Current Trends in Islamist Ideology

The Islamic State’s Central Asian Contingents and Their International Threat

Researcher and Co-Founder, Militant Wire
Researcher focused on jihadism, armed groups, and politics in the Afghanistan-Pakistan region.
Screengrab from a 2014 video by the Islamic State titled "Join the Ranks" featuring two Uzbek fighters. (Source: Authors)

A consensus appears to be emerging among Western intelligence analysts that the Islamic State’s Khurasan Province (ISKP), the group’s provincial affiliate based in Afghanistan, has the intent and may be building up the capacity to conduct external operations beyond the region, including in the West.1 ISKP has recently intimated that it wishes to carry out a 9/11-style attack inside the United States and has intensified its threats and efforts to incite supporters to violence throughout the Western world.

Radicals from Central Asia have accounted for a notable share of recent Islamic State-inspired or -directed plots and attacks in the United States, Europe, Turkey, and Iran. Central Asian militants have taken on an increasingly visible role in ISKP’s local, regional, and international activities.2 In August 2023, U.S. media reported that a facilitator linked to the Islamic State (IS) had recently helped smuggle a group of Uzbeks from Mexico into the United States.3 The U.S. Department of Homeland Security, in its new threat projection for 2024, assessed that “Since the U.S. withdrawal from Afghanistan, ISIS’s regional branch—ISIS‑Khorasan—has garnered more prominence through a spate of high-casualty attacks overseas and English‑language media releases that aim to globalize the group’s local grievances among Western audiences.” The department also warned that “individuals with terrorism connections are interested in using established travel routes and permissive environments to facilitate access to the United States.”4 In both Germany and the Netherlands, a transnational network of Central Asians with connections to ISKP was rolled up by security forces in July 2023 for plotting acts of terrorism.5

With ISKP bolstering its campaign to appeal to Central Asians in their home countries and in diasporas abroad, it is worth examining this community of radicals and fighters in greater depth. Within the broader Islamic State network, Central Asian fighters—who hail mostly from Uzbekistan and Tajikistan—have increased their focus on Afghanistan in recent years after primarily concentrating their efforts in Iraq and Syria during the rise and fall of the so-called caliphate in the mid- and late-2010s. Although these communities continue to emphasize the plight of families of Central Asian IS fighters held in Syrian detention facilities, the locus of militant efforts is now in Afghanistan. This is partly due to IS in Iraq and Syria being degraded and reverting to its DNA as a guerrilla movement, making it difficult for foreign fighters to join that network. But it is also a result of the ascendance of ISKP, which operates in geographic proximity to Central Asia, and that affiliate’s intense propaganda campaign to appeal to Central Asian extremists, including the production of significant Uzbek- and Tajik-language propaganda by al-Azaim, the group’s in-house media foundation. 

This study gives a background on the history of ISKP, focusing in particular on the seminal moment when the group’s predecessor, the Islamic Movement of Uzbekistan (IMU), decided to abandon its alliance with the Taliban and join the Islamic State. The essay then examines the structural shift in the pathways that fighters from the post-Soviet space took to join different IS branches; ISKP’s more recent, expanded regionalization strategy following the Taliban takeover of Afghanistan; and the threat posed by Central Asian militants to Afghanistan, its northern neighbors, and beyond—including the West.6

Background: The Rise of the Islamic State Khurasan Province

The formation of ISKP was officially announced in January 2015 by then-Islamic State spokesman Abu Muhammad al-Adnani. The group’s formation was the outcome of six months of negotiations between Islamic State cadres in Syria and Iraq and several factions of militant jihadist based in Afghanistan and Pakistan, including a notable number of former Tehreek-e-Taliban Pakistan (TTP, the Pakistani Taliban) factions under the leadership of commander Hafiz Saeed Orakzai, who would become ISKP’s first emir (leader).7 The newly born group was based in the eastern Afghan province of Nangarhar, particularly in the districts of Achin, Niyazan, Mahmud Dara, Chaparhar, and Shinwar.8 As the group launched armed campaigns against the Kabul government and the Taliban alike, its areas of operations spread, reaching other provinces such as Kunar, Herat, Samangan, Kunduz, Jawzjan, and Kabul. 

In its early days, the group mostly attacked Afghan soldiers, members of the country’s Shi’a minority, and the Taliban, including scholars and religious figures who have supported the latter. ISKP’s first operational phase reached a peak in 2016 when the group established a territorial foothold in Afghanistan and began stretching its influence into the country’s northern regions.9 However, the group gradually started to lose territory to Afghan military forces—aided by the US-led international coalition—and the Taliban. The group lost its territorial strongholds in Nangarhar in November 2019 but subsequently proved its resilience, even as the Kabul government announced the complete annihilation of ISKP in late 2019, followed in early 2020 by similar statements from the Taliban. In August 2020, ISKP was able to resume its operations in the form of an intense guerrilla warfare and urban terrorism campaign that the group has sustained to this day. Even after the Taliban took power within Afghanistan in August 2021 and initiated a “counterterrorism” campaign against ISKP that has degraded the group’s operational capabilities, this IS affiliate has been able to expand its reach and messaging beyond Afghanistan and Pakistan, propagating its influence in Iran and Central Asia.10

In ISKP’s history of attracting and absorbing militants from other jihadist groups, the 2015 incorporation of the Islamic Movement of Uzbekistan (IMU) marked a seminal moment in the branch’s Central Asian expansion. Whereas ISKP had in part formed out of and further attracted contingents from South Asia and Afghanistan, IMU’s pledge of allegiance to the Islamic State markedly broadened the province’s appeal and scope to include a major, bona fide Central Asian jihadist organization for the first time. Indeed, ISKP’s flagship Voice of Khurasan magazine published by al-Azaim has narrated in detail the important role that Uzbeks and Tajiks have played in the formation and subsequent success of ISKP.11

