The shifting fortunes of IS-Khorasan

Review: Antonio Giustozzi examines in meticulous detail the founding and expansion of the Islamic State Khorasan Province. The story is a complex one of competing visions and political rivalry.

IS-Khorasan training camp in eastern Afghanistan. Photo issued by ISIS-K group in August 2021

The Islamic State in Khorasan: Afghanistan, Pakistan and the New Central Asian Jihad. New Edition by Antonio Giustozzi.  Hurst Publishers, 2022, 296 pages, paperback. £20.

The recent US drone-killing of top-Al Qaeda leader Ayman Al-Zawahiri on his balcony in his supposed Kabul safe-house was, if nothing else, a reminder that Al-Qaeda and the Taliban have cohabited in Afghanistan and Pakistan for over forty years. The personal friendships and geopolitical relationships are enduring, and will continue under new leaders of Al-Qaeda. One of Zawahiri’s failures, however, was to reconcile his strategic vision for Al-Qaeda with the call of the next generation for a more vigorous and vibrant form of Global Jihad. He was not sufficiently deft as a political leader to avoid the split between Al-Qaeda and Daesh, the terrorist group previously known as ISIS. The strength and intent of the challenger brand was evident on 26 August 2021, when IS-Khorasan conducted a deadly attack on Kabul Airport killing at least 60 Afghans and thirteen US soldiers. This humiliated the US and was a bold challenge to the Taliban in the first days of their rule. Antonio Giustozzi’s book, The Islamic State in Khorasan, explores how Daesh spread to Khorasan, an area with pre-dates modern state boundaries and includes Afghanistan and parts of Pakistan, Iran and Central Asia. But beware — it is about competing visions, leadership rivals, defections, local power politics, and squabbling among party members. It is not straightforward.

The formation of the Islamic State Khorasan Province in August 2014 came swiftly after Abu Bakr Al-Baghdadi announced the Caliphate on 29 June the same year. We now know that networks had been building methodically in the years preceding the announcement, and that the inward flow of volunteers to fight in Syria and Iraq had been used actively to plan for expansion. Relentless attrition by US strikes and Pakistani military campaigns against Al-Qaeda in Waziristan had caused an exodus from Pakistan and Afghanistan in 2013-14. The hope was that the Middle East could be their new heartland, at least temporarily. Once they were in Syria and Iraq, they were drawn to Daesh, high on an extremely brutal and successful land grab. And since Daesh never defined the Caliphate as a specific territory it could be a shifting entity, valid because of allegiance to its leaders rather than its borders.

This is a story of two parts, and so is the book. Now published in 2022 with a new chapter and conclusion, it was originally published in 2018 and the lion’s share focuses on the rising arc of the Caliphate, particularly throughout 2015-17. It is based on a Royal United Services Institute research project carried out from 2014-18, and on smaller projects from 2019-21. It rests on 174 interviews conducted by a mixed research team of Afghans and Pakistanis with members of IS-Khorasan, advisors to IS-Khorasan and a range of external observers and participants to the conflict. Many of the interviewers had worked with the author on his earlier research into the Afghan Taliban. The granular understanding which results is rare. It allows us to follow the expansion east of an energetic and ambitious movement and charts their progress on what Giustozzi calls ‘an impossible mission.’

Daesh’s appeal in Khorasan was simple: Get Jihad Done. Its vision of Khorasan as a province of the Caliphate reached beyond national boundaries to include Afghanistan, Pakistan, Central Asia and parts of Iran, India and China. It promised Global Jihad. This excited those who had become impatient with Al Qaeda or the Taliban. It appealed to dissident Taliban and Haqqani commanders, who could not accept negotiations with the Afghan government and the US, or the close relationship with Pakistan’s Inter-Services Intelligence (ISI). It drew in members of Tehrik-e Taliban Pakistan (TTP) disaffected with the leadership of Mullah Fazlullah and loyal instead to the former Mahsud leaders. Central Asian and Chinese Jihadis, who had been fighting for decades on a promise that their turn would come to launch Jihad in Uzbekistan, Tajikistan, Turkmenistan and China were to form one of the particular components of IS-Khorasan: members of the Uzbek Islamic Movement of Uzbekistan (IMU), and Uyghur East Turkistan Independence Movement (ETIM) had already joined Daesh in Iraq and Syria in numbers. ‘We are tired of the Taliban, we have worked with them for thirteen years…,’ said one source. To unify this disparate grouping, Daesh crafted a strong, sectarian, populist message playing on anti-Iranian and anti-Shia sentiment, which particularly appealed to Pakistani groups such as Lashkar-e Jhangvi and led to increased targeting of Shia in Pakistan and Hazara in Afghanistan. This message was also vital for Iranian Sunni Baluch groups, who joined because this offered an opportunity for Jihad in Iran.

