South Asia comes under growing threats from Islamic State
In 2021, the Taliban’s takeover of Afghanistan raised concerns among counterterrorism experts about the potential resurgence of Islamist terrorist groups in the country. This article delves into the reasons behind these valid concerns, focusing on the regional Islamic State affiliate known as Islamic State Khorasan Province (ISKP).
The threat of ISKP in South Asia
Following the Taliban’s victory, fears arose not from the Taliban themselves leading terrorism but from the prospect of various militant Islamist groups, including Al Qaeda, finding encouragement and freedom within Afghanistan. Among these groups, ISKP emerged as a primary security concern due to its resilience, violent tactics, and regional ambitions.
Established in early 2015, ISKP rapidly spread its influence throughout South Asia, gaining the support of prominent militant Islamist groups and individuals. The region’s Salafi ecosystem provided a receptive audience for the Islamic State’s message, leading to a surge in allegiance. ISKP’s initial focus covered Afghanistan and Pakistan, but it later extended its operations to Bangladesh, India, Sri Lanka, Myanmar, and the Maldives.
Despite facing setbacks in territorial control, ISKP adapted its strategy to concentrate on urban warfare, leading to numerous deadly attacks, including one that resulted in significant casualties in 2021. ISKP’s aim to challenge the Taliban and expand its influence in the region has heightened security concerns in South Asia and beyond.
ISKP’s expansion into neighboring countries has been facilitated by a dedicated office in Afghanistan, which coordinates with fighters and sympathizers across South and Central Asia. The group maintains a connection with the Levant-based leadership, although recent leadership changes have seen some deference to the central authority.
This report draws on a range of primary data, including official and unofficial publications, interviews, statements, and propaganda issued by ISKP and related networks and individuals. Secondary literature is also consulted to corroborate claims and provide deeper insights into the Islamic State’s presence in South Asia.
The report analyzes ISKP’s core territory in Afghanistan and Pakistan, examining its goals, evolution, violence tactics, recruitment efforts, and media operations. Furthermore, it scrutinizes ISKP’s activities in its periphery, encompassing India, Kashmir, Bangladesh, Myanmar, Sri Lanka, and the Maldives. Counterterrorism measures have put pressure on local extremist networks in these peripheral regions.
ISKP in Afghanistan and Pakistan: Core operations
ISKP has demonstrated remarkable flexibility in its ambitions, operations, and alliances within its core territories of Afghanistan and Pakistan. Despite facing setbacks, the group remains a potent force even after the Taliban’s takeover in 2021. This section provides an in-depth overview of ISKP’s activities, spanning its inception to the present, exploring its organizational evolution, use of violence, recruitment strategies, and propaganda efforts.
Since its establishment, ISKP’s organizational trajectory can be divided into two phases with distinct military strategies. The first phase, from 2015 to late 2019, focused on territorial control and the implementation of a self-proclaimed sharia system. During this period, ISKP seized territories in eastern, northeastern, and northern Afghanistan, differentiating itself from other militant groups and attracting supporters from various regions. However, governing these territories proved challenging, leading to significant military pressure from Afghan forces and the US Air Force, eventually resulting in the group’s territorial collapse.
Following the territorial setbacks, ISKP shifted its strategy in the second phase, starting in 2020, focusing on urban warfare. The new approach aimed to target its enemies, including the Taliban, in Afghanistan’s urban centers, exposing their vulnerability and undermining their legitimacy among the local population. ISKP’s urban warfare campaign was marked by devastating attacks, such as the Nangarhar prison attack, brutal suicide bombings, and strikes against the Shia community and students in Kabul. This shift was largely influenced by the expertise of the group’s new leader, Al-Muhajir, known for his proficiency in urban warfare.
In neighboring Pakistan, ISKP’s network is dominated by two factions: former TTP cadres, mainly Salafis from northwestern Khyber Pakhtunkhwa (KPK) Province, and anti-Shia sectarian elements in southern Balochistan Province. The two factions initially operated as separate regional administrative units based on geographical divisions.
In May 2019, the Islamic State’s central leadership established a separate administrative unit for Pakistan, known as the Wilayat Pakistan (ISPP), to project regional strength during the loss of territorial control in Syria and Iraq. However, ISPP’s existence did not significantly expand the group’s activities in Pakistan.
After two years, ISPP’s size reduced as KPK merged with ISKP’s organizational network in July 2021, allowing ISKP to leverage opportunities in the region for its war against the Pakistani state. The province’s proximity to Afghanistan, strong militant networks, and strategic significance made it a crucial base for ISKP’s operations.
Tensions between ISKP and the Tehreek-e-Taliban Pakistan TTP were evident from ISKP’s inception, as it recruited numerous TTP leaders and cadres. The groups’ disagreements became public in July 2020, with mutual accusations in the media. After the Taliban’s takeover of Kabul in August 2021, the TTP renewed its allegiance to the Afghan Taliban, leading to further animosity and armed confrontations between the two groups.