Years of Turmoil: The IMU Joins the Islamic State and Turns on the Taliban

The Islamic Movement of Uzbekistan was founded in 1994 by Tahir Yuldashev, an Uzbek and former member of the Tajiki al-Nahda Islamist movement that had been banned by Tajikistan’s post-Soviet government and forced into exile in Afghanistan.12 Yuldashev had worked with jihadist strategist Mustafa Hamid in the early 1990s while Hamid was preparing his own “Tajik project” (also known as “al-Furqan project”) together with several important Arab mujahideen who had fought in the anti-Soviet jihad in Afghanistan, including Abu Zubaydah and Abd al-Hadi al-Iraqi. This “Tajik project” consisted of training al-Nahda militants in Afghanistan to prepare them to fight in Tajikistan.13 According to Hamid, Yuldashev was part of the al-Nahda Shura Council. He and Hamid met in Taloqan in Afghanistan’s Takhar province while travelling to Tajikistan, and they became close friends to the point that Yuldashev warned Hamid about a plot being hatched by a rival al-Nahda commander to assassinate him.14

Eventually, in 1994, Yuldashev founded his own group, the IMU, with the assistance of another Uzbek commander of al-Nahda, Juma Namangani. In 1999, Yuldashev gave his oath of allegiance to Taliban leader Mullah Omar and declared jihad against the Uzbek government. The IMU rapidly expanded thanks to the presence of many Afghan Uzbeks within its ranks, and many of these Uzbeks joined the Taliban at the front in Kabul during the 2001 NATO intervention, in the process strengthening their ties with several other groups of Pakistani and Uyghur militants.15 Although close with the Taliban, IMU had tenser relations with the Afghanistan-based al-Qaeda, which—along with other Arab jihadists in Afghanistan—was trying to undermine the IMU, since they saw it as a competitor. Conversely, the Uzbeks were suspicious of the more Salafi and takfiri16 Arabs. By using ethnicity as leverage (Tajik and Uzbek peoples are closely related and generally considered ethnically Turkic), the Uzbeks often reminded the Arabs that “The Crusades were fought over the Levant and Egypt, but its political leadership and its military heroes were mostly Kurds and Turks.”17 Despite the tension with the so-called “Afghan Arabs,” Taliban-IMU relations were characterized by a general understanding and trust. Mullah Omar reportedly appointed Juma Namangani as supreme commander of the foreign fighters stationed on the frontlines in Kabul during the Taliban’s war with the Northern Alliance.18 Similarly, when the United States-led Operation Enduring Freedom began, Juma Namangani tried to organize the defenses of Kabul alongside the Afghan Taliban, but his forces were routed and he was forced to flee Afghanistan and to retreat to Wana in the South Waziristan region of Pakistan together with Yuldashev and several other Arab and Central Asian fighters.19

Following its retreat from Afghanistan, the IMU remained based in the former tribal areas of Pakistan, forming an operational alliance with the Pakistani Taliban and maintaining its pledge of allegiance to the Afghan Taliban. The IMU was pushed out of Pakistan in 2014 by a Pakistani military operation, Zarb-e-Azb (“Strike of the Prophet’s Sword”),which forced the group to relocate and find haven in Afghanistan’s Zabol province under the hospitality of Afghan Taliban dissident commander Mullah Dadullah.20

Around the same time, in 2014–15, the IMU began to publicly distance itself from the Taliban in a manner that was hard to decipher at the time but becomes clearer in retrospect. By the end of July 2015, the Afghan Taliban could no longer conceal the fate of its leader, Mullah Omar—who had reportedly died in 2013—and announced his death to the world while formally announcing that one of his former deputies, Mullah Akhtar Muhammad Mansoor, had taken his place. It is now clear that the disclosure of his death was preceded and indeed forced by then leader of IMU, Usman Ghazi, who by 2014 was leading the majority of his group away from the Taliban into the fold of ISKP. As part of this rift with the Taliban, Ghazi had begun accusing the Taliban of covering up its leader’s death, accusations that created divisions within the IMU and eventually led to conflict with the Taliban.21

Already in June 2014—before IS leader Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi declared his caliphate but after the March 2014 defection to IS of nine prominent al-Qaeda members in Waziristan—Ghazi issued a communique which addressed the “Amirs of muhajireen, ansars and mujahids in Khorasan.”22 In addition to highlighting the IMU’s long history of jihadist activities in several parts of the Muslim world, including Syria,23 Ghazi stressed the need to unite all jihadist factions under the leadership of one “iron fist and hit the apostates,” arguing that “when the Ummah is in need of leaders like Abu Bakr as-Siddiq (r.a.) against murtaddeen [apostates],” jihadists should put aside their minor differences and concentrate on the main enemy, which, for Ghazi, was Pakistan.24 In other words, Ghazi was implying that al-Baghdadi’s organization should assume the leadership of the global jihadist movement.

It is interesting to note that at the time of this publication in June 2014, Ghazi still referred to Mullah Omar by his honorific, Amir al-Mu’mineen (“commander of the faithful”), even though just a few months later, in September 2014, Ghazi released a new statement openly supporting the Islamic State’s caliphal project.25 Ghazi seems to have decided to adopt a pragmatic approach to the issue of his bay’ah (oath of allegiance) to Mullah Omar, to whom he was still bound despite now supporting al-Baghdadi.26 As the former’s death was not yet public knowledge in 2014, retracting bay’ah would have drawn immense criticism to the IMU and potentially harm his prestige within jihadist circles.27

Additionally, it is significant that Ghazi made note of Central Asian militants fighting in Syria in his 2014 communique.28 Indeed, several Central Asian fighters were already present in the Levant at the time and were fighting under the banner of al-Qaeda or loosely connected to the group.29 Other Central Asian militants remained independent and acted as mercenary groups in the war, including Malhama Tactical and Muhojir Tactical, both comprised of Uzbek militants, which developed ties with Hayyat Tahrir al-Sham (HTS) in the Idlib region.30

