Afghan officials say a dangerous Pakistani network with links to Al-Qaeda and the Islamic State (IS) militants has established a sanctuary in southern Afghanistan.
Officials in Zabul Province, which borders Pakistan’s restive southwestern Balochistan Province, say members of Lashkar-e Jhangvi Al Alami are among the fighters hiding in the remote mountainous districts of Dey Chopan, Arghandab, and Khak-e Afghan in the vast, arid region.
"[Fighters] of Lashkar-e Jhangvi and other groups linked to terrorists, particularly to IS and international terrorists, are present here,” provincial Governor Bismillah Afghanmal told Radio Free Afghanistan. “But they have no permanent location or single stronghold.”
Ghulam Jilani Farahi, a senior police officer in Zabul, said the number of foreign fighters and their families runs into the hundreds.
"Based on intelligence reports and what the locals say, more than 300 families are in Khak-e Afghan district, [and there are more fighters and families] in one or two points of Arghandab district and some areas of Dey Chopan.”
Lashkar-e Jhangvi Al Alami seems keen on making its presence known in Zabul.
In December, Ali Bin Sufyan, a purported spokesman for the group, told the Associated Press that their leader, Yousuf Mansoor Khurasani, survived an insider attack while traveling in Zabul Province.
The claims mark a new milestone in the evolution of Lashkar-e Jhangvi Al Alami. It was once seen as an offshoot of Lashkar-e Jhangvi, which emerged as a major domestic terror group in Pakistan’s eastern Punjab Province in the 1990s. Following a government crackdown, Lashkar-e Jhangvi -- which mostly targeted Pakistan’s large Shi’ite minority -- splintered into various small factions over the past decade.
According to the U.S. National Counter Terrorism Center, the group collaborated with Al-Qaeda and the Pakistani Taliban. Washington declared Lashkar-e Jhangvi a terrorist organization in 2003.
In recent years, Lashkar-e Jhangvi Al Alami has claimed responsibility for deadly attacks on Pakistan’s Shi’ite communities. Most of its attacks were concentrated in Balochistan.
Spokesman Sufyan told Reuters in November that they cooperated with IS in attacks that killed more than 100 police cadets and devotees at a Sufi shrine last year.
“We will provide help to anyone who asks [for it] against the Pakistani security forces, and we will also accept help for this [purpose]," he said.
Hekmatullah Azamy, a researcher at the Kabul-based Centre for Conflict and Peace Studies, says the Lashkar-e Jhangvi Al Alami alliance with IS is based on their mutual hatred of Shi’a.
“Their attacks are not limited to Pakistan and have recently been extended into Afghanistan,” he said, adding that the group participated in an October attack on Shi’ite pilgrims at Kabul’s Karte Sakhi shrine.
“Police officials investigating the attack told me that two of the suicide bombers involved in the carnage were from Lashkar-e Jhangvi,” he said.
IS’s Pakistan and Afghanistan affiliate -- known as Khorasan Province -- had claimed responsibility for the October 11 attack. It said one of its suicide bombers had carried out the attack, which Afghan officials said killed 18 people and wounded 60 more.
Azamy said the presence of Lashkar-e Jhangvi Al Alami not only poses a major battlefield threat for overstretched Afghan forces, it also complicates Kabul’s bid to negotiate peace with the Taliban.
“The Taliban view them as a major headache because foreign terrorists are a hurdle to peace. These foreign fighters will never conclude peace with the Afghan government,” he said. “They will provide an alternative to the Taliban militants who are now fighting for money or ideology even if their organization concludes peace with Kabul.”
The Taliban seem to have realized that foreign fighters are a major threat to their designs. In 2015, the Taliban killed one of its former commanders, Mansur Dadullah, and hundreds of the Central Asian fighters he was sheltering.
After fighting for Al-Qaeda and the Pakistani Taliban for more than a decade, they had joined IS after fleeing a Pakistani military offensive against their North Waziristan hideout in June 2014.
Zabul police official Farahi said they plan to stop these fighters.
"They might create more problems in the coming spring. These fighters are organized in Zabul, and from there they might be deployed to [nearby] Uruzgan, Ghazni, Paktia, and Paktika provinces,” he said. “We're working on launching massive operations this winter in order to clean up the areas from the presence of the insurgents and foreign nationals.”
In Kabul, Afghan Defense Ministry deputy spokesman General Mohammad Radmanesh told Radio Free Afghanistan they are aiming to completely reclaim Zabul from the insurgents.
“We are trying our best so that no district in Afghanistan will be threatened by any group,” he said.
Lashkar-e Jhangvi Al Alami, however, appears to be on the offensive.
It claimed to have coordinated a January 21 attack on the Shi’ite community in northwestern Pakistan. Sufyan told Reuters they had coordinated the attack with a faction of the Pakistani Taliban. At least 21 people died in an explosion at a busy vegetable market in Parachinar, a small city that is the capital of Kurram tribal district on Afghanistan’s border.
General John Nicholson, commander of U.S. and NATO forces in Afghanistan, recently said that out of the 98 globally designated terrorist groups, 20 are active in Afghanistan and Pakistan.
“This represents the highest concentration of terrorist groups anywhere in the world,” he said in a December briefing.