ResearchPDF Available

The Islamic State in Afghanistan and Pakistan: origins, evolution, and implications



This paper examines the rise of the Islamic State's branch in the Af-Pak region, also known as the Islamic State of Khorasan (ISK), since its inception at the beginning of 2015, taking into account both the controversial and dynamic relationship with other militant formations in the area, namely the Taliban, and the operational capabilities acquired and displayed by ISK on the ground. Overall, the article aims to demonstrate the unsuccesful attempts of ISK to dominate the jihadist landscape of the region, still dominated by the Taliban.
The Islamic State in Afghanistan and Pakistan: origins, evolution and implications1
Part. I
A new entry in the regional jihadist landscape
Part. II
Shifting alliances and truces of convenience: the IS network in the Af-Pak region
Part. III
Shariʿa and guerrilla warfare: ISK policies and tactics in Afghanistan
In the wake of its fast and astonishing territorial expansion in Syria and Iraq started in 2014, the
terrorist group known as the Islamic State (IS) has also been able to intrude the Afghanistan and
Pakistan (Af-Pak) region, exploiting the favorable terrain and the lack of governmental presence in
remote border areas, with the aim of establishing a stable foothold and extending the borders of its self-
proclaimed Islamic Caliphate to the territories of Central Asia. To date, despite its undeniable military
defeat in the ‘Sirak’ theatre as well as the mounting pressure exerted by both the Taliban and the NATO
forces in Afghanistan, the regional branch of al-Baghdadi’s group, known as Islamic State of Khorasan
(ISK), has proven very resilient and is still able to carry out high-profile attacks in major cities such as
Kabul and Quetta. This brief essay aims to outline the dynamics behind the groups’ emergence in the
Afghan (in)security landscape, its relations with other militant and jihadist formations, as well as its
modus operandi and organizational capabilities. More generally, then, this article tries to assess ISK’s
penetration in the Af-Pak context, in order to understand whether the group poses a direct and critical
threat to the governments of the two countries or, as it seems more likely, it represents another militant
organization among those striving to undercut the enduring local hegemony of the Taliban movement.
1 Final paper for the course of Global Security: Jihadism Prof. Andrea Plebani Federico Borsari Master in Middle
Eastern Studies a. y. 2017-18.
Part. I
A new entry in the regional jihadist landscape
Since its definitive and traumatic emergence in 2014, culminated with the conquest of large swathes of
territory in both Syria and Iraq, the self-proclaimed ‘Islamic State(IS) has been able to successfully
exploit the socio-political vulnerabilities of many middle-eastern countries, especially capitalizing on
security vacuums and disempowered populations while proposing itself as the champion of Sunni
Muslims against apostate and corrupted political regimes. In this regard, Afghanistan and Pakistan are
no exceptions. Yet, despite its declared goal of creating a global caliphate, the actions and strategies of
the group in the Wilayat Khorasan denote a more complex set of dynamics, characterized by an intricate
twine of mutually influencing local and external factors, such as the origin of its members, the relations
with other jihadist formations in the area, or the effects of the security reactions by the governments of
Kabul and Islamabad.
The Islamic State’s official announcement of its ‘Khorasan’ franchise arrived in late January 2015
(Basit, 2017: 19), even though the defection of nine local members of al-Qaʿida (AQ) to al-Baghdadi’s
group the previous year, as noted by analyst Don Rassler, is indicative of the broader and deeper
developments already affecting the regional militant landscape at that time (Rassler, 2015: 7).
Interestingly, the geographic areas immediately occupied by ISK militants were, among others,
historical Taliban heartland, namely the Kajaki district in the southern province of Helmand and several
districts in the north-eastern province of Nangarhar (Gambhir, 2015: 4). Indeed, the core leadership of
the group, led by Hafiz Saeed Khan, former chief of the Pakistani Taliban2 Orakzai branch, was
composed by several disenfranchised members of the movement hailing from the Tribal areas of
Pakistan because of the military offensives carried out by the Pakistani Army in north Waziristan
between 2010 and 2014 (Jones, 2015). Paradoxically, as pointed out by analyst Harleen Gambhir, the
operations carried out by Islamabad are improving Pakistan’s security at the expense of its weaker
neighbor (Gambhir, 2015: 6). According to scholar Tariq Parvez, the loss of territory by the Taliban in
Pakistan, together with disillusionment and poor achievements, is among the “pushing factors” that,
combined with equally important pull factors” such as Daesh’s3 attractive ideology and spectacular
victories or, even more, its capacity to pay higher wages than other groups, have convinced many local
militants to join ISK’s ranks (Parvez, 2016: 2).