Due to the presence of Central Asian fighters on several battlefields, members of IMU had a natural attraction toward IS (and, subsequently, for ISKP after the inception of this provincial affiliate in 2015). The Islamic State’s more bellicose, transnational, and dynamic approach furthered offered the IMU a chance to finally renew jihad in Uzbekistan.31

At the same time, while Ghazi was pushing for unity among various jihadist factions, the IMU was suffering from internal divisions. Ghazi’s supporters advocated for joining IS while another faction emerged, wanting to stay loyal to the Afghan Taliban.32 Then, in May 2015, a video from Jundullah, IMU’s media wing, appeared on social media channels that compared Yuldashev and al-Baghdadi, stating Yuldashev’s position on the question of a caliphate.33

Also in 2015, several statements from Ghazi started to circulate questioning the Afghan Taliban’s position that Mullah Omar was still alive. In late June 2015, Ghazi finally released a message in which he openly accused the Taliban of hiding Mullah Omar’s death and issuing orders in his name, thus betraying those who were fighting under the banner of the emirate.34 Ghazi claimed that the Taliban had known for a long time of Mullah Omar’s fate but kept it secret for the sake of the unity of the ummah (community of Muslim faithful). He then quoted several Islamic scholars and hadith (sayings of the Prophet Muhammad) in order to support his argument that the IMU was freed of any allegiance to the Taliban, stating that an absent person (i.e., “someone absent, killed, captured, or incapacitated”) cannot be Amir al-Mu’mineen. A week later, on August 6, 2015, Jundullah released a new video of Ghazi openly declaring bay’ah to al-Baghdadi.35

The pledge of allegiance to the Islamic State from one of the most prestigious groups in jihadist circles was a considerable boost for IS’s morale, especially for the IMU’s Uzbek fighters who were already fighting alongside IS operatives in Iraq (these fighters publicly celebrated Ghazi’s speech by releasing a video from Wilayat al-Furat).36 It is interesting to note that IMU’s sectarian and takfiri mufti, Abu Zar al-Burmi, played an important role in IMU’s pledge to IS. Al-Burmi acted as a spiritual mentor not only for Usman Ghazi, but also for many Central Asian fighters.37 Jacob Zenn has described Abu Zar as an “interlocutor between the IMU and its Urdu-speaking Pakistan hosts in the tribal areas,” elaborating how “as a muhajir, or migrant, by ancestry, Abu Zar could legitimately represent other migrants from Central Asia.”38 Researcher Florian Flade has described him as representing “Jihadi globalization” since he was “a Pakistani-educated cleric of Burmese origin … preaching the idea of International Jihad to foreign fighters in Pakistan’s tribal areas in fluent Arabic and Urdu.”39

A month after Ghazi’s pledge to al-Baghdadi, another group of Central Asian fighters from the Jundullah faction also raised the black flags under the leadership of their commander Qari Salahuddin.40 Jundullah was an armed group based in northeastern Afghanistan comprising Uzbeks, Tajiks, and other Central Asian ethnicities. It was formed in 2009 by commanders who had split from the IMU over internal issues. While splitting from the IMU, Jundullah maintained its allegiance to the Taliban, remaining based primarily in Kunduz province. Ultimately, rivalries and dissatisfaction toward the Taliban led the group to join ISKP. 

Furthermore, Qari Hekmat, an Uzbek who had served as shadow governor of Darzab district in Jawzjan for the Taliban before being demoted, also took the chance to expand his personal power and snub the Taliban by joining ISKP around this time. Though side-lined by the Taliban, Qari Hekmat was still in control of his districts and thus brought them under the sway of ISKP, coordinating his movements with ISKP’s command in Jalalabad and attracting new fighters from Chechnya, Russia, and Tajikistan.41 He successfully kept control of his districts until 2018, even conquering new territories around Darzab and Qush Tepa by taking advantage of Taliban difficulties in reaching remote, peripheral areas of northwestern Afghanistan.42

After initially expanding in Afghanistan’s southern Zabul province—where IMU was based at the time following its displacement from Pakistan’s tribal areas—and in the north of Afghanistan, ISKP lost its territorial foothold in both regions when the ISKP-aligned factions of the IMU was crushed by the Taliban in late 2015. For a brief period of time, the IMU disappeared. Indeed, in November 2015, the Taliban issued a statement explaining their attack against the IMU and specifically against Mullah Dadullah, a rival of Taliban Emir Muhammad Akhtar Mansoor who was hosting Usman Ghazi in Zabul.43

However, in June 2016, the IMU resurfaced and released a new statement which disavowed al-Baghdadi. This statement declared that al-Baghdadi was not a caliph but merely the emir of the Islamic State and reaffirmed IMU’s commitment to decisions made by past leaders, such as Tahir Yuldashev. Thus, IMU implied a renewed allegiance to the Taliban.44 It became clear that, while ISKP-aligned factions of the IMU had indeed been crushed by the Taliban in 2015, many Central Asian militants survived the clashes and pledged renewed allegiance to the Taliban in order to avoid such wrath. The prominent cleric Abu Zar al-Burmi serves as one clear example of this trend. By the end of 2016, these militants had reorganized with support from the Taliban, reestablishing a Taliban-aligned IMU. 

