As Islamic State escalates its Afghan operations, A2 analyses the threat it poses to Afghan infrastructure and the wider region.
In May, forces loyal to the Islamic State’s Khorasan Province (ISKP) fought against the Taliban in the eastern, Pakistan-bordering province of Nangarhar, a campaign that culminated with the brief capture of the Tora Bora fortress from the latter insurgent group. Although Afghan security forces moved in and took control of the complex in June, ISKP’s brief seizure of Tora Bora – a former hideout of the late al-Qaeda leader Osama bin Laden – demonstrates that the group’s domestic capability has escalated rapidly since its formation in January 2015.
Although the group’s operations are primarily confined to Nangarhar, which is home to a number of Salafist communities more receptive to ISKP’s ideological message than other primarily Hanafi areas of Afghanistan, ISKP has also launched attacks in the capital Kabul, including a co-ordinated attack on 8 March against the Sardar Daud Khan military hospital in Kabul, which killed over 100 people.
The assault on the hospital was well-planned, with ISKP fighters donning medical uniforms to confuse security forces, and the ground attack preceded by a suicide improvised explosive device. Meanwhile, ISKP assets already in position within the hospital as workers joined the operation. ISKP is partially comprised of disaffected jihadist commanders from the Pakistan-based Tehrik-i-Taliban Pakistan (TTP), as well as the Afghan Taliban. Meanwhile, the leadership of several other regional non-state armed groups (NSAGs), such as the Islamic Movement of Uzbekistan (IMU), have pledged their own fealty to ISKP.
The escalation of ISKP operations threatens several major infrastructure projects in Afghanistan, including the CASA-1000 energy project and the ongoing Turkmenistan-Afghanistan-Tajikistan rail network. The Taliban, in a communiqué by its spokesman, from December 2016, announced they would refrain from targeting any such projects that were in the national interest, going so far as to order its fighters to defend major infrastructure works from attack. Notably, the Taliban announcement also covered the Chinese-run Mes Aynak, the country’s largest copper mine, located around 40km south-east of Kabul.
Immediately dismissing the claim, a government spokesman said that the declaration was a disingenuous attempt to hide the fact that the Taliban had inflicted over USD300 million’s worth of damage over the previous few months. However, A2 assesses that the announcement was likely an attempt by Taliban command to re-orient itself as a more ‘moderate’ and acceptable faction within the country to contrast itself with ISKP. The Taliban has frequently demonstrated its willingness to tolerate and even protect development projects, provided they receive ‘taxes’ in return for so doing.
ISKP, meanwhile, has issued no such reservations over its target selection. Even if Afghanistan’s planned infrastructure projects get off the ground and overcome the complex economic and political problems that assail them, they will likely become prime targets for ISKP attack. Meanwhile, already extant facilities, such as Mes Aynak, are at extreme risk of attack by the group. ISKP has shown it has the capability to launch operations against guarded locations, and high-profile infrastructure targets would be a natural tactical choice, allowing the group to have an outsized economic impact, given the country’s economic frailty, alongside increasing morale for its fighters.
Therefore, businesses working on Afghan infrastructure projects should maintain their current security postures, despite the Taliban communiqué. Site security managers of relevant facilities should instead consider their buildings and personnel top-priority targets for ISKP attacks, and adopt the requisite security postures to match the threat.
ISKP, whose Nangarhar base borders Pakistan, has launched cross-border strikes into Pakistani territory. On 16 February 2017 an ISKP militant detonated a personnel-borne IED (PBIED) at the Lal Shahbaz Qalandar shrine in the south-eastern city of Sehwan, which killed dozens. The significance of this lies in Sehwan’s location. Over 1,000km south of ISKP’s base in Nangarhar, the strike demonstrated the group’s capacity to carry out attacks far from its primary area of operations. This is not an anomalous event, given ISKP’s Pakistani membership and the presence of its sympathisers throughout Pakistan. On 12 November 2016, for example, an ISKP fighter killed over 50 people when he detonated his PBIED at a shrine in the central city of Khuzdar. The TTP, ISKP’s predecessor group, also targeted Muslim shrines in Pakistan, which are considered heretical by ultra-orthodox Islamist militants.
Although Pakistan has its own struggles with jihadist militancy, the growth of ISKP poses a credible risk to staff stationed in the country. That ISKP forces are based in Nangarhar limits the kinetic action available to Pakistani military units. Although Pakistan launches cross-border artillery strikes, meaningful military action against ISKP in Nangahar would require a full-scale invasion. Furthermore, the group’s preference for soft civilian targets complicates attempts by the government to harden domestic security procedures.