What is more, as pointed out by afghan pundit Borhan Osman, many members of ISK arrived from
Pakistan along with their families and, by labelling themselves as muhajerin4 in search of shelter, they
2 Tehrik-e Taleban Pakistan (TTP) is an umbrella organization encompassing several militant groups especially
operating in the Federally Administered Tribal Areas (FATA) of Pakistan, which are located along the mountainous border
area between Pakistan and Afghanistan.
3 Daesh is the Arabic acronym for The Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant (al-Dawla al-Islāmiyya fī ʿIrāq wa l-Shām).
4 Refugees.
managed to obtain the help and the hospitality of local Pashtun communities in many districts of
Nangarhar, also opening several madrassas and Islamic educational centers in those areas (Osman,
2016: 2).
Indeed, the educational dimension, in addition to an extremely efficient propaganda machine, is the
cornerstone of the group’s strategy to enlarge its reach and fascinate young generations, as demonstrated
by the number of foreign fighters who have embraced IS’ black flag. In local madrassas in Nangarhar,
for instance, children as young as five receive an extremist jihadi-Salafi education and are trained on a
daily base to use weapons and to sacrifice their lives on the altar of the jihad against ‘infidels’ (Quraishi
and Doran, 2015). More generally, since 2014 pro-IS leaflets and slogans have repeatedly appeared in
many Afghan and Pakistani cities, where several cells and networks involved in terrorist attacks,
recruitment or fundraising for the group, such as the Lahore based ‘Bushra Network’, have been
dismantled by the counter terrorism authorities (Basit, 2017: 22)5.
Referring to the Afghan context, pundits Katja Mielke and Nick Miszak have adopted a social
movement approach to highlight how, on the one hand, “Daesh […] is a highly localized phenomenon
manifesting differently in different areas”, and how, on the other hand, the “long-term transformation
of the local religious, cultural and political landscape has prepared the ground for [IS’] local
manifestations(Mielke and Miszak, 2017: 5). More specifically, a 30 years-long militarized and
unstable environment, worsened by a constant influx of foreign fighters, has intertwined with a crucial
supporting infrastructure based on mushrooming – and relatively recent – networks of Salafi mosques
and madrassas mainly financed by Gulf Arab countries, so facilitating the emergence of ISK (Mielke
and Miszak, 2017).
Last but not least, the initial passivity of the Afghan security forces, due to both a lack of military
capacity and Kabul’s determination to exploit IS as a strategic weapon against the Taliban, has
decisively played to ISK’s advantage, with very little state’s intervention during the group’s most crucial
formative months (Osman, 2016: 9). These factors notwithstanding, the fluidity of the Afghan
environment, both in terms of security and political-tribal alliances, makes it difficult to include every
possible aspect or factor behind IS inception in the region. Overall, however, it is worth noting that
Afghanistan, thanks to easily available ungoverned spaces and weak government institutions, remains
the hotbed of ISK, whereas in Pakistan the group “has no significant organizational presence” (Basit,
2017: 22-23).
5 As pointed out by scholar Abdul Basit, the appeal of IS’ brand and ideology has affected important and diverse sections
of the population both in Pakistan and Afghanistan. In 2015, for instance, Pakistani authorities vanquished a group of pro-
IS female militants all belonging to educated and wealthy families of Karachi. In the same city, several university graduates
and upper-middle class militants were arrested following a deadly attack on a bus transporting members of the Ismaili Shia
Part. II
Shifting alliances and truces of convenience: the IS network in the Af-Pak region
In light of the dynamic evolution displayed since its 2014 arrive in the region, it seems appropriate to
define ISK as a chameleonic movement which has been able to lure human capital and resources from
a disparate range of militant groups to the direct detriment of the two most important jihadist
organizations of the area: the Taliban and al-Qaʿida. Unquestionably, “the rise of IS transiently
disturbed the jihadist landscape in Afghanistan and Pakistan” (Basit, 2017: 26), since its effort, centered
around the idea of holding territory through the creation of a global caliphate, is in open contrast with
both al-Qaʿida’s gradual approach to jihad, based on the establishment of the caliphate as a long-term
goal rather than a starting point as envisioned by IS (Plebani, 2017: 452-53), and the Afghan Taliban’s
limited objective of an Islamized Afghanistan (Basit, 2017: 26).
