IS-Khorasan’s attacks in Russia, Iran point to an Islamic State resurgence | Analysis


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In June 2015, a few months after the Islamic State (IS) announced the establishment of its Wilayat Khorasan (Khorasan Province), the Taliban wrote a letter to the then IS chief, Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi, asking him to stop recruiting jihadists in Afghanistan. The letter, signed by the then political committee chief of the Taliban, Mullah Akhtar Mansour (who would take over the insurgency in a month and be killed by a U.S. air strike in May 2016), said there was room for “only one flag and one leadership” in the fight to re-establish Islamic rule in Afghanistan. But the IS faction, which came to be known as the Islamic State-Khorasan (IS-K), did not stop recruiting disgruntled Taliban fighters. In the subsequent years, the IS-K attacked the Taliban for holding talks with the “crusaders” (read the U.S.) and abandoning jihad. It launched a series of attacks, mainly targeting Afghanistan’s Shia-Hazara minority.       

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Today, the IS-K has emerged as the most powerful and most ambitious branch of the Islamic State networks. It has training centres in the Taliban-ruled Afghanistan. It has recruited thousands of disgruntled Central Asians. It has stepped up attacks in recent months across the Eurasian landmass, including the January twin bombings of Kerman, Iran, a strike on a church in Istanbul in the same month and a massive attack on a concert hall in the outskirts of Moscow on March 22. Armed gunmen opened fire at the Crocus City Concert Hall and threw explosives, killing at least 137 people and wounding nearly 200 others, in one of the worst terrorist attacks in Russia in years. Russian authorities have arrested and charged four Tajik nationals for the attack.  

The origins 

When the Islamic State announced the formation of the Khorasan Province, referring to an area encompassing Afghanistan, Pakistan and Central Asia, in January 2015, the group’s immediate strategy was to exploit the divisions within the main jihadist groups operating in the region. It appointed Tehrik-i-Taliban Pakistan (TTP) commander Hafiz Saeed Khan as its leader and former Afghan Taliban commander Abdul Rauf Aliza as his deputy (both were killed in U.S. strikes). It attracted members from different militant organisations such as Lashkar-e-Taiba, Jamaat-ud-Dawa, the Haqqani Network and the Islamic Movement of Uzbekistan into its fold, according to the U.S.-based Combating Terrorism Centre.

The IS-K declared its allegiance to Baghdadi. In operational tactics and ideology, it followed its parental organisation. The key goal is to establish “Islamic rule” in the “province” and for that they are ready to wage “jihad”. “There is no doubt that Allah the Almighty has blessed us with jihad in the land of Khorasan since a long time ago, and it is from the grace of Allah that we fought any disbeliever who entered the land of Khorasan. All of this is for the sake of establishing the Shariah,” the IS-K said in a video message in 2015.

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When the IS in Iraq and Syria came under pressure in 2015 and 2016, the core organisation shifted its focus to Afghanistan. The IS was losing territories to Kurdish militias in Syria and government forces and Shia militias in Iraq. In Afghanistan, a divided country with the government’s writ hardly reaching its hinterlands, the IS saw an opportunity to rebuild its organisation. Having built its base in eastern Afghanistan, the IS-K issued propaganda messages, calling on Muslim youth across Asia to join the group. Many radicalised youth, including dozens from India, travelled to Afghanistan to either join the IS or live an “Islamic life” under the Caliphate’s rule.

Rivalry with Taliban

The Taliban did not like its monopoly over violent jihad being challenged by another organisation. Also, the Taliban are a tribal, nationalist militant force, backed by Pakistan, whereas the IS-K doesn’t believe in national borders—they are global jihadists fighting for a transnational Islamist Caliphate.

“The leadership of Daesh [IS] is independent, the goals of Daesh are independent,” Omar Khorasani, who was the IS-K’s top leader, said in an interview in 2021. “We have a global agenda and so when people ask who can really represent Islam and the whole Islamic community, of course, we’re more attractive.” The ideological and operational differences led to open clashes between the IS-K and the Taliban. When the Taliban seized Kabul and took over prisons in August 2021, they freed several of their members, but executed Khorasani and other IS-K militants. Shahab al-Muhajir has been leading the terrorist group as its “Emir” since Khorasani was arrested in April 2020.

Why Russia and Iran?

The U.S. has carried out a number of targeted attacks, killing several of the IS-K’s leaders. In April 2017, U.S. President Donald Trump ordered troops to drop the ‘Mother of all Bombs’, the most powerful non-nuclear bomb, on IS caves in eastern Afghanistan. But despite the U.S.’s targeted bombings and the Taliban’s counter-attacks on the ground, the IS-K has continued to expand its operations. When the Taliban established its regime in Kabul, the IS-K proclaimed that it is the real jihadist outfit. Militants from Central Asia who were part of the Islamic State Caliphate swelled the IS-K’s ranks after they relocated to Afghanistan.

Members of the Russian Emergencies Ministry carry out search and rescue operations at the Crocus City Hall concert venue after a shooting attack and fire, outside Moscow, Russia
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The IS-K also launched propaganda videos targeting Afghanistan’s ethnic minorities such as Tajiks and Uzbeks, who were excluded by the Taliban’s Pashtun-only regime. Russia and its President Vladimir Putin emerged as the key enemy in the IS’s propaganda videos. After the Moscow attack, the IS said its soldiers had killed a “lot of Christians”. It also said Russia had “blood of Muslims on its hands”, referring to its military operations in Afghanistan, Chechnya and Syria.

Particularly in Syria, where IS was founded in 2014 amid the country’s civil war, it had grand ambitions, which were thwarted by Russia’s 2015 intervention. The IS captured eastern Syrian cities of Raqqa and Der Ezzour in 2013 and 2014, and it wanted to topple the regime of President Bashar al-Assad and capture Damascus, the seat of power of the Umayyad Caliphate in the seventh century. But Russia’s intervention, along with help from Iran, made sure that President Assad survived the civil war.

In 2017, when the IS captured the ancient Syrian city of Palmyra, Russians fought along with the Syrian troops to liberate the city. Subsequently, the IS’s physical Caliphate was crushed by a host of forces — Kurds, Iraqis, Syrians and Shia militias with air cover from Russia and the U.S. Now, the IS-K sees ‘Christian’ Russia and ‘Rejectionist’ Iran (in the IS lexicon, Shias are “rejectionists”, who reject the first three Caliphs of Sunni Islam) as top enemies.

Today, the IS-K wants to be the centre of global jihadism. Back-to-back attacks in different places from Istanbul to Kerman to Moscow suggest that the group is on a path to revival, six years after its physical Caliphate was destroyed. Chaos in West Asia, a base in Afghanistan, and foot soldiers from Central Asia are all helping the group expand its activities, with highly sophisticated internet propaganda.

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