MADRID: Afghanistan’s intelligence agency, the National Directorate of Security, has said that recent United States airstrikes have destroyed the top leadership of a fledgling Islamic State presence in the troubled country.

The agency stated that Hafiz Saeed, the leader of the group in Afghanistan and Pakistan, was killed in the strike in Achin in Afghanistan's eastern Nangarhar province on Friday night. Some 30 other Islamic State fighters were killed, the spy agency said.

There has been no confirmation of this from the US or the Afghan government. The Islamic State has also not reacted to the claim.

Further, this is not the first time news of Hafiz’ death has emerged. In April this year, reports claimed that the IS militant was killed while planting a bomb.

The news also comes as fighting rages in the country, with the Islamic State seeming to have gained ground. Reports of clashes are making it harder to ignore the Islamic State’s presence in Afghanistan -- something experts and analysts are divided over as the it is unclear what the exact relationship is between fighters swearing allegiance to the Islamic State in Afghanistan and the parent group in Syria and Iraq. The question remains whether the Islamic State parent group is actively involved in recruiting or training or is the Islamic State in Afghanistan an independent initiative that bears the name for the sake of bearing the name?

Although the answer to the above question is important -- especially as it impacts the context of a Mullah Omar-led Taliban dominated militant movement in South Asia pitted against Abu bakr Baghdadi’s “Caliphate” centred on the Middle East -- the rise of a so-called Afghan Islamic State, even if nascent and disconnected, is a worrying development.

The attacks claimed by IS in Afghanistan have been increasing. In May, a suicide bomber detonated his explosives-laden vest outside a bank in Jalalabad, the capital of the eastern province of Nangahar, killing at least 34 people and injuring 125 others.

The attack was claimed by a group called ISIS Wilayat Khorasan, with a statement issued naming the suicide bomber as Abu Mohammad Khorasani. A photograph purportedly of Khorasani was included, showing the attacker seated on a prayer mat, a scarf covering his face and a Kalashnikov rifle by his side. A black Islamic State flag was visible in the background.

Referring to this claim, Afghan President Ashraf Ghani said: “Who claimed responsibility for the horrific attack in Nangahar today? The Taliban did not claim responsibility for the attack, Daesh claimed responsibility for the attack.”

Meanwhile, unconfirmed reports indicate that the Taliban and Islamic State have declared “jihad” against each other. Helmand province police chief Nabi Jan Mullahkhil was quoted by Afghanistan's Mashaal Radio saying that authorities had obtained “documents” that suggest that the two militant groups had turned on each other, according to independent news outlet Khaama. Khaama reported, “Reports of minor clashes between the fighters of Taliban group and the newly emerged Daesh have published in the past.”

Whilst the above portrays a frightening scenario, with disgruntled Taliban fighters providing a suitable recruiting ground for the Islamic State’s aspirations in the region, the presence of the Syria and Iraq-based militant group in the South Asian country is still fairly limited.

In fact, despite Ghani’s announcement, Afghan officials and Nato forces in Afghanistan have gone on the record to say they doubt the claims of the Islamic State’s influence in the country. The Islamic State’s claim on the attack in Jalalabad has also been questioned. "We have not yet seen evidence of ISIS direction or support of the attacks," Lt. Col. Christopher Belcher, spokesman for the international military coalition in Afghanistan, said in a statement reproduced by Reuters.

"Jalalabad continues to be an area with significant Taliban influence, and this attack fits the pattern of past Taliban attacks in the region, underscoring that this attack does not represent a fundamental change in the security environment."

A similar position was put forth by a spokesperson for Afghanistan's Ministry of Defense. "I do not believe that it was carried out by Daesh," Brigadier General Dawlat Waziri said on Wednesday, as quoted by Reuters.

The Islamic State itself seems to be unclear on whether it carried out the attack or not. “ISIS was not behind the deadly blast in Jalalabad, and we condemn such an attack,” Sheikh Muslim Dost, a spokesperson for the group in Afghanistan, told The Daily Beast. “This is an act of the Pakistani agencies to damage reputation of the ISIS.”

These may seem like two contrary positions. Does the Jalalabad bombing suggest that the Islamic State is a contender in Afghanistan or does it not?

Reports of the Islamic State in Afghanistan began to emerge late last year, when in September 2014 insurgents reported to be associated with the Islamic State battled Afghan security forces in the Arjistan district of Ghazni province. At the time, officials reported that the insurgents had raised the black flag of the Islamic State. However, the incident is now mired in controversy as the officials recanted their statements and said they had embellished the story so as to receive more resources.

(Source: The Long War Journal)

In February 2015, Afghan President Ashraf Ghani’s Chief of Police denied that the Islamic State was present in the area, insisting that the insurgents were local Taliban fighters.