What is more, IS Central has explicitly criticized both AQ and the Taliban for other differences in
their doctrinal and strategic positions. More specifically, AQ’s focus on the ‘far enemy’ (the US and its
allies) as well as its ‘cautious’ approach regarding Muslim Shiites and people of other faiths, are at odds
with both IS’ main dedication to hit local targets (the ‘near enemy’) and its absolutist and vehemently
hostile stance towards heterodox forms of Islam but also other religions tout court (Plebani, 2017: 455-
As for the Afghan Taliban, besides some crucial religious differences (IS’ Salafist ideology is
antithetical to the Deobandi and Sufi origins of the Taliban one) (Boghani, 2015), the main contrast
involves the geographical outreach of the group’s agenda, based on a narrow ethnic and nationalistic
dimension which supposedly corrupts the purity of the original Islamic State and relegates its
establishment within artificial boundaries, in direct opposition to the global caliphate envisioned by IS
(Joscelyn, 2016). Furthermore, al-Baghdadi’s organization has explicitly condemned the Taliban’s
frequent reliance on tribal customary law and other local judicial traditions, a practice deemed
disrespectful of the Islamic shariʿa (Joscelyn, 2016)7.
In more practical terms, also, ISK and the Afghan Taliban are in competition for new members and
resources, since both groups, albeit to a different extent, rely on revenues coming from the heroin traffic
to fund their operations (Erickson, 2018). Consequently, the more territory a group controls, the better
its funding capacity will be, so explaining the fierce struggle between ISK and the Taliban movement.
6 As noted by Plebani, interesting in this regard is IS’ overexploitation of the takfir practice, which provides al-
Baghdadi’s group “the legal basis for indiscriminate massacres that have nothing to do with the mainstream Islamic
message”. On the other hand, AQ’s leader Ayman al-Zawahiri released a series of norms and recommendations concerning
the interactions with people and communities of different religious creeds or sects, which emphasize the necessity to act
only for self-defense and to avoid both sectarian violence and unjustified attacks against civilians or other unarmed targets
(Plebani, 2017: 456-58).
7 In the seventh issue of its online magazine Dabiq, for instance, IS defined as “deviant and fleeble” the jihad carried
out by Mullah Omar and his followers (McNally and Amiral, 2016: 4).
As maintained by analyst Harleen Gambhir, indeed, “the Taliban posed a greater threat to ISK’s control
of terrain than the government” (Gambhir, 2015: 3). 2015 is remembered as the bloodiest year in the
confrontation between ISK and the Afghan Taliban, characterized by an open war (Giustozzi, 2017)
with many episodes of brutal violence and reprisals, including the beheading of several Taliban
commanders by ISK in June of that year (McNally and Amiral, 2016: 5).
Still, many security officials are cautious in labelling such a relationship in exclusively violent terms,
highlighting instead the complex interactions between the two actors, even described as symbiotic in
some circumstances, especially in the northern provinces of Afghanistan (Mashal, Abed and Rahim,
2016). This comes as no surprise, since according to recent Pentagon’s estimates, almost 70% of ISK
fighters in Afghanistan are former member of the Pakistani Taliban (Basit, 2017: 23) who often maintain
ties with their previous organizations (McNally and Amiral, 2016: 3).
Overall, there is unanimous consensus among commentators regarding the composition of ISK,
consisting of T.T.P. and Afghan Taliban defectors as well as former elements of the Islamic Movement
of Uzbekistan (I.M.U.) and other militant groups operating in the region (Boghani, 2015; Gambhir,
2015: 4; McNally and Amiral, 2016: 1; Basit, 2017: 22-23). Equally relevant is the support, especially
in terms of men and weapons, provided to ISK by militant groups based in Pakistan, such as Ansar-ul-
Khilafat Wal-Jihad and the T.T.P. splinter group Jandullah, both of which have pledged allegiance
(bay`a) to ISK (Rassler, 2015: 9).
Slightly different is the role of Lashkar-e Taiba (LeT) and Tanzime Nifaze Shariate Muhammadi
(TNSM), two Pakistani formations that have seen a transfer of fighters to ISK but that have not pledged
bay`a to the group, favoring instead a tactical and sporadic cooperation based on mutual interests,
whether logistics or protection, and personal relationship between their respective leaders (Sheik, 2016:
4). The reason behind this partial convergence, as noted by scholar Mona Sheik, is the incompatibility
between ISK’s objective of a transnational caliphate and the “arch-nationalistic ethos” behind LeT’s
primary goal: the struggle for Kashmir against its arch enemy India (Sheik, 2016: 4).
