, reporting from Waziristan, said that “some Taliban, including some of the younger commanders were enthusiastic about ISIS… eagerly debat[ing] the new movement,” although it did not specify whether these were Afghan or Pakistani Taleban or both. In September, the BBC managed to find a Hezb-e Islami commander in Baghlan province who said he was considering joining the IS. This was followed by reports about the distribution of pro-IS pamphlets in Afghanistan and Pakistan and the release of taped messages of allegiance to the group by “local militants in parts of Pakistan and Afghanistan” (also here).

Looking at these reports, they mostly rely on statements by Afghan officials or propaganda material distributed by self-proclaimed militant groups as the primary sources (for example here  and here). The impression given is of a desire, on the part of some officials and media outlets to portray the group as emerging in Afghanistan. In an attempt to discern fact from fiction, AAN has taken a closer look at some of the incidents linked to IS ‘emergence’ and at other relevant developments which have not made it into the public sphere.

IS spotting in Afghanistan: some cases

1) Peshawar-based Salafi Afghan sheikhs – and one group goes to Iraq

In early July 2014, within a week of Abu Bakr al Baghdadi’s proclamation of himself as the Islamic world’s caliph (khalifa), two Afghan Salafi clerics, who live in Pakistan but with, at least, potential influence inside Afghanistan, announced their allegiance to IS. They are Abdul Qahir Khorasani, born in Kunar, and Abdul Rahim Muslimdost, born in Nangarhar. Ideologically, both can be described as Salafi jihadists.

Muslimdost was one of the stalwarts of the Salafi mujahedin front under Mawlawi Jamil-ur-Rahman in Kunar during the anti-Soviet jihad. He has never held an official position among the Afghan Taleban, but has aligned recently with Pakistani Taleban. During the Taleban’s Emirate, he was working with some Saudi-funded aid agencies, later establishing a jewellery business. He was detained in Pakistan in late 2001 and sent, along with his brother, to the Guantanamo detention camp for about four years. More recently, he has tilted towards some Pakistani Taleban groups and reportedly acted as a judge for them, but he has little standing among the Afghan Taleban. He has authored dozens of books about Sharia teachings, politics and poetry and is best known to his potential target audience for his Guantanamo memoir, published in Pashto under the title Matī Zawlanē (Broken Shackles). He now serves as a nexus for recruiting Afghan refugees in Pakistan and sending them to fight alongside IS in Iraq and Syria.

Pakistani media have now reported, quoting “well-informed sources in the security establishment”, that Muslimdost had been appointed the chief of IS’s  “Khorasan chapter”.

AAN has been told about one group of 50 Afghans recruited under Muslimdost’s supervision from refugee camps near Peshawar who have travelled to Iraq to join the IS fight. Their inspiration and recruitment both happened outside of Afghanistan. This fits with other cases of diaspora Afghans, both Sunni and Shia who have been recruited to fight the war in Syria. However, it is not clear exactly from which camps these people came nor on which route they went to Iraq. AAN was told that some members of the group were killed in air strikes in Iraq around late September. Their ‘funeral’ services (no bodies were recovered) were held by Muslimdost and his group in Peshawar. Relatives of the dead who live in Afghanistan also had to go to Peshawar to offer their fatiha and dua prayers. The recruits were overwhelmingly Salafis, mostly originally from Nangrahar and Kunar. A source who attended the funeral in Peshawar of two of the dead fighters who said they were originally from Chaparhar district said Muslimdost used the fatiha gatherings to incite more people to join the jihad in Iraq and Syria, but did not speak of jihad in Afghanistan.

Khorasani is a more radical Salafi-jihadist scholar, although less known than Muslimdost. He has also written a number of books, most of them reaffirming Salafi-jihadist interpretations of Sharia. His books, and his fatwas, which are available online, consider all Muslim states as murtad (apostate) and those working with them as legitimate targets who can be killed. Khorasani has written a booklet titled the Criterion on Virtues of Fighting Pakistan and his statements and books are published by his own jihadist media production agency, Abtal ul-Islam (Heroes of Islam). The agency has been active in the jihadist media sphere since at least 2012, issuing video, audio and text materials mostly in Pashto, but also in Arabic, Urdu and Dari. Many products, including the earliest productions, endorse the Pakistani Taleban’s fight against the state.

