ISIS-K vs Taliban

Minorities stay targeted in Afghanistan despite assurance from the ruling Taliban

ISIS-K is expanding and the ferocity of attacks is rising in Afghanistan and its surroundings

Minorities stay targeted in Afghanistan despite assurance from the ruling Taliban
Wife, son and daughter of Sawinder Singh, who was killed in an attack on a gurdwara in Kabul, mourn after his ashes were brought, at IGI Airport, in New Delhi, Thursday, June 30, 2022.

New Delhi: Eleven Afghan Sikhs arrived in India on June 30 with the ashes of Sawinder Singh, who was killed in an attack on a Gurdwara in Kabul by a particular Indian flight. 

On June 18 2022, a car laden with explosives rammed into the Sikh temple, killing a Sikh and injuring three other devotees. Also, Taliban officials said a local security guard on duty was killed in the blast. 

The Indian government on June 19 granted emergency e-visas to 111 Hindus and Sikhs from Afghanistan, hours after a terrorist group ISIS-K attacked the Gurdwara in Afghanistan. 

Sawinder Singh ran a small business shop in Kabul and lived in the Gurdwara. His family lives in Delhi.

It is happening when India plans to open up its mission in Kabul, and some minuscule services and humanitarian aid have been activated even though the Indian staff of the Indian embassy is yet to join the duties in Kabul.

Second attack on a Sikh temple in Kabul

In 2020, an attack by the ISIS-K armed group on a Gurudwara in Kabul left 25 dead and triggered an exodus of Sikhs from the country. 

The recent attack has shaken the left behind Sikh/Hindu communities, numbering around 150 in Afghanistan, a community that once numbered approximately 200,000 members in the 1970s. 

Years of religious persecution and conflict have forced thousands of minorities in Afghanistan, mostly Hindus and Sikhs, Christians, Shias, and Ahmadi, to leave the country. 

They are now living a life of refugees in India, Pakistan, Tajikistan, Australia, New Zealand and several other countries. 

Increase of the ISIS-K attacks after the Taliban took over Afghanistan

VOA reported that American military assessments have warned that al-Qaida and ISIS-K are growing in strength since the Taliban takeover of Afghanistan and could pose a significant threat beyond the country's borders. While the Taliban claim they have ended the war and restored peace in Afghanistan, ISIS fighters have continued attacking civilians in different parts of Afghanistan. 

A survey of the Islamic State group's attacks around the world in 2021 indicates the group killed and injured more people in Afghanistan than anywhere else. In 2021, ISIS-K carried out 365 terrorist attacks in Afghanistan that caused 2,210 casualties, a significant increase compared with 2020, when 82 ISIS attacks that caused 835 deaths were reported, according to an Israeli think tank, the Meir Amit Intelligence and Terrorism Information Center. 

Globally, ISIS operatives carried out 2,705 attacks resulting in 8,147 casualties. 

The Taliban government has repeatedly reaffirmed its commitments that no foreign forces shall be allowed to use the territory of Afghanistan against others. However, just after concluded Jigra meeting from (June 30 to July 2), The Taliban's reclusive supreme leader Hibatullah Akhundzada called for the world to stop telling them how to run Afghanistan, insisting sharia law was the only model for a prosperous Islamic state. 

Akhundzada does not allow to be filmed or photographed. He was addressing a significant gathering of religious scholars in the Afghan capital on 01.07.2022 called to rubber-stamp the hard-line Islamist group's rule.

Over 3,000 religious clerics and lawmakers gathered in Kabul for the three-day men-only meeting. The media was not allowed to cover the event. "Why is the world interfering in our affairs?" he asked in an hour-long speech broadcast by state radio. "They say, 'why don't you do this, why don't you do that?' Why does the world interfere in our work?"

Three gunmen were shot dead in the Afghan capital as they were suspected of preparing to attack the first day of a vast Taliban gathering of clerics and local dignitaries. Gunfire and explosions were heard close to the venue of the Taliban's grand assembly, ' Loya jirga'. The Taliban regime deployed high security across the capital, with the roads leading to the 'jirga' venue blocked.

