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Al Qaeda and ISIS continue to expand in Afghanistan

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Al Qaeda and ISIS continue to expand in Afghanistan

As the US and international troops are being withdrawn from Afghanistan, a recently published report of the United Nations has warned that the threat from jihadist groups such as Islamic State (also known as Daesh) and Al Qaeda is expanding in many places in the country. In the report, the United Nations said the security situation in Afghanistan remains fragile with uncertainty surrounding the peace process and a risk of further deterioration.

The report said, despite territorial, leadership, manpower and financial losses during 2020 in Kunar and Nangarhar provinces, Daesh’s Khorasan branch, or ISIL-K, has moved into other provinces of Afghanistan, including Nuristan, Badghis, Sar-e-Pul, Baghlan, Badakhshan, Kunduz and Kabul, where the fighters have formed sleeper cells.

United Nations said, Al Qaeda and Islamic State have strengthened their positions in and around Kabul, where they conduct most of the attacks, targeting religious minorities, activists, government and NGO employees and personnel of the Afghan National Defense and Security Forces.

The report further said that most recently, Daesh had claimed responsibility for the brutal attack of June 8, wherein 10 humanitarian deminers working with HALO Trust in Baghlan Province were killed and 16 others were injured.

Tolo News said that in its efforts to resurge, ISIL-K has prioritized the recruitment and training of new supporters; its leaders also hope to attract intransigent Taliban and other militants who reject the Agreement for Bringing Peace to Afghanistan between the US and the Taliban, and to recruit fighters from the Syrian Arab Republic, Iraq and other conflict zones.

The report stated that the estimates of the strength of Daesh’s Khorasan branch range widely, with one-member state reporting between 500 and 1,500 fighters and another stating that it may rise to as many as 10,000 over the medium term.

“One member state stressed that ISIL-K was largely underground and clandestine,” the report said., adding: “Its leader, Shahab al-Muhajir, alias Sanaullah, cooperates with Sheikh Tamim, head of the al-Sadiq office”.

The report said that Tamim and his office are tasked by the Daesh core group to oversee the network connecting the Khorasan branch with Daesh presences in the wider region.

The UN report said that as reported by the UN Monitoring Team in its 12th report to the Security Council Committee established pursuant to Resolution 1988 (2011), Al-Qaeda is present in at least 15 Afghan provinces, primarily in the eastern, southern and south-eastern regions.

The report said that Al-Qaeda’s weekly Thabat newsletter reports on its operations inside Afghanistan.

It may be mentioned here that the Al-Qaeda in the Indian Subcontinent (AQIS) operates under Taliban protection from Kandahar, Helmand and Nimroz provinces.

Since the death of Asim Umar in 2019, AQIS has been led by Osama Mahmood and the group consists mainly of Afghan and Pakistani nationals, as also individuals from Bangladesh, India and Myanmar.

On March 30, AQIS commander Dawlat Bek Tajiki (alias Abu Mohammad al-Tajiki) was killed by Afghan forces in Gyan district of Paktika province.

“Al-Qaeda leader Ayman al-Zawahiri is assessed by the member states to be alive but ailing in Afghanistan. SayfAl Adl, his most likely successor, is reported to remain in the Islamic Republic of Iran”.

The leadership succession calculations of Al-Qaeda are complicated by the peace process in Afghanistan where, under the Doha agreement of February 2020, the Taliban is committed to suppressing any international terrorist threat, the report said, but added that it is unclear whether Sayf-Al Adl would be able to travel to Afghanistan to take up the position of the leader of Al-Qaeda.

The report mentioned that some member states point to his history of living and operating from Africa and assess that he might choose to base himself there.

A future jihadist nexus

According to counterterrorism experts, once Afghanistan goes under Taliban control, several jihadist outfits such as Islamic Movement of Uzbekistan (IMU), East Turkistan Islamic Movement (ETIM), Lashkar-e-Taiba, Hamas, Arakan Rohingya Salvation Army (ARSA) etcetera may start receiving patronization from the Taliban, while these jihadist groups may use drugs, weapons and sex slaves for generating cash for continuing terrorist activities. Meanwhile, there are indications of a number of Iran-backed terrorist outfits, including Hezbollah, Houthis and Hashd Al-Shi’i (Shiite Mobilization) establishing bases in Afghanistan, although some reports claims, Hashd Al-Shi’i has already established footprint in the country.

According to analysts, security vacuum in Afghanistan may potentially give birth to civil war. In this case, terror-patron nations such as Iran and Pakistan in particular would take full advantage of spreading Sunni and Shiite terrorism. Meanwhile, this week’s news indicates that Iran has chosen a different approach, akin to the role it has played in Iraq, Syria, Lebanon and Yemen, by exploiting sectarian divisions, sometimes of its own making.

Initially, Iran’s intervention in Afghanistan — or the export of its revolution to the country — mainly took the form of recruiting Afghans from within Afghanistan and, significantly, from the Afghan refugee community in Iran to help turn the tide in the 1980-88 war against Iraq. About 3,000 Afghan fighters were killed in that war. The Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps’ (IRGC) Quds Force was assigned the task of exporting the revolution and training the foreign recruits. After the end of the Iraq war in 1988, the Afghan fighters were decommissioned, sent back to Afghanistan or later mobilized for the new fronts Iran opened in Iraq and Syria.

The Fatemiyoun Brigade terrorist group is the best known of the Iran-backed Afghan mercenaries fighting in Syria. Iranian officials try to distance themselves from the group, but it is common knowledge that these mercenaries were recruited, trained, armed and funded by Tehran. Their numbers are not known exactly, but are estimated to be between 5,000 and 30,000 (the former is the figure suggested by Iran). In January 2018, a Fatemiyoun official said that 2,000 of his group had been killed in Syria and more than 8,000 wounded, indicating that the total strength of the group is much larger than Iran claims.

It may be mentioned here that, Iran has a pool of more than 3 million refugees from which to recruit fighters. It has used that pool before and has the potential to deploy larger numbers of fighters back into Afghanistan. It has already redeployed about 3,000 Fatemiyoun fighters from Syria to Afghanistan.

In addition to the formation of Hashd Al-Shi’i, Tehran has been bolstering its military deployments along the Iran-Afghanistan border since the beginning of the US troop withdrawal. IRGC forces and heavy military equipment, as well as air force assets, are being redeployed to the border, augmenting regular troops and border guards. The new military posture would enable Iran to take offensive action inside Afghanistan once the American withdrawal is completed by September 11.

Hashd Al-Shi’i group is probably a cover for the Fatemiyoun Brigade terrorist outfit and could be used to spearhead any Iranian offensive into Afghanistan, similar to its role in Syria, for example.

As the butcher of Tehran, Ebrahim Raisi is scheduled to take office on August 5, 2021, this notorious man may want to establish his revolutionary bona fides by attacking Afghanistan, as because of his deeper connections with the supreme leader and other radical clergies, Raisi would face no objections to this plan. He may also begin expanding Iran’s vicious agenda against Saudi Arabia by sending suicide attackers from Afghanistan.

Salah Uddin Shoaib Choudhury

An internationally acclaimed multi-award-winning anti-militancy journalist, writer, research-scholar, counterterrorism specialist and editor of Blitz.. He regularly writes for local and international newspapers on diversified topics, including politics and counterterrorism. Follow him on Twitter @Salah_Shoaib

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