Nevertheless, the Islamic State announced its expansion into “Khorassan Province” and officially appointed Hafiz Saeed Khan as the Wali (Governor) of Khorassan. The group also appointed former Guantanamo Bay detainee and senior Taliban leader Mullah Abdul Rauf Khadim as Khan’s deputy. The appointments and announcements followed a video released in January 2015 -- by disgruntled Tehreek-i-Taliban Pakistan (TTP) militants and a handful of little-known Afghan Taliban fighters -- that pledged allegiance to the Islamic State.

Since then, there have been isolated reports of the Islamic State’s black flag being raised in parts of Afghanistan. In Farah province for instance, a group of militants who pledged allegiance to the Islamic State set up a training camp; in Sar-i-Pul province, local officials reported that insurgents had raised the black flag of the Islamic State in Kohistanat district; in nearby Darzab district of Jawzjan province, 600 insurgents reportedly raised the black flag and began fighting on behalf of the Islamic State.

Earlier this year, in Nangarhar province, Taliban factions and Islamic State-affiliated insurgents clashed in what was widely perceived to be a turf war. In March, Afghan National Army (ANA) officials reported that a clash between rival Taliban and Islamic State factions in the Arghandab district of Zabul had killed seven Islamic State fighters. Also earlier in March, Hafiz Waheed, an Islamic State-linked militant was killed in an airstrike in Afghanistan.

However, it is important to note that these are isolated incidents, which have been difficult to verify The Taliban continues to remain the main extremist group opposed to the government in Afghanistan but there are three factors that may, in the future, pave the way for the Islamic State.

The first, is the group’s own willingness to expand into South Asia, as judged by the appointment of commanders and the declaration of “Khorasan Province,” as discussed above.

Second, the Afghan Taliban seemed to be willing to join a dialogue process with the Afghan government -- for the first time in 13 years. It is believed that neighbouring Pakistan managed to use its leverage on the leaders of the group to push for dialogue. At the time of writing, the dialogue process seems to have received a new lease -- as an Afghan delegation arrived in Islamabad to begin talks with Taliban representatives. If the Taliban and the Afghan government manage to start and sustain a dialogue process, the number of disenchanted fighters may increase -- with the Islamic State being a viable group to defect to. The growth of the Islamic State in Afghanistan, in turn, will have ramifications on Pakistan. As UK Defence writer Kim Sengupta noted, this includes “Pakistan’s loss of influence, which extends to committed Talibs, but stops dead at IS factions — exemplified no better than videos which recently surfaced showing IS militants beheading Pakistani soldiers.”

Third, the withdrawal of US forces -- a process which began late last year -- provides an opportunity for a new group to organize itself as the country is handed over to Afghan security forces. However, reports have emerged that the US and Afghan President Ghani are in negotiation over revising the scheduled plan for withdrawal, which currently seeks to cut foreign troop numbers to 5500 by December.

In conclusion, reports of the Islamic State’s presence in Afghanistan -- especially after the Jalalabad attack -- are certainly overblown, with the Taliban holding sway. However, given the three factors outlined above, it would be prudent to take the threat of the Islamic State’s expansion into South Asia very, very seriously.

Directly linked to the Islamic State’s expansion into Afghanistan is its presence in Pakistan. In May this year, 43 Ismaili Shia Muslims were killed and 20 others injured as Jundullah “Soldiers of Allah” that swore allegiance to the Islamic State last November struck in Karachi. Jundullah spokesperson Ahmed Marwat told Reuters ,"These killed people were Ismaili and we consider them kafir (non-Muslim). We had four attackers. In the coming days we will attack Ismailis, Shi'ites and Christians." According to some reports, a blood-stained pamphlet was found at the scene in which the Islamic State itself had claimed responsibility.

Significantly, Jundullah had claimed last November that a delegation from the Islamic State had visited Balochistan. Marwat said then that the purpose of the visit was to see how it could work to unite Pakistani militant groups. This was just after Jundullah had announced it allegiance to IS. The military offensive against the militants has proven to be a double edged sword in Pakistan. On the one hand it has weakened and splintered the militant organisations, and on the other as a result of this has led them to seek new coalitions with the Islamic State clearly cashing in on the opportunity to enter both Pakistan and Afghanistan through the two outfits of the Taliban respectively, and their offshoots.

Earlier, the provincial government of Balochistan had conveyed a confidential report to the federal government and law enforcement agencies warning of increased footprints of IS, also known by the Arabic acronym Daish, in Pakistan.

"It has been reliably learnt that Daish has offered some elements of Lashkar-e-Jhangvi (LeJ) and Ahl-e-Sunnat Wai Jamat (ASWJ) to join hands in Pakistan. Daish has also formed a ten-member Strategic Planning Wing," the report from the Home and Tribal Affair Department of Balochistan had said according to the Pakistani journalists.

Again, the reports may be exaggerated, but the appeal of the Islamic State should not be underestimated. Even if the links are tenuous at this stage they could become more concrete, permanently altering the nature of militancy in South Asia and setting the stage for the first truly global terror movement.