Amid IMU reorganization, some Central Asian fighters chose to remain loyal to IS—joining ISKP likely in toto. The merger of disgruntled IMU fighters with ISKP shifted the paradigm for Central Asian jihadists and allowed ISKP to gain experienced fighters, commanders, ideologues, recruiters, fundraisers, and an Uzbek-language media apparatus to expand its reach beyond Afghanistan’s northern borders. While the Taliban had long held an ostensible monopoly on alliances with Central Asian jihadists, the defection of many IMU jihadists to ISKP shifted this advantage to the Islamic State, showing the potential for building a support base in Central Asia. In a notable sign of this pivot, Tahir Yuldashev’s son was reportedly killed in Afghanistan while fighting for ISKP in 2019.45

IS further capitalized on the Taliban’s actions against the IMU, portraying the Taliban as Pashtun-centric and hostile to Uzbeks and other Afghan minorities that formed the core of IMU. In January 2016, IS’s Dabiq magazine published an interview with ISKP’s wali (“governor”) in which he fumed about “the treacherous, deviant, nationalist Taliban movement” killing Uzbek militants. He scorned the Taliban, claiming that the group had “increased in its tyranny and criminality by purposely killing their defenseless women and children, with the movement’s fighters executing them, sparing no one they could find.”46 Similar statements have been made over the years not only by ISKP officials, but also by Islamic State affiliates elsewhere in the world, such as the group’s provincial affiliate based in India.

ISKP’s Regional and International Media Strategy Targets Central Asians

Whereas every other Islamic State branch produces its media through IS’s centralized media apparatus, ISKP is unique in operating its own separate media arm, al-Azaim Media Foundation. This production wing emerged from an ecosystem of many competing but aligned pro-IS propaganda outlets to become the chief organ used by the group to develop and disseminate its core messaging, advancing a media warfare campaign against its enemies. As ISKP’s media apparatus underwent a rapid process of centralization, the group was simultaneously expanding its strategic vision and ramping up its threats toward a lengthening list of countries. 

Starting with a very limited scope that strictly covered religious topics, al-Azaim has become a multifaceted, robust outlet that addresses religious, political, social, and military issues at the regional and global levels. Along with this growth, al-Azaim has drastically increased the number of languages it produces its content in and translates its materials into. Reporting languages now include Uzbek, Tajik, Pashto, Russian, Dari, Arabic, Urdu, Farsi, Hindi, Malayalam, and English. Outside of the core IS group in Iraq and Syria at its mid-2010 peak, no other branch of the Islamic State has shown the ability to produce propaganda in anywhere near as many languages. ISKP then disseminates its content across the internet through various platforms: Telegram, Facebook, TikTok, Hoop, Element,, and more. In addition, al-Azaim provides the broadest array of languages for materials contributed to the rising pro-Islamic State archive and translation platform known as I’lam Foundation, which has surface-level web addresses and is also available on the dark web. 

Out of this expanded framework of regionalization and internationalization, ISKP and its supporters have ramped up propaganda targeting Central Asia. ISKP has harnessed al-Azaim and aligned propaganda networks to build appeal, recruit, and fundraise, while also expanding criticism, threats, and incitement against Central Asian governments and officials.47 Beyond their official media, ISKP also pushes its Central Asian supporters to create their own content and carry on the Islamic State’s “media jihad,” which is presented as carrying the same importance as making hijra (migration) to fight on the battlefield.48

Following the Taliban’s takeover of Afghanistan, hostilities toward Uzbekistan, Tajikistan, and other states in the region intensified and culminated in attacks against these countries in in April and May 2022. Following rocket strikes on Uzbekistan in April 2022, ISKP’s Voice of Khurasan magazine capitalized on the momentum, threatening to smash Afghanistan’s northern borders “as witnessed by the world when the Islamic State broke down the borders between Iraq and Sham while crushing the Sykes-Picot under our feet.” The article proceeded to threaten that “the eyes of our Mujahideen are fixed on neighboring countries, Iran, China, Uzbekistan, and other nations of kufr.”49 Through Voice of Khurasan and other outlets, ISKP tries to discredit the Taliban through narratives that paint the Taliban as a Pashtun nationalist organization rather than a legitimate religious authority. ISKP highlights the Taliban’s friendly relations with and protection for the interests of “the enemies of Islam” in the region, including China, Russia, and the Central Asian countries.

After a rocket attack on Tajikistan the following month in May 2022, ISKP bragged about how the attack had scared Tajikistan’s government and created problems for the “murtad [apostate] Taliban regime” who failed to “fulfill their void promise of ensuring no harm for their Russian, American, Chinese, and other international masters from the soil of Afghanistan.”50 ISKP pledged that “after the turn of Uzbekistan and Tajikistan, it will be the turn of China and Iran,” adding that “the dark days of deadly attacks and blood sheds [sic] are knocking at… their doorsteps.”51

Subsequently, in September 2022, the Uzbek pro-ISKP channel Tawhid News published an in-depth article detailing a strategy to disrupt and destroy oil and gas infrastructure running through Central Asia. This strategy was partially inspired by the actions of IS’s Sinai branch in Egypt.52 This, the statement read, will come as ISKP expands into Central Asia and conducts bombing and sabotage operations against pipelines that run from Central Asia to China. The motive for these planned attacks is to damage the Chinese economy in retaliation for Beijing’s oppressive policies toward the Uyghurs in Xinjiang. Tawhid News concluded by criticizing the Taliban for its cordial relations with China, accusing the Taliban of being used as a pawn by Beijing and Uzbekistan to protect Central Asia from ISKP. Indeed, a similar video published in 2022 by the Uzbek branch of al-Azaim argued that Russia and China had divided Central Asia into spheres of influence in order to suffocate Islam—while Russia preferred to install “puppet regimes,” China decided to occupy Xinjiang.53 What’s more, the Tajik pro-ISKP an-Nur media group produced a video criticizing China’s harsh oppression of the Uyghur population in Xinjiang and threatening retaliation.54 As early as 2021, ISKP and supporting propagandists lionized a Uyghur militant who had conducted the suicide bombing of a Shi’a mosque in Kunduz on behalf of ISKP—causing over a hundred casualties.55The official IS claim of responsibility implied that this Uyghur militant’s participation in the attack was a form of retaliation because “the Taliban has pledged to expel and oust [Uyghurs] at the request of […] China.”56ISKP has likewise leveraged China’s Xinjiang policies to reach out to Turkistan Islamic Party militants.57

