Islamic State is transforming and growing in Pakistan, Afghanistan

JALALABAD, Afghanistan (AP) – Basheer was a young Taliban fighter who was barely full of his teens when the Islamic State group took over his village in eastern Afghanistan nearly eight years ago. The militant assembled villagers identified as the Taliban and killed them, often beheading them, forcing their families to watch.

Basheer fled and lived in hiding for the following years as IS controlled several districts in Nangarhar province. Over time, he rose to the ranks of the Taliban.

Now known as Engineer Basheer, he is the Taliban’s intelligence chief in eastern Afghanistan, with a leading role in the campaign to crush IS. He has not forgotten the atrocities he saw in his home district of Kot.

“I can not explain their cruelty in words, no matter what comes to your mind, they have done more than that,” he told The Associated Press in a recent interview at his headquarters in Jalalabad, the capital of Nangarhar.

Since coming to power in Afghanistan eight months ago, the Taliban have proclaimed their success in suppressing the Islamic State group, but the militants have expanded to neighboring Pakistan and escalated the attacks there. Analysts say IS has turned into a borderless terrorist group, one of the deadliest in a region that has spawned many violent, radical organizations.

In northwestern Pakistan, the impact is brutally clear. The remains of an IS suicide bomber are still visible on the once-decorated walls of a mosque, weeks after he blew himself up and killed more than 60 worshipers while praying. IS identified the bomber as an Afghan from Kabul.

The March 4 bombing of the Shiite Kusha Kisaldar Mosque in the ancient city of Peshawar stunned Pakistanis, reinforcing their fears of a resurgence of terrorist attacks in their country after a steady decline over the past decade.

The rise in attacks began last year and is accelerating, said Amir Rana, executive director of the Pakistan Institute of Peace Studies, an independent think tank monitoring militant activity in Pakistan.

By the end of March this year, Pakistan had seen 52 attacks by militants, compared to 35 in the same period last year, according to the institute’s data. The attacks have also become more deadly. So far this year in Pakistan, 155 people have been killed in such attacks, compared to 68 last year.

The worst have been claimed by a ruthless Islamic State affiliation, known Islamic State in Khorasan province or IS-K.

Meanwhile, IS attacks appear to have fallen in Afghanistan.

IS-K first emerged in 2014 in eastern Afghanistan. By 2019, it had significant territory in Nangarhar province and had penetrated the nearby Kunar province. The U.S. military waged a massive air campaign against it, including targeting a suspected IS hideout with the United States’ largest conventional bomb, known as the “mother of all bombs.”

But IS survived, and that posed the biggest security challenge to the Taliban when they seized power in Afghanistan last August.

IS-K is a longtime enemy of the Taliban. The Taliban advocate a harsh interpretation of Islamic law and often used suicide attacks in their nearly 20-year-long revolt against the United States and its Afghan allies. But they often mix tribal traditions with religious edicts and have reached out to Shiites. IS, meanwhile, is against any group that does not accept its more radical, deeply anti-Shiite ideology and is notorious for atrocities aimed at spreading fear. IS, unlike the Taliban, sees their struggle as one to establish a unified Muslim world under a caliphate.

The Taliban responded with their characteristic harsh hand and swept through suspected IS strongholds. In October and November, residents reported corpses hanging from trees. They were told they were IS militants.

Basheer says the Taliban have managed to rein in the group.

“We got control of all those areas … Right now there may be some people hiding in houses (but) they have no area under their control. There is no Daesh,” he said, using the Arabic acronym for ICE.

He said IS-K fighters are at a disadvantage because the Taliban have long been masters of guerrilla warfare. IS-K has no tactics that the Taliban do not already know or have not used, he said.

Some militant observers also say that the Taliban’s deep reach inside Afghan villages and connections to mosques and mattresses in even the smallest villages have reduced the space for IS to operate.

Since the United States’ chaotic withdrawal from Afghanistan last year, Washington’s ability to gather intelligence on IS has drastically deteriorated, according to senior U.S. military officials.

The region is also increasingly inhospitable to America. Political unrest has fueled anti-American sentiment in Pakistan. In Afghanistan, the Taliban introduced a rule targeting their harsh government in the late 1990s. China is a major player in the region, rapidly surpassing American influence.

IS-K is not the only extremist group in the region. Others include Lashkar-e-Taiba, which is largely India-focused, China’s Uighur rebels from the East Turkestan group and Central Asia’s Islamic rebel movement in Uzbekistan.

The threat from IS has only become more fluid and difficult to control.

Dr. Amira Jadoon, assistant professor at the Combating Terrorism Center at the US Military Academy in West Point, said IS-K is weaker than it was in 2019. But that has changed from a rebellion to a typical terrorist group, a subtle but important difference , she said.

“It is now a stronger terrorist group than it was in 2019, but perhaps a weaker ‘rebellion’ compared to its previous peak years, as it lacks the same level of territorial control and does not control any civilian population,” Jadoon said.

A UN report from February estimated the number of IS-K fighters at around 4,000, saying it “enjoys more freedom than at any time in recent history.”

Not everyone agrees. Bill Roggio, whose Long War Journal tracks militant movements, said the Taliban’s takeover caused a former member of the group that had jumped to IS-K to return to the Taliban fold.

“The Taliban got a big boost after its victory in Afghanistan,” said Roggio, who is also a senior fellow at the Conservative Foundation for Defense of Democracies.

Unlike in Afghanistan, IS-K has not tried to claim territory in Pakistan.

Instead, it has often piggybacked on well-established anti-Shiite groups like Lashkar-e-Jhangvi, who have claimed dozens of brutal attacks on Pakistan’s Shiite Muslim minority. In both countries, the extreme Sunni Muslim group mocks Shiites as heretics and has mercilessly attacked them.

Rana, from the Pakistani militant surveillance group, said IS was likely intended to set off tensions between Islamabad and Kabul. But he said the Pakistani authorities still consider the Pakistani Taliban, a home-grown anti-government group, to be the biggest threat.

“This is a very naive and simplistic view,” he said, warning that IS attacks are likely to only increase.


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