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The Islamic State in Khorasan between Taliban counter-terrorism and resurgence prospects

30 Jan 2024
Short Read by Antonio Giustozzi

The Taliban, who are in control of the Afghan state, claim that they have brought the Islamic State’s insurgency in the country under control and have almost defeated it. External observers, by contrast, often see the Islamic State in Khorasan (IS-K) as being on the ascendence. This Analysis aims to provide a balanced assessment of the state of IS-K in the face of the Taliban’s efforts to crush it, but also other challenges it has been facing. The focus of this piece is to examine IS-K’s efforts to adapt to unfavourable developments and how it managed to preserve its core structure despite losses and setbacks.  


IS-K’s declining activities 

A common metric of success and failure in counter-terrorism and counter-insurgency is the level of violent activities. On this basis, it could be argued that the Taliban were successful in handling the Islamic State in Khorasan (IS-K) threat. During 2023 IS-K attacks almost came to a halt. In April and May, there was not a single confirmed attack. From June to September, IS-K was only able to carry out one or two attacks per month, including gunfire attacks on Taliban patrols. From October, there was a modest resurgence, but even then, only four confirmed attacks took place in the month, including two involving explosives.  

There is certainly a solid rationale for using the level of violent activities as a metric. A violent extremist organisation can ill afford to go quiet, especially after having launched its campaign and carried it out for years. Inevitably, inactivity will be perceived by members, prospective members, and sympathisers as a sign of decline or at least an organisation in trouble. Recruitment is likely to be affected and fundraising even more so. This may be especially true of an organisation like IS-K, which never raised much funding locally and has been dependent on funds coming from outside Afghanistan. Why would a “donor” want to fund an organisation which has fallen below the radar screen and whose fate looks uncertain? 

That being said, in the case of the Taliban’s Emirate in Afghanistan as in the case of any other counter-terrorism effort, there is in reality no necessarily causal relationship between counter-terrorist operations and the level of activity of insurgents and terrorists. Any decline in the level of activity can be due to multiple causes. In the case of IS-K, sources within the organisation acknowledged during 2023 that Taliban raids against IS-K hideouts in the cities had taken a heavy toll. After indulging in rather indiscriminate repression in their first few months in power, the Taliban’s counter-terrorism effort has largely been intelligence-led throughout 2022 and 2023. This allowed them to be “surgical” in their strikes against IS-K, as they themselves say. 


IS-K’s funding crisis 

The same sources, however, also hinted at (at least) another, even more important factor behind the decline in their level of activity. Funding for IS-K started declining already in 2018, due to the downwards trajectory taken by their mother organisation - the Caliphate (IS Central). The drop in funds accrued from the central IS structure continued with some ups and downs through to 2023. As discussed in a forthcoming paper based on multiple local sources, at one point in early 2023 funding almost completely stopped accruing in the coffers of IS-K.i  Aside from the constantly declining resources that IS Central could allocate to its Khorasan branch, the crisis was compounded by a persistent crackdown by the Turkish authorities on all IS branches present on their territory, including IS-K. For years, the main financial hub of IS-K has been in Turkey, where, thanks to the growing Afghan community, informal banking connections were becoming common. Turkey was also a major financial hub for IS Central, thus making the transfer of funds between the two very easy. As detailed in a previous report, the Turkish crackdown led to tens of IS-K members being detained, and seriously disrupted their operations. The Taliban contributed to compounding IS-Ks’ financial crisis by increasing their monitoring of financial flows and warning hawala traders in Afghanistan of the consequences of getting caught transferring IS-K cash. In the first half of 2023, IS-K ended up not even being able to pay salaries and logistics to its men on the ground in Afghanistan.ii  

IS-K gradually managed to cope to some extent with the Turkish crackdown, relocating financial operations to alternative locations, and sought to diversify its sources of revenue away from the struggling IS Central, with limited success. Sources in the informal banking sector, contacted by the author’s research team in August 2023 and again in January 2024, indicated that tightened Taliban monitoring of informal banking was in part neutralised by avoiding the transfer of big sums and relying instead on multiple transfers of small amounts, which could be disguised as remittances. As a result, a complete financial choke off was averted, even if funding remained at low levels even compared to 2021.  

Despite the deep financial crisis of 2023, IS-K leadership did not lay idly, waiting for financial flows to be restored. Internal sources explain that IS-K continued restructuring organisationally and transitioned towards a fully underground system, under the assumption that it will not be able to control significant chunks of territory for the foreseeable future. Mobile bases and training camps and small cells have now become the norm throughout IS-K’s structure in Afghanistan.iii 


The prospects of IS-K resurgence 

In order to reduce the negative effects of its very low level of activities in the field, IS-K expanded its online propaganda and recruitment activities. Although at the peak of its financial crisis in the first half of 2023 the propaganda activities declined, overall IS-K was able to give the impression of a proactive and resilient organisation and to magnify the significance of its few and intermittent attacks.  

