JALALABAD, Afghanistan (AP) — Basheer was a young Taliban fighter barely out of his teens when the Islamic State group took control of his village in eastern Afghanistan nearly eight years ago. Militants rounded up villagers identified as Taliban and killed them, often beheading them, forcing their families to watch.
Basheer escaped and lived in hiding for the next few years when ISIS controlled several districts in Nangarhar province. Over time, he rose through the ranks of the Taliban.
Now known as Engineer Basheer, he is the head of Taliban intelligence in eastern Afghanistan, with a leading role in the campaign to crush ISIS. He has not forgotten the atrocities he saw in his hometown of Kot.
“I cannot explain their cruelty in words, whatever you think they did more than that,” he told The Associated Press in a recent interview at his headquarters in Jalalabad, the capital of Nangarhar. .
Since taking power in Afghanistan eight months ago, the Taliban have touted their success in suppressing the Islamic State group, but the militants have spread into neighboring Pakistan, stepping up their attacks there. Analysts say IS has morphed into a borderless terror group, one of the deadliest in a region that has spawned many violent and radical organizations.
In northwest Pakistan, the impact is starkly clear. The remains of an IS suicide bomber are still visible on the once ornate walls of a mosque, weeks after he blew himself up, killing more than 60 worshipers as they prayed. IS identified the suicide bomber as an Afghan from Kabul.
The March 4 bombing of the Shiite Kusha Kisaldar mosque in the old city of Peshawar stunned Pakistanis, deepening their fear of a resurgence of terror attacks in their country after a steady decline over the past decade.
The increase in attacks began last year and is accelerating, said Amir Rana, executive director of the Pakistan Institute for Peace Studies, an independent think tank that monitors militant activity in Pakistan.
By the end of March this year, Pakistan had seen 52 militant attacks, up from 35 in the same period last year, according to the institute’s data. Attacks have also become more deadly. So far this year in Pakistan, 155 people have been killed in such attacks, compared to 68 last year.
The worst were claimed by a ruthless Islamic State affiliate, known as the Islamic State in Khorasan Province or IS-K.
Meanwhile, IS attacks appear to have diminished in Afghanistan.
IS-K first appeared in 2014 in eastern Afghanistan. As of 2019, it held significant territory in Nangarhar province and had pushed into neighboring Kunar province. The US military waged a massive air campaign against it, including targeting a suspected ISIS hideout with the largest conventional bomb in the US, known as the “mother of all bombs”.
But IS survived and posed the greatest security challenge to the Taliban when they seized power in Afghanistan last August.
IS-K is a longtime enemy of the Taliban. The Taliban espouse a harsh interpretation of Islamic law and have often used suicide bombings in their nearly 20-year insurgency against the United States and its Afghan allies. But they often mix tribal traditions with religious edicts and have reached out to Shiites. ISIS, on the other hand, opposes any group that does not accept its more radical and deeply anti-Shia ideology and is notorious for its fear-mongering atrocities. IS, unlike the Taliban, views their battle as a battle to establish a unified Muslim world under a caliphate.
The Taliban responded with their characteristic heavy hand, sweeping away suspected ISIS strongholds. In October and November, residents reported bodies hanging from trees. They were told they were IS militants.
Basheer says the Taliban managed to subdue the group.
“We have control of all these areas…Right now some people may be hiding in houses (but) they don’t have any areas under their control. There is no Daesh,” he said, using the Arabic acronym for IS.
He said IS-K fighters are at a disadvantage because the Taliban are longtime masters of guerrilla warfare. IS-K doesn’t have a tactic the Taliban doesn’t already know about or hasn’t used, he said.
Some militant observers also say the Taliban’s deep reach inside Afghan villages and ties to mosques and madrassas in even the smallest hamlets have reduced IS’s space for action.
Since the chaotic US withdrawal from Afghanistan last year, Washington’s ability to gather intelligence on ISIS has deteriorated significantly, according to senior US military officials.
The region is also increasingly inhospitable to America. Political unrest fueled anti-American sentiment in Pakistan. In Afghanistan, the Taliban impose rule that echoes their tough government of the late 1990s. China is a major player in the region, rapidly overtaking American influence.
IS-K is not the only extremist group in the region. Others include Lashkar-e-Taiba, which is largely India-focused, the Chinese Uyghur rebels of the East Turkestan group, and the rebel Central Asian Islamic Movement of Uzbekistan.
The threat of IS is all the more fluid and difficult to control.
Dr. Amira Jadoon, an assistant professor at the Center for Counterterrorism at the U.S. Military Academy at West Point, said IS-K is weaker than it was in 2019. But it has gone from an insurgency to a typical terrorist group, a subtle but important group. difference, she said.
“It is now a stronger terrorist group than it was in 2019, but perhaps a weaker ‘insurgency’ compared to its previous peak years, as it does not have the same level of control territorial and does not control any civilian population,” Jadoon said.
A February UN report put the number of IS-K fighters at around 4,000 and said it “enjoys more freedom than at any time in recent history.”
Not everyone agrees. Bill Roggio, whose Long War Journal tracks militant movements, said the Taliban’s rise to power prompted some former members of the group who had defected to IS-K to return to the Taliban fold.
“The Taliban received a major boost after their victory in Afghanistan,” said Roggio, who is also a senior fellow at the conservative Foundation for Defense of Democracies.
Unlike Afghanistan, IS-K did not attempt to claim territory in Pakistan.
Instead, he has often relied on entrenched anti-Shia groups like Lashkar-e-Jhangvi, which has claimed responsibility for dozens of brutal attacks on Pakistan’s Shia Muslim minority. In both countries, the extremist Sunni Muslim group calls Shias heretics and has targeted them ruthlessly.
Rana of the Pakistani militancy watchdog group said IS was likely aiming to stoke tensions between Islamabad and Kabul. But he said Pakistani authorities still saw the Pakistani Taliban, a local anti-government group, as the main threat.
“It’s a pretty naive and simplistic view,” he said, warning that IS attacks are likely to only increase.
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