Dilemma of Central Asian Jihadists between IS-K and Taliban

The flag of the Islamic Emirate of Afghanistan (Taliban) on the wall of US Embassy near Massoud square beside the Ministry of Health in Kabul (Credits: AhmadElhan, CC BY-SA 4.0, via Wikimedia Commons)

Geopolitical Report 2785-2598 Volume 13 Issue 3
Author: Uran Botobekov

The Taliban’s pragmatic diplomacy and gradual departure from the Jihadi ideology alienate Central Asian jihadists from the Taliban and strengthen its ardent enemy, the Islamic State Khorasan (IS-K). Taliban-backed Uyghur jihadists, who exploited shahids (martyr) exclusively against the Chinese authorities in the past, recently carried out a suicide attack against the Shia Hazara minority under Taliban rule.

Factionalization of IMU

The establishment of “warm relations” by the Taliban’s interim government with China, Russia, and Uzbekistan has sparked a negative reaction from the Uzbek and Tajik jihadi media as they consider this trio as Tāghūt (idol or tyrant) regimes. During meetings with Central Asian and China’s government officials, except Tajikistan, the Taliban generously pledged that Afghan soil would not be used as a terrorist base, which is unlikely to please Central Asian veteran jihadists.

The Afghan Taliban’s ideological compromises retreating from hardline jihadi principles in pursuit of international recognition and legitimacy has cooled their relationship with al Qaeda-linked foreign jihadi groups, which have jointly resisted the U.S. invasion over the past 20 years. Due to pragmatic concessions to ‘Tāghūt‘ states, the Taliban are gradually losing their jihadi attractiveness in the eyes of foreign fighter groups. It is known that the Taliban and al Qaeda have always been the ideological masterminds and role models for Central Asian radical Islamists and Uyghur militants from China’s Xinjiang region, victimised to legal persecution and bloody repression by authoritarian regimes.

In the late ’90s, neighbouring Afghanistan became a safe haven for Uzbek, Tajik militants of the Islamic Movement of Uzbekistan (IMU) and Uyghurs of the East Turkestan Islamic Movement (ETIM) swearing oath of allegiance (bayʿat) to al Qaeda and the Taliban leaders. Under the leadership of the parent organisations, they acquired the global jihadi ideology and shaped the foundation of Central Asian jihadism. In exchange for the IMU’s bayʿat, the Afghan Taliban provided Central Asian militants with a space for training.

Over the quarter-century of the jihadi relationship, they have experienced ups and downs associated with violating the bay’at and joining some IMU militants led by Usmon Ghazi to the Islamic State (ISIS). After Usmon Ghazi’s faction changed its jihadi banner and openly made bayʿat to the Islamic State leader Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi in August 2015, the Taliban brutally punished the Uzbek jihadists. As punishment for this betrayal, in November 2015, the Taliban killed Usmon Ghazi and about a hundred Central Asian defectors at a base in Zabul Province.

The second time Central Asian jihadists were hit hard by the Afghan Taliban in the Darzab district of Jawzjan province was in 2018 when the Taliban defeated the Qari Hikmatullah’s network, which was the main pillar of IS-K in the northern Afghan province of Jawzjan. Qari Hekmatullah, a former Uzbek Taliban commander, joined his forces with IS-K and came to lead the group’s north territorial project for an extended period of time. He also served as the IS-K’s senior foreign fighter facilitator in northern Afghanistan, poaching Central Asia fighters and the Tehrik-i-Taliban Pakistan’s (TTP) militants.

The ideological vision of the late IMU leader Tahir Yuldash and the TTP founder Baitullah Mehsud regarding Takfiri Salafism, global jihad and worldwide Caliphate has always been close to the current views of IS-K. Notably, the TTP and IMU leaders have a long history of jihadi collaboration, lived together in South Waziristan, and carried out transnational attacks in Lahore, Peshawar, and Karachi’s international airport in2014. They ideologically inspired each other and, in contrast to the nationalist ideology of the Afghan Taliban, dreamed of creating a worldwide Islamic Caliphate. Even after the Taliban eliminated defectors in the IMU’s ranks, remnants of Uzbek Muhajireen [foreign or migrant from the Arab word muhājir (singular) – muhājirūn (plural)] retained their global jihadi aspirations, but they learned a bitter lesson from the past and no longer intervened in a bloody dispute between the Taliban and IS-K over the future of a single Caliphate and were forced to survive in the Afghan-Pakistan border areas.

