Exploiting U.S. Withdrawal From Afghanistan, Islamic State-Taliban Fight To Establish Islamic Caliphate To Intensify

Introduction

As the withdrawal of U.S. and coalition troops from Afghanistan is already in its final stages as per the February 29, 2020 agreement[1] between the United States and the Afghan Taliban, signed in the Qatari capital of Doha, the Islamic State (ISIS) has begun to carry out increasingly diverse attacks via its Afghan affiliate, the Islamic State Khurasan Province (ISKP), in an attempt to expand its influence in the country.

The surge in ISKP’s attacks on various critical targets, including infrastructure and ethnic and religious minorities, is an attempt to compete with the Islamic Emirate of Afghanistan, known as the Afghan Taliban, as both jihadi groups seek to immediately exploit the U.S. withdrawal from Afghanistan. Acting quickly after being emboldened by the U.S. withdrawal, the Taliban began consolidating its grip on power, making rapid advances by controlling key border crossings in the north and west and a growing number of districts across the country.[2]

As a result, the Taliban-ISKP fight is likely to intensify, as both groups seek to exploit the September 11 deadline set by President Joe Biden for withdrawal from Afghanistan after 20 years, clashing militarily and ideologically over which group seeks to establish the genuine Islamic state and implement Allah’s shari’a.

This report looks closely at the surge in ISKP attacks on vital economic targets, Afghan religious and ethnic minorities, and even the Taliban, in an effort to present itself as an alternative Sunni jihadi group to the Taliban to establish an authentic Islamic state and implement shari’a in Afghanistan.

Uptick In ISKP Attack Claims In 2021

ISKP attack claims in Afghanistan in 2021 appear to be increasing over 2020, reflecting an uptick in the affiliate’s operations in the country. From the beginning of 2021 until July 31, ISKP claimed responsibility for 177 attacks, while claiming only 84 attacks in 2020. This rapid surge reflects its attempt to stage a comeback after suffering heavy losses in several military operations carried out by the Afghan government, the Afghan Taliban, and U.S. forces in past years.

Highlighting its mounting attacks in Afghanistan, ISKP released on July 20, 2021 a video titled “Makers Of Epic Battles,”[3] which documents various attacks in Baghlan, Kabul, and Jalalabad and features its August 4, 2020 prison break in Jalalabad, in Nangarhar province.[4]The video also features an unnamed Tajik fighter calling on local and foreign fighters to be optimistic and addressing “the unbelievers and the apostates everywhere and those in Tajikistan in particular,” saying: “Do not forget that the soldiers of the Caliphate will show you difficult days. Do not think that the Caliphate has vanished. No. It is remaining, with Allah’s permission.”

On January 31, 2021, ISIS released an infographic through its official media outlet, A’maq News Agency, detailing the attacks perpetrated by ISKP fighters in Afghanistan over the course of 2020.[5] According to the infographic, most of the attacks were concentrated in Kabul, Nangarhar, Kunar, Parwan, Paktia, and Herat. The infographic also stated that ISKP fighters carried out 82 attacks in Afghanistan, including 32 IED attacks, 21 assassinations, eight “martyrdom inghimasi” attacks (deep-penetration suicide attacks), four clashes, and 17 others.

The infographic added that these attacks killed and wounded 821 people, including 408 members of the Afghan armed and security forces, 345 Shi’ites, 66 fighters of the Taliban militias, and two members of the International Coalition.

The infographic also stated that these attacks destroyed 20 vehicles, including two armored personnel carriers, nine four-wheel drive vehicles, and nine others.

It also listed high-profile attacks, including seizing the Jalalabad prison and freeing “hundreds” of detainees; bombing International Coalition bases in Kabul, Bagram Airfield, and Jalalabad several times; bombing the Green Zone, which includes the presidential palace and diplomatic missions, several times; killing and wounding hundreds of Shi’ites by targeting their gatherings in Kabul and Herat; killing and wounding dozens of Sikh and Hindus by targeting their temples in Kabul; and killing and wounding hundreds of Afghan security personnel as part of continuous attacks on them.

