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Making Sense of the Islamic State’s War on the Afghan Taliban
Taliban police are seen at a checkpoint on September 24, 2021 in Kabul, Afghanistan. (Photo by Paula Bronstein/Getty Images)
Taliban police are seen at a checkpoint on September 24, 2021 in Kabul, Afghanistan. (Photo by Paula Bronstein/Getty Images)

Making Sense of the Islamic State’s War on the Afghan Taliban

Abdul Sayed, Pieter Van Ostaeyen & Charlie Winter

On September 18, 2021, the Islamic State’s affiliate in Afghanistan, which calls itself wilayat khurasan (literally, “Khurasan Province,” hence the label “ISKP”), simultaneously bombed seven Taliban positions in the city of Jalalabad, Nangarhar province, in eastern Afghanistan. These attacks kick-started its months-long campaign to destabilize the Taliban’s new government, which had been established in early September following the fall of Kabul on August 15. Between September and January, ISKP had deployed some 136 operations as part of this campaign, with 96 of them targeting Taliban officials or security forces. Given that, across the same period the previous year, it launched just 46 attacks, with only two targeting the Taliban, this made for a stark escalation in its operations in Afghanistan.

Through this surge in attacks, ISKP has been attempting to degrade the Taliban’s new regime by denying it the ability to claim that it has brought an end to war in Afghanistan. ISKP’s aim is not, in the near term at least, to overthrow the Taliban government; rather, it is trying to assert itself as a lasting powerbroker in this “new” Afghanistan and, in the process, demonstrate its strategic resolve and capabilities. Moreover, its anti-Taliban stance is a way to assert its “righteous” rejection of al-Qa’eda’s (at least nominal) allegiance to the Taliban’s supreme leader. The fact is that violence is the only way the Islamic State can respond to the relationship between al-Qa’eda and the Taliban—which, even if only symbolic, implicitly denies its doctrinal legitimacy as a self-proclaimed caliphate.


Figure 1: ISKP attacks in Afghanistan following the Taliban’s victory in Kabul (August 15, 2021 to March 14, 2022). Notice the operational pause immediately before ISKP’s September campaign.


Figure 2: Map of ISKP attacks since September 18, 2021, when its new campaign was launched.

To these ends, ISKP has gone to great lengths to destabilize the newly incumbent Taliban. In October 2021, for example, it targeted the funeral prayers of the mother of Taliban spokesman Zabihullah Mujahid and in early November it launched a complex suicide assault on Kabul’s largest military hospital, leaving one of the Taliban’s senior-most military commanders dead. While neither of these targets is strictly out of bounds in terms of what is theologically permissible (according to the Islamic State’s telling of jihad), they are both controversial, and, accordingly, it would appear that ISKP has been trying to push the boundaries of its war to the limits and provoke an outsized and ultimately counterproductive reaction from the Taliban.

Whatever the outcome and impact of its recent operations, ISKP appears to have a single overarching strategy in mind: to act as a roadblock to the Taliban’s efforts to transition from insurgent force to conventional state and, in doing so, provoke more coercive and indiscriminate policies towards Afghanistan’s Salafist community, ISKP’s principal recruitment pool. The more it succeeds in this, the more appealing its brand and the better its strategic prospects in the region.

However, while important, these pragmatic concerns are not the only reason behind ISKP’s war with the Taliban. Rather, at the heart of this conflict is a religio-political rivalry that has been playing out since the 1980s, a rivalry that, while indigenous to Afghanistan, has been shaped and in many ways defined by the global war between the Islamic State and al-Qa’eda. In this article, we explore the evolution of this conflict, identifying its historical and ethnoreligious foundations, tracking how it has been impacted by the global Salafi-jihadist “civil war,” and assessing what that means for Afghanistan today.