ISKP and its supporters have taken aim at Turkmenistan on occasion as well, though less frequently than they have Tajikistan and Uzbekistan. Aside from an apparent plot to bomb Turkmenistan’s embassy in Kabul, the country has been portrayed in ISKP propaganda as a tyrannical state and part of a hostile Central Asian bloc backed by the United States, Russia, and China. In June 2022, Tawhid News listed Turkmenistan among other Eurasian states that would be defeated to pave the way for the formation of a caliphate.58 An ISKP-aligned media group similarly pointed to the TAPI project (Turkmenistan-Afghanistan-Pakistan-India pipeline) as evidence that the Taliban “protects interests of enemies of Allah in Afghanistan.”59

In conjunction with its threats of directed attacks, ISKP has also sought to incite its followers to commit acts of violence against regional states. In its July 2022 message to mark Eid al-Fitr, al-Azaim called upon Muslims in Tajikistan, Uzbekistan, Russia, Afghanistan, Pakistan, India, Iran, and elsewhere to strike their respective governments, encouraging supporters to “cast fear into the hearts of the sons of Putin and Russia” and to “kill them with cars and knives.”60 This bellicosity is partially designed to boost ISKP’s appeal among Central Asian extremists and entice them to support the group’s cause. 

In addition to criticizing and threatening governments, ISKP has taken aim at jihadist groups allied with the Taliban. Particularly, in late 2023, a niche ISKP-aligned propaganda outlet has criticized the Afghanistan-based Tajik jihadist group, Jamaat Ansarullah. As this group is currently framing its narratives and propaganda strategy on the contours of the Taliban’s model, ISKP is also adjusting its position vis-à-vis the Tajik outfit.61 Hence, ISKP’s Sadoi Khorasan, a Farsi-language media outlet, published an audio message criticizing Jamaat Ansarullah for their alliance with the Taliban and for not carrying out jihad against Tajikistan. The speaker in the audio urged Tajik and Central Asian fighters to join ISKP instead, framing it as the only jihadist platform for Central Asia.62 More recently, another ISKP warning was circulated by al-Azaim’s Tajik-language branch in which the group warned that certain Jamaat Ansarullah members had infiltrated ISKP on behalf of the Taliban.63

In conjunction with this outward-facing messaging, ISKP also makes an effort to signal the importance of Central Asian and former IMU members in the branch’s history. Voice of Khurasan magazine has featured profiles of Tajik militants such as Abu Muhammad at-Tajiki and Umar at-Tajiki as well as Uzbek idealogue Asadullah al-Urgenchi-Taqabballah and fighter Abu Muhammad al-Uzbeki.64 ISKP-aligned propaganda networks have likewise commemorated Central Asian figures from other arenas of jihad such as the Gulmurod Khalimov, who was a Tajik special operations colonel and sniper before he joined IS in Iraq and Syria in 2015.65

ISKP’s propaganda apparatus has grown to such an extent that the Taliban initiated a counter-messaging campaign in 2023, with part of the campaign focused on ISKP’s Central Asian fighters.66 On August 24, 2023, the Afghanistan-based, pro-Taliban media outlet al-Mersaad Media—which publishes in Uzbek, English, Pashto, Dari, Urdu, and Arabic—published a video entirely focused on Tajikistan’s nationals who are members of ISKP and who have been either captured or have carried out operations in Afghanistan in the recent past.67 The video is a potent tool of propaganda devised by the Taliban with the aim of portraying ISKP as a movement which is not native to Afghanistan but rather exclusively driven by foreign intelligence agencies with the aim of undermining Afghanistan’s Taliban government.68 In the video, six ISKP prisoners are introduced while they describe the reasons behind their travel from Tajikistan to Afghanistan and their fight against the Taliban. While they mainly justify joining ISKP by pointing to the purported impossibility of practicing Islam in Tajikistan, some of the prisoners also shed light on their relations with several ISKP suicide attackers who were behind prominent attacks in Afghanistan.69 Interestingly, the detainees claim that they were recruited by ISKP operatives online on Telegram.70 While this video was published by a propaganda arm of the Taliban, the testimonies of the arrested ISKP members nonetheless shed important light on the centrality of the Tajik constituency in ISKP’s organizational structure. This is further demonstrated by the recent proliferation of Tajiki-language media channels affiliated with ISKP.71

The Central Asian ISKP Threat to Afghanistan and Pakistan

After the defeat of the IMU and its eventual reintegration into the Taliban fold, ISKP began to represent a larger platform for Central Asian militants, particularly Tajiks and Uzbeks. However, instead of absorbing an entire organization, ISKP attracted disgruntled individuals and small cells who joined ISKP from other groups, providing operational support rather than expanding ISKP territorial control. Between 2016 and 2021, several attacks were carried out by ISKP fighters whose kunyas (jihadist noms de guerre) suggest Central Asian origins, either from Central Asian countries or from Afghanistan’s sizable ethnic minorities. 

Such incidents are numerous: In February 2017, Abu Bakr al-Tajiki launched a suicide attack on the Afghan Supreme Court; Abu Aisha al-Tajiki assaulted a TV station in Kabul; in March 2017, Abu Abd al-Rahman al-Tajiki and Ibrahim al-Tajiki participated in an attack on the Daud Khan Hospital in Kabul; in March 2020, Ahmad al-Tajiki participated in a suicide attack on a commemoration gathering; and Ahmad Tajik, Abu Bakr Tajik, Ismail Tajik, and Idris Tajik all joined a large-scale raid on Jalalabad prison.72 This last operation was featured in the Islamic State’s “Makers of Epic Battles” video series profiling ISKP, wherein a Tajik insurgent threatened the government in Dushanbe and President Emomali Rahmon.73

