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ISIS Morphs and Grows in Pakistan, Afghanistan

ISIS Morphs and Grows in Pakistan, Afghanistan

Monday, 11 April, 2022 - 11:15
A boy looks as an Afghan fighter rides in the back of a vehicle during a police patrol in Kabul, Afghanistan, Tuesday, Sept. 14, 2021. (AP)

Basheer was a young Taliban fighter barely out of his teens when the ISIS group took over his village in eastern Afghanistan, nearly eight years ago. The militants rounded up villagers identified as Taliban and killed them, often beheading them, forcing their families to watch.

Basheer escaped and lived in hiding during the following years when ISIS controlled several districts in Nangarhar province. Over time, he rose in the Taliban ranks.

Now known as Engineer Basheer, he is the Taliban intelligence chief in eastern Afghanistan, with a leading role in the campaign to crush ISIS. He hasn’t forgotten the atrocities he saw in his home district of Kot.

“I can’t explain their cruelty in words, whatever comes into your mind, they have done more than that,” he told The Associated Press in a recent interview at his headquarters in Jalalabad, the capital of Nangarhar.

Since coming to power in Afghanistan eight months ago, the Taliban have touted their success in repressing the ISIS group, but the militants have expanded into neighboring Pakistan, stepping up attacks there. Analysts say ISIS has morphed into a borderless terrorist group, one of the deadliest in a region that has spawned many violent, radical organizations.

In northwest Pakistan, the impact is brutally clear. The remains of an ISIS suicide bomber are still visible on the once ornate walls of a mosque, weeks after he blew himself up, killing more than 60 worshippers as they prayed. ISIS identified the bomber as an Afghan from Kabul.

The March 4 bombing at the Kusha Kisaldar Shiite mosque in the old city of Peshawar stunned Pakistanis, deepening their fear of the resurgence of terror attacks in their country, after a steady decline in the past decade.

The rise in attacks began last year and is accelerating, said Amir Rana, executive director of the Pakistan Institute of Peace Studies, an independent think tank that monitors militant activity in Pakistan.

By late March this year, Pakistan had seen 52 attacks by militants, compared to 35 in the same period last year, according to the institute’s data. The attacks have also gotten deadlier. So far this year in Pakistan, 155 people have been killed in such attacks, compared to 68 last year.

The worst have been claimed by a ruthless ISIS affiliate, known ISIS in Khorasan Province or ISIS-K.

Meanwhile, ISIS attacks appear to have declined in Afghanistan.

ISIS-K first emerged in 2014 in eastern Afghanistan. By 2019, it held significant territory in Nangarhar province and had pushed into neighboring Kunar province. The US military waged a massive air campaign against it, including targeting a suspected ISIS hideout with America’s largest conventional bomb, known as the “mother of all bombs.”

But ISIS survived, and it presented the greatest security challenge to the Taliban when they seized power in Afghanistan last August.

Basheer says the Taliban have succeeded in reining in the group.

“We got control of all those areas ... Right now, there might be some people who hid in houses (but) they don’t have any area under their control. There is no Daesh,” he said, using the Arabic acronym for IS.

He said ISIS-K fighters are at a disadvantage because the Taliban are longtime masters of guerrilla warfare. The ISIS-K has no tactics that the Taliban don’t already know or haven’t used, he said.

Some militant watchers also say the Taliban’s deep reach inside Afghan villages and links to mosques and madrassas in even the smallest hamlets have reduced the space for ISIS to operate.

Since the chaotic US withdrawal from Afghanistan last year, Washington’s ability to gather intelligence on ISIS has been drastically degraded, according to senior US military officials

Dr. Amira Jadoon, assistant professor at the Combating Terrorism Center at the US Military Academy at West Point, said ISIS-K is weaker than it was in 2019. But it has morphed from an insurgency to a typical terrorist group, a subtle but important difference, she said.

“It’s now a stronger terrorist group than it was in 2019, but perhaps a weaker ‘insurgency’ compared to its earlier peak years, since it lacks the same level of territorial control and is not controlling any civilian populations,” Jadoon said.

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