The Arab Afghans and the Emergence of Internecine Rivalry

While ISKP and the Taliban are ideologically similar in a number of ways, they are doctrinally distinct. ISKP is (at least nominally) Salafist in orientation, while the Taliban is Deobandi-Hanafi. One of the principal doctrinal differences between Salafists and Hanafis relates to the issue of taqlid, or the notion that Muslims should follow one particular school of jurisprudence. Hard-line adherents of Salafism are generally against the belief that Muslims should follow one particular imam, declaring this practice a source of discord that divides the ummah (Islamic community) and limits Muslims from “properly” practicing Islam.1 Hanafis, on the other hand, explicitly call for Muslims to adopt the theological positions of the eighth-century imam Abu Hanifa. 2

That being said, violent conflict between Salafist and Hanafi Muslims is by no means inevitable; it is Salafi-jihadism that gives rise to that. Not all Salafists are Salafi-jihadist (although all supporters of ISKP are). Generally, Salafists are against khuruj (violent revolt or rebellion) against Muslim rulers and, as part of this, exert great caution when engaging in politics and especially when applying the doctrine of takfir (excommunication). By contrast, Salafi-jihadists, especially supporters of the Islamic State, engage in takfir liberally, using it against Sunni Muslim opponents to simultaneously delegitimise and justify violence against them.

Despite this important distinction between Salafism and Salafi-jihadism, these dynamics mean that while ISKP has in the past had some attraction to wayward members of the Deobandi-Hanafi Taliban, its principal recruitment pool in Afghanistan has historically been the country’s Salafist community. Accordingly, to understand ISKP’s place in Afghanistan today, we have to first understand the history of Afghan Salafism.

Afghanistan’s Salafist community dates back to the mid-nineteenth century and the time of Sayyid Ahmad Barelvi and Shah Ismail Shahid.3 However, the community blossomed in the 1980s with the arrival of Arab foreign fighters who had travelled to the country in order to fight against the Soviet Red Army. These fighters were relatively few in number, but their influence and capabilities were disproportionate, mainly on account of the backing they received from wealthy Salafist donors in the Arabian Peninsula. With time, certain aspects of the then-diverse Afghan resistance fell into their orbit, something that eventually gave rise to the establishment of the first-ever Afghan Salafist militant group, Jama’at Da’wa li-l-Qur’an w-al-Sunna (JDQS) in 1985.4 JDQS’s operations were almost exclusively confined to the northeastern provinces of Kunar and Nuristan, where, in May 1990,5 Shaykh Jamil al-Rahman, the group’s leader, declared an Islamic emirate, establishing the first ever militant Salafist pseudo-state in modern history.6

In the wake of this grandiose declaration, JDQS’s prospects soon soured. Just over a year after its establishment, it was routed and ultimately eliminated by the then largest Afghan mujahidin faction, the Hanafi-dominated Hizb-i-Islami Hikmatyar (HIK). Just a few weeks after the group’s demise, an Egyptian foreign fighter assassinated Shaykh Jamil in August 1991 on the grounds that he had caused discord in the ranks of the foreign mujahidin.7

The JDQS episode was a cautionary tale for Afghanistan’s Salafist community, which reacted to the group’s demise by focusing on more apolitical and non-militant approaches to propagating Salafism in the region. In the years that followed, Peshawar, the capital of Pakistan’s north-western Khyber Pukhtunkhawa province (which is adjacent to Kunar and Nangarhar in Afghanistan), became a center of gravity for Afghan Salafists. There, with foreign backing, they founded several large and comparatively well-resourced seminaries specifically with a view to popularizing Salafism among the large Afghan refugee population that resided there due to the Soviet invasion.8 In the late 1980s and early 1990s, hundreds of Afghans graduated annually from these seminaries before travelling back across the border to Afghanistan to proselytise.

In this manner, the propagation of the Salafist community in Afghanistan remained largely unfettered until the Taliban took control of the country in 1995.9 As mentioned above, the Taliban is mostly composed of Deobandi-Hanafis. Consequently, its rank-and-file and leadership opposed the rise of Salafist Islam in Afghanistan. Once in power, the Taliban thus banned Salafist seminaries across the country, along with several books that were fundamental to Salafism, alleging that they were “deviant.”10 This crackdown caused a rift between the Salafists and the Taliban, something that prompted several prominent Salafist activists and foundations to start publishing propaganda materials that set out to challenge the credentials of the Taliban’s new Islamic emirate. These materials, which framed the Taliban as a “deviant” group of “grave-worshiping polytheists” who had banned “real” Islam in Afghanistan, became popular in Islamist networks worldwide, including among wealthy donor-activists in the Arabian Peninsula, some of whom were important backers of the Taliban. It was at around this time that the Taliban doubled down on—and began to instrumentalize—its hitherto ambiguous relationship with al-Qa’eda.