Even beyond these militants’ attacks, Tajik and Uzbek ethnics and nationals were playing a role behind the scenes in ISKP as well. For instance, a 2020 study by the United States Institute of Peace (USIP) found that “almost all members and supporters of the ISKP Kabul cell interviewed, profiled, or cursorily identified during this research came predominantly from ethnically Tajik areas of the three provinces immediately to the north of Kabul: Parwan (most members came from Ghorband District), Panjsher, and Kapisa (most came from Najrab and Tagab Districts).”74 It added that the cell included a number of Uzbeks from Jawzjan, Takhar, and Faryab Provinces in the north.75 Moreover, a United Nations Security Council report released in 2019 claimed that a Tajik man from Dushanbe named Sayvaly Shafiev emerged as the leader of an ISKP unit composed of fighters from Central Asian countries. Shafiev was also an authority in the branch’s shura (leadership council), and was actively involved in recruiting foreign fighters online, according to this report.76Radio Free Europe / Radio Liberty also noted that, in January 2019, Afghan authorities extradited eight imprisoned Tajik nationals to Dushanbe for their suspected links to the Islamic State.77 When a 2018 U.S. airstrike in northern Afghanistan near Turkmenistan’s border killed Qari Hikmatullah, an Uzbek ISKP commander and former IMU authority, U.S. officials described him as “the key leader” of a network that acted as “the main conduit for external support and foreign fighters from Central Asian states into Afghanistan.”78 Hikmatullah was apparently then replaced by another Uzbek national named Mawlavi Habibul Rahman who had prior ties to the Taliban.79 In May 2021, before the Taliban took power, the Afghan government claimed to have 408 ISKP foreign nationals in custody, including 37 from Uzbekistan, 16 from China, 13 from Tajikistan, 12 from Kyrgyzstan, and five from Russia.80 Many of these fighters may have escaped from custody during the Taliban’s offensive on Kabul in the summer of 2021.

The most evident display of support as well as of presence of Uzbek and Central Asian militants within ISKP came after the Taliban takeover of Afghanistan completed in August 2021. As ISKP literature revealed later, the group was diligently preparing itself for the post-Taliban takeover period, planning new strategies and developing new narratives in order to support its own struggle both operationally and on the media front.

Central Asian militants have been responsible for some of the most devastating attacks in Afghanistan and Pakistan, particularly throughout 2022. During that year, the Tajik chapter of ISKP proved to be one of the most lethal ones. Indeed, after the group carried out a devastating attack against the Sikh Gurdwara in Kabul, ISKP published a detailed biography of the attacker, identified as Abu Muhammad al-Tajiki.81 Abu Muhammad was part of a four-man team and provided military training in the field of istishhadi operations (suicide shock troops), including to the attacker of a Shi’a shrine in Peshawar, Afghanistan in March 2022 that killed hundreds of people and to Shahram Muwahid, who attacked the memorial ceremony of former Taliban emir Mullah Akhtar Mansoor on May 22 in Kabul, among others. ISKP revealed in al-Tajiki’s biography that he had run the Tajik media wing for a period as well as a training circuit for suicide bombers.82

The Taliban has sought to eliminate foreign fighters as it intensifies its counter-terrorism campaign against ISKP.83 Despite the Taliban’s counterterrorism activities against ISKP, the latter still has a number of high-ranking Central Asian members plotting international and local activities. In July 2022, the Taliban’s General Directorate of Intelligence (GDI) announced that its special forces had killed “important foreign members” in a Kabul safehouse where “the Tajik language section of Voice of Khurasan magazine was organized.”84 Days prior, the Taliban had published a video of an operation in the Imam Sahib district of Kunduz that borders Tajikistan. The Taliban operation killed three likely Central Asian ISKP militants who were apparently linked to rocket attacks on Uzbekistan and Tajikistan in April and May 2022, respectively. More recently, in March 2023, the GDI launched an operation in Mazar-i-Sharif that led to the death of top ISKP recruiter and trainer Salman Tajiki.85

The Taliban’s GDI has successfully dismantled several cells belonging to ISKP network. These include the killing of Abu Zar, an Uzbek national who was in charge of planning attacks in Kabul, and the disruption of Ustad Qais’s network in Mazar-e-Sharif, which consisted of Uzbek and Tajik members.86 In response, ISKP has increased its vigilance of possible Taliban infiltration and spying activities, particularly after a Taliban mole allegedly infiltrated an ISKP cell and helped kill the rising young Tajik propagandist, recruiter, and fundraiser Yusuf Tojiki.87

The Regional Threat from ISKP’s Central Asian Fighters

ISKP’s expansion of propaganda and rhetoric to cover Central Asia was similarly reflected in an expansion in ISKP’s operations and target selection. The group has followed through on its threats to attack foreign interests in Afghanistan, strike neighboring countries, and direct or encourage plots abroad.88 An early sign of things to come, ISKP’s developing narratives could be observed in the weeks leading up to the Taliban’s capture of Kabul and the August 2021 Kabul airport bombing that killed dozens of Afghans and 13 American soldiers. In fact, on the same day as the August 26, 2021 airport attack, alleged Islamic State jihadists were detained with explosives near the Turkmenistan embassy in Kabul.89

Most notable, however, were two attacks against Uzbekistan and Tajikistan in 2022, conducted from Afghan soil.90 In April 2022, ISKP launched rockets at the border city of Termez, Uzbekistan and subsequently fired rockets at a military base in Tajikistan near the Afghan border.91 While the attacks did not cause any casualties, they indicated ISKP’s expanded reach and ambitions less than one year after the Taliban’s takeover. The attacks also indicate that ISKP seeks to exploit instability along the borders between Afghanistan and its neighbors, which have historically been a source of mistrust and tension between those countries.92 Central Asian states are concerned about the expanded reach of ISKP given the history of regional militants using Afghanistan as a base to plot attacks in the region, including ISKP. In July 2018, IS militants attacked Western cyclists in Tajikistan’s Danghara District, killing four and wounding others.93 In November 2019, 15 ISKP militants died and four others were arrested in a clash with Tajik security forces at a checkpoint along the Tajik-Uzbek frontier.94 IS members were involved in violent incidents in Tajikistan’s prisons as well. In the city of Khujand in November 2018, 23 inmates and two prison guards were killed in prison violence. In May 2019, a separate incident left three prison guards and 29 inmates dead in a prison east of Dushanbe.95