Global Jihad and Taliban Nationalism

Despite the fact that the Taliban leadership publicly denies the presence of transnational terrorist groups in the country, a recent U.N. report revealed that there are about 10,000 foreign fighters in Afghanistan, who are members of al Qaeda, the Turkestan Islamic Party (TIP), the Katibat Imam al-Bukhari (KIB), the Katibat al-Tawhid wal-Jihad (KTJ), the Islamic Jihad Union (IJU) and Jamaat Ansarullah (J.A.).

Now that the Taliban have achieved their long-awaited victory and are in power, IS-K is trying to take over the vacant jihadi seat to poach Central Asian Muhajireen remaining without a hostile target in post-American Afghanistan. Taliban-backed Uzbek, Uyghur and Tajik jihadi groups are overwhelmed by the IS-K’s sophisticated operational abilities and its high potential to conduct targeted strikes on the Taliban’s vulnerable spots to undermine their legitimacy in the eyes of Afghans and the world. Since the Taliban came to power on August 15th, 2021, IS-K has claimed more than fifty separate attacks, including a suicide bombing at the Kabul International Airport, Shia Hazara mosques in Kunduz and Kandahar (The new geopolitical game of Afghanistan).

Along with devastating suicide attacks, the group’s strategists have successfully positioned IS-K as a formidable ideological adversary to the Taliban, portraying global Salafi jihadism as an irreplaceable alternative to the Taliban’s Pashtun nationalist jihadism. ISIS continuously derides the Taliban as “apostates” and mocks their leaders as puppets of the Americans in its propaganda and media. Following the Taliban’s lightning-fast takeover of Kabul, ISIS’s al-Naba’ newsletter condemned the victory of its ideological rival as false since it was not a conquest but a takeover of the country coordinated with the Americans as per the peace process in Doha (Washington signed a deal with the Taliban, but this is not the end of the war). According to the Islamic State, “it was merely a process of peaceful transfer of power from one Tāghūt to another.” The al-Naba’ highlighted a ‘sore point’ of foreign fighters, including Central Asian jihadists, noting that “American restored Taliban’s rule and granted them Kabul without firing a shot” because “Taliban left the Muhajireen (foreign fighters) and pledged that it would not allow the repeat of the ‘Manhattan mistake.’

Taliban fighters in Afghanistan (Credits: CC BY 4.0, Notizie Geopolitiche)

Analysis of the jihadi media shows that the recent brutal and mysterious killing of the leading Afghan Salafi scholar, Shaikh Abu Obaidullah Mutawakil, in Kabul by the Taliban has sparked lively discussion and sympathy among Central Asian Muhajireen adhering to Salafi ideology. The Taliban are suspicious of Afghan Salafists for supporting their arch-enemy of IS-K. Following this event, IS-K ideologues have focused on three main issues directly related to the future fate of foreign fighters and their Quranic beliefs regarding sacred jihad.

Firstly, the Islamic State emphasises a deviation of the Afghan Taliban from the jihadi principles in alliance with the Crusaders and their diplomatic collaborations with the Tāghūt regimes of Central Asian states, Pakistan, Russia, and China, where the religion of Allah is persecuted. Secondly, the Taliban’s nationalist jihad distorts the goals and timing of the sacred global jihad and the scale of the creation of a single Caliphate. Thirdly, according to the ideologues of the Caliphate, the Taliban’s warm relations with the Rāfiḍha (rejectionist, used in a derogatory manner for the Shia) Iran is a betrayal of the Sunni Ummah. IS-K views Shias as polytheists and heretics, who reject (rafiḍh) the caliphates of the first two successors of the Prophet Muḥammad: Abu Bakr and Umar Ibn al-Khattab.