The Taliban and Salafi-Jihadists: From Marriage of Convenience to Cooptation

The perception issues from which the Taliban suffered because of its Salafist detractors, which were at risk of damaging its popularity among donors in the Arabian Peninsula, were by no means the only thing that drove it to firm up its alliance with al-Qa’eda in the late 1990s. However, they were a prominent factor. Besides the numerous political, military, and economic benefits that the Taliban could accrue by hosting the al-Qa’eda network in Afghanistan—which was itself a critical source of funding and, by some accounts, military support—there were other, more cynical motivations at play. By agreeing to host foreign Salafi-jihadists (many but not all of them associated with al-Qa’eda), the Taliban could tap into a forceful and highly vocal community of supporters that were willing to come forward to defend the theological credentials of its emirate. In return, these same Salafi-jihadists, now pariahs in their home countries, would be afforded freedom of movement and a base of operations.

Al-Qa’eda’s founder, Usama bin Ladin, played a central role in cementing this relationship by pledging allegiance to the Taliban’s then supreme leader, Mullah Umar, in 1999.11 While in some ways this move detracted from al-Qa’eda’s overarching ideological offering—alienating many of the Taliban’s more ardent Salafist critics, both inside Afghanistan and beyond—it afforded its network the use of Afghanistan as a safe haven and center of gravity, meaning that it could bring Salafist youth from around the world to train at its camps with relative freedom.

To push back on claims that he had allied with “polytheists and grave-worshippers,” bin Ladin and his increasingly well-resourced media cadre began publishing pro-Taliban propaganda that, using Salafist talking points, defended the Taliban’s status as an emirate and, by extension, defended al-Qa’eda as a legitimate advocate of the global Muslim community.12 In addition to this, bin Ladin personally invited Salafist scholars from across the Middle East to Afghanistan so that they could witness that the Taliban had implemented “true shari’a governance” in the country and, in the course of doing so, convince them that defending Afghanistan was an important religious duty.13 This worked to bin Ladin’s advantage as it meant he could defend his collaboration with “polytheists,” while the Taliban, through bin Ladin’s diplomatic entreaties, could simultaneously proclaim to be working with the global Salafist community even as it was marginalizing Salafists within Afghanistan.

With the attacks on the World Trade Center in 2001 and the NATO invasion of Afghanistan that followed, most (but not all) Salafist critics of the Taliban set aside their ideological differences and rallied behind its new defensive jihad. This saw them lining up to back their former rivals and participate in the Taliban’s greater war against the “Crusader” campaign.14 To hasten this closing of ranks, al-Qa’eda and the Afghan Salafi-jihadists with which it was allied doubled down in their outreach efforts, ultimately playing a central role in convincing Afghan Salafists to fight alongside the Taliban and provide it with political, economic, and military support.15 So it was that Afghanistan’s Salafist community came to play a formative role in the Taliban’s post-9/11 insurgency.

However, shortly after the Afghan Taliban began consolidating its insurgency in 2007, the Taliban recognized—and began to act against—the increasing potency of the Afghan Salafists, who initially fought independently but were soon subsumed into its ranks. To avoid a situation in which its regional hegemony would be contested, the Taliban started trying to confine them to the margins of the war. With continued mediation—and, though it was something of a contradiction, buy-in from al-Qa’eda—the Taliban afforded its former Afghan Salafist rivals menial tasks, confining Salafist leaders to village- or district-level positions of command instead of allowing them to rise to governorships.16

As al-Qa’eda’s leadership perished in US strikes or fled Afghanistan, the remaining Salafist insurgents floundered, fulfilling their “responsibility” to fight against the “Crusaders” but failing to ascend to prominence within the ranks of the Taliban. As a result, the Taliban was able to establish a de facto monopoly on Afghanistan’s jihad and, for a time, sustainably subjugate the country’s Salafist militant networks.

