MS Risk Blog

Latest Attack In Afghanistan Sparks Fears that IS is Moving Towards New Territory

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An attack late last month on the Iraqi Embassy in the Afghan capital of Kabul has reinforced concerns that the so-called Islamic State (IS) group is seeking to bring its conflict in the Middle East to Afghanistan, however current evidence of fighters relocating from Iraq and Syria, where they have been rapidly loosing control of territory in recent months, remains elusive.

On Monday 31 July, IS confirmed that it had carried out the attack, which began with a suicide bomber blowing himself up at the embassy’s main gate, allowing gunmen to enter the building and battle security forces. IS put out a statement identifying two of the attackers as Abu Julybib Al-Kharasani and Abu Talha Al-Balkhi, Arabic names that nonetheless suggest Afghan origins – Khoasan is an old name for the Central Asian region that includes Afghanistan, while Balkh is a province in northern Afghanistan. Security officials have disclosed that they are still investigating the attack, noting however that it is still too early to say whether there was any foreign influence or involvement.

The choice of target, which came three weeks after the fall of Mosul to Iraqi troops, appeared to back up numerous warnings from Afghan security officials that as IS fighters are increasingly being pushed out of Iraq and Syria, they risked shows up in Afghanistan. According to Afghan Defense Ministry spokesman Gen. Dawlat Waziri, “this year we’re seeing more new weapons in the hands of the insurgents and an increase in numbers of foreign fighters,” adding “they are used in front lines because they are war veterans.” One senior security official put the number of foreigners fighting for both IS and the Taliban in Afghanistan at roughly 7,000, noting that most are operating across the border from their home countries of Pakistan, Uzbekistan or Tajikistan, but also include others from countries such as India.

While such foreign fighters have long been present in Afghanistan, there has been growing concern that militants from Arab countries, who have left the fighting in Syria as pressure on IS there has grown, have also been arriving in Afghanistan through Iraq. The United States, which first arrived in Afghanistan in 2001 after al-Qaeda’s attacks on New York and Washington, is now considering deploying additional troops to Afghanistan, in part to ensure that the country does not become a have for foreign militant groups. However while Afghan and US officials have long warned of the risk that foreign fighters from Syria could move over to Afghanistan, there has been considerable scepticism over how many have actually done so. Back in April, during a visit to Kabul by US Defense Secretary James Mattis, the commander of NATO forces in Afghanistan, Gen. John Nicholson disclosed that while IS had an “aspiration” to bring fighters from Syria, “we haven’t seen it happen.”

US commanders have disclosed that in partnership with Afghan security forces, they have significantly reduced IS’ strength over the past year with a combination of drone strikes and Special Forces operations. However according to Afghan intelligence documents reviewed by Reuters, security officials believe that IS is present in nine provinces – from Nangarhar and Kunar in the eastern region of the country, to Jawzjan, Faryab and Badakhshan in the north and Ghor in the central west. According to Juma Gul Hemat, police chief of Kunar, an eastern province where IS fighters pushed out of their base in neighbouring Nangarhar have increasingly sought refuge, “in recent operations, we have inflicted heavy losses on them but their focus is to recruit fighters form this area,” adding “they are not only from Pakistan or former Taliban, there are fighters from other countries and other small groups have pledged their allegiance to them.” Afghan officials have disclosed that newly arrived foreign fighters have been heavily involved in fighting in Nangarhar province, which is IS’ main stronghold in Afghanistan where thy have also repeatedly clashed with the Taliban.