War & Peace

On Kunar’s Salafi Insurgents


Usually one needs two sources at least, but this one I find too interesting: A few days ago, on 9 January, the Taleban website Shahamat (which means ‘bravery’) reported that one of the smaller insurgent groups – the Salafi from Kunar – has pledged allegiance to Mulla Muhammad Omar.

The Taleban gave its name as Jama’at Da’wa Al-Sunnat. But the name is not used consistently (as those of other parties: see the confusion about National Front or National United Front). For a while, the group was known as Jama’at ad-Da’wa as-Salafiya wa-l-Qital. In 2004, one wing of it was registered as a political party in Kabul under the name of Jama’at al-Da’wa ala-l-Quran wa-l-Sunna(Society for the Call/Invitation to the Quran and the Sunna/JDQS) The Qur’an, remarkably, was dropped when the party put up candidates for the 2005 parliamentary and provincial council elections. But the names given of the leaders fit: Haji Hayatullah indeed was the deputy of its current leader Haji Rohullah when the group still wasn’t an insurgent group in 2002 – about that more below.

Here, first, is an English translation of the full original Taleban text in Pashto:

‘Taleban say insurgent group in Afghan east swore allegiance to Mullah Omar

Large number of mojahedin in Konar Province swore allegiance to His Excellency Amir Al-Momenin

The Jama’at Da’wa Al-Sunnat of Afghanistan, a jihadi group which until now has been functioning independently under the name of Salafi Taleban in Konar Province, has joined the Islamic Emirate.

A reporter of Al-Emarah website reports from the area that yesterday the deputy leader of the group, esteemed Haji Hayatollah, and some members of the group’s Shura [Council], esteemed Shiekh Shah Wali, esteemed Mawlawi Rahmat Khan, esteemed Mawlawi Khan Jan, esteemed Mawlawi Abdorrab, esteemed Mawlawi Enayatollah and others expressed their support for the Islamic Emirate and swore allegiance to His Excellency Amir Al-Momenin as their Amir [leader] in a written declaration. They pledged that in the future all those mojahedin who are their supporters in Konar Province will abide by and carried out their activities in accordance with the rule and regulations of the Islamic Emirate of Afghanistan and will defend the honourable trenches of jihad like the other mojahedin of the Islamic Emirate under the guidance and instructions of the leadership and relevant officials of the Islamic Emirate.’

I do not know whether the report on the oath of allegiance is true or not and I have not heard about any confirmation or denial by the group itself. (Also, the relations between the Salafi and the Taleban have not always been friendly: In September 2007, Taleban reportedly beheaded a former Salafi jihadi commander in Watapur district, Ma’ruf, as a spy for the US forces –Pajhwok News Agency, 16 Sept. 2007). That is because I am not aware whether it has its own media outfit or website. (Maybe people more well-versed in the depth of the Jihadi internet can help.) But if true, it is not without significance. So let’s assume it is true for the moment.

In that case, the move would have some political significance. Not so much militarily. The group isn’t the most powerful amongst the insurgents although it has some local significance. Its fighters are well-known for their perseverance as the Americans surely can tell. More about this also further below.

More importantly, it would be the first non-Taleban insurgent group that would join the larger Taleban network that already the semi-autonomous networks of the Haqqani, the Mansur and the Khales families plus the Pakistani Taleban and al-Qaida’s Afghan chapter. They all recognize Mulla Omar as their spiritual leader, the amir ul-mo’menin. JDQS hitherto wasn’t. In this regard, I also doubt what the Taleban say in their statement: that this group already before had called itself ‘Salafi Taleban’. With their history in ‘jihad’ against the Soviets, they most likely would prefer the term ‘mujahedin’.

The JDQS coming under Mulla Omar’s spiritual – if not operational – shield would strengthen the Taleban’s claim to represent the whole insurgency. And it also would be a sign for a further ‘streamlining’, a coming closer to each other of the various insurgent groups. We already have that tendency within the Taleban movement itself.

JDQD’s main operational areas are valleys of the tributaries to the Pech River, northeast of the provincial capital Assadabad, like the Korangal valley. It is the longest and most populous side-valley of the Kunar River, encompassing three of Kunar’s districts: Chappadara, Nangalam and Watapur. While the lower parts of the Pech valley are inhabited by the Pashtun Safi tribe, the higher areas are by Nuristani – but both are interlinked with each other. (The Safi, on their part, enjoy a special relationship with the large Mohmand tribe in the Pakistani FATA. Therefore, they are sometimes called a subtribe of the latter, the ‘Safi Mohmand’).

Over some passes in the upper end of the Pech valley, areas of retreat in neighboring – and even more inaccessible – Nuristan and, one hour further on, the border with the Pakistani Tribal Agency of Bajawur can be reached. Most supplies for the insurgents seem to come from there. Watapur is the most exposed district and has been attacked by insurgents various times since about 2005.

Korangal was the scenery of a famous incident in 2005 during which a US helicopter was shot down by local insurgents while unsuccessfully trying to rescue a group of special forces. Later, there was a series of absolutely hair-raising reports about a hotly contested US outpost in the area that reminded me of the movie ‘Apocalypse Now’ (herehere and here). The outpost was evacuated by the US forces in 2009.

But the Pech Valley has a far longer tradition as a basis of resistance. The Safi of Kunar started one of the few tribal rebellions against the monarchy between 1947 and 1949. Subsequently, some Safi were forcibly resettled to Northern Afghanistan. Also one of the earliest uprisings against the post-1978 PDPA regime was launched from here.