In an August 2020 high-profile attack, ISKP reportedly killed at least 29 and wounded more than 50 at a prison holding mostly ISIS and Taliban fighters in Jalalabad.[6]

ISKP said in a statement that “the result of this blessed raid was the destruction and burning of the prison, the release of hundreds of Muslims, the killing of approximately 100 members of the apostate [Afghan] police and army, and the wounding of dozens, and the destruction of a number of armored vehicles, praise be to Allah.”[7]

ISIS Takes Its “Economic War” To Afghanistan

In May 2021, ISKP declared an “economic war” on the Afghan government, effectively taking its campaign from Iraq and Syria to the south Asian country, and began attacking vital energy infrastructure and resources such as oil tanks and electricity pylons. ISKP’s “economic war” aims to weaken the economy that is benefiting the Afghan government and expand operations in Afghanistan as the U.S. withdraws from the country.

Between May and July, ISKP claimed responsibility for 20 attacks as part of its “economic war.” They are as follows:

May 6: ISKP operatives targeted a government oil truck in Kunduz in northern Afghanistan and burned it.

May 7: ISKP detonated explosives on three electric transmission towers in Kunduz, causing "losses to the electricity sector." On the same day, ISKP detonated explosives on two electric transmission towers in Kunduz and destroyed them.

May 9: ISKP detonated an IED on an Afghan government oil tanker, which went up in flames, near the city of Baghlan in northern Afghanistan. ISIS also detonated an IED on an Afghan government oil tanker in the Kabul area, setting it and another tanker aflame.

May 10: ISKP detonated an IED on two Afghan government oil tankers in Bagram in Parwan province, setting them on fire.

May 14: ISKP detonated explosives on four electric transmission towers in Jangal Bagh, north of Kabul, disabling them and causing "losses to the electricity sector."

May 15: ISKP claimed a May 14 IED attack targeting the electric transmission tower in District 17 in Kabul, destroying it and causing "economic losses to the electricity sector."

May 29: ISKP detonated sticky bombs on two government oil tankers near Bagram in Parwan province on May 28, setting them aflame.

June 2: ISKP detonated an IED on an electricity tower in Kabul on June 1, destroying it.

June 5: ISKP operatives planted and detonated a sticky bomb on an Afghan government fuel truck on June 4 in the town of Imam Saheb in Kunduz province.

June 8: ISKP carried out an IED attack in the Seventh District in Jalalabad on June 7, damaging a supply truck of the Afghan administration.

June 17: ISKP detonated an IED on an electric transmission tower in Salang District in the Parwan province on June 16, causing material damage to it.

June 19: ISKP detonated explosives on three electricity towers in Samangan province on June 18, damaging them.

June 25: ISKP detonated an IED on an oil tanker belonging to the Afghan government in Rabat in Parwan province, setting it aflame.

June 27: ISKP detonated an IED near an Afghan government electric pylon in Parwan province on June 26, destroying it.

July 10: ISKP claimed that on July 9 its operatives detonated an explosive device on an Afghan government oil truck near the office of the governor of Kunduz and burned down the truck.

July 11: ISKP detonated an explosive device near an electric tower in Jangal Bagh in Parwan province, damaging it.

July 14: ISKP claimed on July 13 that its operatives detonated an IED on an oil tanker belonging to the Afghan government in Kunduz. On the same day, ISKP claimed its fighters detonated an IED on an oil tanker belonging to the Afghan government in Robatak, Samangan province.
ISKP Targets Religious And Ethnic Minorities

As part of its efforts to expand in Afghanistan, ISKP focused on waging a genocidal war against Afghan minorities because of their religious and ethnic identity. This war targeted four main groups: Shi'ites, Sikhs, Hindus, and Sufis.

Shi'ites

Shi'ites make up 15 percent of Afghanistan's 36.6 million population. Shi'ites, approximately 90 percent of whom are from the ethnoreligious Hazaras, have been a key target of ISKP's operations in Afghanistan.