Who is (Islamic State in Iraq and Syria (ISIS - Khorasan) or ISIS-K? 

ISIS-K is the Afghanistan partner of the Islamic State in Iraq and Syria (ISIS). It arose in 2015 after ISIS announced its caliphate in Iraq and Syria. 

The group wanted to tumble the Pakistani government, discipline the Iranian government for being the saviour of Shias, and bring complete Islamic rule to Afghanistan even at the cost of mass civilian killings. They are seen as an enemy of the Afghan Taliban. 

They are also anti minorities and continue punishing minority groups, like the Hazaras, Hindus and Sikhs. 

ISIS-K's central cadre are from Pakistan's Tehreek-e-Taliban Pakistan, the Al-Qaeda in Afghanistan and Pakistan, including some radical youth from Bangladesh, Maldives, India and Sri Lanka. 

It also has scattered members from Malaysia, Indonesia, Turkey, Syria and some other West Asia countries. It holds control in eastern Afghanistan and leveraged its rural networks to gain territorial control in the provinces of Nangarhar and Kunar.

ISIS-K and the Taliban

ISIS-K sees the Taliban as an enemy that needs to be defeated. Since Taliban rule in Afghanistan, the priority of the ISIS-K has been attacking the Taliban and minorities. 

In 2021, ISIS-K's ultimate strategic end was to establish a "pure Islamic system in Afghanistan".

Armed gunfights in Afghanistan have worsened the relations between the two groups, but the leading cause remains their sectarian difference. 

ISIS-K subscribes to the Jihadi-Salafism ideology — and plays up the 'purity' of its doctrine. 

On the other hand, the Taliban subscribe to an alternative Sunni Islamic sectarian school, the Hanafi madhhab, which ISIS-K regards as deficient. 

The two groups also differ over the role of nationalism. ISIS-K believes in no national boundaries, which contradicts the Afghan Taliban's aims of ruling over Afghanistan. 

There are some questions about the Haqqani network, a partner in the Taliban government. Earlier, they worked with ISIS-K.

According to the U.N., since 2015, in eastern Afghanistan, bordering Pakistan, the ISIS Afghan affiliate has caused more than 7,000 civilian casualties (including over 2,200 deaths). Data shows that there has been an increase in ISIS-K attacks in Kabul and surrounding districts in the last two years.

The United Nations has warned that ISIS-K's objective "remains to challenge the Taliban by waging a war that fits into the border Daesh concept of 'global jihad’." 

Using the Arabic acronym for the terrorist outfit, the UN said in its assessment released last month that ISIS-K's short-term focus is "expected to remain on attacks on soft targets such as Shia Hazara mosques and minority groups."

Challenges for the Taliban

ISIS-K remains the biggest threat to the ruling Taliban government in Afghanistan. It is estimated that ISIS-K has between 1,500 and 4,000 fighters, mostly in remote areas of Afghanistan's Kunar, Nangarhar and Nuristan provinces. 

Political observers say that ISIS-K's smaller, covert cells are also located in northern and northeastern regions, including Badakhshan, Takhar, Jowzjan, Kunduz and Faryab. Every week, an attack by ISIS is reported in the local media of Afghanistan.

On June 11, the ruling Taliban (special forces of the General Directorate of Intelligence, the new name of the Afghan spy agency) said their security troops killed eight militants of the Islamic State Khorasan (ISIS-K) and captured three others. Local officials told Afghan state-run media was a "funding, equipping and training centre" of the banned ISIS-K terrorist group active in Taloqan, northeast province. Taliban spokesman Zabihullah Mujahid said that they killed eight men, including an important commander of the group, identified as Younis Uzbekistani. 

Taliban officials in the eastern Afghan province of Nangarhar claimed on June 30 that five Islamic State group militants were killed in a raid on their hideout. Two ISIS militants were arrested for making bombs. 