The Emergence of ISKP

Across the border in Pakistan, the Salafi-jihadist experience was profoundly different from that of Afghanistan. While the Tehreek-e-Taliban Pakistan (TTP) was (and is) structured along similar doctrinal lines to those of the Afghan Taliban, the Salafists in its ranks had far more clout.17 This is due to the fact that the TTP is not a centralized group like the Afghan Taliban. Rather, it is more of an umbrella organization where various groups from different parts of the country have joined together under a single banner, with each enjoying a measure of independence depending on their size and strength.

One of the TTP’s strongest factions at the time that Islamic State declared itself a global caliphate in 2014 was the Salafist-dominated Orakzai chapter; this was the same faction that—under the instruction of its amir, Hafiz Sa’id Khan—defected to ISKP in late 2014 (the group was not formally announced as an Islamic State affiliate until January 2015). At the time of its defection, the TTP was at a low ebb, with most of its other chapters having lost their influence in places like Bajaur, Mohmand, South Waziristan, North Waziristan, and Kurram due to Pakistani military pressure. Thus, by the time of ISKP’s declaration, the TTP had already become increasingly reliant on its Salafi-jihadist network in Orakzai, a network that the TTP’s amir from 2009 to 2013, Hakim Ullah Mehsud, had also long favored. Consequently, in spite of its Salafist orientation, the Orakzai chapter had accrued for itself an enviable position in the TTP.

The birth of ISKP, which was inspired by the emergence of the Islamic State in Iraq and Syria, was ultimately the work of these Pakistani Salafists. In October 2014, a few months after the Islamic State declared its caliphate (see subsequent section for more detail), Hafiz Sa’id Khan along with several other senior-ranking TTP Salafists (including the TTP’s central spokesperson Shahidullah Shahid aka Shaikh Maqbul), publicly defected from the TTP and established ISKP,18 with Hafiz Sa’id Khan named as its first wali (governor) and Maqbul its spokesperson. When it was inaugurated, Khan declared that ISKP would revitalise the TTP’s stagnating war in Pakistan and called on members of the TTP to join his new group, a show of strength that simultaneously attracted a number of Afghan Salafists to the cause despite being initially Pakistan-focused.19 This all happened at an especially opportune moment for ISKP: At the time, the TTP was suffering from major internal rifts due to disagreements regarding its terms of engagement with the Pakistani government. As a result, hundreds of TTP members ended up defecting to join ISKP in the weeks that followed.20

When, the Pakistani military deployed a slew of aggressive military operations against the TTP within a matter of weeks of these defections (although not because of them), ISKP shifted its headquarters to the Afghan side of the border, specifically Nangarhar province and adjacent Kunar province. There, it picked up a large number of disenfranchised Salafist militants that were until then in the ranks of the Afghan Taliban.

By May 2015—that is, less than six months after its relocation to Afghanistan—ISKP had shifted its focus once more and declared war on the Afghan Taliban, accusing it of being a stooge of the regional “__tawaghit__” (tyrannical regimes) of Pakistan and Iran and of deviating from the “true path of __shari’a.__”21 Per ISKP’s then leader, Hafiz Sa’id Khan, the war on the Taliban was necessary due to the Taliban’s persistently unjust and belligerent stance towards ISKP supporters that had fled from Pakistan earlier in the year. Whatever the actual cause, its defiant anti-Taliban stance attracted a number of influential scholars from Kunar and Nangarhar’s Salafist seminaries as well as from further afield. Prominent among them was Shaykh Jalaluddin, who originally hailed from Kunar but had for years been based at a large Salafist seminary in Peshawar.22

This gradual Afghanization of ISKP was accelerated by the targeting of its Pakistani leadership in drone strikes and joint raids of US and Afghan forces, operations that were augmented by increasingly aggressive counter-ISKP posturing from the Taliban. This saw ISKP transforming just one year on from its formal and public establishment in January 2015 into an Afghan-centric movement with the non-militant Salafi Afghan scholar Shaykh Jalaluddin acting as its chief ideologue and another Afghan Salafist scholar, Abdul Hasib Lughari, succeeding Hafiz Sa’id Khan as wali (Khan was killed in July 2016 in a US drone strike). This transformation attracted yet more Afghans to its ranks. Indeed, ISKP came to be seen as a vehicle to establish Salafist supremacy in Afghanistan, something to which Shaykh Jalaluddin directly alluded in August 2015 when he stated that ISKP was fighting for the same goal as Shaykh Jamil’s JDQS in the 1980s.23