From the beginning of 2021 until July 31, ISKP carried out 18 attacks on Shi'ites. To justify its slaughter, oppression, and other villainy, ISKP usually refers to Shi'ites as rawafid mushrikin, Arabic for rejectionists and polytheists, an early term used against Shi'ites.

    January 19: ISKP detonated a sticky bomb on a bus carrying several Shi'ites and policemen in Kabul's fourth district, destroying the vehicle and causing six casualties.

    January 20: ISKP detonation an IED on a vehicle carrying "polytheist" Shi'ites in Dar ul-Aman in Kabul, killing and wounding four people and destroying the vehicle.

    January 21: An ISIS cell detonated a sticky bomb attached to a car carrying three "polytheist" Shi'ites in Kabul's sixth district, killing and wounding those on it and destroying the vehicle.

    January 27: ISKP detonated a sticky bomb on a vehicle carrying four "polytheist" Shi'ites in Kabul's third district, killing and wounding those on it and destroying the vehicle.

    February 1: ISKP detonated an IED in Kabul's 10th district, killing a "polytheist" Shi'ite and destroying his vehicle.

    February 2: ISKP detonated an IED in Kabul's Dehmazang, killing a "polytheist" Shi'ite and destroying it.

    February 8: ISKP detonated an IED in Kabul's first district, killing a "polytheist" Shi'ite and destroying it.

    March 15: ISIS claimed sticky-bomb attacks in Kabul's third and sixth districts which targeted "polytheist" Shi'ites, causing 20 casualties.

    April 21: ISKP carried out an attack on vehicles in which "polytheist" Shi'ites were traveling on the road between Kabul and Ghor, killing four people, including a government official.

    May 10: ISKP carried out an IED attack on a bus carrying "polytheist" Shi'ites in the town of Charikar in Parwan, disabling the bus and causing 20 casualties.

    May 15: ISKP carried out an IED attack on a group of Hazara Shi'ites in the Kunduz, killing three and wounding others.

    May 29: ISKP carried out an IED attack on a bus carrying "polytheist" Shi'ites in Parwan, leaving eight killed or wounded and destroying the bus.

    June 1: ISKP carried out an IED attack on a bus in which "polytheist" Shi'ites were traveling on the road between Parwan and Bamyan, killing 20 people and destroying the bus.

    June 2: ISKP carried out two separate IED attacks on two buses carrying "polytheist" Shi'ites in Kabul's Third district on June 1, killing and wounding more than 33 people.

    June 4: ISKP claimed two separate sticky bomb attacks targeting Shi'ites in Kabul's sixth district on June 3, causing 24 casualties.

    June 12: ISKP carried out a double sticky bomb attack targeting Shi'ites in Kabul's sixth and 13th districts, causing 23 casualties.

    June 28: ISKP carried out an IED attack on a bus carrying "polytheist" Shi'ites in the town of Charikar in Parwan on June 27, disabling the bus and wounding more than 10 people.

    July 8: ISKP fighters killed and wounded 13 "polytheist" Shi'ites in an attack with a sticky bomb targeting a bus in the 12th district in Herat.

Sikhs And Hindus

In Afghanistan, other religious groups, mainly Hindus, Sikhs, Baha’is, and Christians, constitute less than 0.3 percent of the population. Most Sikhs and Hindus are based in Kabul, Nangarhar, and Ghazni provinces. ISKP, in its attack claims, describes Sikhs as “polytheists” – a term it also uses for Afghanistan Shi’ites – to justify targeting them. These attacks are also celebrated by pro-ISIS media outlets, which cite the mistreatment of Muslims in India as justification.

On July 1, 2021, ISKP claimed responsibility for a June 30 attack on a store owned by Sikhs near one of their temples in the eastern city of Jalalabad in Nangarhar province.[8] According to ISKP’s claim, the attack left three Sikhs killed or wounded.