Khorasani’s statement of allegiance to the IS caliph Abu Bakr al-Baghdai was published through Abtal ul-Islam as a video message on 4 July this year. A masked man, introduced in as Abu Dujana al-Afghani and acting as Khorasani’s spokesman, reads the message in eloquent Arabic. Muslimdost’s video message was published by an obscure media house, an-Nidal, and read by himself, again in Arabic.

However, Khorasani and Muslimdost are staunchly against the Pakistan state and prioritise carrying out ‘jihad’ there over doing so in Afghanistan and other places. For Muslimdost, his bitterness against Pakistan stems from that country’s intelligence services helping the Americans arrest him in November 2001 and detaining him once more in 2006. It is not known, however, what exactly makes Khorasani so hostile to Pakistan. Neither of the two men has been involved in insurgent activities in Afghanistan. The two also share a takfiri view of Shias as apostates (murtads) who can be ‘excommunicated’ and killed. With these characteristics, they may have the potential of galvanising some young Salafi jihadists inside Afghanistan – although there is no evidence that this has happened yet.

2) Pro-IS videos and pamphlets

In late July, during the Eid ul-Fitr holidays, pro-IS CDs in Dari were distributed in western Kabul, near Company bazaar, in a mosque which is known as the hub of Kabul’s Salafis by unknown young men at the end of the crowded Eid prayer. They contained bomb-making instructions and articles on the virtues of jihad, as well as an introduction to IS and a condemnation of the Muslim Brotherhood for their nonviolent approach. This was probably the first IS propaganda inside Afghanistan, but went unreported by officials and media.

On 14 September, according to local journalists speaking to AAN, a pamphlet in Dari and Pashto was distributed in Peshawar, including in some Afghan refugee camps, calling for support for IS. In Afghanistan, security officials said the same publication was distributed in Jalalabad and Kabul, but this has not been confirmed independently. The pamphlet is called Fatah (Victory) and introduces the publisher as Markaz ar-Rayat as-Sud li ad-Dawah wa al-Jihad min Jibal-e Khurasan (Arabic for: The Centre of Black Flags for Dawah and Jihad from the Khurasan Mountains); in the text, also a shorter version appears, Markaz ar-Rayat as-Sud Khurasan (Centre of the Khurasan Black Flag).

There is no information available about a centre under this name, although the pamphlet claims it has existed for the past 15 years. (2) This pamphlet might be a crude propaganda effort by some IS sympathisers in Peshawar, where it first emerged, and could have nothing to do with any organised entity. It is not justifiable to conclude from such a limited and low quality propaganda effort that IS is making inroads in Afghanistan and Pakistan, as, for example, the Pakistani Express Tribune and the Foreign Policy article did.

3) The Ajristan incident

A more interesting case, which among all the developments linked to IS has raised the most eyebrows, nationally and internationally, was a Taleban attack on Afghan Local Police (ALP) outposts and the district centre of Ajristan district, some 200 kilometres southwest of Ghazni city, on 25/26 September 2014. Officials and MPs from Ghazni stated that the attack represented IS activities on the ground. They talked of extreme brutality involving scores of people killed, including the beheading of 15 people, and the burning of 80 houses (see for example here and here). The officials interpreted this level of (reported) brutality as a sign of IS involvement. They also said the attackers had raised black flags and masked their faces. (3) The official narrative was repeated as fact in some reports, with no hint of doubt; the NBC, for example, called the attackers “Militants aligned with ISIS.”

The Taleban had indeed launched an attack on Muhammadkhel village on 25 September, one of several villages controlled by a 50-strong ALP force; they overran some of the ALP posts and killed several ALP members, as well as a tribal elder named Abdullah Shah who was reportedly the patron of this ALP unit. They also captured several ALP members and set fire to a few homes belonging to ALP members and their supporters. The village is located about five kilometres from the district centre, Sangar, which was assumed to be the next target and had already been captured twice by the Taleban over the past six years.