Here, a close inspection of South Asian Jihadi politics is required. This book examines Daesh expansion with a level of detail necessary for any serious understanding of this region. That can make it impenetrable, but that is the point. It is impenetrable. Sometimes the complex muddle of ideas and networks can’t be untangled or explained. It is just how it is. The four pages listing groups and splinter groups at the beginning is an essential guide for all but the most hardened Khorasan-watchers. At the very least, one should read this book just to see how complicated Jihadism in South Asia is. The glimpses it offers are like the view from a car in a monsoonal deluge with the windscreen wipers on full — only fragments of a picture but nonetheless so much better than the view with no windscreen wipers at all.

How did Daesh do it? They needed to build a leadership cadre, but were a start-up entering an already crowded environment. They launched a co-ordinated recruitment campaign which poached key players from the Taliban’s Quetta Shura, the Haqqani network, and Tehrik-e Taliban Pakistan. Many of them had a long pedigree — such as Abdul Khadim Rauf, a former Taliban governor of Kunar who was accused by the Taliban of having absorbed Salafi ideas while in detention in Guantanamo. They exploited resentments and personality clashes, but this meant conflict over territory and tribal loyalties. Once Mullah Omar was openly declared to be dead, IS-Khorasan made the most of opportunities during the Taliban’s succession crisis. Some disappointed candidates in the leadership contest switched sides. A financial crisis of Peshawar Shura, leading to its collapse in August 2016, was a boon.

The Daesh plan was then to expand and consolidate. They started in Afghanistan because it was bang in the middle of Khorasan, and because its governance was the weakest. The aim was to achieve in a few short years what Daesh in Iraq had achieved in a decade: to build up local support bases, establish a small number of strongholds, and train an army which would — when the time was right — rise up and seize territory with a Daesh-style Blitzkrieg. This new territory would be a safe haven and a base for targeting Iran, Central Asia and China. Pakistan would provide the logistics hub.

Critically, they were operating under the direction of the Daesh leadership in Syria and Iraq. Here the book is fascinating: travel between the two areas was frequent, and Al-Baghdadi appointed a series of special representatives who oversaw the development of IS-Khorasan. One of these was Abu Yasir Al Afghani, originally from Nangahar but educated in a Madrassa in Lahore. He had gone to Iraq in 2004, fought in Fallujah with al-Zarqawi and served under al-Baghdadi, an important connection to understand. He supervised a cadre of trainers and advisors who introduced professional military standards and logistics. Daesh provided lots of money, meaning salaries for IS-Khorasan were 50-100 per cent higher than those offered by the Taliban. They put educated people in logistics, finance and propaganda. They were meritocratic. Almost all of Giustozzi’s interviewees said that IS-Khorasan offered better conditions than old organisations, and most strikingly, that they were professional in a way that the Taliban weren’t. A central logistics commission used private contractors to deliver food, clothes, boots, electronics and medicines to the troops. One of the interviewees said:  ‘our old logistics was very weak but now we have the best logistics like food, soaps, brushes, paste, shoes, clothes, shoes brush and shoes colour.’ IS-Khorasan paid invoices on time.

They should perhaps not have been surprised to get bogged down in local issues. The intention had been to turn against the Afghan government, against NATO and towards Global Jihad, but they ended up entangled in conflicts with rival Taliban commanders. Exactly those features that make Afghanistan and Pakistan so attractive as a base are those that make it so difficult; the hostile landscape and sometimes hostile tribal dynamics meant continuous distraction. The book shows us in detail how this occurred, and the cost that it had towards IS-Khorasan achieving their strategic objectives.

At the heart were some irreconcilable differences. Although Daesh had hoped that IS-Khorasan could integrate all other regional Jihadi groups, it was always implicit that IS-Khorasan meant to absorb or expel them all. Their strategic aim was not to be hosted by Taliban or TTP, but to rule Khorasan. The allegiance to the Caliph made relations with Taliban, TTP and AQ difficult.  Structurally, the head of the Taliban was the Amir al-Muminin, Leader of the Faithful. You could not be loyal to the Amir and the Caliph.  Abu Bakr Al-Baghdadi had denounced Mullah Omar as ‘an illiterate warlord,’ The December 2014 edition of Dabiq, Daesh’s slick periodical, accused Mullah Omar of ‘nationalism,’ insufficient implementation of monotheistic practices and of favouring good relations with India and Iran.

