Officials in a restive southern Afghan province say disparate fighters associated with the Islamic State (IS) militants have now established training camps in remote mountains.
Mirwais Noorzai, the police chief of Zabul Province, says IS militants are training new recruits in the remote mountainous districts of the province to deploy them to new frontlines across Afghanistan.
“We have some of the world’s nastiest militants here. These include Uzbeks and Kazaks [from Central Asia] and Punjabis [from Pakistan],” he told Radio Free Afghanistan. “Their training camps are outside the areas we control. We are now talking to the central government to launch an offensive against them.”
Zabul, an impoverished and sparsely populated province, borders Pakistan’s restive southwestern Balochistan Province. It began suffering a simmering Taliban insurgency soon after their hard-line regime was ousted from power in Afghanistan in late 2001 and its leaders moved to hideouts in Pakistan.
But the region became a hotbed for international jihadists after a Pakistani military offensive pushed Central Asian and Pakistani militants into the region in 2014.
While the Afghan government failed to tackle their arrival with a viable strategy, the Afghan Taliban took on some of the Central Asian fighters who had pledged allegiance to IS. Hundreds of Uzbek fighters and a former Taliban commander, Mansur Dadullah, who sheltered them were killed in late 2015.
Kabul now seems eager to rid Zabul of foreign fighters. On January 30, senior Zabul police official Ghulam Jilani Farahi said some 20 IS fighters died in their training camp when the improvised bomb they were preparing exploded.
“The explosion happened in the Khwar Zangi village of Arghandab district, which borders Khak-e Afghan district,” he told Radio Free Afghanistan. “The blast inside their training camp killed some 20 militants, and at least 10 more were injured.”
Last week, Zabul officials said scores of militants died in air strikes by international forces.
“The NATO airstrikes were guided by intelligence information,” provincial spokesman Gul Islam Siyal told Radio Free Afghanistan on January 24. “Some 50 foreign and local militants were killed in one of the attacks in Khak-e Afghan.”
It was not possible to independently verify the Afghan government’s claims.
Earlier this month, Zabul officials said fighters of Lashkar-e Jhangvi Al Alami, a Pakistani radical Sunni anti-Shi’a militant group, had carved out a sanctuary in the province. They said the group’s fighters were hiding in the remote mountainous districts of Dey Chopan, Arghandab, and Khak-e Afghan districts of the vast, arid region. The group first emerged in Pakistan’s eastern Punjab Province. The region is still believed to be the key recruiting ground for Lashkar-e Jhangvi Al Alami.
Experts in the Afghan capital, Kabul, now see Lashkar-e Jhangvi Al Alami allying with IS to expand its anti-Shia violence into Afghanistan. IS’s Afghanistan-Pakistan branch, which brands itself as Khorasan Province, appears to have good reason to expand into Zabul.
Its stronghold in the eastern Afghan province of Nangarhar has come under relentless forays by the Afghan government, NATO forces, and local volunteers.
Afghan and intentional military officials estimate that IS lost hundreds of fighters and six of the nine districts it controlled in the summer of 2015.
Similar to Nangarhar, the IS presence in Zabul is marked by extreme atrocities in the regions where its training camps operate.
Scores of civilian families have fled the militants’ control into the relative safety of the provincial capital, Qalat. Abdul Hakim, a young man, told Radio Free Afghanistan that IS militants have engaged in indiscriminate killings.
“They have even killed our women and children. We never imagined such cruelty,” he said.
Abubakar Siddique wrote this based on Radio Free Afghanistan correspondent Mohammad Sadiq Rashtinai’s reporting from Kandahar, Afghanistan.