The Rise and Fall of the Islamic State in Afghanistan
Islamdeen Bahaduri woke up, washed his face and began his morning routine. He ran for an hour and then returned back to his home in the Barchi neighborhood of Kabul, the Afghan capital. Bahaduri ate breakfast and went to accept his certification for completing his TOEFL iBT preparation course and then walked home for lunch. Bahaduri’s passion was for shoot boxing, in which he had won an international gold medal and after lunch he went to practice shoot boxing in a nearby sports club.
The next day on March 6, Bahaduri went to to attend a gathering in Kabul. The 21-year-old and winner of 26 medals was thinking about opening a new sports club in memory of his fellow athlete and friend who had been killed in an attack in the past, Mohammad Baqir.
Suddenly two militants opened fire on the crowd.
A friend of Bahaduri’s called his brother Mahram Ali Bahaduri to ask about Islamdeen after hearing of the attack, so Mahram called Islamdeen. Islamdeen’s phone rang without an answer. Mahram called again, and this time someone else picked up the phone and told him that Islamdeen had been killed. Mahram fell on the ground and his uncles helped him to regain consciousness.
Bahaduri’s Brother: ‘This Attack Will Be Forgotten’
In the United States, Bahaduri’s other brother commented on the awful situation.
“There is a new thing happening and previous incidents are forgotten,” said Jumakhan Buhaduri, who was in Washington D.C. where he learned about the death of his brother from social media pages. “We do not know who the perpetrators are. There is no ending the impunity and people do not know who their enemy is.”
“I am a peaceful man and nobody should be miserable,” said Jumakhan. “But peace will not heal my wounds from losing my brother. This attack will be forgotten, like other attacks and their victims. He was our hope.”
The Islamic State claimed responsibility for the shooting on civilians which came amid US-led peace efforts to end the long Afghan war. Hundreds of people had gathered to commemorate slain Hazara leader Abdul Ali Mazari in a large venue in the western part of Kabul on Friday, March 6 where top Afghan politicians, including Abdullah Abdullah and senior leaders of the Hazara Shiite ethnic group were present.
Twenty days later, one Islamic State militant dressed in a local police uniform killed a Muslim guard at a Sikh temple in Kabul. The militant begin shooting at civilians trapped inside the temple complex, also using grenades. He besieged the temple and took Afghan Sikhs hostage while exchanging fire with Afghan security forces for six hours. The militant killed 25 people in that attack.
Islamic State’s Bloody Campaign in Afghanistan
The two attacks on minority groups by the Islamic State were part of larger efforts by the terrorist group to establish a branch of the Islamic State of Sham and Iraq in Afghanistan. Since its emergence in 2015, the group gained various territories and terrorized the country with their brutal attacks on civilians. The Islamic State claimed responsibility for two recent high-level attacks. On April 9, a vehicle was parked near the Bagram airfield and five rockets hit the large US base. Last month in March, President Ashraf Ghani was taking his oath of office when three rockets hit nearby. The Islamic State claimed responsibility for both attacks.
Afghanistan’s National Directorate of Security said in a statement that his agents later captured the leader of Islamic State in Afghanistan whose name is Abdullah Orakzai, also known as Aslam Farooqi, along with 19 other members of the group. Orakzai became the first leader to be arrested, unlike other leaders of the group that were killed in airstrikes and raids.
The Afghan Government had formally announced the defeat of the Islamic State in November 2019. The US as well as the Taliban also announced the group was destroyed.
But the reality on the ground was far different than the official story.
Emergence of the Islamic State in Afghanistan
In 2010, a number of militants from Pakistan’s Orakzai, North Wzisristan and Khyber tribal groups arrived into the eastern Nangarhar area of Afghanistan. Their numbers increased over the years in Nangarhar and Pakistan’s army attacked them in their homes, pushing them out with their families.
The new wave of the militants known as refugees arrived in October 2014 and March 2015. The Afghan Government welcomed them and the intelligence agency opened connections with them as a small-scale tit-for-tat against Pakistan’s strategic support for the Taliban group inside Afghanistan.
With the emergence of the Islamic State in Iraq and Sham in 2014, the trouble with the Islamic State started also started to intensify in Afghanistan. Tahreki Taliban Pakistan’s leader died in November of 2013 and the militants were divided over who should succeed him. They split into small groups, forming the ideal situation for the rise of another, stronger group: the Islamic State.
In October 2014, Pakistani national Hafiz Saeed Khan was chosen to lead Islamic State in Khorasan, which is the old name for Afghanistan, Pakistan, Iran, and Central Asia. The leadership council of the Islamic State was made up of former Tahrik-e Taliban Pakistani commanders. Factions of the Islamic Movement of Uzbekistan, Tehrik-e-Khilafat, Jandullah, and the Bajour faction of Pakistani group’s also pledged allegiance to the Islamic State.
