Afghan and Pakistani Taliban Links to Islamic StateMarch 13, 2015 in Afghanistan, Pakistan
Reports and rumours of disaffected Afghan and Pakistani Taliban insurgents pledging their allegiance to the Islamic State (IS) terror group have been circulating since late September last year. In southern Zabul and Helmand provinces, Mullah Abdul Rauf, a former Taliban commander recently killed in an air strike, was alleged to have been recruiting fighters on behalf of IS. In Kunar and Farah provinces, jihadi training camps have been established while in Ghazni and Paktika provinces, Afghan government officials have announced that hundreds of IS-affiliated foreign fighters posing as refugees have been fighting under the black flag. Although many of these claims have been hard to verify independently, sufficient evidence has emerged in recent months to support the belief that the IS wish to expand their operations into Southern Asia. It is, however, unclear to what extent they have succeeded in doing so.
In response to tactical losses in Iraq and Syria, the Islamic State has recently been pursuing a strategy designed to preserve its operational capability from destruction. While its primary objective is to defend the territories currently under its control in Iraq and Syria, forays into Lebanon, Libya and elsewhere have proven that its territorial ambitions are not limited to a small corner of the Middle East but are on a vast, global scale. In January 2015, IS spokesperson Sheikh Abu Muhammad al-Adnani al-Shami outlined the Islamic State’s agenda in Southern Asia. In a press release published by the Islamic State’s media wing, Al-Furqan, al Adnani announced the so-called caliphate’s expansion to Khorasan— a geopolitical entity which includes part of Afghanistan, Pakistan, Iran, Central Asia, India and China. Meanwhile, In a separate press release which also appeared in the middle of January, former Pakistani Taliban member Shahidullah Shahid revealed the names of the individuals who would take command of various parts of Afghanistan, including the name of the chapter’s leader, Hafez Saeed Khan, a former commander in the Tehrik-e Taliban Pakistan (TTP). More recently, the Islamic State announced the creation of Khorasan Shura – a leadership council for Pakistan and Afghanistan which is almost entirely made up of former TTP leaders. By establishing this council, the IS demonstrated its desire to establish influence amongst Pakistani and Afghani jihadis.
In aligning itself with former AfPak militant commanders and local jihadist groups, the Islamic State’s purpose has been twofold: first, it wants to establish a network of individuals who possess highly developed local knowledge and are capable of launching independent military operations; second, it hopes to polarise public opinion against the U.S led coalition, thereby preparing the ground for further IS expansion. However, these objectives have met with some resistance from local insurgent groups. After al Adnani announced the Khorasan expansion, he also called on: “all the mujahideed in Khorasan to join the caravan of the khalifah [caliph] and abandon disunity and factionalism.” In issuing this call to arms, Al-Adnani and the Islamic State may have inadvertently entered into a turf war with the Afghani Taliban. First, long-standing ideological conventions may prevent some Taliban loyalists from accepting Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi as khalifah because Mullah Mohammad Omar, the Supreme Leader of the Taliban, holds the position of Amir ul-Momimeen (Commander of the Faithful Believers). Second, the Afghan Taliban is a nationalist insurgent group: its chief goal is to overthrow the current Afghan government. In contrast, the Islamic state is a expansionist organisation determined to establish its caliphate. Third, the IS split from al Qaeda, a Taliban ally, in February 2014, making an IS-Taliban joint venture even less plausible.
While increased cooperation between the Afghan Taliban and the Islamic State seems unlikely, conditions may be more suitable for greater IS penetration in Pakistan. In the first place, Pakistan has a reputation for fostering the growth and expansion of Sunni militant groups and, unlike Afghanistan, is riven by deep, sectarian cleavages that the profoundly anti-Shiite IS may be able to exploit. Furthermore, Pakistani militants have shown themselves to be more susceptible to IS overtures than their Afghani counterparts, a factor which may result in the ultimate dissolution of the TTP if more and more Taliban commanders and fighters defect. Should the TTP disintegrate, one possible outcome is that the Pakistani government, which continues to use terrorist groups to advance its foreign policy, might bestow their patronage on the Islamic State. Another possibility is that an intra-jihadist struggle will emerge between groups trying to retain their influence and autonomy within the region.
Although Afghanistan and Pakistan both face more immediate problems from local insurgent groups, the threat posed by the Islamic State cannot be ignored. Steps must be taken immediately to ensure that the IS cannot gain a foothold in the AfPak region. Otherwise, the expansion of the IS caliphate may continue unabated throughout Eastern Asia.