Propaganda alone, of course, will not rescue IS-K. In the longer term, the potential for an IS-K resurgence will depend on a series of developments and their interplay including: 

  • whether the 2022/2023 alignment of negative circumstances affecting funding (the decline of IS-Central, the Turkish, and Taliban crackdowns on their finances) dissolves or is somehow bypassed; 

  • whether IS-K can avoid or contain organisational decay while it struggles financially and is able to carry out only a negligible level of military activities; 

  • whether the relative unity of the Taliban in facing IS-K is superseded by growing Taliban infighting; 

  • whether the Taliban fails to address weak spots in their counter-terrorism and counter-insurgency campaigns; and 

  • whether new opportunities for fundraising and recruitment arise out of developments over which IS-K has little control. 

As mentioned above, IS-K managed to re-establish some financial flows in the latter part of 2023. These will not suffice for a full re-launch of IS-K and the organisation will have to figure out how and where to raise more. IS-K was proactive in trying to prevent organisational decay. It is hard to assess how successful that was, although internal sources acknowledge some decline in membership numbers between the second half of 2022 and the second half of 2023.iv  While the Taliban continue to suffer from internal divisions, as of the end 2023, there had not been any major split that could set IS-K on an altogether different trajectory. It is worth noting, however, that tension between the leadership and the Tajik Taliban of the north-east was growing fast in late 2023 and early 2024. Taliban sources, contacted by the author’s research team in October 2023, reported cases of Tajik Taliban members being detained on allegations of having links to IS-K, which at least partially confirms IS-K might just be starting to make some inroads there. Disgruntled Tajik Taliban, therefore, could offer some opportunity for the terrorist group.  


Limitations of the Taliban’s counter-terrorism 

IS-K can also be reasonably confident that the Taliban’s counter-terrorism effort will remain focused on repression, however “surgical”, and on financial interdiction. Even here, one can see some cracks in the Taliban’s approach: checks on the informal banking sector remain superficial, as the Taliban seemingly do not want to disrupt the sector, which is vital to the Afghan economy and possibly to the Taliban themselves. More importantly, despite successful experiments in Nangarhar province, the Taliban seem to have no intention of pursuing local reconciliation deals with communities connected to IS-K, nor of offering the Salafi community, which has been a major source of support for IS-K, some kind of integration into the Emirate’s structure, even at the local level.  

Another weak spot of the Taliban’s counter-terrorism and counter-insurgency is that it is poorly resourced. Although the Taliban keep adding manpower to both army and police, they lack advanced equipment. While they are not strong believers in technology, the Taliban believe that they would certainly benefit from some more airlift capabilities and from drones, especially for mountain operations. They might make progress in this direction in the not-so-distant future, as the Emirate by the end of 2023 looked close to obtaining China’s diplomatic recognition, which might be followed by some other countries in the region and would considerably improve the Taliban’s chances of obtaining some military supplies.  


The potential recruitment pool of foreign jihadists in Afghanistan 

In the short term, perhaps IS-K’s brightest chances of resurgence are linked to the Taliban’s troubled attempts to bring under control the variety of jihadist groups which they host and that once supported their jihad. To safeguard their relations with neighbouring countries, the Taliban need to restrain these groups, but as much as possible without alienating them. In fact, some have already been alienated. The Yuldash faction of the Islamic Movement of Uzbekistan (IMU) had remained loyal to the Taliban after IS-K appeared in 2014 – 2015, but after the Taliban takeover, they were sufficiently upset by the restrictions the Emirate was imposing on them that they started defecting to IS-K. Few of them are now left under the Taliban’s “protection”. The same applies to the Uyghurs of the East Turkestan Islamic Movement (ETIM), who were the first to be relocated away from their long-term hideout of Badakhshan, in the north-east of Afghanistan.  

Since there are only hundreds of Uzbeks and Uyghurs in Afghanistan, defections to IS-K can only have a limited impact. The Taliban’s biggest problem is however the Tehrik Taliban Pakistan (TTP), whose military power is not comparable with that of any other foreign jihadist group. While numbers fluctuate due to operations in Pakistan, the TTP has on average some thousands of fighters on Afghan territory and what is worse from the Taliban Emirate’s point of view, it has been recruiting growing numbers of Afghans within its ranks. The Taliban’s Emir and his loyalists are trying to improve relations with Pakistan and have issued a decree banning the participation of Afghans in the TTP’s fight against Pakistan. A previous decree banned foreign jihadists from using Afghanistan as a base for attacks to other countries. Efforts to implement these decrees have been made as the Taliban intelligence has detained TTP members who were returning from raids in Pakistan. In practice, however, the Emirate is not able to restrain the TTP effectively. 