The issues raised in the IS-K propaganda networks deeply disturb the Central Asian Salafi-Jihadi groups. Since the Taliban came to power, the Uzbek, Uyghur and Tajik militant groups are undergoing ideological shifts and rethinking the goals of Central Asian jihadism. The Pashtu nationalist jihad treads on the toes of Central Asian jihadist veterans who have long fought in Afghanistan alongside the Taliban and al Qaeda. Moreover, the Taliban’s frequent public promises about non-interference in the neighbours’ affairs and expulsions of foreign fighters cause deep concern among the Central Asian Muhajireen. Today they are worried that the Taliban, after consolidating power and international recognition, may abandon them or use them as expendable for a lucrative economic deal with China, Russia, Turkmenistan and Uzbekistan.

Our previous report noted that al Qaeda-linked Central Asian jihadi groups warmly congratulated the Taliban on the ‘great historical victory’. In honour of it, they issued special congratulatory statements and echoed jihadi Nasheeds (adaptation of the Arab word nashīd, chants of jihadi glory). In particular, Uzbek militants of IJU, KTJ, Uyghurs of TIP and Guraba Jamaat (G.J.) and Tajik jihadists of J.A. heroised ‘the Taliban’s victory as an epic triumph’, and ‘the advance of Nusrat (victory) in Khorasan, promised by Allah in the Qur’an.’.

Following a victorious euphoria, Central Asian militants seek their own jihadi identity between al Qaeda, IS-K, TTP and the Hayat Tahrir al-Sham (HTS). Unlike the rest, only IS-K attempts to lure them into breaking away from the Taliban’s circle and joining the Islamic State’s ranks. Moreover, ISK’s strategic objectives and ideological views align with their long-term goals and interests. In addition, the Taliban’s nationalist jihad, limited only to Afghanistan, plays into the hands of IS-K. For many Central Asian jihadists, their distant future probably looks more favourable with an ally that promises to create a worldwide Caliphate than one who banned the use of Afghan soil to conduct global jihad.

Perhaps, struggles may soon erupt between the Taliban and Central Asian jihadi groups. Recently, Farrukh Shami (Farrukh Furkatovitch Fayzimatov), one of the KTJ’s fundraisers, whom the U.S. Department of the Treasury added to sanction list, urged post-Soviet Islamists not to make hijrat (migrate) to Afghanistan, but to come to the Middle East.

Foggy Future of Central Asian Jihadism

Another indicator of the defections of Central Asian jihadists to the IS-K side was a suicide bomb attack on worshippers at Hazara Shia mosque in the Afghan city of Kunduz that killed at least 55, over 140 injured on October 8th, 2021. In its claim of responsibility, ISK identified the suicide-bomber as ‘Muhammad al-Uyghuri’, indicating that he belonged to China’s mainly Muslim Uyghur minority. The ISIS-linked Amaq news agency said the attack targeted both Shias and the Taliban for their purported willingness to deport Uyghurs from Afghanistan in response to requests from China.

This indicates that the IS-K ranks swelled with new Uyghur deserters of TIP, disillusioned by the Taliban’s policy towards China, which is carrying out genocide of Uyghur Muslims in the Xinjiang region. In addition, given the proximity of Kunduz to the borders of Tajikistan, Uzbekistan and Turkmenistan, IS-K signals radical Salafists from Central Asia to make hijrat to Khorasan and join them. At the same time, the Taliban have pledged to expel foreign jihadists. Thus, IS-K demonstrated once again that Shia Hazaras remain a desirable target of its attack, and the Taliban are unable to protect the people of Afghanistan. Now, when Uyghur militants of TIP are faced with the stark reality of the Taliban’s rapprochement with China, they have only two options: martyrdom in hijrat or raising a flag of worldwide Caliphate with ISIS. The Uyghur suicide attack was a symbolic warning to China that its enormous Belt and Road Initiative would be a desirable target for IS-K attacks.

It is conceivable that IS-K can exploit suicide bombers from Central Asia to demonstrate its multinational face in the near future. It projects the existence of foreign fighters as proof of it being unbound by modern borders and nationalities highlighting a transnational face of Ummah (Muslim community). Such sophisticated attacks could target Hazara Shia minorities, Taliban’s combat units and markets in security-vulnerable provinces. To encourage the desertion of Central Asian Muhajireen and the local Salafi community, IS-K will also increase its propaganda against the Taliban.