ISKP has also attacked regional interests within Afghanistan. The group attacked the Russian and Pakistani embassies in September and December 2022, respectively.96 Just days after the latter, two ISKP fighters launched an assault on a Kabul hotel with the explicit aim of killing Chinese nationals.97 Notably, the Islamic State, in its weekly al-Naba’ newsletter, was quick to make known that one of two hotel attackers was a Tajik man named Abdul Jabbar.98 In January 2023, the Islamic State targeted the Taliban Foreign Ministry facility with a suicide bombing around the time that a Chinese delegation was set to meet with Taliban officials. 

Similarly, a number of Central Asian fighters have carried out attacks in other regions after training with ISKP in Afghanistan, even though these attacks have not always been claimed by ISKP. Such is the case with the October 2022 and the August 2023 attacks on the Shahcheragh shrine in Shiraz, Iran. In each instance, the attackers and some of the masterminds originally hailed from Tajikistan and had been trained by ISKP in Afghanistan.99 While the October 2022 attack was claimed by the Islamic State’s “Fars” (Iran) province and the August 2023 was not even claimed at all, the fact that each set of militants had been in contact with ISKP and managed to travel to Afghanistan to acquire training testifies to ISKP’s continuous efforts to expand its presence in the region.100 Though it was never claimed by the Islamic State, ISKP channels also celebrated the Uzbek man who attacked the Imam Reza shrine in Mashhad, Iran in April 2022.101

The International Threat from ISKP’s Central Asian Contingent and Supporters

The Islamic State has historically succeeded in attracting Central Asian fighters to the Middle East as well as directing and inspiring extremists within diaspora communities to plot and commit violence. During the height of IS’s “caliphate” in Iraq and Syria, Uzbeks linked to or inspired by IS carried out attacks at a nightclub and airport in Istanbul, in New York City, and in Stockholm, while an ethnic Uzbek born in Kyrgyzstan bombed a train in St. Petersburg, Russia and an Uzbek-Finn was connected to a 2017 knife attack by an IS supporter in Turku, Finland.102

Early on in ISKP’s history, then leader Hafiz Saeed Khan provided a clue for the expanded vision to come when he declared in July 2015 that his movement “will fight … until we liberate all Muslim lands from Andalus [Spain] to East Turkistan [Xinjiang] from the hegemony of disbelievers.”103 Fast forwarding to the Taliban takeover of Kabul in 2021, two pro-IS media outlets that work in an official capacity with al-Azaim and produce content in Central Asian languages collaborated to create an image that shows ISKP militants with the words “From Khurasan Wilayah to Washington.”104

After the fall of IS’s territorial caliphate in 2019, and particularly since the Taliban’s takeover of Afghanistan in 2021, ISKP has become the most internationally oriented branch of IS in terms of its media focus and ambition to direct and incite transnational attacks. ISKP’s regionalization and internationalization strategy consists of interlinked media warfare and kinetic action. ISKP is currently the only branch producing official propaganda in the Uzbek and Tajik languages, which gives it leverage among related target audiences in building support as well as directing and inciting attacks abroad. This was seen amid the controversies surrounding the early 2023 Qur’an burnings in Scandinavia, as ISKP and its Central Asian media wings were among the most aggressive in calling for supporters to commit violence in Europe.105 In response to the Qur’an burning incident, a video posted in January 2023 of an IS supporter desecrating a Christian cemetery in Belgium emerged online and, notably, Uzbek and Tajik ISKP-aligned channels seemed to have circulated it most widely.106

General Michael Kurilla, the head of U.S. Central Command, warned the Senate Armed Forces Committee in March 2023 that “ISIS-Khorasan has increased attacks in the region and desires to export those attacks beyond Afghanistan to include the U.S. homeland and our interests abroad.”107 Kurilla said ISKP’s ultimate goal is to strike on U.S. soil, adding that there is a risk of “an external operation against U.S. or Western interests abroad in under six months, with little or no warning.”108 In a talk given to the Stimson Center on September 12, U.S. Special Representative to Afghanistan Tom West assessed that, in Afghanistan, “the group that we worry the most about is … ISKP” which “clearly harbors an intent to conduct external operations.”109

Senior U.S. National Counterterrorism Center officials assess that ISKP has “become more intent on supporting external plots,” referring to this as a “most concerning development.”110 They add that the branch has so far relied upon inexperienced operatives for its external militant activities, which is one reason why the group has not had success in this endeavor so far. In July 2023, for instance, nine people of Tajik, Turkmen, and Kyrgyz nationalities were arrested across Germany and the Netherlands for plotting attacks and collecting money for the Islamic State. The network was in contact with ISKP members in Afghanistan and travelled through Ukraine to Western Europe after Russia’s invasion.111 Even as early as April 2020, German police arrested four Tajik nationals who had plotted an attack in Tajikistan before changing focus to targets inside Germany, including U.S. Air Force bases.112 As with the most recent arrests in Germany, the suspects arrested in 2020 were in contact with a high-ranking member of ISKP as well as an operative in Syria.113 ISKP also has proven links and an operational presence in India, Bangladesh, Myanmar, Sri Lanka, and the Maldives.114 Moreover, a Tajik national linked to the Islamic State and possibly ISKP who entered Poland from Belarus was arrested and deported in June 2023.115