On March 25, 2020, ISKP claimed responsibility for an inghimasi attack (a commando-style attack behind enemy lines) on a Sikh place of worship in Kabul, resulting in 60 casualties.[9] The claim stated that the attack was carried out “in retaliation for the Muslims in Kashmir” and further warned: “What is coming shall be more harsh and more bitter, with Allah’s permission.”

In 2018, ISKP also carried out a suicide attack in the city of Jalalabad that killed 19 people, most of them Sikhs, including long-time leader Nasir Mohmand, who had nominated himself for the Afghan parliament.[10]

Similarly, ISKP targeted Afghan Hindus, describing them as “polytheists” and “enemies of the religion of Allah” to justify the attacks. In an “exclusive” report published in its weekly Al-Naba’ on February 11, ISIS claimed a February 10 attack with two IEDs on a gathering of “polytheist Hindus” in the Shor Bazar area in Kabul which killed and wounded six.[11]

On April 10, 2020, the pro-ISIS media outlet Al-Battar Foundation released a short video titled “The Monotheists’ Revenge Against The Polytheist Hindus” celebrating the deadly March 2020 attack on a Sikh temple in Kabul and describing it as revenge for the mistreatment of Muslims of India.[12] In this video, Al-Battar conflated Sikhs and Hindus, although Sikhism and Hinduism are two distinct religions. However, in Afghanistan these two communities are interwoven.

The pro-ISIS media outlet Al-Murhafat Foundation[13] released on June 18, 2020 a poster glorifying Abu Khalid Al-Hindi, an Indian who perpetrated a suicide attack on a Sikh temple in Kabul, and praised him for killing 60 “unbeliever” Sikhs and Hindus and “apostate” Afghan security forces.

ISKP’s growing attacks against Afghan Sikhs and Hindus threaten to uproot them from the Muslim-majority country, where they face deep-rooted discrimination.[14] Many Afghan Sikhs and Hindus are seeking asylum in India, which has a Hindu majority and a large Sikh population.

Sufis

Afghan Sufis are also among the religious groups targeted by ISKP as part of its campaign. To justify attacks on them, ISKP views them as “polytheists.” Sufis, who practice a mystical branch of Islam, are among the tiny religious communities in Afghanistan. There are no official figures of their numbers in the country, but their spiritual and mystical practices have a following among both Sunnis and Shi’ites. Sufi leaders in Afghanistan claim that at least 60 percent of the country’s population are followers of Sufism, or at least support Sufi values.[15]

On May 15, 2021, ISKP claimed responsibility for the May 14 bombing of a Sufi mosque in Kabul’s Shakardara district during the Friday prayers, as worshippers gathered for the Eid Al-Fitr holiday, causing 50 casualties among “polytheist” Sufis.[16] According to the claim, the imam of the mosque, who “used to incite against the mujahideen,” was killed along with 10 other Sufis, and 40 “polytheist Sufis” were wounded. According to media reports, 12 Sufis were killed in the attack, including the imam of the mosque.[17]

Women Media Workers

ISKP also focused on killing female media workers, including journalists. On March 2, 2021, ISKP claimed responsibility for the assassination of three female media workers in the fourth district of Jalalabad in Nangarhar province.[18]According to official government sources, the three young women, aged 18 to 20, who worked in the dubbing department of the local Enikass Radio and TV, were killed in two separate coordinated attacks. All three women were shot in the head on their way home from work.

Earlier in December 2020, Malalai Maiwand, a female Afghan journalist and women’s rights campaigner who worked for the same network, was assassinated in Jalalabad.[19]Maiwand’s death came a month after Elyas Dayee, a leading journalist in southern Helmand, and Yama Siawash, a prominent former TV news anchor in Kabul, were killed in car bombings.[20]

ISIS has justified the targeted killings of women. On April 12, the Al-Murhafat Foundation, one of the most active ISIS media outlets, published a booklet[21]justifying the execution of al-murtadah, or the “female apostate,” a classification developed by the organization to describe women working for or supporting “apostate governments” against its members.