As of 2017, with the collapse of IS strongholds in Syria and Iraq and its leaders killed or on the run,
the group’s branch in Khorasan has become even more vulnerable and deprived of important resources.
Constantly chased by US drone strikes and weakened by internal strife8, the movement has since
adopted a more pragmatic approach, based on a tactical truce with most of the Taliban factions and on
close operational cooperation with influential groups such as the Haqqani Network (Giustozzi, 2017).
The result has been an increasing spiral of violence characterized by several high-profile attacks against
governmental and western targets as well as Shia and other religious sects, which, in turn, has triggered
8 The split emerged in the summer of 2017 between the faction loyal to the newly appointed governor of ISK Aslam
Farooqi, a former LeT commander of Pashtun origins, and the followers of former IMU member Moawiya, mainly coming
from Central Asian countries. Furthermore, some components of ISK, such as the Iranian and Tajik branches, acted in de
facto autonomy from the central leadership even before the aforementioned split (Giustozzi, 2017).
a bloody visibility competition between ISK and the Taliban to carry out more and more attacks (Hume,
Part. III
Shariʿa and guerrilla warfare: ISK policies and tactics in Afghanistan
The estimates concerning the number of ISK operatives vary widely and are prone to change according
to the unpredictable socio-political and military dynamics on the ground. On average, however, few
thousand fighters9 are scattered among several provinces of Afghanistan, especially in Nangarhar
where ISK’s headquarter is located Kunar, and Zabul, whereas in Pakistan its presence is more limited.
By contrast, the Afghan Taliban can count on a force of 50,000 including stable members and affiliates
(Bertolotti, 2018).
Despite a mounting pressure coming from different sides and enemies, ISK has proven extremely
resilient and able to navigate Afghanistan’s challenging terrain with ease, allowing many of its
fighters to evade airstrikes (Erickson, 2018). At least until the beginning of 2016, as the group’s control
of terrain was still notable, its tactics and operations were characterized by a surprising military
assertiveness, with ISK even able to maintain a direct access to the Jalalabad-Torkham highway and to
set-up improvised check-points, displaying an alarming freedom of maneuver in the province of
Nangarhar (Gambhir, 2015: 4). More recently, however, due to increasing losses of men and territory
as well as the “collapse of its myth of invincibility following a string of defeats in Syria and Iraq”
(Giustozzi, 2017), the group has adopted a more pragmatic and cautious strategy based on spectacular
asymmetric attacks, typical of guerrilla warfare, against two main operational targets: the Shia
population (Gambhir, 2015: 4)10 and the Afghan state (Armstrong, 2018).
Nonetheless, the inability to gain the trust of the local population, due to a profound disrespect for
local traditions and a ruthless cruelty against civilians (McNally and Amiral, 2016: 8), represents a
crucial weakness that has structurally undermined ISK efforts to monopolize the jihadist galaxy in the
region. Unsurprisingly, in many Afghan districts the locals reacted to ISK’s brutal governance11 by
9 Many analysts put the number of ISK fighters in Afghanistan between 1,000 and 3,500. For instance, according to a
February 2016 Pentagon estimate, the number was 1,000 to 3,000 (McNally and Amiral, 2016: 6). Similarly, a report of the
United States Institute for Peace (USIP) proposes a force of 2,500 cadres (Johnson, 2016: 2). More generous, even though
based on direct testimonies and conversations with ISK leaders, is the number advanced by a report of the Center for
Research and Policy Analysis, which, as of 2017, could be as high as 11,800 members, including the members of the splinter
group loyal to Moawiya and all the supportingelements in the region. (Giustozzi, 2017). If compared with most of the
analysis on the issue, however, this estimate seems exaggerated.
10 Specifically, ISK has carried out violent sectarian policies, repeatedly targeting Shi’a ethnic Hazara in many provinces
of Afghanistan.
11 ISK’s extremist version of Salafi Islam has imposed a strict ban on cigarettes and poppy cultivation crucial for rural
villages’ subsistence economy and the forced closure of schools and health clinics, so determining a widespread worsening
of life conditions in many areas of Afghanistan.
creating local militias, also known as ‘tribal uprising forces’ (Mielke and Miszak, 2017: 21), often with
the complaisant support of the government (McNally and Amiral, 2016: 7).