Despite losing territorial control, ISKP’s resilience is evident from the frequency and lethality of its attacks. The group has maintained a significant covert network, carrying out numerous deadly attacks targeting the Taliban and others. In KPK, attacks increased dramatically after the organizational restructuring, resulting in a surge of casualties. Balochistan and Sindh Provinces have also witnessed major attacks by the group.
Decline of ISKP’s recruitment source in Pakistan
Initially, a significant surge of recruits from Pakistan supported the establishment of the Islamic State in the Afghanistan and Pakistan region in 2015–16. However, this influx of recruits diminished within a few years due to several factors. The primary reasons for this decline were ISKP’s inability to rejuvenate the anti-state insurgency in Pakistan and the internal conflicts between ISKP and the Taliban.
In its evolving propaganda, the Islamic State in Pakistan continues to focus on recruiting TTP foot soldiers from the Pashtun tribes in KPK Province and radical youth from the Salafi community in Afghanistan and KPK. The group also targets anti-Shia militants and their support networks for recruitment, which initially helped ISKP establish its presence and expand its activities in Pakistan.
After the territorial collapse of ISKP and the Taliban’s takeover, the group’s recruitment priorities in Afghanistan have shifted. ISKP now calls on Taliban foot soldiers and the Afghan Salafi community to support their fight against the Taliban, accusing the Taliban’s leadership of betraying the jihadi cause.
Additionally, the group seeks support from Salafi youth to take revenge for the religious restrictions imposed on them after the Taliban’s takeover. The effectiveness of this propaganda strategy is uncertain, but efforts by the Taliban to mend relations with the Salafist community suggest some potential success for ISKP in recruiting young Salafis.
Apart from operational activities and recruitment, the Islamic State in Afghanistan and Pakistan places a heavy emphasis on propaganda. Since the Taliban’s takeover, ISKP centralized its media and propaganda operations under the al-Azaim Media Foundation. The group boasts a substantial propaganda output, including audio, video, and written materials, disseminated through various channels to recruit and mobilize militants in the region.
Islamic State in India
The Islamic State has faced challenges in mobilizing large numbers of supporters in India. Its presence began with pro-Islamic State groups operating in Jammu & Kashmir, and in 2019, the Islamic State officially established a separate province in India, Wilayat al-Hind (ISHP), covering Jammu & Kashmir. However, India’s counterterrorism capabilities and competition from other militant groups have limited the group’s operational activities.
Islamic State in Bangladesh and Myanmar
In Bangladesh, the Islamic State’s Bengal chapter emerged from preexisting extremist networks, including Jund al-Tawheed al-Khilafah and Jamaatul Mujahidin Bangladesh (JMB). Despite the Bangladesh government’s crackdown on extremists, the Islamic State has claimed responsibility for attacks, primarily using improvised explosive devices to target the police. In Myanmar, the Islamic State’s presence is less defined, but some networks, like Katibat al-Mahdi fi Balad al-Arakan (KMBA), have pledged allegiance to the group.
The region between Bangladesh and Myanmar is attractive to the Islamic State due to the Rohingya crisis and the potential for recruitment and mobilization among the Rohingya refugees in Bangladesh. The Islamic State’s official propaganda often views Myanmar as an extension of Bangladesh and aims to exploit the Rohingya crisis for recruitment purposes.
ISKP’s adaptability, flexible strategies, and alliances have enabled it to remain a potent threat in Afghanistan and Pakistan. The group’s urban warfare focus and ability to strike strategic targets contribute to its ongoing resilience and impact.
At the same time, Islamic State is posing threats to India, Bangladesh, Sri Lanka, Myanmar and other countries in the region, while it is even anticipated that if this dangerous jihadist outfit is not immediately and effectively combated by every nation in the region with active collaboration of the international community – particularly the United States, terrorist acts of ISIS and its affiliated groups may continue to expand further beyond the South Asian region and reach up to China, Thailand, and Singapore.
Such situation may further worsen as Islamic State, Al Qaeda and other radical Islamic jihadist outfits may try to take advantage of the upcoming general elections scheduled to be held in Bangladesh and India next year, where in Bangladesh, ultra-Islamist Bangladesh Nationalist Party (BNP) with similar groups in its jihadist conglomerate is frantically trying to return to power by misleading Western policymakers through numerous tactics. At the same time, in India, unpatriotic and pro-militancy parties such as Indian National Congress and Trinamool Congress are trying to misled international community as well as local voters with their concocted stories targeting ruling Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) and Prime Minister Narendra Modi. It may be mentioned here that, due to pro-militancy and to a certain extent pro-Muslim sentiment of Trinamool Congress, radical Islamic militancy outfits are already seeing West Bengal as a safe haven.