The release of the 20-page booklet is part of the group’s effort to justify recent executions of women in countries like Afghanistan, Iraq, and Syria, for which ISIS has claimed responsibility.

The group said that it executed the women because they worked for intelligence services, though in fact, some were journalists. In an editorial published in the latest issue of the ISIS weekly Al-Naba’, released on March 20,[22]the group addressed accusations that it holds extreme religious views on takfir, excommunication of fellow Muslims.

Its new tactic of publicly claiming the executions of women is significant, considering the mounting criticism against the organization from rival groups. This escalation is likely intended as a strong warning to its enemies – i.e., local governments that are mistreating imprisoned female ISIS members – or as a stark threat to women supporting such governments.

ISKP Steps Up Attacks On Afghan Taliban

ISKP, which is competing with the Taliban, has focused on attacking Taliban fighters and commanders in several areas in order to present itself as a pure Islamic alternative. ISKP calls the Taliban an “apostate militia” – a term commonly used by ISIS to demonize Al-Qaeda affiliates battling ISIS fighters elsewhere.

Since the beginning of 2021, ISKP has carried out seven attacks targeting the Taliban, mainly concentrated in Afghanistan’s eastern provinces of Kunar and Nangarhar.

January 8: ISKP claimed to have wounded a commander of "the Taliban militia apostates" in a January 6 gun attack in Kunar.

January 12: ISKP claimed a January 11 attack on a Taliban position in Mazar Dara in Kunar using various types of weapons. According to the claim, the attack left several Taliban fighters killed or wounded.

January 29: ISKP claimed the killing of four Taliban commanders in an ambush in Kunar on January 27. The claim stated that the local Taliban intelligence chief was one of the four.

June 29: ISKP claimed the killing of a Taliban member in Mazar Dara in Kunar.

July 16: ISKP claimed that on July 15 its fighters gunned down Taliban commander Sayed Wazir in the Ghani Khel region in Nangarhar province.

July 20: ISKP claimed its fighter killed an "apostate" Taliban fighter in the village of Manu in Chaparhar in Nangarhar province.

ISKP Expands Anti-Taliban Operations In Pakistan

ISKP also carried out an attack on the Pakistani Taliban “militia” in Pakistan. On July 13, 2021, ISKP claimed that on July 11, its fighters killed a Taliban commander linked to the “apostate” Pakistani intelligence in the town of Jamrud, which it mistakenly placed in the city of Peshawar. Jamrud is in fact the main town in Khyber province in northwestern Pakistan.

The attack could have been carried out by an ISKP cell actively operating in Pakistan. Otherwise, it appears that the ISIS central media mistakenly placed this attack in its Khurasan province, since ISIS has a province in Pakistan known as Wilayat Pakistan, or Pakistan province. ISIS officially announced its presence in Pakistan on May 15, 2019, when it claimed responsibility for two separate attacks in Balochistan, Pakistan’s largest province.[23]In one attack, on May 13, 2019, ISIS fighters gunned down a Pakistani police officer. In the second, on May 14, 2019, fighters killed a Taliban member and wounded three others in Quetta city.

ISKP’s expansion of operations inside Pakistan signals that in Pakistan, such attacks are orchestrated by its Afghan branch, since ISIS views the Taliban as a tool in the hands of Pakistani intelligence.

ISKP has also started targeting Pakistani government employees. On July 29, 2021, the group claimed that its fighters gunned down an employee of the Pakistani Embassy in Afghanistan who was inside his vehicle in the fourth district of Jalalabad in the eastern province of Nangarhar. The attack signals ISIS intention to target embassies of countries which it accuses of supporting Taliban and their employees if Taliban overrun the country post the U.S. exodus.