According to the Economist, on another front, the last two weeks have seen a surge in attacks by the "National Resistance Front", an anti-Taliban front led by Masood Ahmed's son in Panjshir. Taliban spokesperson said six Taliban soldiers and 13 from NRF were killed in gun fights after NRF attacked convoys and checkpoints. Sporadic gunbattles in the Panjshir valley are nowadays a usual affair. For the Taliban, thousands of their soldiers are engaged in the mountains of the Panjshir. Hence a lot of their workforce and budget gets consumed in the hills o the name of their security. 

Border countries like Tajikistan and Pakistan are more affected

Growing ISIS-K activities in Afghan border areas have also worried Tajikistan, Pakistan and other Central Asian neighbours. Last month, ISIS-K reportedly claimed responsibility for firing rockets into Tajikistan from the Khwaja Ghar district in Takhar, but no deaths.

In Pakistan, analysts say ISIS has transformed into a borderless terrorist group, one of the deadliest in a region that has spawned many violent, radical organizations. The March 4 bombing at the Kusha Kisaldar Shiite Mosque in the old city of Peshawar stunned Pakistanis, deepening their fear of the resurgence of terror attacks in their country. The rise in attacks began last year and is accelerating, said Amir Rana, executive director of the Pakistan Institute of Peace Studies, an independent think tank that monitors militant activity in Pakistan, the news agency AP reported. 

By late March this year, Pakistan had seen 52 attacks by militants, compared to 35 in the same period last year. The attacks have also gotten deadlier. So far this year in Pakistan, 155 people have been killed in such attacks, compared to 68 last year.

How much of a threat is ISIS-K in India?

ISIS has made attempts to establish sleeper cells in India. But so far, they have failed to succeed. However, one cannot rule out the propaganda and recruitment of the ISIS-K, which have a wing to influence the youth to join the organization. Their mouthpieces publications. 

Voice of Hind, the digital propaganda magazine of ISIS, has repeatedly spoken against the "Hindu rule in India". The magazine encouraged Indian Muslims to wage jihad against the Indian government and the Hindus in the country. 

"Instead of defending ourselves, we need to attack as 'attack is the best defence', read the digital magazine of ISIS. It also instigates Muslims to "Take back Babri from Hindus". The fear is that ISIS-K may affiliate with banned militant outfits like Jaish and Lashkar to expand their reach in Jammu, Kashmir, and other parts of the country through small sleeper and hybrid militants. 

UN and ISIS-K

The 14th report of the Secretary-General on the threat posed by ISIS to international peace and security notes that the security landscape in Afghanistan changed dramatically on August 15, 2021, following a Taliban military that took control of the country, including Kabul. The report says the dreaded Islamic State terrorist group aims to position itself as the "chief rejectionist force" in Afghanistan, expands into neighbouring Central and South Asian countries and is viewed by the Taliban as its primary armed threat.

It states that UN Member States have assessed that the strength of ISIS-K has increased from earlier estimates of 2,200 fighters to now approaching 4,000 following the release by the Taliban of several thousand individuals from prison. One Member State assessed that up to half the individuals are foreign terrorist fighters.

India has expressed dismay at the failure of the UN Secretary General's report on ISIS to take note of the close links between proscribed terrorist groups such as Pakistan-based Lashkar-e-Taiba and Jaish-e-Mohammad despite New Delhi repeatedly flagging these concerns.

India's last Permanent Representative to the UN Ambassador T S Tirumurti, said "It is essential that we don't lose sight of the ease with which the proscribed Haqqani Network, with support from their patron state, have worked along with prominent terrorist organizations like al-Qaeda, ISIS-K in South Asia."

India has consistently highlighted the threat of terrorism in its neighbourhood, asserting that the changed political situation in Afghanistan has further exacerbated these security fears. The biggest challenge is that Afghanistan can again become a hiding ground for several Islamic terrorist groups. However, "despite repeatedly flagging these concerns, the UN Secretary General's report has failed to take notice of these linkages.