“Khorasan is an important base and place for the Islamic State in Asia overall, which includes Iran, India, Bangladehs, Central Asia and Xian chin of China,” explains Davood Azami, a researcher focused on extremism. “There has been a long attempt to build a Waliat since the British colonization of India.”
ISIS Afghanistan Announces its Official Formation in January, 2015
ISIS officially announced their expansion in Afghanistan in January 2015. The Islamic State was appealing for youths in region where they were unhappy with the existing groups, like the Taliban, Al-Qaeda, and the official government. ISIS represented the so-called caliphate for youths that wanted to build one in the world.
With the ultimate aim of replacing all other existing extremist groups, the Islamic State recruited from lower and middle class youths in the country and in the region. Many fighters joined the Islamic State in Afghanistan and from Gulf countries, Central Asia, Chechnya, Europe, and the sub-continent of India and Pakistan.
“We came here expecting an Islamic life, and life under Islamic law,” said Sonia Sebastian, an Indian woman who had joined the Islamic State and was interrogated by Indian security agents in Kabul after surrounding to Afghan forces. “Many things were not up to our expectations.”
ISIS’ Afghan Recruiting Efforts
The Islamic State aimed to recruit students from Afghan universities, institutions that were vulnerable to exploitation. Ramin Kamangar, a researcher at the Afghan Institute for Strategic Studies in Kabul, conducted research that found half of 373 surveyed students at three universities in Herat, Kabul, and Nangarhar universities supported an Islamic Caliphate as a political system.
Many of the students were entranced by propaganda from the Islamic State. Lecturers at Kabul University, for example, were responsible for the recruitment of fighters among students. The first step was encouraging them to become Salafi, a strict branch of Sunni Islam. The students were sent to strongholds in Nangarhar province for training and then the students would become fighters of the Islamic State.
The Islamic State built a complex network of supporters and strongholds in the country within three years. Hussain Ehsani, who co-authored a research on Islamic State for Afghan Institute of Strategic Studies, said that the Islamic State had three sub divisions in the eastern swathes, in the north, and in the west of Afghanistan.
“The Islamic State has very complex sponsors,” said Ehsani, who has interviewed policymakers, security agents and Islamic State fighters for his research. “It is unclear which non-state actor or which state supports the Islamic State in Afghanistan.”
How Does Afghanistan’s ISIS Get Their Funding?
Pakistan’s intelligence Agency, the Inter-Services Intelligence, has been accused of funding the Islamic State and supplying the group in the country. The Afghan Government has also made such claims.
ISIS has been largely self-reliant. The majority of their financial support comes from smuggling, mining, and taxation from locals. The group also enjoyed control over the Khyber Pass border between Afghanistan and Pakistan, controlling the flow of mines like talc and timber resources, according to Ehani’s book, “Islamic State Wilyat Khorasan.”
Haris, owner of a shop in a luxuries shopping mall in the heart of Kabul, used to fundraise from European and gulf countries in the name of helping poor Afghans, according to a statement by Afghanistan’s intelligence agency. In reality, Haris worked for the Islamic State with nine others in Kabul, running small shops to financially and logistically support the group.
Ruthless Attacks on Afghan Civilians
With fighters from all different parts of the world, the Islamic State in Afghanistan waged war to establish a caliphate similar to what they believed it had been in the time of the Prophet Mohammad, following the hardline doctrine of Salafism. The group primarily targeted soft targets and minorities, mainly Shiite Muslims that they consider to be blasphemous infidels.
The Islamic State conducted many of the most brutal attacks in the country even by the standards of the long Afghan war. The militants bullied villagers, executed farmers, displaced thousands of people, and attacked soft-targets that were not heavily protected but were crowded, such as in mosques, educational centers, sports clubs, and even wedding halls.
Their attacks happened across Asia, from Bangladesh to Sri Lanka and Afghanistan and Pakistan. Islamic State fighters killed dozens of Afghan forces, Taliban fighters, and Pakistani forces. Reportedly the Bangladesh bombing was even traced back to the Islamic State in Afghanistan as well as the attack on Sri Lanka.
In a propaganda video, Afghanistan’s Islamic State put 10 male prisoners on a green hill of eastern Nangarhar province and placed land mines under them. As the men kneel down, the explosives went off and they were killed instantly. The graphic video sent shockwaves across the country in August 2015.
Kidnappings and Executions
Militants of the Islamic State in Afghanistan kidnapped civilians multiple times and then executed them. In November 2015, the Islamic State kidnapped seven Hazara civilians, including a nine-year old girl and then cut their throats with metal wire in the southern Zabul province of Afghanistan.
The Islamic State conducted their first high profile attack on the Afghan capital of Kabul in July 2016, which is when they first emerged as a serious enemy of the nation. As Hazara Shiite protesters marched in Kabul, two Islamic State suicide bombers detonated in their midst, killing 80 civilians and wounding more than 400 others.
