ISIS and the Day After in Afghanistan

Sami Moubayed
Sami Moubayed

As President Ashraf Ghani led prayers of Eid al-Adha on Tuesday, three rockets landed on the presidential palace in Kabul. At first glance, everybody expected that the Taliban was behind the attack, which has been leading an offensive across the country ahead of the expected withdrawal of US troops on 11 September 2021. ISIS 

But surprisingly enough, it wasn’t the Taliban that made claim to the attack but the Islamic State (ISIS), a familiar name in Afghanistan, better known by its local affiliate, IS-Khorasan. In the past, the terror group has carried out several attacks across the country, expected to increase, both in sum and precision, once the US withdrawal is complete.

According to intelligence reports, over the past six months several ISIS fighters have fled the al-Hol Camp in eastern Syria and found their way to Afghanistan, where they are preparing for the day after President Joe Biden completes troop withdrawal on the 20th anniversary of the twin attacks on New York City. Defense Secretary Lloyd Austin has said that this was to put a “responsible end” to the Afghanistan war, on its 20th anniversary—something easier said than done.

It might have the opposite effect, however, thrusting the country into the unknown, igniting a new civil war, along with a Taliban comeback and sweeping rise for ISIS. The Russians claim that that US is responsible for the smuggling of ISIS troops from Syria to Afghanistan, nudging them to move their base of operation to new territory, hoping that they can eventually eclipse the Taliban and use Afghanistan as a launching pad against China. The chances of them teaming up with the Taliban are slim, since they share different ideology despite the many common denominators, with ISIS being of the Hanafi school of Islam and Taliban being from the Hanbali one.

Far from welcoming them to Afghanistan, the Taliban fears that ISIS will compete with them in their own fiefdom, winning hearts and minds within the same radicalized Sunni Muslim community that Taliban claims to represent.

According to Human Rights Watch, al-Hol houses 43,000 foreigners connected to ISIS. Their home countries don’t want them back, and some have paid bribe money to get out of al-Hol. ISIS 

The Kurds who control the camp have allowed that to happen, although they had originally held on to ISIS prisoners to use them as bargaining chips, whether with the Americans or with the Syrian. They have slowly turned a blind eye to their escape, however, due to the high cost of maintaining security at the camp. Earlier this year the Syrian Democratic Forces (SDF) said that it found weapons and ammunition at al-Hol, as well as laptops, all linked to ISIS.

The US Treasury Department says that al-Hol has become a magnet for ISIS finances, using hawalas (money transfer system) to move an estimated $100 million in cash reserves. Additionally, at least 42 ISIS-style executions have been performed in al-Hol since the start of this year. In March 2021, the SDF said that arrested five cell leaders in al-Hol, along with 53 ISIS suspects. The number of young men that these fighters can recruit and indoctrinate is theoretically unlimited, whether in Afghanistan or beyond.

Western intelligence reports show that ISIS is still recruiting members through online jihadist forums, and still has anywhere between $50-300 million in its treasury. The terror group is using encrypted chat apps to work around bans imposed via Twitter and Facebook, and are now using Tam Tam, a Russian social media network. On that platform they have posted a 216-page illustrated manual for the “novice jihadist fighter,” along with a downloadable instruction video on how to make a one-shot gun for close range assassinations.

Mobilization of the militias

Meanwhile ISIS prepares for the Day After in Afghanistan, so are former warlords of the war-torn country. One of them is Ismail Khan who staged a huge rally of his supporters in the western city of Herat on 18 April. Khan is an ethnic Tajik who claimed hundreds of “armed mujahedin” had been deployed in all districts of Herat Province, of which Herat city is the capital, to fight Taliban in its countryside.

Khan is a former commander in the Western-backed mujahideen group which had been set up to first fight the Soviets in Afghanistan, and then, the Taliban. He has even fired a threat at the Ghani government, describing it as “incompetent” and saying that he would retaliate if Ghani tried to disarm the “mujahideen” using the historic term used to describe the non-state militias. He is one of the many warlords that ISIS is preparing to work with as of next September.

On 13 April, another militant named Zulfiqar Omid announced the creation of a “resistance front” in the province of Daikundi, central Afghanistan, headed by mujahideen commander, Mohammad Ali Sadaqat. Omid posted a photo of himself walking through a column of militiamen, carrying a Kalashnikov. He is a member of the Shiite Hazara minority. Those manifestations of lawlessness prompted Parliament Speaker Mir Rahman Rahmani to comment, very correctly, that the country was on the verge of a civil war.

If militia rule returns to Afghanistan, the state can always arm its own militias, using them to support the 300,000-strong army and security services. Many former militiamen are already part of the 18,000-strong Afghan Local Police (ALP), currently on government payroll, which was set up by the Americans ten years ago. Their funding came to an end in September 2020 and they can quickly be regrouped to help the Afghanistan government after 9-11. There are reports that the Afghanistan government has already started distributed arms to its supporters, in anticipation of the Day After.

But that would have long term consequences for the Ghani government, which took great pride in helping curb militia rule. Yet this is what happened to the Americans when the first came to Afghanistan in 2011. They disarmed and demobilized the militias, only to realize that they needed them on the battlefield, calling them back into service, and arming them, via the ALP.

The hard fact is that Afghanistan is indeed on the verge of a total collapse, and this is music to the ears of ISIS. It was lawlessness and the abundance of arms that allowed them to thrive, first in Iraq and then in Syria, and Afghanistan 2021 looks pretty much the same as these two Arab countries were in 2011-2014.

levant

by: Sami Moubayed

Sami Moubayed