However, it was not all plain-sailing. After flourishing briefly in 2016 and 2017, ISKP lost momentum due to setbacks caused by mounting pressure from US and Afghan forces on the one hand and the Taliban on the other. Though there was no coordination between these two blocs (which were at war with each other), the combined effect of their separate anti-ISKP operations was to leave ISKP “defeated” in Nangarhar and Kunar in early 2020.24 Hundreds of ISKP fighters were killed, with hundreds more arrested by or surrendering to the Afghan government. This period of territorial decline, leadership decapitation, and sustained degradation of the rank-and-file did not, however, mark the end of ISKP. On the contrary, in June 2020, ISKP entered into a period of resurgence following the appointment of Dr. Shahab al-Muhajir—a defector of the Afghan Taliban and veteran of urban insurgency—as its new wali.25 Under his leadership, ISKP stopped trying to seize and hold territory and instead
began to focus on the deployment of sustained (and more sustainable) terroristic violence against civilians, predominantly concentrated in Kabul and Jalalabad. This saw ISKP become almost exponentially more active over 2021 (see Figure 3).


Figure 3: Graph showing intensification of ISKP attacks in Afghanistan and Pakistan between January 1, 2020 and February 28, 2021. NB: Shahab al-Muhajir was appointed ISKP wali in June 2020.

The Globalization of Salafist Opposition to the Taliban

These local, community-level dynamics to one side, the story of ISKP’s enmity for the Taliban cannot be told without also discussing the broader position of the Islamic State towards the Taliban. After all, were ISKP’s war with the Taliban not something that the Islamic State’s leadership also bought into, ISKP would risk being excommunicated from the global caliphal project. Besides financial and logistical support from the Islamic State’s central operational apparatus—something that we know to exist, although the extent of it remains shrouded in mystery—ISKP would lose access to the force-multiplier that is the Islamic State’s Central Media Diwan.26 This would sap its regional momentum and blunt any hopes ISKP may have to mobilize regional and extra-regional foreign fighters.

Just like its ISKP subsidiary, the Islamic State is fundamentally opposed to the Taliban, but the reasons behind its opposition as a global movement are different to those that motivate ISKP’s Afghan rank-and-file. Instead of being driven by grievances established in the course of decades’ worth of local political marginalization and military subordination, the Islamic State’s animus for the Taliban today is borne of fundamentally ideological matters, a dynamic that has been shaped by its broader relationship with al-Qa’eda.

To track how this dynamic bore out, we have to go back to Syria in 2011 and the outbreak of the so-called Arab Spring and, with it, the origins of the war between al-Qa’eda and the Islamic State.27 When revolutionary fervour took hold of Syria in 2011, it quickly descended into full-fledged civil conflict. Before the end of the year, Salafi-jihadists, both from Syria and abroad, were deploying in the country to fight against the regime of Bashar al-Assad. Among them was a delegation of fighters initially dispatched by what was then known as the Islamic State in Iraq (ISI)—a nominal, but increasingly wayward, ally of al-Qa’eda—who were led by Abu Muhammad al-Jawlani, a Syrian ISI official directly appointed by ISI’s then leader, Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi. Calling itself Jabhat al-Nusra,28 ISI’s Syrian pilot branch experienced spectacular growth in its heyday between 2012 and early 2014, attracting thousands of foreign fighters from countries worldwide. So rapid was its expansion that, within the space of two years, Baghdadi determined that it would work to his advantage to declare Jawlani’s group a direct logistical and bureaucratic extension of ISI. Thus, the Islamic State in Iraq and al-Sham (ISIS) was formally established in 2013.

Critically, the public declaration of ISIS by its Iraqi leadership was not something that had buy-in from Jawlani, who refused to re-subordinate himself to Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi and instead asserted his group’s independence as a Syria-based al-Qa’eda franchise by declaring allegiance to Ayman al-Zawahiri, al-Qa’eda’s global leader. This clash, which was framed by both ISIS and al-Qa’eda as doctrinal even though it was also in large part driven by power disputes, ultimately descended into overt civil war in early 2014 despite many bungled attempts at mediation (the most notable by the likes of al-Qa’eda veteran Abu Khalid al-Suri, whom ISIS is believed to have assassinated in February 2014).