Attacks on civilian gatherings, mostly the Shiite Muslim minority, became routine for the Islamic State. Mosques have been their favorite spot to hit because they have little security and yield high causalities. In October 2017, an Islamic State suicide bomber entered a Shiite mosque in Kabul, killing 56 worshipers and 55 wounded others.
“Zakria, 14-year old, was killed,” said Barat Ali Khaleqi, whose brother was killed in the October, 2017 suicide bombing. “The attacks cripple the society and these attacks are on all of people, not only one person.”
In August 2018, students were at an education center in Kabul to prepare for a university entrance exam when an ISIS suicide bomber entered the center and blew up the entire building. The bombing fatally tore apart 48 teenage students and wounded 67 others in a blink of eye.
“In Afghanistan, there is nothing safe. Losing our talented youths disappoints me,” said Mohammad Rezai, 18-year student who lost his peers in the bombing on the education center. “I don’t see a bright future. Everything is disappointing. These attacks stole our hope. I don’t feel safe at any gathering.”
Two other attacks claimed by the Islamic State made it extremely clear that no public gathering was safe. In September 2018, one suicide bomber detonated his vest at a wrestling club packed with young athletes and one car bomb torn apart an emergency team, killing 26 people and 91 others, including two journalists.
In August 2019 an Islamic State militant walked into a packed wedding hall in Kabul carrying a sports bag. The suicide bomber approached the men’s reception area of the wedding hall as the celebration was reaching its peak. The blast killed 83 civilians and wounded 160 others that included both Shiite and Sunni Muslims.
Fighting Back Against the Islamic State in Afghanistan
The atrocities of the Islamic State eventually contributed to their own fall over the years. Davood Azami, author of Countering the Islamic State in Asia, said that the horrific tactics used by the Islamic State made locals stand up against them.
“Takfir and Salafi ideology [of the Islamic State] was against Hanifi and Sunni religious and practices that are widely followed in Afghanistan,” said Azami. “They [Islamic State] did not understand the culture of local people. Daesh (ISIS) destroyed shrines of local people in Ghazni province and other provinces.”
Locals near ISIS strongholds were armed and fought back the Islamic State in eastern Afghanistan. The local forces, made up of farmers and elderly people who had mostly lost family members to the Islamic State’s attacks, were part of larger undeclared joint-operations of US air power, Taliban fighters, and the Afghan Government in a combined thrust against ISIS.
The United States conducted its first airstrike against the Islamic State in July 2015. The airstrikes aimed to kill senior leaders of the militant group, paving the way for junior militants to occupy their leaders’ places. The Islamic State had to choose a new leader sometimes within three to six months as their leaders were being repeatedly killed in American airstrikes.
“The Islamic State is leader orientated, rather than strategically coordinated group,” said Hussain Ehsani who has studied the Islamic State in Iraq and in Afghanistan closely. “If there is a comprehensive strategy, their fighters would follow the strategy regardless of leaders.”
In April 2017, the U.S. Air Force dropped the “mother of all bombs”—the most powerful conventional bomb in the American arsenal—on complex caves used by the Islamic State located in the entrance to the Mamand Valley in the Asadkhel area of Achin district of Nangarhar province of Afghanistan. It killed a number of IS militants.
The US conducted such airstrikes by relying on operatives on the ground, mostly CIA agents and US Special Forces that coordinated attacks on the Islamic State hideouts. The US helped Afghan forces to battle the Islamic State, but they also provided “very limited support” to the Taliban in fighting the Islamic State.
After the Taliban’s initial failure to broker a deal with the Islamic State during the group’s emergence in 2014 and 2015, the Taliban also waged war on the Islamic State. First the Taliban asked ISIS leave the area in 2014, but the militants opened a new branch of the Islamic State in Afghanistan. The Taliban sent a message to the Islamic State headquarters in Iraq, demanding that they leave the jihad in the country to them but the group dismissed the Taliban’s demands.
“The Islamic State was the first group that challenged the Taliban, both militarily and ideologically,” said Azami. The Taliban supported “uprisings” against the Islamic State in July 2015 in their strongholds in eastern Nangarhar and fought ISIS over resources, such as mining, recruitment, as well as preventing an increase of their own unhappy fighters who had joined ISIS.
Ongoing Taliban Clashes with ISIS
The Taliban clashed with the ISIS across the country, not only in eastern Nangarhar province. In the northern Jawzjan province, in the western Herat and Ghor province, in the southern Zabul province, and elsewhere, the Taliban waged a bloody war to wipe out ISIS. Both the Islamic State and the Taliban suffered significant casualties in the mountains and they regrouped in swathes of the country where they enjoyed shelter from the eyes of US airstrikes and Afghan forces.