In June 2023, an ISKP recruiter and financier named Shamil Hukumatov was arrested in Turkey after having allegedly recruited Central Asians to travel to Afghanistan to join ISKP in addition to plotting attacks against Tajikistan. Investigators said he aspired to a “Greater Khurasan” province that would expand its range to include areas of Tajikistan, Iran, and Pakistan.116 The long running investigation into his activities led to the arrest of two connected ISKP operatives in Tajikistan.117 Separately, a Turkish media report published in July 2023 revealed that Turkish intelligence arrested ISKP militants suspected of plotting attacks against Swedish and Dutch diplomatic and religious facilities in Istanbul on the orders of ISKP’s leader.118 The Institute for the Study of War recently assessed that ISKP has a strong relationship with IS’s central leadership and maintains influence over IS elements in Syria and Turkey, directing them to conduct attacks against European diplomatic facilities in Turkey. The analysis notes how ISKP has a presence in the region and could tap these networks to strike inside Europe.119 These assessments track with a new U.S. intelligence assessment about how “ISIS Khorasan [sic] members involved in media, facilitation and recruitment in support of external operations are increasingly moving to neighboring countries to evade the Taliban [counterterrorism] campaign.”120

It is also possible that ISKP could extend its reach and influence into North America in order to conduct or incite attacks there.121 The branch has overtly threatened a 9/11-style attack inside the U.S. mainland.122 More concerningly, in late August 2023, it was reported that a group of Uzbek nationals were being investigated by U.S. authorities after they crossed into the country from Mexico with the assistance of a human trafficker with Islamic State links.123 Similarly, in July 2023, an Uzbek man identified as an Islamic State militant who had fought in Syria was arrested in Spain after departing from Mexico. Authorities said that he had helped finance the travel of radicals from Central Asian nations to other IS branches as well.124 An ISKP supporter was also arrested in Canada for plotting attacks on foreign embassies in Afghanistan.125


Threats coming from Central Asian militants are directly linked to the traction that ISKP holds in the region. As ISKP represents the natural platform for those harboring anti-state sentiments toward Tajikistan, Uzbekistan, Turkmenistan, and China—since the Afghan Taliban (and by extension, its allied Central Asian militants) is set to normalize relations with those neighboring countries—Central Asian jihadists consider ISKP the nearest and most accessible pole for jihad. This is even more visible since traditionally strong Central Asian militant groups in Syria and Iraq have either resorted to becoming contractors for jihadist factions—such as Muhojir Tactical, Fursan Tactical, or Yurtugh Tactical—or have limited prospects of attacking Central Asian countries, as is the case with the Turkistan Islamic Party (TIP).126 Furthermore, ISKP is the sole jihadist entity which has repeatedly endorsed the concept of a would-be Central Asia province, known as Movarounnahr, thereby answering the call of jihadists who aim at fighting Central Asian governments immediately. The ideological power of this concept is observed in the fact that one of the most influential pro-IS Tajik media outlets bears the name Movarounnahr and has increasingly been producing propaganda focused on Afghanistan. This is just one more indication of how the Afghanistan-Pakistan region is becoming the main focus for many disparate elements in the Central Asian contingent.127

Afghanistan naturally faces the brunt of the threat posed by ISKP. However, notwithstanding successful counter-terrorism operations by the Taliban against ISKP, which resulted in the killing of many Central Asian militants, there is a high risk of spill-over into neighboring countries. Tajikistan is the most exposed country to ISKP’s recruitment and ideology as evidenced by the disgruntled youth lured into jihad in Afghanistan and, to a lesser extent, Iran. The gradual radicalization of young Tajik nationals—often together with their families, as revealed by many speeches shared online on pro-ISKP channels—might expand further and constitute a more direct threat to the country itself. Moreover, the number of Tajik nationals crossing into Afghanistan to join ISKP has become a key issue between the two countries, with Afghanistan and Iran accusing Tajikistan of either failing to stop its domestic extremists from crossing borders or directly sending them to neighboring states. Recently, it was revealed by Iranian authorities that the perpetrator of the August 2023 attack in Shiraz, a Tajik national, managed to travel between Turkey, Afghanistan, and Iran with impunity, highlighting a transregional network set up by ISKP that stretches from Afghanistan to the Mediterranean.128

However, ISKP’s threat is not limited to Tajikistan, nor to Central Asia. ISKP has displayed some traction in the West as well. The group has lured recruits from European countries, the United Kingdom, United States, and Canada, with several instances of ISKP supporters planning to immigrate to Afghanistan or to carry out attacks in loco (Central Asian individuals frequently feature among such cases). While we should not inflate the direct threat that ISKP presently poses in the West, it is still crucial to highlight that ISKP has an aspirational international attack agenda only IS central has historically had. That is, ISKP is overshadowing or replacing the traditionally “core” network in Iraq and Syria in some respects regarding the narratives, propaganda, and aspirations it propagates. While it would be imprecise to draw a parallel between al-Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula (AQAP), the most internationalized branch of al-Qaeda in recent years, and ISKP given that the former has already played a concrete, operational role for attacks in the West while ISKP’s role remains more aspirational, ISKP nonetheless perpetuates the IS legacy of being a global jihadist organization. In time, it could conceivably become IS’s spearhead for external operations. ISKP’s international ambitions continue to grow, and it has increasingly and explicitly threatened to direct and incite attacks throughout the West. Just as al-Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula (AQAP) has foreign propagandists who seek to incite violence in the West through their outreach, ISKP has media operatives from various countries, including Western countries, who might shift to urging attacks on their nations of origin.

ISKP is set to remain a challenge in Afghanistan and Central Asia as it has proven to be highly durable despite its periods of ebbs and flows. It is entrenched in segments of the local populations, specifically Salafist communities, and in the deep-seated grievances that are present across Central Asia, Afghanistan, and Pakistan. Moreover, since 2021, ISKP has successfully started a process of historicizing its own trajectory and framing its legacy. ISKP has made clear that even if the group were to collapse, it would survive as an idea, with new “ISKPs” surfacing with other names—exploiting any instability across the whole region, not only in Afghanistan.