Counter-terrorist policy of the Taliban against IS-K in Northern Afghanistan
In recent weeks, the IS-K terrorist group has been active in northern Afghanistan, prompting the Taliban to conduct a series of counter-terrorism operations against its fighters' hideouts. The locations of these operations, as well as the fact that some Tajik and Uzbek militants were eliminated during the Taliban raids, may have consequences for the national security of the Central Asian states in the future.
IS-K has been active in northern Afghanistan in recent months. While attempting to neutralize the group, the Taliban arrested and killed several of its members, including authoritative religious ideologues and high-ranking militants. This caused concern among the Central Asian states, who fear a repeat of the rocket attacks on Uzbekistan that took place in April and May 2022.
IS-K militants killed the governor of the province Mohammad Daoud Muzammil on March 9 in Mazar-i-Sharif. Just a few days later, the group claimed responsibility for a suicide bombing against Shias that killed more than 30 people at the Tebyan Cultural Center in Kabul. IS-K also carried out a series of terrorist attacks in Badakhshan. In December 2022, the group detonated a car bomb near the police headquarters in Faizabad, killing the Taliban police chief and other members of the security forces.
The Taliban responded with a series of counter-terrorism raids on alleged IS-K safe quarters. The Taliban's General Directorate of Intelligence (GDI) struck suspected IS-K hideouts in Balkh Province. In March, the GDI claimed that several senior figures in the IS-K leadership had been eliminated by its agents, including Abu Umar Afridi, who was a member of the Shura, and Ustad Salman Tajikistan, who served as an instructor and explosives expert. GDI also stated that a member of IS-K was caught and accused of involvement in several bombings in Balkh and the assassination of a provincial governor.
The Central Asian states have cause for concern, given the precedents for cross-border attacks and domestic militant activity in the region.
For example, in July 2018, a terrorist attack by the Islamic State (IS) group in the Dangara region of Tajikistan killed four foreign citizens and injured several others. In November 2019, 15 IS-K fighters were killed and another four were detained by Tajik security forces at a checkpoint near the Tajik-Uzbek border. Notably, shortly after, IS issued an official statement describing how “soldiers of the caliphate” had carried out the attack and linking the actions to the group's Tajik cell rather than IS-K.
Then, in August 2021, two Pakistani IS-K militants were arrested while attempting to detonate an improvised explosive device (IED) near the Turkmen embassy in Kabul. If the report is true, this indicates that IS-K is seeking to strike at the interests of other Central Asian states, in addition to Uzbekistan and Tajikistan, on which the group focuses primarily.
After the Taliban takeover in August 2021, IS-K consolidated and expanded its propaganda mechanism. For example, the Tajik and Uzbek branches of the Al-Azaim Media Production Fund were established to provide better coverage of the activities of IS-K in Central Asia.
The media strategy consists of criticism directed against the Central Asian government and leaders and condemning the Taliban's dealings with “apostate” regimes in Tashkent and Dushanbe. IS-K portrays the Taliban as a pro-Pashtun movement that is hostile to Uzbeks and Tajiks. In addition, in its appeals, IS-K reminds that the Taliban waged war at the Islamic Movement of Uzbekistan (IMU), which is an ally of IS, and killed IMU fighters along with civilian members of their families.
In addition to negative rhetorical attacks, IS-K uses “positive” appeals, glorifying the martyrs and ideologists from the countries of Central Asia. For example, the group's leadership praised such reputable Tajik militants as Abu Muhammad al-Tajiki who last summer attacked a gurdwara (a place of worship for Sikhs) in Kabul. Uzbeks also stand out among the militants; for example,one of them is IMU ideologue Abu Mohammed al-Uzbeki who swore allegiance to ISIS.
The Taliban are under tremendous pressure from neighboring countries and the international community to stop any potential terrorist threat from spreading beyond Afghanistan.
IS-K stepped up its hostile rhetoric and threats against Central Asian governments and targeted Uzbekistan and Tajikistan, seeking to increase its appeal among Islamists in those countries through propaganda.
The main goal of the group in Afghanistan is to undermine the Taliban's relations with the countries of the region and create a “deterrent effect” that would allow them to keep the movement weak in the eyes of the international community. This will help reduce support from foreign diplomatic missions, investors and humanitarian organizations.
Thus, the threat of further attacks on the Central Asian governments and their interests inside Afghanistan remains.