Foreign Fighters and Sectarian Strikes: Islamic State Makes Gains in Afghanistan-Pakistan Region

Foreign Fighters and Sectarian Strikes: Islamic State Makes Gains in ‘Af-Pak’ Region

Publication: Terrorism Monitor

By: Animesh Roul

The Jamestown Foundation

Since its formation nearly two years ago, Islamic State (IS) in Afghanistan, known as IS Khorasan, has struggled to maintain a foothold in an ever-competitive jihadist landscape. Its disregard for local sensitivities and a number of setbacks on the battlefield had relegated it to a violent distraction in Afghanistan. In the last few months, however, IS Khorasan has claimed several deadly sectarian strikes that have inflicted mass casualties and signaled a possible resurgence of the group in Afghanistan and Pakistan, the epicenter of its imaginary Khorasan region.

IS Khorasan gained its new strength through forging alliances with local sectarian pro-al-Qaeda or Taliban militant groups like Lashkar-e-Jhangvi al Alami (LeJ-A), Lashkar-e Islam (LeI), or disgruntled Taliban factions like Jundallah and Jamaat ul Ahrar (JuA), which have been active in the region for many years. It has also reportedly recruited operatives from the Islamic Movement of Uzbekistan (IMU).

The success of this strategy is manifest in the geographical distribution of the recent attacks, which suggests a logistical penetration and influence that extends from Kabul and Jalalabad in Afghanistan to Quetta and Peshawar in neighboring Pakistan.

Cross-Border Activities

Since its emergence as a province of the Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi’s so-called caliphate, most of IS-Khorasan’s activities in the region have been controlled and managed from Nangarhar province in Afghanistan. Its influence has extended since early 2016, with the group demonstrating its violent intent and capability on either side of the border. Although IS’ central authority in Syria has, via its Amaq news agency, claimed responsibility for most of these attacks, on the ground the operations are carried out by militants from IS-Khorasan.

In Pakistan, IS Khorasan-led violence reached new heights with the August 8 suicide bombing at the Quetta civil hospital that killed over 70 people and injured more than a hundred others. Those killed were mostly members of the Shia community and lawyers from the Balochistan Bar Association (Dawn, August 9). IS’ Amaq news agency claimed – in a report purportedly released from Cairo, Egypt –  that the attack had been carried out by “a martyr from the Islamic State” who blew himself up near “a gathering of justice ministry employees and Pakistani policemen in Quetta.” (Dawn, August 9).

Likewise, IS Khorasan-linked militants carried out a similarly violent attack against security services on October 25, in which a three-man suicide operation targeted a police training college located on the Sariab road in Quetta, killing and injuring more than 200 people (Express Tribune, October 24).

Most recently, on November 12, a suicide bombing at the Sufi shrine of Shah Noorani in Balochistan killed more than 60 people and injured more than 100 worshipers. The explosion, which was triggered by a teenage suicide bomber, was claimed by the IS via the Amaq news agency (Samaa TV News, November 13).

Concurrently, across the border in Afghanistan, IS-Khorasan-led violence reached a new height with the July 23 Dehmazang Square suicide attack in Kabul in which more than 80 people, mostly ethnic Hazara Shia, were killed (Khaama Press, July 23).

Abu Omar Khorasani, a spokesperson for the group, said the Dehmazang attack was in response to support offered by some Afghan Shia members to the Assad regime in Syria, with the help of Shia Iran. Speaking to the media, Khorasani threatened further attacks against Hazara Shias saying that, “unless they [Hazaras Shias] stop going to Syria and stop being slaves of Iran, we will definitely continue such attacks” (Reuters, July 26).

On November 21, nearly 30 people were killed following a suicide bombing inside the Shia mosque of Baqir al-Olum, in Kabul, during a religious ceremony commemorating the 40th day of Ashura. IS released a photograph of Hamza Al-Khorasani, the suicide bomber involved in the bombing. This was not an isolated attack by IS Khorasan on an annual Shia religious ceremony. There had been similar attacks in previous months targeting Shia minorities during their holy month of Muharram. On October 12, IS Khorasan militants targeted the Karte Sakhi Shia shrine in Kabul, killing 18 people, and another attack in Mazar-e-Sharif against Shia worshippers left 14 people dead (Khaama Press, October 12; Al Jazeera October 12).

