Over the past several years the Islamic State in Khorasan Province (ISKP) has been quietly recruiting people from India to fight its war for a global Caliphate, from the safe havens in Afghanistan as the Ashraf Ghani government failed to dislodge the group during its tenure.
The ISKP generally called Daesh or ISIL – Islamic State in Iraq and Levant-Khorasan has conducted several terrorist attacks, killing hundreds of innocent men, women and children, both in Afghanistan and Pakistan, besides many in other countries.
With the fall of Kabul, the shocking emergence of the Afghan Taliban, the mad rush for evacuations; the small, yet deadly group seemed to have been forgotten; till it reminded the world of its lethal presence.
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Soon after the twin blasts outside the Kabul airport in Afghanistan, ISKP claimed responsibility for the deadly attacks that killed over 170 civilians, 13 US soldiers and left dozens injured. Amaq News Agency shared an image of the suicide bomber; identified as Abdul Rahman al-Loghari.
ISKP Statement claiming responsibility for Kabul airport attack, released by Amaq NewsISKP said its suicide bombers targeted “translators and collaborators with the American army” in the attacks on Thursday evening that also killed 28 Taliban.
ISKP has been recruiting Indians for the past several years and has maintained regular contact with its operatives in Afghanistan, Syria, Iraq and Africa, through an Instagram channel named ‘Chronicle Foundation’.
The channel has over 5,000 members, most of whom joined ISKP in Afghanistan through Iran in April 2019. According to western counter-terrorism experts, the ISKP in India is mostly based in Karnataka and Kerala and is led by Mohammed Ameen, who hails from Malappuram in Kerala. The involvement of Indians can be traced back to almost all major attacks carried out by ISKP.
Radicalised through the posts circulated via social media platforms and messaging applications like Hoop and Telegram, they recruit new members and also raise funds. Security analysts say several dozen Indians joined the ISKP when it was formally launched in the Nangarhar province of Afghanistan in 2015.
Thirteen Indian ISKP militants and two commanders of Indian nationality were killed in a MOAB – ” Mother of All Bombs” attack by the United States of America in April 2017 over the Achin district of Afghanistan’s Nangarhar province to destroy the underground infrastructure of the tunnels and cave network of the Islamic State.
The Pajhwok Afghan News agency said 96 militants were killed in the GBU-43/B strike, 13 of whom were Indians.
Indians in ISKP
The Islamic State in Khorasan Province also claimed responsibility for an attack at Gurdwara Har Rai Sahib in the Shor Bazar area of Old City in Kabul on March 25, 2020. It was carried out by an Indian national identified as Mohammed Muhasin, who hailed from Kerala, and was killed by Afghan security forces during the attack.
Following the fall of Kabul, the departing Ashraf Ghani administration released prisoners from the Bagram prison. The lucky ones included 14 people from Kerala who were arrested for working with the ISKP. These 14 people from Kerala are said to have been involved in a plot to carry out the deadly attack at the Kabul airport.
According to Taliban sources, one of the 14 Keralites contacted his home after his release from the prison and is understood to be part of the larger group involved in the attack.
Keralites living in Malappuram, Kasaragod and Kannur districts migrated from India to join the Islamic State in the Middle East after the Islamic State of Syria and the Levant captured Mosul in 2014. The families of some of these terrorists also came to Nangarhar province of Afghanistan to settle under ISKP.
In August 2020, another Indian jihadist from Kerala, Abu Rawaha al-Muhajir, carried out a vehicle suicide attack (SVBIED) against Jalalabad prison in Nangarhar province, which was followed by an ISKP ground assault team. According to ISKP spox Sultan Aziz Azzam, a total of 3 Indians were involved in the attack.
Although the identity of the head of ISKP is a well-guarded secret, counter-terrorism experts believe that it is currently being led by Shahab al-Muhajir, an Arab from the Middle East, who earlier had been affiliated with al-Qaeda in Afghanistan. An urban warfare expert, Muhajir plotted one of the sophisticated 20-hour long Jalalabad prison raids in August 2020. The assault team included 3 Indian nationals.
The US Foreign Policy magazine pointed that “the presence of Central Asians and Indians in transnational attacks was a relatively new phenomenon reflecting a shifting pattern in jihadism linked to the Islamic State.” The magazine also pointed to Indian links to the 2019 Sri Lanka Easter attacks and the attack at the Gurdwara in Kabul.
The Foreign Policy magazine warned that “the story of Central Asian and Indian jihadism was one that has historically received too little attention … they are exactly the sort of threats which may slip under the radar until it is too late.”
Abu Rawaha al-Muhajir/al-Hindi was a doctor from India's Kerala region. His real name is Dr Ejaz. He was the ISKP suicide bomber who blew up SVBIED at the Jalalabad prison gate. #Afghanistan https://t.co/qsSVNWTynN
— FJ (@Natsecjeff) August 4, 2020
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US Drone Strike on ISKP
The United States of America retaliated against the Kabul attack by two drone strikes. In the first, it targeted two senior ISKP terrorists in Nangarhar, eastern Afghanistan, while in the other on Sunday it hit an explosives-laden vehicle bound for the Hamid Karzai airport.
The second strike came a day after US President Joe Biden said; “I said we would go after the group responsible for the attack on our troops and innocent civilians in Kabul, and we have. This strike was not the last. We will continue to hunt down any person involved in that heinous attack and make them pay,” he said in a statement on Saturday.
Maj. Gen. William Taylor told a joint press conference at Pentagon that two high-ranking Daesh/ISIS targets were killed and one was injured. Pentagon spokesman John Kirby said the attack was carried out based on information from US intelligence and that they did not get any support from the Taliban.
