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IS-K Ramps Up War Against The Taliban By Attacking Central Asian Neighbors

A bridge connecting Afghanistan and Tajikistan across the Pyanj River.

The ultraradical Islamic State-Khorasan (IS-K) group is trying to undermine the Taliban’s hard-line rule by launching attacks on neighboring countries from Afghanistan, analysts say.

In the latest attack, IS-K claimed that it had fire rockets on unspecified targets inside Tajikistan from the northern Afghan province of Takhar on May 7. The attack came weeks after a similar attack on the Uzbek border city of Termez from the neighboring Afghan province of Balkh on April 18.

Both Dushanbe and Tashkent have denied that such attacks took place. Taliban officials have denied that Uzbekistan was attacked from Afghan territory and say they are probing the alleged attack on Tajikistan.

Experts say that by attacking Afghanistan’s neighbors, IS-K is trying to sow more distrust in the already-strained relations between the Taliban and regional capitals.

Tajik soldiers march during a military drill near their country’s border with Afghanistan in August 2021.
Tajik soldiers march during a military drill near their country’s border with Afghanistan in August 2021.

Analysts who follow IS-K say the group is trying to exploit strains in the volatile region with the goal of provoking countries to attack Afghanistan. They argue that the group -- which aims to establish a global Islamic empire -- also wants to undermine Taliban assurances to the international community that militants will not target any country from Afghanistan.

“[IS-K] wants to showcase Taliban failures, strain relationships, and possibly provoke retaliatory state-led military operations into Afghanistan,” Andrew Mines, a research fellow at the Program on Extremism at George Washington University, told RFE/RL.

Unlike the Taliban, IS-K members are not limited to one country or a specific ethnic group. When the group emerged in 2015, most of its members came from the Tehrik-e Taliban Pakistan (TTP), but a sizeable contingent of Central Asian militants -- Uzbeks and Tajiks in particular -- also joined the group campaigning for a transnational jihad.

Mines says IS-K is now trying to signal to the international community that the Taliban is unable to fulfill its counterterrorism commitments.

“[Attacks like these] fly directly in the face of Taliban commitments to not let jihadists use the country for staging external attacks,” he says.

In its February 2020 agreement with the United States, the Taliban promised not to allow jihadist groups such as Al-Qaeda to launch attacks on other countries from Afghanistan.

The Taliban lost their first hard-line regime in late 2001 after refusing to surrender Al-Qaeda leader Osama bin Laden and other jihadists to Washington, which accused them of carrying out the 9/11 terrorist attacks against the United States.

Mines says IS-K is increasingly attracting antistate jihadist groups -- mainly ethnic Uzbeks, Tajiks, Uyghurs, and other Sunni groups -- for recruitment. He argues that the Taliban's counterterrorism commitments are beginning to strain its relations with such groups despite the Taliban hosting them in the past.

An Afghan moves water containers in a wheelbarrow alongside the Amu River, which forms the border between Afghanistan and Uzbekistan in Afghanistan's northern Balkh Province.
An Afghan moves water containers in a wheelbarrow alongside the Amu River, which forms the border between Afghanistan and Uzbekistan in Afghanistan's northern Balkh Province.

“It is likely that IS-K will keep trying to target Afghanistan’s northern neighbors and other bordering countries,” he says, “as [it] continues to try to garner support from these jihadists and as its spring attack campaign continues to develop.”

Reccardo Valle, an Italian researcher tracking IS-K, agrees. He says the group's recent propaganda effort targets the Taliban's relations with Russia, China, Iran, Pakistan, and Central Asian countries.

He cites the example of a devastating IS-K attack on a Shi'ite mosque in the northern Afghan city of Kunduz in October that killed more than 50 people. The attack was carried out by Mohammad al-Uyghuri, an IS-K fighter.

Valle says IS-K “portrayed the attack as revenge” for the Taliban’s tacit support for Beijing’s repression of Uyghur Muslims. “This attack also had the intended side effect of worsening relations between China and Afghanistan.”

Similarly, one of the suicide bombers responsible for another attack on a Shi'ite mosque in the southern city of Kandahar that killed more than 60 worshipers in October was named Abu Ali Balochi. Valle says his inclusion aimed to highlight the plight of Iran's Sunni Baluch minority.

“IS-K sees the [Shi’a] as a proxy of Iran in the region,” he says, “and Taliban and Iran are described as allies.”

Two clerics were killed in a stabbing attack last month at a revered Shi'ite shrine in the northeastern Iranian city of Mashhad. Iranian authorities identified the attacker as a 21-year-old man of Uzbek descent who was influenced by "takfiri" beliefs. Takfiris are extremist Salafis, and most IS-K members subscribe to this ideology.

Mines says IS-K’s attack on Afghanistan’s Shi’ite Hazara minority is aimed at forcing Iran to “reassess its ability to protect Shi’ite communities in Afghanistan through proxies and shoulder the costs of refugees fleeing IS-K violence,” while also forcing Tehran to fund the rehabilitation of IS-K’s Shi’ite victims.

“IS-K’s attacks not only exacerbate these dynamics but are a fundamental part of its branding as the most anti-Shi’a extremist group in the region,” he says.

He adds that IS-K is also a staunch enemy of Pakistan and the group follows a sectarian strategy in that country. He says devastating attacks such as the one in March that killed more than 60 at the Shi’ite mosque in the northwestern Pakistani city of Peshawar are aimed at irritating Islamabad.

“IS-K seeks to provoke Pakistan into retaliating both within local communities and across the border in violation of state boundaries,” Mines says.

After a spate of recent TTP attacks, Islamabad retaliated last month by bombing Pakistani refugees in southeastern Afghanistan. The air strikes strained relations with its longtime ally, the Taliban.

Valle sees IS-K remaining a major threat in Afghanistan and western Pakistan with grand regional ambitions. "IS-K aims to destabilize Afghanistan further both internally and in the regional context," he says.

Mines also predicts difficult days ahead for the Taliban if it fails to contain the IS-K threat.

“[The Taliban] commitments will matter little to Afghanistan’s neighbors, who may seek a more aggressive approach if IS-K continues to stoke border tensions.”