But it turned out that the Ajristan incident had been enormously exaggerated. The scope of brutality had been blown out of all proportion in order to send an ‘SOS message’ over the imminent fall to the Taleban of the district centre. None of the sources interviewed by AAN afterwards mentioned anything like a hundred people having been killed or anyone having been beheaded. Even government officials, including provincial governor Musa Khan Akbarzada subsequently toned down the casualty figures. He told a BBC Pashto journalist, who spoke to AAN, a few days later the number of the killed did not exceed a dozen at most.

The fighting in Ajristan had been dramatized by a few local officials, chiefly deputy governor Muhammad Ali Ahmadi and the head of the provincial council, Abdul Jami Jami. The two, according to other government sources who spoke to AAN, were acting on the instructions of the Ghazni police chief, Zerawar Zahid, who had wanted to cover up a failed military adventure. Last year, he had tried in vain to relieve the Ajristan district centre, seeking to get there by land with a high number of forces. It had resulted in a large number of casualties among the security forces. In September, after the Taleban attack on Muhammadkhel, he started another attempt along the precariously insecure and mountainous road to Ajristan. In order not to spark the outrage of the ministries of interior and defence again, according to sources in the Ghazni administration, he chose to overplay the situation in Ajiristan and had Kabul parachuting Quick Reaction Forces into the district while international forces provided air support. The Afghan forces participating in the operation were able to repel the Taleban from areas close to the district centre. After the dust settled, not only Governor Akbarzada toned down the saga, but the international forces also denied the exaggerated version of incidents in Ajristan. IS had been nowhere to be seen.

What subsequently emerged was that the provincial authorities, afraid of the truth leaking out to the media, had also detained all residents of Ajristan they could identify in the provincial capital Ghazni for over 24 hours in the wake of the official statements. After being freed, they did not dare to talk to the media or researchers about what had actually happened in the district.

4) Writing on walls in Kabul

In October, two smaller IS-related incidents were registered in Afghanistan. Someone wrote a pro-IS slogan on the outer wall of the Kabul University (the girls’ dormitory) in chalk in mid-October, saying “Zendabad Daesh” (Long Live IS). This attracted the attention of students and the media and apparently triggered a search operation by the police for IS supporters in the capital. But nothing is known about who wrote the slogan and why. If it was the act of someone who identifies with IS, that person(s), the use of the Daesh acronym showed a shallow knowledge of the organisation, given the term is pejorative.

More recently, a video posted on Youtube on October 19 by Arab jihadist social media activists featuring a black-masked man introducing himself as Abu Bakr al-Balkhi (his last name implying an Afghan origin) and claiming to be a Taleban commander of 5,000 fighters. He announced his defection from the Taleban, along with his men, due to what he called “some symbolic problems” in the movement, but provided no explanation of what this meant. While the man’s unpolished Afghan accented Arabic showed he is indeed an Afghan, other parts of the video failed to provide any proof of his claims. Indeed, Afghan jihadist social media activists who are active in the Arabic Twitter-sphere quickly cast doubt on the authenticity of the tape, pointing out that the video was a montage of various earlier Taleban videos and that there was no commander among the Taleban with so many fighters called Abu Bakr. This quickly deflated the story which, consequently, did not make it into the news headlines.

IS more in the media than on the ground

The incidents detailed above are the results of AAN scouring whatever IS-related incidents have been reported or claims that we subsequently found out about independently. They actually amount to very little indeed. The search for IS has led to finding it where it does not exist. The BBC, for example, found one former Hezbi commander among the many thousands in Afghanistan who said he might join IS; this really was not a news story.

Or there is mistaken reporting. Some protesting university students in Kabul in late October, angered about what they believed was a blasphemous article in a local newspaper, carried black flags – reported as proof of IS representation among the demonstrators. The flags, however, were those of Hizb ut-Tahrir, a banned pan-Islamist organisation which has established an assertive presence on Afghan campuses, but is completely unrelated to IS. (On previous instances of the organisation’s student activism, see AAN reporting here and here). Chalked slogans and anonymous pamphlets are also no proof of an actual IS presence. Unquestioning reliance by media on official sources only – as in the Ajiristan incident – can also easily lead to misreporting.