History of ISKP
ISKP – an offshoot of the ISIL (ISIS) armed group is trying to establish a global Islamic “Caliphate” in Iraq and Syria, in contrast to the Taliban who are striving for the formation of a “limited” Islamic Emirate in Afghanistan.
The ISKP draws inspiration from the ancient caliphate in the region of Khorasan – an area that once included parts of Afghanistan, Iran, Pakistan and Turkmenistan.
Security experts say the ISKP came into being in 2014 by joining hands by breakaway fighters of Tehreek-e-Taliban Pakistan (TTP), the Afghan Taliban and the defectors from al-Qaeda from Syria who pledged allegiance to the late ISIL leader, Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi. ISKP has a stronghold in northeastern Afghanistan, besides its set sleeper cells in Kabul and other provinces.
ISKP fighters have fought in Iraq and Syria besides hitting Western targets. It has been responsible for some of the worst attacks in Afghanistan and Pakistan in recent years, killing people at mosques, public squares and even hospitals.
A bloody attack on a maternity ward in Kabul in May 2020 killed 24 people, including women and infants. In November, the group also claimed responsibility for the attack at Kabul University that killed at least 22 teachers and students.
Rasha al-Aqeedi, head of the non-state actor’s programme of think-tank Newlines Institute, said ISKP uses attacks as propaganda.
“The end-game of ISKP, or ISIL in general wherever it operates, doesn’t have to be an immediate strategic goal. They carry out these operations with the intention of causing as much carnage as possible for the purpose of showing that they are still around, that they are still a threat,” al-Aqeedi told Al Jazeera.
CNN chief international correspondent Clarissa Ward spoke to an ISKP commander; identified with the alias of Abdul Munir, from Kunar in a hotel in Kabul city who claimed to have over 600 men under his command.
He was critical of the Taliban who he said were now under the influence of other powers and were not strictly enforcing the Sharia. He said they planned to recruit more people and restart their operations.
UN Report on ISKP
A recent UN Security Council monitoring team’s report stated: “ISIL-K has prioritized the recruitment and training of new supporters; its leaders also hope to attract intransigent Taliban and other militants who reject the Agreement for Bringing Peace to Afghanistan between the United States of America and the Taliban.”
The report pointed that the ISKP has moved into other provinces, including Nuristan, Badghis, Sari Pul, Baghlan, Badakhshan, Kunduz and Kabul, where fighters have formed sleeper cells. The group has strengthened its positions in and around Kabul, where it conducts most of its attacks, targeting minorities, activists, government employees.
However, owing to strong differences the Afghan Taliban has been at the fore in fighting the ISKP from Afghanistan and successfully cleared large tracts of the country from them. A statement from the Islamic Emirate of Afghanistan’s spokesman Zabihullah Mujahid in early 2020 claimed that they have expelled the group from most of the areas.
The Spokesman of the Islamic Emirate of Afghanistan blamed the Kabul administration, its intelligence agencies for supporting the Daesh – ISKP. In a Twitter message, Zabhiullah Mujahid said in a message in December 2020 said; “smuggle [sic] of missiles by Amrullah Saleh’s Daeshis into #Kabul & its indiscriminate fire showcase that #Kabul intel organs are meticulously backing Daesh phenomenon & executing various plans through them so that #Kabul is shown as at-risk & international attention not lost.”
The ISKP despite being hunted down both by the United States and the Taliban continued to adapt to changing environment. It announced that areas of Khyber Pakhtunkhwa province would be covered by ISKP and not ISPP (Islamic State Pakistan Province). The attacks claimed by IS in KP areas following the announcement were labelled by the Amaq Agency as an undertaking of the ISKP and not ISPP.
Pakistan which had faced several deadly attacks over the years has taken strict action against the group. Pakistan’s elite Counter-Terrorism Department has conducted several successful Intelligence Based Operations to foil such attempts and neutralised the threats.
In Nov 2020 Pakistan shared a dossier with the world detailing the involvement of Indian intelligence agencies in terrorism in Pakistan. DG ISPR Major General Babar Iftikhar pointed that India recently relocated 30 militants from within India to the Pakistan-Afghanistan border by two Indian intelligence officials where they were handed over to Daesh Commander Sheikh Abdul Rahim alias Abdul Rehman Muslim Dost.
In January 2021 the military spokesman in another press briefing said Daesh – ISKP was flourishing in neighbouring Afghanistan with “Indian backing” and lose control of the Afghan government.
“Yes, there is Daesh footprint over there [Afghanistan] and it’s being supported by RAW [Indian intelligence agency]. There is a lot of evidence available on that count but we are in contact with the Afghan government. We keep conveying our issues to them, concerns, we keep continuously keep engaging with them and it’s a very positive level of acceptability on both sides of what’s happening.
Pakistan has suffered over 80,000 casualties and incurred economic losses to the tune of over US 150 billion dollars in its war against extremism and terrorism.
Senator Rehman Malik and former Interior Minister in his book “Role of The Indian State in Establishing & Expanding Daeshism in South Asia” claims Indian National Security Adviser Ajit Doval visited Iraq in 2014 and met with Daesh head to create working relationships besides also meeting other leaders of this extremist group.
“RSS and Daesh nexus in collaboration with RAW is emerging and it is on record and exposed by an Ambassador from the Middle East posted in the Indian capital Delhi. He confirmed the training of numerous Indians by ISIS in Kurdistan. On the behest of RAW, the RSS and Daesh are implementing a larger Indian plan of ‘cleansing Kashmiri Muslims’ -eliminating Muslims from Indian Occupied Kashmir.”