The initially mounting tide of ISK in Afghanistan and Pakistan now appears largely in retreat. The group
“is not a strong player” at the moment (Sheik, 2016: 6) and its allure in the region, partly overestimated,
has progressively eroded (McNally and Amiral, 2016: 9). Still, ISK’s presence and propaganda should
not be underestimated (Johnson, 2016: 14), as the recurring attacks in Afghanistan demonstrate. Overall,
as noted by Abdul Basit, three major implications have emerged with the establishment of the Wilayat
Khorasan: first, the existing jihadi landscape has become “more complex, violent, and polarized”;
second, the increasing “competition has negatively affected regional security”, and, third, the IS violent
model represents an “alternative option for new generations of jihadist” (Basit, 2017: 28). In sum,
despite the clear Taliban’s hegemony, ISK still represents a thorn in the side of both the Afghan and
Pakistani governments.
Academic Journals
Basit, Abdul, IS Penetration in Afghanistan-Pakistan: Assessment, Impact and Implications,
Perspective on Terrorism, June 2017, Vol. 11. Issue 3, pp. 19-39.
Plebani, Andrea, Emerging Trends in the Broader Jihadi Galaxi: Between Radicalization and
New Models of Jihadism, in The Struggle to Define a Nation. Rethinking Religious Nationalism
in the Contemporary Muslim World, Marco Demichelis, Paolo Maggiolini ed., Gorgias Press,
Piscataway, 2017.
Rassler, Don, Situating the Emergence of the Islamic State of Khorasan, CTC Sentinel, March
2015, Vol. 8, Issue 3, pp. 7-12.
Think Tank’s reports and working papers
Gambhir, Harleen, Isis in Afghanistan, Backgrounder, December 3, 2015, Institute for the Study
of War (ISW). Available at:
Giustozzi, Antonio, Taliban and Islamic State: Enemies or Brothers in Jihad?, Center for
Research & Policy Analysis, Dec. 14, 2017. Available at:
Johnson, Garret Casey, The Rise and Stall of the Islamic State in Afghanistan, Special Report
395, November 2016, United States Institute of Peace (USIP). Available at:
McNally, Lauren, Amiral, Alex, The Islamic State in Afghanistan. Examining its Threat to
Stability, MEI Policy Focus 2016-11, Middle East Institute. Available at:
Mielke, K, Miszak N, Making Sense of Daesh in Afghanistan: A Social Movement Perspective,
Bonn International Center for Conversion (BICC) Working Paper, 6/2017. Available at:
Osman, Borhan, The Islamic State in ‘Khorasan’: How it began and where it stands now in
Nangarhar, 27 July 2016, Afghanistan Analysts Network. Available at:
Parvez, Tariq, The Islamic State in Pakistan, Peace Brief 213, September 2016, United States
Institute of Peace (USIP). Available at:
Sheikh, Kanwal Mona, Islamic State Enters Al-Qaeda’s Old Hotbed: Afghanistan and Pakistan,
Danish Institute for International Studies Working Paper, 2016: 7. Available at:
Newspapers and online commentaries
Armstrong, Mark, Islamic State militants claim attack on Afghan Interior Ministry, 30/05/2018,
Euronews. Available at:
Bertolotti, Claudio, Afghanistan nel caos: prove di guerra civile prima delle elezioni,
Commentary, 05 luglio 2018, Istituto per gli Studi di Politica Internazionale (ISPI). Available
Boghani, Priyanka, ISIS is in Afghanistan, But Who Are They Really?, November 17, 2015,
Frontline. Available at:
Erickson, Amanda, How the Islamic State got a foothold in Afghanistan, March 21, 2018, Th
Washington Post. Available at:
Hume, Tim, ISIS and the Taliban compete to kill the most people in Afghanistan, Jan 29, 2018,
Vice News. Available at:
Joscelyn, Thomas, The Islamic State’s obsession with al Qaeda and the Taliban, January 20,
2016, The Long War Journal. Available at:
Mashal, Mujib, Abed, Fahim, Rahim, Najim, Joint Taliban-ISIS Attack Kills Dozens, Afghan
Officials Say, Aug. 6, 2017, The New York Times. Available at:
Quraishi, Najibullah, Jamie, Doran, ISIL and the Taliban, Al-Jazeera Special Series
Documentary, 1 Nov. 2015. Available at:
ResearchGate has not been able to resolve any citations for this publication.
Think Tank's reports and working papers • Gambhir, Harleen
Think Tank's reports and working papers • Gambhir, Harleen, Isis in Afghanistan, Backgrounder, December 3, 2015, Institute for the Study of War (ISW). Available at: