Eye on the Middle East | The Islamic State Khorasan province is coming of age - Hindustan Times

Eye on the Middle East | The Islamic State Khorasan province is coming of age

Mar 26, 2024 07:26 PM IST

While the motivations of the IS behind the deadly bombing of Crocus City Hall in Moscow are still unclear, its historic focus on Russia is illuminating

The Islamic State-Khorasan Province (referring to parts of Pakistan, Afghanistan, and Iran) was a group borne out of both desire and necessity. While its formal creation in 2015 reflected the Islamic State of Iraq and Syria’s desire to exploit their then popularity amid jihadists around the world, ISIS’ failure to hold its territories, necessitated sustenance elsewhere. In both these cases, Russia was key.

A view shows the burning Crocus City Hall concert hall following the shooting incident in Krasnogorsk, outside Moscow, on March 22, 2024.(AFP) PREMIUM
A view shows the burning Crocus City Hall concert hall following the shooting incident in Krasnogorsk, outside Moscow, on March 22, 2024.(AFP)

First, Moscow’s intervention in the Syrian civil war helped turn the tide dramatically in favour of the Bashar-al-Assad regime (by bombing the armed opposition), while also bombing key strongholds of the Islamic State (which also served as a more legitimate cover for Russian pro-Assad operations).

Second, and consequent of the first, Russia and Syria’s other allies (Iran, China), were then deemed to be priority targets for the IS-K which was sinking its teeth further in Central Asia. Indeed, IS-K Commanders have admitted as far back as 2015 that despite the anti-West rhetoric, Western targets “ranked well below” Iranian (and Russian) targets.

When the war in Syria was in its more intense phase (2014-2019), attacking Russian and Iranian interests in Afghanistan helped IS-K to both distract these states’ resources as well as prove the new group’s usefulness to donors who had anti-Russian/anti-Iranian interests. Now, while the anti-Iran/Russia objectives remain, the IS-K itself has evolved showing mutations that make it more potent in Khorasan than ISIS in the Levant (comprising key Arab states on the Mediterranean coast).

IS-K’s establishment had de-linked it (to some degree) from ISIS’ original vision of a ‘caliphate’, which was inextricably tied to territory. Hence, the new group, the Central Asian fail-safe in case ISIS fell, did not actively seek to hold and govern territory, but operated along the lines of a global jihadist group under the ISIS banner, based out of Afghanistan.

Given its umbilical ties to ISIS, the group retained some core characteristics such as the need to contend, not cooperate, with other local/regional jihadist groups. The displace-and-dominate model that had marked ISIS’ relations with Al-Qaeda in Syria (and successor/break-away groups such as Al Nusra and Hayat Tahrir-al-Shaam), also revealed itself in the IS-K’s ties to other groups in Afghanistan, meaning that IS-K fights all, from great power states to Al Qaeda and the Taliban.

On motives

In the case of the Kerman bombings (explained here), a partial motive was the Islamic State’s need to attack symbols associated with the deceased Iranian general, Qassem Soleimani. For the Moscow attack, while the immediate tactical trigger (if one exists) is yet to be discerned, the general motives are relatively easy to infer.

Firstly, opportunity creates its own motive. Given IS-K’s historical anti-Russia-focus (among others), attacking Moscow would be natural when Russia is bogged down in the Ukraine war, with its counter-terror radar (relatively) lower. However, if opportunity was the prime motive, then why did IS-K not attack Moscow in the two years since Russia’s invasion began, especially during those phases of the war when Ukraine’s counter-offensives were showing some effectiveness?

Notwithstanding the lack of a clear answer, IS-K’s history in the immediate years following 2015 showed that despite its anti-Russia/anti-Iran aims, its operations were concentrated against the Taliban, preventing them from operations in Russia and Iran that “were always understood to require longer preparations” as Antonio Guistozzi of the Royal United Services Institute noted in 2018. Hence, given the Taliban’s return to Kabul in August 2021 and their own operations against IS-K ever since, it is plausible to infer that IS-K simply needed more time to prepare.

More evidence for this lies in the fact that while the group dramatically announced its capabilities with the Kabul airport attack in 2021 during the US withdrawal, its reported attacks within Afghanistan each year, reduced in the 2020-23 period compared to 2018-2019, given the fight against the Taliban.

The IS-K, as Aaron Zelin of The Washington Institute also notes, attributed this reduction to its current chief Shahab al-Muhajir’s ‘strategic silence policy’ in which it deliberately reduces claims of responsibility for attacks within Afghanistan. The veracity of their claim notwithstanding, IS-K’s strategic silence within Afghanistan would have arguably allowed them to better prepare for high-intensity attacks outside of Afghanistan, bringing them to bomb both Iran and Russia (at least according to US intelligence, corroborated by news agency Reuters) within the first three months of 2024.

Secondly, the need for terror groups to consistently reaffirm their own credibility and capability is a persistent motive. In the IS-K’s case especially, these attacks virtually establish it as not only the latest entrant to the global jihad but also the most active one. While these successes aid in expanding its financial net, garnering more donors, its proven capability improves its credit score - incentivizing more foreign fighters to join its ranks. Additionally, while the use of Tajik nationals to carry out the attacks in both Moscow and Kerman proves the IS-K’s ability to attract foreign fighters from Central Asia, these attacks shall in turn help attract more such fighters for future attacks.

The lesson? Watch Afghanistan

The IS-K was officially formed in January 2015. By December, the Taliban were forced to divert resources from their fight against US and Afghan forces and raise a new special forces unit with some of their top commanders, focusing their fight on the Islamic State (to whom they were losing members).

Across the year IS-K beheaded several Taliban cadre, killing prominent Taliban figures such as its then shadow governor of Nangarhar province. Seven years later (and a year into the Taliban’s return to power), the US State Department’s 2022 Report on Terrorism showed that the Taliban was fighting the IS-K as its “primary threat”. The Report also showed how other legacy groups such as Al-Qaeda and its regional affiliates were keeping a low profile, “presumably in accordance with the Taliban’s directives.”

Given the spate of extra-territorial bombings by the IS-K in 2024, other groups could be spurred on to act, to prevent losing out to the IS-K. Note that the IS-K’s cadre of 1000-1200 fighters in its formative years were fighters that had broken away from the Pakistani and Afghan Taliban. As the Taliban steps up its own counter-terror operations and the IS-K proves its own potency further, the old risk of other groups leaking fighters to the IS-K in search of a more active jihadist organisation, only increases. Compared to its mother-ship in Iraq and Syria from 2014-2019, IS-K might be less glamorous given the lack of the ‘caliphate’ rhetoric, but its growing regional and global profile turned into a burgeoning regional and global risk, stemming from Afghanistan, one of the oldest crucibles of global jihad.

Bashir Ali Abbas is a research associate at the Council for Strategic and Defense Research, New Delhi, and a South Asia Visiting Fellow at the Stimson Center, Washington DC. The views expressed are personal.

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