Pakistan’s TTP: the potential ally that could turn the tide? 

Both Taliban and TTP sources say that in the meetings between the two the issue of TTP defections to IS-K is constantly discussed. TTP leaders claim that if they were to give up jihad in Pakistan, they would face massive defections to IS-K, implying that they paradoxically agree with the Pakistani authorities that without an Afghan safe haven the jihad would not be sustainable. They even hint subtly at the fact that the TTP leadership itself might have to ally with the Islamic State at that point. Such threats must be made to appear more plausible in the Taliban’s eyes by the fact that, according to both TTP and IS-K sources, the two groups have been cooperating in Pakistan. First, they reportedly agreed on their respective “taxation” rights and recruitment areas in different parts of Khyber Pakhtunkhwa province, and also to exchange logistics. Even inside Afghanistan, areas of TTP control partially overlap with areas of IS-K activity and it is clear that the TTP tolerates IS-K presence there, without supporting the Taliban’s counter-terrorism effort at all. IS-K had from its start a strong presence of former TTP members in its ranks and some TTP factions, chiefly the hardline Jamaat ul-Ahrar, were once closely allied with the TTP. Despite breaking that alliance and re-joining the TTP in 2020, Jamaat ul Ahrar’s leaders and cadres are still often reported by local sources in Kunar (as they repeated multiple times to the author’s research team throughout 2023) to meet the latter’s cadres and leaders, where IS-K has a significant presence on the ground. Furthermore, Jamaat ul-Ahrar approved the February 2023 attack on a mosque in Peshawar, which the TTP condemned and IS-K approved of.  

The Emirate never asked the TTP to give up its jihad, but it did ask them not to use Afghanistan as a base for its raids into Pakistan. It tried to mediate between TTP and Islamabad in 2022, however the mediations were unsuccessful. During 2022 and 2023, on several occasions the Taliban have asked the TTP to move its fighting units into Pakistan, according to both Taliban and TTP sources, contacted by the author’s research team on several occasions throughout 2022-23. The TTP tried to comply to some extent and started keeping larger numbers of fighters inside Pakistan. That fell short of what the Taliban’s Amir was asking for and as pressure from Kandahar grew, TTP leaders have at times grown defiant. A case in point is the Chitral raid of September 2023, which the TTP clearly carried out from Afghanistan and even saw a significant participation of Afghan volunteers in the TTP’s ranks. It looked like a provocation of the TTP leadership, tired of being put under pressure by the Taliban to do more to comply with their injunctions. It was after the raid that for the first time the Taliban cracked down on TTP seriously and detained tens of those returning from Chitral. After top level meetings and negotiations, the majority if not all of the detainees, were released.  

Part of the problem is that there are undoubtedly many Taliban members who sympathise with the TTP’s cause. They despise the Pakistani government and believe that the TTP deserves to be supported in its jihad against Islamabad, having contributed many lives to the Taliban’s own jihad inside Afghanistan. These TTP sympathisers are likely the majority of the Taliban in the east and south-east, where the TTP has in the past operated and therefore, solidarity links are stronger. As a result, thoroughly enforcing a ban on TTP activities from Afghan territory would also worsen intra-Taliban relations.  

For the Taliban, taking this course of action would be very risky, and they know it. However, they are also under very heavy pressure from Pakistan to do something about it. Eventually in November 2023, the Pakistani authorities started expelling hundreds of thousands of illegal Afghan residents, putting the economy of the Emirate under additional strain. The Pakistani armed forces also carried out occasional artillery and air strikes on Afghan territory, as well as targeted assassinations of TTP commanders. As a result of this and of additional pressure that Pakistan might bring to bear in the future, the Emirate might eventually be forced to take measures that the TTP will resist. For example, there is talk of the Emirate seeking Pakistani funding to relocate TTP members and their families to northern Afghanistan, a solution already tested unsuccessfully in 2023 that will certainly not be welcomed by the TTP’s leaders. Other measures that the Taliban might take could instead be at least divisive for the TTP, such as for example the rumoured plan to renew Taliban mediation between TTP and Islamabad. Hardline TTP factions, such as Jamaat ul Ahrar, would strongly object to it. Already, distrust between the Taliban and TTP runs high. Within TTP ranks many who suspect that the targeted assassinations of TTP members are orchestrated by Pakistani intelligence with the help of elements of the Taliban. The prospect of TTP following the path of many former IMU and ETIM jihadists into joining or allying with IS-K cannot therefore be discounted. This is likely to be IS-K’s best chance of raising its head again in eastern Afghanistan.