French and Algerian fighters have joined the ranks of the ISIS terrorist group in northern Afghanistan where the militants have established new bases, multiple international and Afghan sources told Agence France Presse.
This is the first time the presence of French ISIS militants has been confirmed in Afghanistan, or at least French-speaking fighters, according to officials contacted in Kabul.
Darzab district governor Baaz Mohammad Dawar indicated that a number of Algerian and French nationals entered the ISIS-controlled district Darzab in northern Jowzjan province in mid-November.
A group of women also arrived in the district and were traveling with a translator from Tajikistan, said Dawar, adding that four of the foreigners, including two women, speak French and Arabic. They were also accompanied by eight Algerians who only speak Arabic, as well as Chechens and Uzbeks.
A number of Algerians in Darzab were in Syria and Iraq, according to Dawar.
Hundreds of French nationals originating from north Africa had joined ISIS ranks in Middle East, which is creating confusion about the nationalities of the newcomers.
Ministry of Defense spokesman Dawlat Waziri announced: “We call them Arabs, but they do not carry passports.”
One local man, who gave his name as Hajji, told AFP that he saw fighters who were of several nationalities, including French. “They were tall, in their late 20s and dressed in military clothing.”
ISIS fighters set up camp just a few hundred meters from village of Bibi Mariam and Shaher Dara.
"They ride their (motor) bikes, go to the border and come back, but they talk to nobody," Hajji added.
Another resident, Akram, also informed AFP that the town is 95 percent under ISIS control and many of the residents, especially public workers, have left the area.
Jowzjan provincial governor's spokesman, Mohammad Raza Ghafoori, said French-speaking Caucasian men and women have been seen training ISIS fighters in Darzab. He added the terrorist organization has recruited around 50 children, some as young as 10, and they have their own camp where they train on carrying out attacks.
Member of the Washington-based Institute for the Study of War, Caitlin Forrest warned that ISIS is turning Jowzjan into a “logistical hub to receive and train foreign fighters as the group lost ground in Iraq and Syria” and thinks of Afghanistan as a “haven” to plan attacks on the US.
Hashar, a former district village chief, said he started seeing French fighters with their translator as of mid-November and they were training others to use suicide bombs and plant mines.
"Locals warned the fighters were also abusing natural resources, such as precious stones and uranium. They are... bringing misery to normal people," he told AFP.
A security source confirmed to AFP that French nationals have indeed arrived recently in the region, including two, who are nicknamed "The Engineers". They appeared to be organizing some sort of extraction, "but we do not know what they are looking for".
Several European services believe there is an ISIS branch in Tajikistan and fighters are arriving from there, the source said, adding that the translator’s presence with the French fighters seems to confirm that.
At least one Frenchman, 30, was arrested in July and sentenced to five years in prison for illegally entering Tajikistan. The Frenchman, who is a plumber, said he had wanted to join ISIS in Afghanistan.
The source added that two others, carrying fake French passports, were arrested at the same time.
Afghanistan’s Ministry of Defense said that ISIS in Khorasan initially set up base in the east of Nangarhar and Kunar provinces, bordering Pakistan, where a large number of fighters come from. Since then, ISIS spread to three northern provinces, Jowzjan and Faryab, and mainly Sar-e Pol, where former Taliban fighters and former members of Islamic Movement in Uzbekistan are located.
Jowzjan is the hometown of the Uzbek warlord and Afghan Vice President Abdul Rashid Dostum, who has been residing in Turkey since last May for “medical reasons”.
Six International Committee of Red Cross (ICRC) workers were killed in an ambush in Jowzjan in February which no one claimed responsibility for.
A French government spokesman stated that there have been several rumors about French nationals fighting for ISIS in the Darzab region, but it was never proven.
On November 19, French Foreign Minister Jean-Yves Le Drian warned during a trip to Kabul against ISIS’ growing danger in Afghanistan after its defeats in Iraq and Syria.