Afghanistan has seen earlier examples of new or even bogus groups intent on using a media presence to raise their profiles: Jaish-ul-Muslimin led by Akbar Agha in 2004 used the kidnapping of three foreign UN workers to launch themselves as a Taleban splinter group (they later joined the mainstream Taleban again and Agha ended up in Pul-e Charkhi before being pardoned by Karzai; Fedai Mahaz, the group that popped up to claim the murder of Swedish Journalist Nils Horner last March in Kabul – and has not undertaken much activity since (read here about both the groups); and Junud al-Fida, a reported Baloch jihadi group, which claims in propaganda material to be operating in southern Afghanistan.

Media reports of IS can themselves create people’s perceptions of an IS threat. For example, when the author met residents in parts of Ghazni where officials had said ISIS was rising, they spoke of armed men with black flags and sometimes wearing black masks roaming their areas. However, close questioning revealed a different truth. In one case, a group of Taleban that arrived at a village in a private car and spent the night in the village mosque were described by some villagers as IS. When asked how they knew this, they said this must have been the case because the media was reporting an IS presence in Ghazni.

A self-fulfilling phenomenon

Despite its lack of presence in Afghanistan, the spectacular rise of IS in Syria and Iraq and consequent global interest in the group has sparked widespread debate about its presence and possible future in Afghanistan. One can see why this might have happened. IS is a globally interesting story and IS-related stories sell in the media at the moment. IS has a strong brand-recognition, so claiming membership or claiming the group is a threat might be useful for raising funds and profiles – whether one is in opposition (4) or in government (as in Ajiristan). This dynamic is also present in a wider sense, in terms of Afghans and others trying to encourage the west to stay engaged in Afghanistan because of the threat IS supposedly poses.

At the same time, however, there needs to be a recognition that a limited number of Afghans, mainly young Salafis who are, so far, unconnected to the IS networks, are very excited about the group. AAN has seen on social media how many previously apolitical and non-violent young Salafis have turned into cyber jihadists persistently preaching the ‘irreversibility’ of the Islamic state founded in Iraq and Syria and dreaming of it reaching Afghanistan. Their rhetoric is full of pride in and support for IS. This passion, however, has not yet led to the emergence of an Afghan IS franchise in practice. Even followers of Sheikh Aminullah al-Peshawri, a staunch Afghan Salafi scholar who leads a Salafi insurgent ‘front’ in Nangarhar and Kunar, have not dared to switch side from the Taleban to IS.

Not an easy theatre for external jihadists

Beyond the reports and the debates, there remains the question of how likely it is that IS could become active in Afghanistan. It has to be said that Afghanistan is not natural terrain for IS to exploit. For the Taleban, working with external jihadist groups, such as al-Qaeda and the Islamic Movement of Uzbekistan (IMU), has not been problematic during their decade-long insurgency because these jihadists have largely obeyed the host movement’s rules. The Taleban have established a near monopoly over the insurgency which they will not easily give up, whether to foreign or indeed indigenous fighting groups now belonging to their network. This remains the major obstacle standing in the way of the emergence of new, pro-IS jihadist groups or of IS itself in Afghanistan. There are also many reasons why the Taleban would not choose to cooperate or co-exist with IS as they have with other foreign jihadist groups. It would risk defections, the loss of their battlefield monopoly and (ultimately) a compromise on their vision of a localised jihad.

Ideologically, the two groups are also not an easy fit. The most visible conflict is probably the claims by both Mullah Muhammad Omar and al-Baghdadi to be amir-ul-mo’menin (leader of the believers), a title the Taleban leader assumed in 1996, well before new-comer al-Baghdadi declared himself caliph. Moreover, Al-Baghdadi now claims to lead the whole global ‘community’ of Muslims, the ummah, something Mullah Omar has never done.

There have already been debates in online jihadist forums by IS supporters about this issue, with the real conflict, here, between IS and al-Qaeda; the latter have very symbolically renewed their bay’ah (oath of allegiance) to Mullah Omar, in effect a challenge to al-Baghdadi’s claim. The Taleban are also attacked in these forums for confining their ‘jihad’ to the Afghan theatre and recognising nation state borders, something IS is bent on shattering. If they ever allowed IS to operate in Afghanistan, the Taleban would inevitably bring the debate about who is the real amir-ul-momenin home.

Another problem for the Taleban in working with IS would be that they would have to compromise their vision of a ‘nationalist’ struggle focused on Afghanistan only for a pan-Islamic one, or risk a violent confrontation with IS. Afghanistan has, so far, largely been spared the sectarian, Sunni-Shia atrocities seen in Pakistan, Iraq and Syria: IS’ persecution of Shia Muslims, whom they see as apostates has been one of the hallmarks of their violence. The Taleban, in their official discourse, have already expressed uneasiness about IS’s aggressive behaviour, including its anti-minority violence. A statement published on the Taleban website in July issued a veiled, but emphatic, warning to IS to avoid being too extremist and judgemental in their approach to other Muslims. It also called on the “mujahedin in the Levant” to overcome their differences and unite around a common ground, a reference to IS’s fratricidal conflict with the local al-Qaeda franchise Jabhat al-Nusra in Syria.

In this context, the chances of external IS-type jihadist groups surfacing in Afghanistan currently appear limited. But things may not remain the same in the long run, depending on how the Afghan conflict pans out. One can imagine scenarios where IS (or any similar group for that matter) could find a solid foothold in Afghanistan – if the war drags on and the Taleban fragments, as its Pakistani counterpart has done, or if a peace deal leaves some Taleban networks feeling marginalised and keen to fight on. Such a fragmented insurgency would be more vulnerable to influence from jihadist trends from outside Afghanistan, including by groups such as IS.

 

(1) IS was formerly known as ISIS or ISIL, the Islamic State in Iraq and Syria/Levant, and prefers to be called by the short form Dawlah, meaning ‘State’, while its Arab foes prefer to use its slightly derogatory Arabic acronym Da’esh.

(2) There was at one time a Salafi-jihadist media production house called Markaz ar-Rayat as-Sud li al-i’lam al-Islami (Islamic Media Centre of the Black Flags) which produced a jihadist movie in the mid-1990s in Arabic titled Ushaq al-shahadah (Lovers of Martyrdom) featuring many of the prominent Arab jihadists killed during the anti-Soviet war and resurfaced on jihadist forums in 2006. The same production house had also produced, in a video format, a lecture by Abdullah Azzam, the most influential Arab jihadist figure in the 1980s, under the title of Al-hal as-saif faqat (Only the Sword is the Solution). Indeed, the latest pamphlet also features Azzam (as well as Osama bin Laden) in the section of inspirational quotes. However, it is not known if there is any relations between the alleged centre which published the pamphlet and the centre that operated in 1990s. Also the product quality of the two is strikingly dissimilar, Fatah being an amateurish work of publishing with incorrect usage of Arabic, compared to the media-savvy production house of the 1990s which was run by Arabs.

(3) Citing the appearance of black masks, black clothes and black flags as evidence of IS in Afghanistan is a very big step. The siahpushan or torpushan (meaning ‘black clad’ in, respectively, Dari and Pashto) phenomenon in Afghanistan predates the emergence of the IS as a force in the Middle East. AAN reported on siahpushan in Nuristan in 2012 and, again, earlier this year, in Nangarhar. In neither instance, did locals link the black clad militants to the conflict in Iraq and Syria.

Siapushan – allegedly foreign gunmen – according to local officials in Ghazni were responsible for the abduction of a group of students and teachers along the border between Qarabagh and Andar districts in June. Around the same time, in Nuristan, a video surfaced showing black-masked, armed men hanging several people, provincial officials said who were linked to a Pakistani group, Lashkar-e Taiba, and had executed Taleban commanders for failing to disrupt the first round of the presidential election in April. The Taleban later rejected these reports and offered a different narrative, claiming the siapushan were members of the Taleban who had hanged seven men after identifying them as infiltrators.

(4) A senior government official in Ghazni told AAN about one initiative which might reflect this approach. He said some residents of Ghazni with business or other links to the Persian Gulf region were actively trying to galvanise public support for IS, to recruit young men for it and to raise funds among ulama, businessmen and elders in the name of IS. The official thought these individuals were most likely acting on their own, without having an actual link to IS – which is known to be too rich to need fundraising by Afghans. While this account has not been confirmed by other sources, such jihadi entrepreneurism using the IS brand seems plausible.

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Thematic Category: War & Peace