By Amin Kawa
Based on the findings of the Hasht-e Subh Daily, IS-K in Afghanistan has not only recruited local fighters but has also added a significant number of foreign fighters to its ranks. Pakistanis have consistently been considered primary leaders of IS-K and currently hold notable roles in the council of the group, which is the decision-making body for IS-K, evaluating and finalizing the leader’s decisions. Despite some Pakistani IS-K commanders being killed in Afghanistan, certain Pakistanis still operate as nominal leaders in some provinces, including Kunar and Laghman.
Recently, Uzbek fighters from the Jundallah group have joined IS-K. After the assassination of their leader by the Taliban, these Uzbek militants, with around two thousand fighters, pledged allegiance to ISIS and joined its Khorasan branch to seek revenge against the Taliban.
Meanwhile, ISIS-Khorasan (IS-K) has escalated efforts to attract Pakistani and Uzbek fighters. The leadership of this branch of ISIS continues to strive towards enlisting dissatisfied Uzbek fighters from the Taliban. Notably, with the presence of these fighters, ISIS activities have expanded across Central Asia, resulting in rocket attacks on other countries.
The ISIS group launched its branch’s activities in Afghanistan and the region under the name “ISIS-Khorasan (IS-K)” for the first time in 2015. The geographical scope envisioned by ISIS for its Khorasan region included parts of Afghanistan, Iran, and Pakistan. However, the activities of this group have expanded since then, extending its attacks to Central Asia. The latest United Nations statistics indicate that the ISIS-Khorasan (IS-K) branch currently has between four to six thousand fighters in Afghanistan. Previous reports suggested that considering the geographic scope of ISIS-Khorasan (IS-K), most of its members are Afghan nationals and hold key positions within the group.
However, findings of the Hasht-e Subh Daily indicate that a significant portion of ISIS-Khorasan (IS-K) is composed of foreign jihadists; individuals who, due to dissatisfaction with other jihadist groups, including the Afghan Taliban and Tahrik-i-Taliban Pakistan (TTP), have pledged allegiance to ISIS. Some members of Al-Qaeda also have connections with ISIS, and given the presence of both groups in Afghanistan, it’s possible that they might have dual affiliations. But the question remains: which specific groups’ fighters are currently part of ISIS-Khorasan (IS-K), and what role do they play in expanding the group’s operational reach?
Pakistanis: From Founding IS-K to Active Role in Lajna Council
Despite the presence of Afghan fighters within IS-K, the branch was initially founded by dissident Pakistani Taliban members on Afghan soil. Hafiz Saeed Orakzai, a former Pakistani Taliban commander, pledged allegiance to ISIS in October 2014 due to dissatisfaction with both the Afghan and Pakistani Taliban. He served as the leader of IS-K for about one and a half years until he was killed by U.S. forces in August 2016. After a year of leadership by Abdul Hasib Logari, the leadership of ISIS-Khorasan (IS-K) (IS-K) once again shifted to Pakistani fighters. At that time, Abdullah Orakzai, also known as Aslam Farooqi, assumed this responsibility in April 2017 until he was eventually detained and imprisoned by authorities of the former government in the year 2020.
Since then, some dissident Pakistani Taliban fighters have remained part of ISIS-Khorasan (IS-K) and have played crucial roles as commanders in the current IS-K conflict. Even some of the “amirs” or (leaders) of IS-K in Afghanistan are Pakistani fighters. For example, Qari Faateh, who operated as the nominal amir of IS-K in Kunar province, was announced to have been killed by the Taliban in Kabul in February of this year. At that time, Zabihullah Mujahid, the Taliban spokesman, stated that Qari Faateh was the head of intelligence and operations for IS-K, and the Taliban accused him of orchestrating attacks on mosques and diplomatic sites.
Continuing, in early June of this year, the Taliban announced the killing of an ISIS commander named Tarab Bajauri in the province of Laghman. This Pakistani commander was operating as the “amir” (leader) of the IS-K branch in Laghman province and was considered one of the individuals who joined ISIS alongside Hafiz Saeed Orakzai. Bajauri had a long military background and was among those responsible for ISIS’s significant influence in Kunar province. The Taliban regarded him as a key member of the ISIS-Khorasan (IS-K) in Afghanistan. Such stances by the Taliban indicate that Pakistani fighters are significant pillars of IS-K and actively operate within Afghanistan under Taliban control.
Currently, Asadullah Orakzai is another prominent Pakistani commander of ISIS-Khorasan (IS-K). He operates as the amir of ISIS in Laghman province and is also a member of the Lajna Council. According to the Hasht-e Subh Daily’s findings, this council holds the leadership responsibility for ISIS-Khorasan (IS-K) and decides on the group’s activities in the “Khorasan region.” Most of the IS-K commanders, especially the Pakistani ones who are currently active members of ISIS, are actively involved in the Lajna Council. Qari Faateh, who was also a member of this council, participated in making decisions for the future of IS-K. Additionally, Saifullah Orakzai, another prominent commander of IS-K, is a member of this council.
In this way, the findings indicate that Pakistani fighters are active members of the ISIS-Khorasan (IS-K) operating in Afghanistan. They have experience in leading the ISIS-Khorasan (IS-K) on two occasions and are currently serving as commanders in provinces as well as engaging in military and intelligence activities.
