SHAFAQNA (Shia International News Association)
By Charles Recknagel
A mid fears the Islamic State (IS) extremist group could expand to Afghanistan, there are already signs that some militants in the region are eager to claim affiliation with the group.
One sign came this week in a video sent to RFE/RL’s Radio Free Afghanistan that shows three purported Afghan militants, their faces covered, sitting beneath the black IS battle flag.
Speaking in the Ghazni dialect of Pashto, the trio’s spokesperson claimed to represent a group called the Islamic Organization of Great Afghanistan and stated his readiness to fight for the IS and its “caliph,” Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi.
The unidentified spokesperson called for all militants in Afghanistan, the Pashtun tribal areas in Pakistan, and in the Baluch areas of Pakistan and Iran to join together under the IS banner.
At times, however, he appeared as much focused on his own nationalistic agenda as the Islamic State’s goal of uniting all Muslim lands in a new caliphate. He repeatedly called for attacks on the “Punjabi state” of Pakistan and accused the Afghan Taliban’s leaders of working for Islamabad’s interests, while praising IS as the only power able to “free” his countrymen.
The video was sent a week after an anonymous caller contacted Radio Free Afghanistan’s correspondent in Ghazni Province and claimed to represent the IS militant group in Afghanistan. Although intended to reinforce the caller’s claim, the video did not offer any details as to the size or strength of the group behind it.
That makes is impossible to know whether the group in the video has a direct link to the Islamic State’s leadership. But its use of IS symbols and the reverence with which the spokesperson refers to the group does offer a measure of how much name recognition IS now has in the region and of its potential for expansion.
‘Slightly Outdated Model’
Some intelligence services believe IS is actively seeking new members in Afghanistan.
A Russian diplomat in Afghanistan said this week that some of his sources report that IS has already opened an office, though he did not say where.
“We know that about a hundred [IS] members have penetrated there,” Zamir Kabulov, special representative in Afghanistan for Russian President Valdimir Putin, told Interfax on September 23.
“As I understand it, [IS] views the Taliban or even Al-Qaeda as a conservative and slightly outdated model,” Kabulov said. “They present themselves as a new ideology, which is more offensive, aggressive, and advanced.”
If IS does turn eastward, it will likely come into competition with the Taliban, currently the dominant militant movement in the region. The competition could be both for first-time recruits and for seasoned fighters.
A commander in the Hizb-i-Islami group, which fights alongside the Taliban in Afghanistan, told the BBC last week that he was “sure” his leadership would announce allegiance to IS. It was not clear whether the commander, named Mirwais, was speaking for himself alone or for others.
Reuters reported last week that a splinter group of Pakistan’s Taliban insurgents, Jamat-ul Ahrar, also was ready to consider invitations to join IS.
“IS is an Islamic jihadi organization working for the implementation of the Islamic system and creation of the caliphate,” Ehsanullah Ehsan, Jamat-ul Ahrar’s leader and a prominent Taliban figure, told Reuters on September 7. “We respect them. If they ask us for help, we will look into it and decide.”
Refugee Camp Recruitment
Meanwhile, there are signs some groups already are trying to recruit for IS in refugee camps in Pakistan.
A 12-page pamphlet emblazoned with the Islamic State group’s black flag and written in both Pashto and Dari was distributed earlier this month in camps near Peshawar, the capital of Khyber-Pakhtunkhwa Province. The camps house refugees from Afghanistan and from Pakistan’s restive tribal regions.
Reuters quotes Sameeulah Hanifi, a prayer leader in Peshawar, as saying the pamphlets were distributed by a little-known local group called Islami Khalifat, an outspoken IS supporter.
By moving into South and Central Asia, IS would be following home the many recruits from the region who currently are fighting with the group in Syria and Iraq.
Iran said recently it had arrested Afghan and Pakistani citizens trying to join IS in Syria and Iraq. The BBC quotes Interior Minister Abdolreza Rahmani as saying on September 8 that the men planned to cross Iran but did not specify their number or where they were arrested.
Similarly, dozens of militants from Uzbekistan, Kyrgyzstan, and Tajikistan are reported to have made the journey through Turkey to Syria to join extremist groups battling the regime of Syrian President Bashar al-Assad.