Although al Qaeda-linked Central Asian Salafi-Jihadi groups loudly praised the Taliban’s victory, it did not bring them the long-awaited and promised jihadi future. Instead, they faced the threat of fragmentation into small jamaats and the loss of the global goal of the Central Asian jihad after the Taliban’s power seizure.

The Taliban might offer Central Asian jihadists standing in Afghan territory to blend in with Uzbek, Tajik and Turkmen tribes in the northern Badakhshan, Kunduz, Jowzjan and Takhar provinces, appoint some especially trusted commanders as their overseers, as they did so recently. When the Taliban captured a strategically important security checkpoint near the Afghan border with Tajikistan in July, they assigned a Tajik jihadi group Jamaat Ansarullah to raise the Taliban flag on the site. They also put J.A.’s leader Mahdi Arsalon in charge of security in five districts of Afghanistan’s Badakhshan Province – Kuf Ab, Khwahan, Maimay, Nusay, and Shekay – near the Tajik border. The Taliban exploited Tajik jihadists during the conquest of the northern provinces as their ‘hard power’ and political leverage against Tajikistan, which supported Ahmad Massoud, the leader of the National Resistance Front of Afghanistan.

However, some Uzbek, Uyghur and Tajik jihadists, dissatisfied with the Taliban’s concessions to Russia, China and the Central Asian ‘Tāghūt’ countries, but unwilling to side with IS-K or participate in ‘Talibanisation’ process, may try to leave Afghanistan and migrate to Syria’s Idlib province and join their ethnic groups.

It is expected the Taliban’s Badri Battalion will strictly control the jihadi activities of foreign fighters remaining on Afghan soil. Turns out that the Taliban have long tightly controlled the media activities of Central Asian jihadi groups forbidding them to publish about joint military operations on social networks. Analysis of the jihadi media showed that in parallel with the launch of the US-Taliban peace negotiations in Doha, Uzbek and Tajik militants sharply reduced publishing video reports on the Taliban’s al-Fath jihadi operation.

IS-K threatens the U.S.

Recently, Gen. Kenneth F. McKenzie Jr., the head of the U.S. military’s Central Command, testifying before the Senate Armed Services Committee, suggested that the U.S. may not be able to prevent al Qaeda and ISIS from rebuilding in Afghanistan. His colleague, Colin Kahl, undersecretary of defence policy, warned that IS-K could be able to attack the United States in six months. The U.S. military leadership’s concerns are shared by expert scholars on Afghan jihadism, warning that the Taliban cannot defeat the IS-K alone.

ISIS strategists always considered the main principle of the group that the global jihad should be brought under the auspices of the Caliphate and managed by it in a more disciplined and coordinated manner. Following its strategy, if the central leadership of ISIS decides to financially strengthen its Khorasan branch of IS-K, then the cross-border movement of militants and the recruitment of new fighters from Central Asia will get a new breath.

The revival of the IS-K is dangerous, as the modern weapons left by the U.S. in Afghanistan can easily fall into the hands of global jihadists. The high-profile suicide terror attacks of the IS-K against the background of the country’s economic collapse and the Taliban’s failure to maintain control of their borders could turn Afghanistan into another hot spot for ISIS’s followers from the Middle East, South and Central Asia. If the situation develops according to a scenario similar to the creation of the Caliphate in Mosul in 2014, then the intervention of the international armed forces will be required to tackle the problem posed by the IS-K.

However, Moscow did not allow Central Asian countries to host U.S. or NATO military forces for “over the horizon” counterterrorism operations that would allow the U.S. military to more easily surveil and strike targets in the Taliban-controlled nation. Moscow sees the post-Soviet Central Asian region as its southern defensive flank. Russia exploits the threat of the Islamic State in Afghanistan to expand its military-political influence and cement its military CSTO bloc in the region. Thus, the resistance of authoritarian Russia and China to the U.S. counterterrorism initiative can reduce the pressure on ISIS and revive a resurgence of transnational jihadi terrorism in the very heart of Central Asia.

In this situation, the U.S. should signal Central Asian countries and regional powers that Washington’s decision to withdraw from Afghanistan does not mean its complete abandonment of Central Asia. The White House might play the card of economic partnership, financial support, and protection of human rights as a tool to counter the rise of Beijing’s Belt and Road Initiative and the affirmation of Moscow’s Eurasian Economic Union.