Islamic State-Khorasan fighters at the Sheikh Jalaluddin training camp in Afghanistan in a file photo. Photo: Facebook

While the Taliban struggles to consolidate its power two months after toppling Kabul, the rival Islamic State-Khorasan (ISIS-K) militant group represents a rising and potentially existential threat to its rule. The militant group world-renowned for its own terror tactics is now on the receiving end of rising terror attacks.

On October 16, ISIS-K took responsibility for an attack on a Shiite mosque in Kandahar that killed at least 60 people and injured scores more. The attack came just a week after the ISIS-K claimed another attack on another Shiite mosque on October 8 in the northern city of Kunduz that killed more than 50 and injured over 140.

During the first four months of 2021, the UN Assistance Mission in Afghanistan recorded 77 ISIS-K attacks, an assault record that shows the terror outfit is neither “weak” nor “defeated”, as some analysts have claimed in recent weeks.

The recent wave of ISIS-K attacks on Shiite targets, including lethal hits on the Hazar community, aims to exploit Afghanistan’s delicate sectarian fault lines under a Taliban regime that is baldly ethnically exclusive and dominated by Sunni Pashtuns.  

The attacks also aim to weaken the Taliban’s hold on power by casting doubts on the militant group’s ability to govern and provide the economic and social security it has promised since seizing power in August. By pushing the Taliban into a new low-intensity fight, ISIS-K seeks to prevent the group from permanently consolidating its hold.

ISIS-K, which is comprised of many former Taliban field commanders and fighters and now also includes many transnational jihadis, considers the Taliban as a potential strategic – and ideological – rival in a landscape of competing extremist and religious ideologies.

Thus the Afghan Taliban, who mostly come from the Deobandi branch of Islam, are at war with a militant organization that is predominantly Wahabi, a sect mostly associated with a return to “pure” forms of Islam. As such, in many ways, the Taliban’s new Islamic Emirate stands as a nemesis of the global caliphate ISIS-K has been seeking to build ever since its emergence in the Levant in 2014.

Analysts note the Taliban’s “abandonment” of continuous jihad in favor of peace and political power has turned them into “apostates” in the eyes of ISIS leaders. ISIS-K, therefore, has no qualms about sustaining its jihad, even if it involves killing the same Taliban fighters who were previously likewise opposed to US and NATO forces.

Taliban Special Forces in Kabul, Afghanistan, on Sep 2, 2021. Photo: AFP via EyePress News

A June 1, 2021, UN report says ISIS’ central leadership in Syria and Iraq views Afghanistan as a “base for the spread of their influence to Central and South Asia as part of the realization of its greater caliphate project.”

The report, published before the Taliban’s takeover, also sees a recent surge in the number of foreign fighters relocating to Afghanistan from around the world as potential recruits for ISIS-K.

Rahmatullah Nabil, former director of Afghanistan’s intelligence service, was recently reported to have said that “Many regional militant groups — Uzbeks, Tajiks, Uighurs and Turkmen in Afghanistan and Central Asia — do not see a point in following the Taliban anymore and will seek to join [ISIS-K]” to pursue the organization’s “caliphate project.”

Based primarily in the eastern province of Nangarhar and currently led by Shahab al-Muhajir with well over 2,000 fighters, ISIS-K represents a serious threat not only to the Taliban but also to regional and extra-regional players.

This was seen in ISIS-K’s August attack on Kabul airport that killed 13 US servicemen and scores of evacuees, an assault which put added international pressure on the Taliban to eradicate all terror groups in its midst before it had even taken full power from the toppled, US-backed Ashraf Ghani government.

While the Taliban have insisted to international audiences that no terror groups will be allowed to operate from Afghanistan’s soil under its rule, the claim is easier said than implemented considering many Taliban leaders and fighters have deep and intricate links to ISIS-K.

For instance, the current leader of the ISIS-K, Shahab al-Mohajir, is a former operative of the Haqqanis who now dominate the Taliban’s two-month-old administration in Kabul, including control over the ministry of interior responsible for managing internal security.

ISIS-K fighters in Afghanistan in a file photo. Image: Facebook

Similarly, Mullah Abdul Rauf Khadem, who was part of the Taliban regime in 2001, was also one of the founders of ISIS-K in the provinces of Helmand and Farah. Other analysts have pointed out that many of the Taliban’s top leaders and fighters spent time in US prisons in and outside of Afghanistan alongside ISIS counterparts.

ISIS-K’s diverse ethnic make-up represents another challenge to the Taliban. The fact that the most recent attack in Kunduz was carried out by an ethnic Uighur shows how militant groups such as the East Turkestan Islamic Movement (ETIM) that were previously allied with the Taliban may already be defecting to and joining forces with ISIS-K to create a caliphate that extends to China’s Xinjiang region.

ISIS-K is also known to be actively seeking recruits from within the Taliban rank and file, appealing especially to those disgruntled with the top leaders and the promises they are making under foreign pressure to purge militant groups that previously fought side-by-side with the Taliban.  

At the same time, ISIS-K leader al-Muhajir still has direct and close ties with the Haqqanis, which were first to enter Kabul in August and have since sidelined the more moderate group led by Mullah Abdul Ghani Baradar. According to some news reports, several major attacks over the past two years involved direct collaboration between the Haqqanis and ISIS-K.

Any serious attack on ISIS-K would thus run the risk of ripping the Taliban apart from within, whereby any concentrated move against the militant group would likely cause many ideologically motivated Taliban fighters to switch sides to an outfit that promises sustained jihad and a greater reward in the afterlife.

The Taliban’s reluctance to hit ISIS-K was evident in recent Taliban-US talks in Doha, Qatar, whereby the former refused an apparent US offer to jointly tackle the group. Any military or counterterror collaboration between the US and Taliban would inevitably cause more Taliban fighters to defect to ISIS-K.

Taliban fighters stand on an armored vehicle before parading along a road to celebrate after the US pulled all its troops out of Afghanistan, in Kandahar on September 1, 2021, after the Taliban’s military takeover of the country. Photo: AFP / Javed Tanveer

At the same time, the Taliban cannot be seen to be ignoring growing international pressure to tackle all militant groups, including ISIS-K, the anti-Pakistan TTP and the anti-China ETIM, among other transnational outfits based in the country.

Growing regional and international demands for a clampdown has put the Taliban in a Catch-22 position, whereby the action needed to restore access to its funds frozen in the US and elsewhere runs the risk of tearing its own nascent government apart.

The Taliban’s dilemma is further complicated by the fact that unless it can guarantee or credibly demonstrate a willingness to counter ISIS-K and other militant groups, China, Russia and the West will all withhold the diplomatic recognition and aid needed to avoid an economic collapse and becoming an international pariah – similar to its ostracized and ultimately failed 1996-2001 regime.