Should the Taliban fear the Islamic State?
Men prepare to set fire to an IS flag during a protest in Kabul (Reuters)
OXFORD: Increasingly, the Islamic State (IS) is the Starbucks of international jihadist organizations.
Its propaganda portrays it rapidly establishing branches in every country. It spreads its “product” and its loyalty base, all of which appear to feed back into powerful headquarters. Fear of IS expansion into South Asia has pervaded the regions’ governments, particularly those of Afghanistan and Pakistan, since its meteoric rise in 2014. Its influence in these countries is indisputable. From occasional IS flags and propaganda leaflets in late 2014, to the eventual establishment of “Islamic State Khorosan Province” by a handful of disgruntled former Taliban in January, and increasing spats with IS soldiers in Afghanistan, IS’ apparent spread has been gradual, but ever present. More significantly, they have left the Taliban worried. The extent of that worry became clear on Tuesday, when they published an open letter to the “Distinguished Abu Bakr Al Baghdadi” on their media site.
The letter is a polite but indisputable warning to IS, to fall into line and respect the integrity of what they continue to refer to as “The Islamic Emirate”, as they named their country when they ruled Afghanistan in the 1990s. The author, Taliban deputy leader Akhtar Mohammad Mansoor, draws a fine line between diplomacy and assertion. Since IS is a “brother in Islam”, the letter states the Taliban are prepared to let them be, so long as IS agree to fall under their command while in Afghanistan. He goes so far as to flatter them, suggesting that those who are “causing disruption in Mujahedeens’ command[ing]” are not IS themselves, but that, “…due to your remoteness these selfish and bad people would misuse your name for such actions”. They finish by demanding IS clamp down on those challenging Taliban authority in Afghanistan under the IS banner, and stating they “insist you to be very attentive” in controlling those affiliates.
This is not an unprecedented demand. The Taliban have always held national rather than international objectives, and limit their territorial ambitions to the contemporary borders of Afghanistan. Indeed, when Bin Laden was the uninvited guest of Taliban leaders in the late 1990s, he was largely free to pursue his international goals, so long as he maintained loyalty to Taliban Emir Mullah Omar, and obeyed his leadership whilst he lived in Afghanistan.
As far as the Taliban is concerned, those conditions still stand. The elusive Mullah Omar is losing his grip on the movement thanks to his conspicuous absence from public life, but his deputies are not prepared to see their status as the most powerful insurgency in Afghanistan challenged.
But just how far has this challenge gone? And does it mean IS is expanding its territory?
The Quilliam Foundation’s latest report suggests otherwise. Like Al Qaeda, IS operates as a franchise, allowing those who wish to buy into it easy access to the power of its brand. While IS influence is undoubtedly making its mark, not only in Afghanistan and Pakistan, but across South Asia, the Taliban may be wasting their energy in demanding that Baghdadi keep his local combatants in line. What IS are creating in South Asia is an illusion of a control board, through their newly named “Khorosan Province” (Khorosan being a traditional name for the region of Afghanistan and Pakistan). The control apparatus itself, the Khorosan Province Shura, or leadership council, is not a product of top down design by IS. It is the creation, and constant re-creation, of former Taliban turned self-declared IS loyalists, lent legitimacy with a stamp of approval from official IS spokesmen.
That doesn’t necessarily negate the dangers the Khorosan Shura poses. Its establishment in name alone is a dangerous development, since it gives disaffected Afghan and Pakistani militants something to gravitate towards. Local Taliban Emirs who wish to turn over their local authority to IS now have a banner to work under, and the structure serves to promote training camps that also operate in IS’s name. However, when it comes to actually controlling those who have embraced the IS banner, the Khorosan Chapter is less convincing. A former Guantanamo detainee who is now described as a “leader of IS affiliates in Afghanistan”, Abdullah Rahim Muslim Dost, is a well-known figure to the media, but has a distinctly dubious relationship to the Shura. Shadihullah Shahid, the Khorosan Shura’s spokesman, had previously stated that Dost had consented to the Shura leadership. However, this claim was tested when in April, Khorosan Shura leader Hafiz Saeed Khan claimed credit for a suicide bombing on a bank in Jalalabad, which killed 35. Dost promptly refuted his statement, saying that IS were uninvolved, and those who committed the crime were out to tarnish IS’s name. Another regional IS affiliate, Jundullah, a splinter group of the Pakistani Taliban, have committed several shocking sectarian attacks against Pakistan’s Shia community, yet their association to the Khorosan command is also unknown. Nor, it seems, can the Shura hold onto their own. On Wednesday, Khorosan Province released a video showing the beheading of Sa’ad Emarati, a Shura member and IS training camp commander, who tried to defect back to his former Taliban masters.
IS are too embattled in their Middle Eastern stronghold to be supporting large-scale expansion efforts in South Asia. What we see currently is opportunism by local militants, capitalizing on the mix fear and glamour the IS brand offers. IS is not micro-managing the strategies of its South Asian counterparts, but is happy to give the impression it is in control. However, a more difficult question is whether that is good news as far as security is concerned. Unfortunately, the answer is likely no.
IS’s ideology is uniquely, toxically sectarian, justifying horrific violence against those who do not fit their religious prescriptions. Global jihadist aspirations come in waves, and IS has triggered a new one. Their astonishing fame risks helping their ideology and notoriously violent tactics spread among militants vying for power in South Asia. And as their previous dismissive remarks directed at the Taliban suggest, it is highly unlikely the latest warning will be heeded. Moreover, worries are rising in Pakistan and its neighbours, in regard to local militants going to join IS in Iraq and Syria. Estimates vary, but some notoriously sectarian Pakistani movements, such as Lashkar-e-Jhangvi, are ideologically close matches to IS, and several hundred of their fighters may already have travelled to the Middle East. If so, South Asia must be ready for the threat of returning fighters, trained in IS’s vicious attention-grabbing methods, and uncompromising religious politics.
If its ideology is allowed to spread unchallenged, it is the populations of Afghanistan and Pakistan who will pay the ultimate price. It is those who challenge IS in the realm of ideas who will ultimately defeat them.
(Eleanor Beevor is an associate researcher at the Quilliam Foundation and a PhD candidate at the University of Oxford).