The main battlefield has been the eastern Nangarhar province. The Taliban battled ISIS fighters in mountains, mobilizing their Red Unit and their foot soldiers from other provinces, while the Afghan Government and their pro-uprising forces battled ISIS from low-ground areas.
The Islamic State gained increased attention from the Afghan Government in the summer of 2015. The Government supported local forces known as public uprising forces against ISIS and paid agents to collect information for battling ISIS in the country, while continuing to fight the Taliban on the larger scale.
US-Afghan Joint Ops Against Afghan ISIS
The US and the Afghan Government joint operation launched a number of strikes in the last four years to target the ISIS strongholds. US Special Forces and Afghan Commandos launched operations of targeted killings as well as coordinated airstrikes. On April 27, 2017, 50 US Army rangers and 40 Afghan commandos raided the compound of IS leader Sheikh Abdul Hasib, killing him and several other leaders of the militant group.
Adding on to these kind of operations against ISIS strongholds, the Afghan intelligence agency operated on cells of support and recruitment for the Islamic State in the country. The agency killed and destroyed several cells in Kabul, arrested university lecturers and students, and cut financial support to the group.
“The weakness of these anti-ISKP forces [government, tribal and Taleban] was coupled with the vitality of two pro-ISKP forces: small militant groups lacking fixed loyalties and the Salafi militants fighting in the ranks of the insurgency,” Borhan Osman, a former researcher for Afghanistan Analyst Network, wrote in September 2017.
The different operations by US forces, the Afghan Government and the Taliban reached an important phase in November 2019. The three operations led to the overall defeat of the Islamic State in the country, as all of them claimed credit for the defeat of the group in their stronghold of the Nangarhar province.
The Islamic State in Afghanistan broke into pieces. With many ISIS fighters killed, others escaped into deep mountains, and some surrendered to the Afghan Government. The defeat of the group in their initial stronghold did not mean the end of the group in the country that has been burning in war for 40 years.
“With a vast recruitment pool on both sides of the border [Afghanistan and Pakistan], it is hard to defeat [them] militarily without addressing the reasons for the emergence of ISKP in the first place,” said Borhan Osman, head of the Crisis Group for Afghanistan. “You can’t just kill them to death.”
Afghanistan and Pakistan have been an ideal place for extremist groups for decades and will likely continue to be so for years to come. The US-Taliban deal signed in February 2020 signaled a way for negotiations to end the long insurgency in the country, but it can serve as a reason for the regrouping of extremist groups. Atiqullah Amirkhil, an Afghan Army General, said that there is a possibility radical Taliban fighters who are not pleased with the prospect of peace could join the Islamic State in the country.
“If the government and the Taliban unite against the Islamic State and all forces cooperate with each other, Daesh [Islamic State] will be wiped out. If the deal leads to such a scenario, the peace is worthwhile,” said Amirkhil. “If nobody fights the Islamic State, it will remain in the coming years.”
Even the United States agreed to pull troops out of the country per deal with the Taliban, the US has established a network of Special Operations forces that will fight the Islamic State. The Afghan Government and the Taliban both vow to fight the extremist group, but in an absence of a strong state, the Islamic State may continue claim the lives of civilians, using complex underground cells and without holding territories.
“I am concerned with continuation of such attacks” said Sima Samar, member of UN High-Level Advisory Board on Mediation, referring to March 6 ISIS attack in Kabul. “Two persons who are willing to kill themselves [suicide attack], they can do it at any gatherings.”
The March 6 massacre is a prime example of how the Islamic State might survive despite losing territories in eastern Afghanistan. It can continue waging war on civilians to claim lives of those who are considered infields by them, like Islamdeen, the 21-year-old who was killed in the March 6 shooting in Kabul.
Born in a poor family, Islamdeen grew up weaving carpets to survive poverty. When he was only 9-years-old, he started exercising without the knowledge of his family. He asked his local club to waive one month of fees so he could do training. When he come the gold medal in 2018 his neighbors found out in surprise that he had been exercising and training secretly for years.
“Islamdeen was one of few who excelled in different fields of sports, gymnastics, shoot boxing, MMA, Free Fight, Muay Thai,” said Jumakhan Bahaduri, the 27-year old brother of Islamdeen. “He was known was Tiger Killer. Before even fighting, many athletes would give up to him. He had a statement: ‘I am fighting to bring smiles to face of Afghans.’”
Islamdeen was fighting against the odds. He had secured many offers to participate abroad, but the Government did not support him and he could not go there to compete for championships. Islamdeen found his way from poverty to be a champion, only to be killed instantly in a shooting by the Islamic State.
“His dream was the success of Afghanistan on the international stage,” said Islamdeen’s elder brother Mahrim Ali. “When Islam was alive, I felt like there was a mountain behind us.”