Anti-Shia Ideology

A recent issue of the IS propaganda magazine Rumiyah attempted, indirectly, to justify violence against Shia Muslims and others who do not subscribe to IS’ ideals by invoking the 9th century Afghan Sultan Mahmud Ibn Subuktikin, better known as Sultan Mamud of Ghazni, who massacred “heretical sects” during his reign, in particular Ismaili Shias and Hindus. [1]

In a recent audio statement, the newly appointed IS spokesperson, Abu al Hassan al-Muhajir, made clear the group’s intention to target Shia Muslims and others around the strongholds of IS, and claimed that the group was fighting on behalf of Sunnis everywhere “from Baghdad to Beirut, from Aleppo to Damascus, and from Khorasan to Sanaa.” [2]

Despite IS-Khorasan’s surge and apparent consolidations in the region, Pakistan continues to deny the group’s existence on its soil. Instead, Pakistani officials blame local militant formations such as LeJ-al Alami and dismiss IS claims of responsibility as attempts by the group to “isolate Pakistan in the international community” (Reuters, November 13; Express Tribune, October 26). Many in Afghanistan, however, believe that IS Khorasan has the blessing of Pakistan’s powerful Inter-Services Intelligence and the army (Khaama Press, July 18; Afghanistan Times, August 21).

The usual regional bickering notwithstanding, in early August this year, General John W Nicholson, the commander of the U.S. and NATO forces in Afghanistan, made it clear that almost 70 percent of IS Khorasan militants present in Afghanistan are former members of Tehrik-e-Taliban Pakistan (TTP) and came from Orakzai Agency of Pakistan, bordering Nangrahar (Express Tribune, August 1; The News, September 4).

He has also said there are up to 1,300 IS militants in the country receiving money, guidance and communications support from IS leaders in Syria and Iraq (Afghanistan Times, September 24).

Recruitment of Foreign Fighters

Akin to IS’ successful recruitment of foreign fighters to Syria and Iraq over the last couple of years, IS Khorasan has invited sympathizers and fighters from across the region to Afghanistan and Pakistan.

In an interview in Dabiq, carried out before his supposed death in August, the IS Khorasan leader Hafiz Saeed Khan urged Muslims to “unite and gather against the world of kufr (disbeliever), apostasy and atheism” and to “come forth to fight the kufr, mushrikīn (polytheist), and murtaddīn (those who reject Islam)” [3]

If the Afghan leader General Abdul Rashid Dostum is to be believed, that call has been successful, there are nearly 7,500 foreign IS fighters, including Chechen, Uzbek, Tajik, Iraqi, Syrian, Lebanese and Libyan fighters who are waiting to enter into northern Afghanistan (Heart of Asia, October 16). This June, reports emerged that about 20 people from India’s Kerela state, including women and children, had travelled to Afghanistan to join the ranks of IS Khorasan (Economic Times, September 23).

Despite a number of setbacks since its formation in January 2015 as IS’ eastern wilayat – including the deaths of founding members such as Abdul Rauf Khadim in February 2015 and Hafiz Saeed Khan in August this year – IS Khorasan has consolidated its position in recent months. Its successful mass-casualty attacks have attracted fringe militants, sidelined Taliban leaders and those unwilling to countenance a negotiated settlement with the government.

By co-opting dissatisfied local militants in Afghanistan and Pakistan and exploiting their material and manpower resources, IS Khorasan is leaving al-Qaeda, and to some extent even the Taliban, to play second fiddle for the time being.


[1] “Sultan Mahmud al Ghaznawi; Breaker of Idols, Subduer of Heresies” Rumiyah, No. 3, (November 2016), p, 39

[2] Audio for the speech by Abul-Hasan al-Muhajir, (December 5) can be found here:

[3] Interview with “Wali of Khorasan”, Dabiq, No 13, (January 2016), pp. 49-54


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Photo source: Hafiz Saeed Khan, reportedly dead leader of IS Khorasan leader (Source: BBC) was the original photo in the above article published by The Jamestown Foundation

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