ISIS Vs. Taliban: Two Versions Of An Islamic Caliphate

The Taliban, benefiting from the U.S. withdrawal from Afghanistan, is determined to revive at any cost its own version of the Islamic state, known as the Islamic Emirate of Afghanistan, which was established in 1996.[24]To that end the Taliban, which is estimated to have 60,000 fighters, launched a nationwide offensive against Afghan government forces in southern Helmand province after the U.S. withdrawal began on May 1, 2020, in clear violation of the February 2020 U.S.-Taliban deal. The Taliban’s offensive action prompted the U.S. to carry out several airstrikes in October 2020 in support of Afghan security forces attacked by the Taliban in southern Helmand province.[25]Since July 2021, in an effort to curb the Taliban’s battlefield gains and destroy the equipment it seized from Afghan forces, the U.S. has stepped up its airstrikes against the jihadi group from bases outside of Afghanistan.[26]

Currently, the Taliban controls or contests more territory than at any other time. According to the latest figures, 18 of Afghanistan’s 34 provinces are under direct threat of falling under Taliban control, putting the Afghan government at risk of complete collapse.[27]

Taliban Seeks “Pure Islamic System”

The Taliban has made no secret of the fact that it seeks to establish what it sometimes calls “a pure Islamic system” and at other times an “Afghan-inclusive Islamic system” following the U.S. exodus.[28]In the annual statement of Taliban Emir Haibatullah Akhundzada, issued on the eve of Eid Al-Fitr, he said that the two-decade jihad in Afghanistan is “near realization,” as America and its allies are set to withdraw foreign troops from the country.[29]Calling for “the establishment of a pure Islamic system,” Akhundzada stated: “We assure the entire nation that following the end of [the American] occupation, we shall have an Afghan-inclusive Islamic system.”

Although the Taliban has not disclosed any exact details of its vision of governance following the U.S. exit, Taliban leaders stated that they seek to establish an “inclusive” system and reassured some religious minorities that their rights are protected in Taliban shari’a rule. In Akhundzada’s latest statement, he emphasized that an Islamic system of government would be implemented in Afghanistan and promised to safeguard citizens’ rights and “create an appropriate environment for female education within the framework of sublime Islamic law.”[30]He further stated that his group is committed to “freedom of speech within the limits of shari’a and national interests.”

In a recent video, which included English subtitles and aimed to present a humane face to Afghans and the international community, Mullah Ameer Khan Muttaqi, a senior Taliban commander, reassured Shi’ites in the Kajran district of the central province of Daikundi that “the victorious Taliban will not harm them… The Islamic Emirate of Afghanistan has no prejudicial policy and respects Shi’ite people the same way as Sunni people.”[31]

The Taliban, aside from being unreliable and elusive, severely restricted general freedoms and rights when it ruled Afghanistan, particularly those of religious groups and women. Although it has recently made vague promises to allow certain rights to them under Islamic law which cannot be fulfilled, it has declined to specify what that would mean in practice. Thus, these promises can be seen as a desperate attempt by the Islamist jihadi group to obtain international legitimacy.

Just recently, a senior Taliban member revealed the group’s opposition to a woman becoming president or even singing. In a July 12 interview with the Afghan television network TOLOnews, Taliban spokesman Zabihullah Mujahid declared that according to shari’a principles, a woman is not permitted to be the president of Afghanistan or to sing. Mujahid also refused to denounce the Taliban’s ties with Al-Qaeda, or for that matter with any Muslim group, citing faith in Islam as the reason.[32]Mujahid was also quoted in the latest issue of the Taliban’s Urdu-language monthly magazine Shariat[33]as saying that jihad was waged for “the achievement of a sacred aspiration – that the external aggression will be terminated, as a result of which a real Islamic system be implemented.” He warned: “We will continue our struggle until the enforcement of an Islamic system. And it is incumbent upon us that we harvest what we have cultivated.”