There is relatively little on the relationship with Al-Qaeda. In theory the two organisations had the greatest ideological overlap: both Salafi (while the Taliban and TTP were Deobandi), and both espousing Global Jihad. The leader of AQ in Afghanistan and Pakistan, Faruq al Qahtani, co-operated with IS-Khorasan for a while, training volunteers to be sent to Syria. But the split between Al-Baghdadi and Zawahiri meant that the relationship would inevitably collapse. In an embarrassing move, AQ doubled down by stating that they saw Mullah Omar as their Amir al-Muminin. The revelation in July 2015 that Mullah Omar had died two years earlier was a terrible blow for their credibility. This episode demonstrates very clearly the weaknesses of Al-Qaeda’s appeal under Zawahiri.

The book also covers in some detail regional geopolitical dynamics: IS-Khorasan attracted cadres from Lashkar-e Tayiba, a Pakistani-Kashmiri group with long-established links to the Jihad in Afghanistan and, of course, to the Pakistani Inter-Services Intelligence. LeT also had ties to the Taliban and at times to TTP. Giustozzi tries valiantly to untangle these relationships through his sources: ISI were adopting their usual technique of infiltrating and building a dialogue with terrorist groups operating in Pakistan, to reduce the threat they posed and because they might be useful against India. By placing LeT members in IS-Khorasan, ISI got access and control. It is very possible they thought they could use the group in Kashmir. Giustozzi also describes sources of external funding, from Qatari, Emirati and Saudi donors who wanted to build up Sunni resistance to Iran in particular. This is plausible but the evidence is ultimately frustrating: it is very difficult to link individuals to state policy; the collection and transfer of funds may be smooth and the sums vast but that does not necessarily mean state sanction, and it will likely be impossible ever to prove. Russia and Iran meanwhile were supporting the Taliban in their efforts against IS-Khorasan.

One of the few things the book lacks is an explanation of the role of the geographic entity of Khorasan — as a province of the Caliphate, or as a feature of the apocalyptic hadith. It would have been a fantastic to hear the interviewees’ views on their own identity: what does Khorasan mean to them? Would they be prepared to fight for it? How does it relate to their national and tribal identities?

The second part of the book charts the years after the fall of Mosul and Raqqa. By 2018 IS-Khorasan was on a downward trend, although the seemingly successful Taliban-US talks in Doha in early 2019 prompted a new wave of defections to IS-Khorasan. The killing of Abu Bakr Al-Baghdadi on 27 October 2019 was a serious blow to the organisation because it removed the strong, unifying leadership and led to factional infighting, demonstrating clearly how important the connectivity to the centre had been for discipline and coherence. IS-Khorasan suffered a significant defeat to the Taliban in the east in late 2019, with further successes in early 2020. By April 2020, according to an internal source, losses and desertions had cut IS-Khorasan numbers in Afghanistan to 4,000 from 10,000 a year earlier. They were split about who their leader should be until Daesh decided to impose one on them, which left most members unhappy. The pandemic hindered reinforcements from the Middle East. Then, suspiciously, a new recruitment wave began from May 2020 onwards. The new members were almost all from the Haqqani network or from LeT, both close to ISI. The assumption within IS-Khorasan was that ISI might be using these two groups to take them over. IS-Khorasan meanwhile transferred its headquarters to Badakhshan, which bordered Tajikistan and China and so was popular with the Central Asians. This picture is confusing, since IS-Khorasan was responsible for a series of high profile, lethal attacks against civilian targets in 2020 and 2021, including that fatal one at the airport.

And what now, with the Taliban in charge and Zawahiri dead? Here’s the rub: this is a detailed historical study. It shows us what happened. Owing to the changing circumstances in Afghanistan, it is difficult to use it to project forward and speculate what might happen next. Giustozzi argues that there was an increase in recruitment after 15 August, from Taliban who had not got the posts they wanted, and those released from prison. But the IS-Khorasan logistics had deteriorated, AQ was now edging closer to the Taliban again, they fell out with LeT and Pakistan, and there was a very real threat that the Taliban could now focus on suppressing them. Was it an impossible mission? Khorasan is certainly not the safe haven that the Daesh leadership had hoped it might be, ironically because it is now an Islamic Emirate. IS-Khorasan may well live to regret its focus on the Taliban instead of the Afghan government. It may have been unavoidable, but it was a costly strategic error. The question is whether, and to what extent, their appeal still resonates, and if in fact a new leader with a new vision for Al-Qaeda might be able to win its supporters back. The author will have to conduct another set of field studies for that.


Suzanne Raine