The fate of the relationship between the Islamic State and al-Qa’eda (and, by extension, the Taliban, with which al-Qa’eda remained tied due to Ayman al-Zawahiri’s 2011 oath of allegiance to its leader) was sealed when the Islamic State declared itself a caliphate on June 29, 2014. By definition, this solidified its split from al-Qa’eda because it necessitated annulling its by then nominal oath of allegiance to Taliban leader Mullah Umar (who, unbeknownst to the rest of the world, was dead while this dispute was playing out).29 On that basis, unless the entire global al-Qa’eda movement opted to also break its oath to Mullah Umar and pledge allegiance to Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi, a break from, and subsequently a war with, the Islamic State was set in stone.

The key detail in this saga—and the main political factor that drives the Islamic State’s enmity for the Taliban today—is that al-Qa’eda opted to stand by the Taliban instead of joining Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi’s new caliphate. This forced the Islamic State’s hand; the only way it could respond to this implicit denial of its legitimacy was to attack al-Qa’eda’s ideological credentials. And one of al-Qa’eda’s principal vulnerabilities, at least as the Islamic State saw it, was the fact that this Salafi-jihadist movement had opted to remain loyal to the “heretical sect” of the Deobandi Taliban. In the eyes of the Islamic State, this alone was cause enough for excommunication from the fold of Islam.

In view of this, the Islamic State’s opposition to the Taliban is not just incidental, it is existential. It has no choice but to adopt a position of utmost hostility towards the Taliban because in doing so it delegitimizes al-Qa’eda’s claims and annuls any allegations that its “caliphate” is itself illegitimate. On this basis, ISKP’s war with the Taliban today is not just about advancing the Islamic State’s strategic position in Central Asia. Rather, it is an expression of the Islamic State’s sense of its own global supremacy.

Conclusion

This article has demonstrated that ISKP’s war on the Afghan Taliban today results from a toxic convergence of local intra-Islamist grievances and global jihadist dynamics.

On the one hand, ISKP’s anti-Taliban agenda is defined by the ideological rift that has existed between Afghanistan’s Salafist community and Deobandi-dominated Taliban since the 1980s. On the other, it has been shaped by forces external to Afghanistan, namely the rise of the Islamic State and its subsequent war with al-Qa’eda, which was seized on by Salafist militants in Pakistan and Afghanistan as a pretext to fight back against years of political and military subordination at the hands of the Taliban.

While the intensity of its anti-Taliban campaign has tapered off since September 2021, as shown in Figure 4, ISKP will continue in its efforts to deploy destabilizing violence across Afghanistan in months and years to come. Besides the Taliban, it will likely target Shi’ite Muslims, Hindus, and Sikhs, whom the Taliban has assured it will protect, as well as journalists, activists, former government officials, and humanitarian groups. This strategy is orientated around two goals. First, to demonstrate that the Taliban cannot provide the security it has been promising Afghans since first signing its peace deal with the United States in 2020 (itself a “crime” against Islam according to ISKP), thereby undermining its rule and degrading its governing credibility. Second, to frame itself as a relevant and capable actor in Afghan politics, a resistance movement that is pursuing an inexorable agenda of opposition to Taliban rule.


Figure 4: ISKP attacks against Taliban officials and security forces, January 1, 2020 to February 28, 2021.

To this end, ISKP has publicly stated that it has no intention of seizing and holding territory in Afghanistan, at least for the time being, and that its current priority is to force the “apostate” Taliban to show its true colors while “winning the hearts and minds of the local population.”30 Accordingly, as the Taliban tries to further consolidate its position in Afghanistan, ISKP is certain to continue to try to undermine it. The more pressure ISKP’s covert networks exert, the harder it will be for the Taliban’s nascent government to maintain centrifugal force and, crucially, restraint. By provoking more indiscriminate security policies, especially in Afghanistan’s eastern provinces, ISKP’s hope appears to be that it will further entrench Salafist discontent in the face of Taliban rule, something that in the long term will play into the Islamic State’s hands.