The group under its original leader Maulawi Jamil-ur-Rahman liberated parts of Kunar – to which Nuristan then belonged – and established an independent ‘Islamic emirate’ with a full-fledged cabinet. There was a number of Arabs and Pakistani fighting with the group. Jamil-ur-Rahman (real name: Muhammad Hussain), a Safi from Pech, initially was a member of Jamiat but crossed over to Hezb after 1978 and later split from it. In 1991, Hekmatyar’s Hezb-e Islami took over the emirate’s area. There are different accounts how that happened: According to Ludwig Adamec, Hezb went in after a big explosion killed a large number of JDQS fighters. Local renderings, however, talk about Hezb slaughtered them, with bodies floating down Kunar river after the massacre. Jamil-ur-Rahman was later killed by an Egyptian in Pakistan. All that led to a deep enmity between JDQS.

(The Kunar revolt against the PDPA is described in the book ‘Before Taliban: Genealogies of the Afghan Jihad ‘ by David B. Edwards, Univ. of California Press, 2002.)

In 1990s, the Pech valley became a base for armed resistance against the Taleban regime (in which other mujahedin tanzims like Mahaz/Gailani, Nijat/Mujaddedi and Hezb/Khales participated). On the other hand, not the whole Salafi movement took part in the resistance. While the Salafi leader Haji Rozi joined the Taleban regime as Kunar’s deputy governor (a post he received under Karzai in 2002 and in 2005, again) and also Haji Jandad Safi (who became the first post-2001 governor of Kunar and today is an MP in Kabul) went over to their side, while Haji Rohullah, then the Salafi provincial commander for Kunar, supported the resistance although he spent most of his time in Peshawar. In the last days of the Taleban regime, he joined the Northern Alliance and accepted money from Ahmad Shah Massud but largely remained inactive.

What really is the interesting point: A Salafi group that was involved in resisting the Taleban and, after the Taleban regime collapsed in 2001, had worked with the Kabul government (Haji Rohullah and his deputy Haji Hayatullah participated in the 2002 Emergency Loya Jirga), now probably has united with them.

The cooperation with the new Karzai government, however, did not last long: Insensitive house searches and arbitrary arrests by coalition forces, local elders say, pushed parts of the local population in the Pech valley towards the insurgents. Another motive was that Shura-ye Nazar, part of the Northern Alliance and dominating the Kabul government, slowly pushed other factions out of Kunar administrative positions and replaced them with their own people. Haji Rohullah was detained in August 2002 for allegedly collaborating with them and currently is held in Guantanamo.

Apparently, also inner-tribal and possibly inner-party conflicts play a role. JDQS is also registered as a political party with the Ministry of Justice in Kabul since 2004, under the leadership of Maulawi Same’ullah Najibi. Possibly, there was an ethnic split along the Nuristan-Badakhshan faultline. The ‘legal’ JDQS in Kabul (with an office in Badakhshan) seems to represent the latter group.

In 2006, according to a UN source, Kunar’s Salafi commanders were still mostly ‘sitting on the fence between supporting the state and exploiting it, while at the same time maintaining a sufficiently insecure environment to allow for the unhindered illegal extraction of resources’ (timber and precious stones).

Salafi influence is not limited to Kunar and Nuristan. Around 2007, there was an influx of young, newly trained Salafi mullas from Pakistan into neighboring Badakhshan province. In Warduj district in particular they are said to have ‘significant influence’. Those young mullas might have come from Mohmand or other tribal agencies in Pakistan. In Mohmand, a militant Salafi group led by commander Muslim Shah, alias Shah Khalid (a Mohmand Pashtun with links to Lashkar-i Taiba/LT) had run a training camp until July 2008. Then it was attacked by Baitullah Mahsud’s Tehrik-i Taliban-i Pakistan. Muslim Shah and some of his men were killed.

Besides the Salafi, there is also mainstream Taleban military activity in Kunar province which is reportedly coordinated by Maulawi Muhammad Kabir, the former ‘prime minister’ of the Taleban regime and today said to be a member of its leadership ‘Quetta’ council. In July 2008, it had appointed Abdul Rahim the parallel provincial governor for Kunar province. He lives in Bajawur and leads a group of 20 fighters that regularly crosses over to carry out operations, mainly in Sarkani district of Kunar. Abdul Rahim is said to be LT-affiliated, too. In 2008, the Taleban reportedly also had appointed a provincial chief of police (Abdul Jalil), a head of intelligence (Rohullah Khadem), a liaison officer for other groups operating in the area (Qari Ahmad Shah) and a head of the judiciary or mufti (Maulawi Abdul Razzaq). A media report from December 2008 mentions that the Kunar Salafis also maintain a system of ‘mobile judges’ in the Pech Valley and that the local population, like in other areas of Afghanistan, turn to them ‘to settle grievances’ (‘Taliban Courts Filling Justice Vacuum In Afghanistan’, National Public Radio, 16 Dec 2008; see the full report here).

Apart from JDQS, there are also other small armed Salafi group in Eastern Afghanistan which seem to act autonomously from each other. Reported names include the ‘Bara bin Malek Front’ under Mulla Ismail in Kunar and – in one report only – a Jaish ul-Salafiya. Interestingly enough, never any relation between these Kunar/Nuristan groups and Sayyaf’s mainstream Salafi tanzim Da’wat-e Islami (formerly Ittehad-e Islami bar-ye Azadibakhsh-e Afghanistan) has been mentioned anywhere.

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Thematic Category: War & Peace