In statements made during the opening of the intra-Afghan talks, held in September 2020, Taliban deputy political leader Mullah Abdul Ghani Baradar, who heads the Taliban’s delegation in Doha, said: “We seek an Afghanistan that is independent, sovereign, united, developed and free – an Afghanistan with an Islamic system in which all people of the nation can participate without discrimination.”[34]In a February 2021 letter in English addressing the American people, Baradar wrote that the group is committed to establishing “an Islamic government” and protecting certain rights with conditions, such as “all rights of women afforded to them by Islamic law” and “freedom of speech within the framework of Islamic principles and national interests.”[35]In an exclusive June 2021 interview with the U.S. magazine Foreign Policy, Taliban spokesman Zabiullah Mujahid said that the Taliban seeks to establish an “Islamic government,” and he described this as the group’s “second goal,” threatening that “if this second goal is not reached, we will be compelled to continue our war to achieve our goal.”[36]

ISIS Disparages Taliban’s “Independent” Islamic System, Offers Its Vision As An Alternative

To reiterate its stance against the Taliban, ISIS voiced its opposition to the kind of inclusive Islamic system promoted by the “apostate Taliban militia” and accused the group of being the “security guard” of the interests of America and the West. In an editorial published in Issue 291 of Al-Naba’, released on June 17, 2021, ISIS alleged that the Taliban “apostates” are no longer a threat to “Crusader” America and noted that they have become “the security guard” that protects American interests by fighting ISIS mujahideen in Afghanistan.[37] The editorial also stated that the Taliban has no interest in applying shari’a and continuing jihad, accusing it of fighting with the U.S. against ISIS. It concluded by praising the escalation of attacks by its fighters in various areas in Afghanistan as they continue to wage jihad in the country.

Condemning the Taliban’s vision of Islamic rule and presenting itself as a viable alternative, ISIS went on to say that the Taliban-U.S. “peace” deal assumed that the Taliban would assume power and “there will be no real nucleus for an Islamic rule that would implement Islamic shari’a and continue jihad.” It added that “the Taliban’s ascension to power means its commitment to all the charters and the outcomes of the peace process in ‘Doha.’ Is there anything in the ‘Doha’ agreements other than believing in democracy?!”

The group further denounced the so-called “independent Islamic system” of the Taliban and for its alliance with the “Crusaders,” noting that the new system “will not be Islamic according to the prophetic methodology.” The editorial also suggested that the Taliban and the U.S. have been collaborating against ISIS and vowed that the Islamic State would “continue their jihad, according to the prophetic methodology.”

ISIS-aligned media outlets also shared several materials demonizing the Taliban to win the hearts and minds of Afghans. On May 3, 2021, the ISIS-aligned media group Khalid Media released a two-hour video titled “Who Are The Taliban?” tracking the history of the Afghan Taliban to expose “their treachery and apostasy.” The video, which was in Pashto and made to be directly and immediately relevant to Afghan supporters inside Afghanistan, accused the Taliban of violating Islam by ruling according to Pashtun tribal laws, collaborating with Pakistani intelligence, allying with unbelievers, fighting against ISIS, adopting nationalism, and smuggling drugs.

In a nutshell, ISIS is determined to continue its fight against all parties, including the “apostate” Afghan Taliban, that do not implement Allah’s shari’a or do not follow the “authentic” jihadi methodology. On one hand, the Taliban seems to be open to reassuring some religious and ethnic minorities – for tactical purposes – that their rights will be protected if they accept the establishment of the Islamic system. On the other, ISIS, the Taliban’s rival, rejects all forms of “apostasy and unbelief” and would continue waging jihad in Afghanistan – which it once dubbed “Khurasan, the graveyard of apostate,” – to establish a Caliphate according to the prophetic methodology, like the one it once had in Iraq and Syria.

Conclusion: ISKP-Taliban Fight To Establish Islamic System After U.S. Withdrawal To Intensify

ISKP emerged in eastern Afghanistan in 2015 and was able to seize a large swathe of Taliban-controlled areas in Nangarhar province within a few months and present itself as a true defender of Islamic shari’a. Its inception coincided with reports about informal talks between the Taliban and the United States in Doha. After that, armed clashes between the two groups came to the surface in 2015, during which the Taliban published an open letter to then ISIS leader Abu Bakr Al-Baghdadi urging him not to interfere in the jihad in Afghanistan and saying his fighters “should do nothing that will break up the mujahideen’s power.”[38]However, the Taliban’s demand fell on deaf ears, and both jihadi groups engaged in hostile attacks, fueled by their two distinct visions for establishing an Islamic state in Afghanistan.