To be sure, this campaign has already paid dividends. On multiple occasions now, ISKP has managed to provoke blunt and ill-conceived responses from the Taliban including collective punishment and tit-for-tat brutality—sometimes even public beheadings of ISKP suspects. Instead of thinking long-term, the Taliban’s go-to response was initially to try to force ISKP’s rank-and-file supporters into submission and, ultimately, surrender. Its security forces stormed Salafist communities, shut down prominent mosques and seminaries, rounded up and arrested thousands, and killed dozens of Salafists alleged to be ISKP-connected (including several major ideologues like Abu Ubaydullah Mutawakkil).31

That being said, it seems clear that ISKP’s militancy is not about establishing Afghanistan as a new core of the Islamic State caliphate—at least not yet. It is about demonstrating presence, defiance, and intent, and shaping the terrain for future insurgency. ISKP has reiterated this repeatedly since August 2021. For example, its local media outlet, Khalid Media, has published several videos attacking the Taliban for its alleged betrayal of Sunni Muslims—not just in Afghanistan but the world over—stating that it is ISKP and ISKP alone that stands to rectify, through violence, the errors the Taliban has committed. These videos have been careful to caveat that, notwithstanding this fundamentally revolutionary agenda, the road ahead is long and difficult.32 It requires war against not only the “apostate” Taliban, but also the infidels now backing the Taliban’s new government—including both the US (with which the Taliban reached a negotiated peace), regional powers like Pakistan and India, and the global “tyrants” China and Russia. Only time will tell whether this is more than just rhetoric, but there is one thing we can be sure of: Afghanistan has not seen the last of ISKP’s savagery.