According to additional information, ISIS-Khorasan (IS-K) is vigorously striving to increase its Pakistani fighters. This branch of ISIS has included the issue of recruiting Pakistani fighters as part of its future plans. In this process, individuals dissatisfied with their activities alongside the Tahrik-i-Taliban Pakistan (TTP) are being targeted for recruitment by ISIS to expand its activities in eastern Afghanistan and certain areas of Pakistan. It’s noteworthy that most Pakistani members of the ISIS-Khorasan (IS-K) have joined the group due to dissatisfaction with their previous affiliations, and given the extent of this dissatisfaction, the increase in the number of Pakistani fighters for ISIS is probable.
Jundallah Uzbek Jihadists and their Involvement with IS-K
The findings indicate that members of the Uzbek group Jundallah have also joined IS-Khorasan (IS-K) in the northern regions of Afghanistan. According to the information, currently, except for a small fraction of the group, most of the Uzbek commanders and fighters have become part of IS-Khorasan (IS-K). ISIS has incorporated a segment of the Jundallah group, consisting of Uzbek fighters in northern Afghanistan, into its ranks. Consequently, Mullah Saad, an Uzbek national, has assumed leadership of this group within IS-Khorasan (IS-K), and Uzbek militant Osama Ghazi serves as his deputy. In addition to these two leaders from the Jundallah group, around two thousand fighters from this group and thousands of their supporters in Takhar, Kunduz, Badakhshan, and Faryab provinces have also become part of IS-Khorasan (IS-K).
This significant shift occurred as Uzbek fighters in Jundallah grew disillusioned with the Taliban regime. According to the Hasht-e Subh Daily’s findings, the Uzbek militants played a major role in the Taliban’s takeover in the north of Afghanistan. However, following the Taliban’s return, Jundallah’s leadership and members faced hostility from them. The Taliban resorted to targeted killings of some Jundallah leaders to control the group. Notably, Uzbek migrant Osman Ghazi, who entered Afghanistan with five thousand of his Uzbek followers during Baranuddin Rabbani’s rule, later joined Jundallah at the request of Abdul Malik Rigi, a Jundallah member. Rigi, who operated in Iran, was executed after being arrested by the Islamic Republic of Iran.
After the first fall of the Taliban regime, Ghazi went to Pakistan to lead his group’s terrorist attacks alongside the Afghan Taliban against the previous government. Following orders from Mullah Mohammed Omar, the founder of the Taliban, Ghazi returned with hundreds of his followers to the province of Zabul and, in 2016, made an informal allegiance to ISIS during a consultation with some Taliban leaders. This move seemingly served as part of the plan to eliminate him, as shortly after, Ghazi became the target of an ambush by Taliban commanders and was killed in Zabul province along with his wife and several children.
Based on the findings of the Hasht-e Subh Daily, this action led Osama Ghazi, his son, and 150 other Jundallah members from Zabul province, where his father was present, to go to the provinces of Kandahar and Badakhshan and then leave those areas too. However, he waited for revenge from the Taliban until, following the Taliban’s resurgence, he and all members of his group joined ISIS. It should be noted that ISIS has utilized Jundallah members in expanding its activities in Central Asia. For instance, a member of this group, who previously operated under Salahuddin Ayubi’s command in Faryab province, launched a rocket attack on the soil of Uzbekistan.
On the other hand, IS-K’s efforts to gain the allegiance of Salahuddin Ayubi, a commander of Uzbek origin and dissatisfied with the Taliban, have intensified. He has close relations with the northern insurgents and appears to be able to establish connections with other armed groups in Tajikistan and other northern regions of the country. Moreover, ISIS, pursuing its plans for expanding activities in Central Asia, seeks to establish further communication with Uzbekistan fighters. This endeavor highlights the group’s intention to engage with some commanders and fighters of the Islamic Movement of Uzbekistan.
Meanwhile, based on available information, ISIS has previously designated a commander for Tajikistan as well. It is worth recalling that, in addition to Khorasan, the group is also seriously focused on the Indian subcontinent. According to the findings, in mid-2022, the leadership of ISIS instructed its members in the “Province of Hind” to intensify their activities in India and Pakistan. Abu al-Hasan al-Hashimi al-Qurashi, the then-leader of ISIS in Iraq and Syria, had urged Sheikh Zubair Ahmed, the ISIS governor in India, to bring about positive changes in that geography. Subsequently, Sheikh Zubair Ahmed decided to activate his media unit and conduct activities through Telegram, following the same directive.
The Islamic State of Iraq and Syria, known as ISIS, was originally formed in the late 20th century under the name “Jamāʿat al-Tawḥīd wal-Jihād.” It merged with al-Qaeda in 2004 but adopted the name “Islamic State of Iraq and Syria” in 2013. In 2014, ISIS declared a caliphate, with Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi as its first recognized leader. Currently, besides Iraq and some Arab countries, ISIS also operates extensively in Afghanistan. These activities have intensified after the return of the Taliban to power, and they encompass attacks on diplomatic sites and rocket attacks on countries in Central Asia. With recent changes in ISIS and the joining of foreign fighters to its Khorasan branch, it appears that the group has significant plans for further infiltration into the “Wilayah of Khorasan.” Previously, information indicated that IS-K was seeking to seize control of Kunar Province, a move that has been delayed after the assessment by its Lajna Council.