The two groups then engaged in public rivalry and fighting. Although ISKP’s exact numbers remain unclear, a UN report released on July, 21 2021 estimated the size of the group at between 500 and 1,500 fighters.[39]Initially, ISKP’s numbers ranged from 2,000 to 4,000 fighters, until it “collapsed” in late 2019 due to offensives by the U.S., Afghan forces, and the Taliban.[40]Despite its defeat, ISKP has proven to be remarkably resilient, and its sleeper cells of devout fighters appear to be capable of carrying out attacks in Afghanistan against its foes, seizing every opportunity to resurge.

As stated above, ISIS claims that the United States and Taliban are cooperating against it in Afghanistan. Nevertheless, it remains exactly unclear if the U.S. provided any kind of support to the Afghan Taliban in its fight against ISKP. U.S. Central Command chief General Kenneth McKenzie has admitted that his forces provided “very limited support” to the Taliban’s fight against ISKP, yet he did not specify the exact nature of the support. Later, in a December 2020 interview, McKenzie clarified this point when he described the operations as an opportunity in the fight against ISIS in Afghanistan, not coordination with the Taliban.[41]The proposition that the U.S. may rely on or trust an Islamist jihadi group like the Taliban in the fight against terrorism is immature and troubling, since the Taliban is unreliable and until this very moment has failed to end its ties with Al-Qaeda. According to the July 2021 UN report, Al-Qaida in the Indian Subcontinent (AQIS) is still operating freely under the Taliban’s protection from Kandahar, Helmand, and Nimruz provinces.[42]

The central ISIS leadership has also encouraged its affiliate in Afghanistan to exploit the opportunity created by the U.S. exit and has called for intensifying operations, mainly against “the apostate Taliban militia.” In a June 22, 2021 audio recording, titled “You Shall Be Uppermost If You Are Believers” (Quran 3:139), official ISIS spokesman Abu Hamzah Al-Qurashi praised ISKP’s operations in Afghanistan and urged the group to carry out more attacks against the Taliban. Addressing ISKP fighters, Al-Qurashi urged them to intensify their attacks against Afghan Shi’ites and the Afghan Taliban and stressed the need to select more sensitive targets within the Afghan government.[43]It appears that ISKP heeded his call and escalated and diversified its attacks in Afghanistan at a time when ISIS was starting to report its Afghan affiliate’s operations more extensively to show its resilience and give the impression that it remains intact.

ISKP, taking ISIS orders seriously, stepped into the security vacuum created by the U.S. withdrawal and carried out high-profile attacks in Kabul. On July 20, 2021, it claimed responsibility for a rocket strike using seven Katyushas against the presidential palace of Afghan President Ashraf Ghani and the green zone in Kabul. ISKP also claimed responsibility for a brutal attack on June 8, 2021 which killed 10 humanitarian deminers working with HALO Trust in the northern province of Baghlan and wounded 16. These attacks are part of ISKP’s efforts at resurgence and are possibly intended to attract new recruits in the event that the Kabul government collapses.

Thus, the ISKP-Taliban rivalry and fighting are likely to intensify as both groups continue to engage in fierce battles for power and in a propaganda war to establish their own distinct Islamic Caliphates. While the Taliban is expected to gain the upper hand in light of the recent victories over the Afghan government and the expected support from its Al-Qaeda allies, ISKP’s increasing high-profile and diverse attacks against the Afghan government, religious and ethnic groups, and the Taliban suggest that it will remain a key threat in Afghanistan. ISKP will continue competing with the Afghan Taliban, exploiting every opportunity to expand and solidify its presence through recruiting, mobilizing, and plotting new attacks, following the orders of the central ISIS leadership.

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