1 For details see Shaikh Abu Muhammad Ameen Ullah Peshawari, The reality of Taqlid and kinds of Muqalideen, 3rd Ed. (In Urdu), (Peshawar, Pakistan: Maktabah Muhammadia, 2008). Belonging to the Eastern Afghanistan Kunar province but based in Peshawar for decades, Peshawari is known as the spiritual father of the current Afghan Salafist generation. Several of Peshawari’s students achieved top leadership position in ISKP, among them the top ISKP ideologue Shaikh Jalaluddin, although Peshawari did not publicly endorse ISKP until late in the group’s history. For details see Abdul Sayed, “The Taliban’s Persistent War on Salafists in Afghanistan,” Jamestown Terrorism Monitor 19:8 (2021): 9–13.
2 For details see Muhammad Ameen Safdar Okarvi, Manifestations of Safdar, 3rd ed. (In Urdu) (Multan, Pakistan: Maktabah Imdadia, 1997).
3 For details see, Altaf Qadir Sayyid Ahmad Barailvi: His Movement and Legacy from the Pukhtun Perspective (New Delhi: SAGA Publications, 2015).
4 Abdul Rahim Muslimdost and Badru Zaman Badr, Da Guantanamo Mati Zolani (“The Broken Shackles of Guantanamo”) (Peshawar, Pakistan: Al-Khilafa Publishers, 2006), 25.
5 For further readings on the historical role and influence of Salafism in Afghanistan, especially in Kunar, see Vahid Brown, “The Salafi Emirate of Kunar: Between South Asia and the Arabian Peninsula” in Pan-Islamic Connections (New York: Oxford University Press, 2018), 91–116; Kevin Bell, “The First Islamic State: A Look Back at the Islamic Emirate of Kunar,” CTC Sentinel 9, No. 2 (2016):  9–14; and Chris Sands and Fazelminallah Qazizai, Night Letters (London: Hurst Publishers, 2019).
6 Brynjar Lia, ”Understanding Jihadi Proto-States,” Perspectives on Terrorism 9, No. 4 (2015): 31–41.
7 Muslimdost and Badr. & Sands and Qazizai.
8 Abdul Sayed, “Islamic State Khorasan Province’s Peshawar Seminary Attack and War Against Afghan Taliban Hanafis,” Jamestown Terrorism Monitor 18, No. 21 (2020).
9 Muslimdost and Badr.
10 Abdul Sayed, “The killing of pro-ISKP Salafist Shaikh Abu Ubaidullah Mutawakil in Kabul,” BBC Urdu, September 11, 2021.
11 Mustafa Hamid and Leah Farrall, The Arabs at War in Afghanistan (London: Hurst, 2015), 251.
12 Anne Stenersen, Al-Qaida in Afghanistan (London: Cambridge University Press, 2017), 17.
13 Thomas Hegghammer, Jihad in Saudi Arabia: Violence and Pan-Islamism Since 1979 (London: Cambridge University Press, 2010), 120.
14 Abdul Sayed, “Peshawar Seminary Attack.”
15 For details see Syed Salim Shahzad, Inside al-Qaeda and Taliban: Beyond Bin Laden and 9/11 (London: Pluto Press, 2011).
16 Abdul Sayed, “The Past, Present, and Future of Al-Qaeda in Afghanistan and Pakistan,” Soufan Center IntelBrief, August 20, 2021.
17 See Mufti Noor Wali Mehsud, Inqilab-i-Mehsud (“Mehsuds Revolution”) (Paktika, Pakistan: Al-Shahab Publishers, 2017).
18 Tahir Khan, “TTP spokesperson, five other leaders declare allegiance to Islamic State,” The Express Tribune, October 14, 2014. See also “Bay’ah from the leaders of the mujahideen in Khorasan to Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi,” Wilayat Khorasan Media, January 10, 2015, available at jihadology.net.
19 Hafiz Saeed Khan, “Come join up with Wilayat Khurasan,” Wilayat Khurasan Media, 2015, available at jihadology.net.
20 Abdul Sayed and Tore Hamming, “The Revival of the Pakistani Taliban,” CTC Sentinel 14, No. 4 (April/May 2021): 28–38.
21 Hafiz Saeed Khan, “Message to our people in Wilayat Khurasan,” Wilayat Khurasan Media, July 2015, available at jihadology.net.
22 Abdul Sayed, “Peshawar Seminary Attack.”
23 Shaikh Jalaluddin, “Why we are fighting against the Taliban?” Khurasan Studio, August 2015.
24 Ikram Ullah Ikram and Abubakar Siddique, “Afghan President Declares IS Defeated In Eastern Stronghold,” Gandhara RFRE/L, November 19, 2019. ISKP admitted defeat and complete loss of all territories in Kunar and Nangarhar by early 2020, for details see, “We returned back!” Khalid Media, February 2021.
25 Amira Jadoon, Abdul Sayed and Andrew Mines, “The Islamic State Threat in Taliban Afghanistan: Tracing the Resurgence of Islamic State Khorasan,” CTC Sentinel 15, No. 1 (2022): 33–45; Sami Yousafzai and Tucker Reals, “ISIS-K is trying to undermine Afghanistan's Taliban regime, from inside and out. That's America's problem, too,” CBS News, October 8, 2021.
26 Jadoon, Sayed and Mines.
27 For more on the jihadist civil war, see Tore Hamming, “The Al Qaeda–Islamic State Rivalry: Competition Yes, but No Competitive Escalation,” Terrorism and Political Violence 32, No. 1 (2020): 20–37.
28 The group’s full name is Jabhat al-Nusra li-Ahl al-Sham or “Front of the Supporters of the People of the Levant.”
29 bu Muhammad al-'Adnani, “This is the Promise of Allah,” Furqan Foundation, June 29, 2014.
30 Shahab al-Muhajir, “Art of Unconventional Warfare,” al-Azaim Media Foundation, May 2021.
31 Abdul Sayed (@abdsayedd), Twitter post, September 5, 2021, 1:32 p.m. See also, Abubakr Siddique, “Taliban Wages Deadly Crackdown On Afghan Salafists As War With IS-K Intensifies,” Gandhara RFE/RL, October 22, 2021.
32 These videos include, “Indeed, this is the democracy!” Khalid Media, August 2021; “The guarantors [Taliban] are in panic,” al-Azaim Media, November 2021; “O Lions of the Tribes,” al-Azaim Media Foundation, January 2022; Abu Saad Muhammad al-Khurasani, “Bright pages for understanding the nationalists Taliban,” al-Azaim Media Foundation, August 2021; Abu Saad al-Khurasani, “Khorasan: a graveyard for the crusades and a province of jihadists,” al-Azaim Media Foundation, August 29, 2021.

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