The Leaders of the Islamic State in Afghanistan

By Kyle Orton (@KyleWOrton) on 3 September 2021

The Islamic State’s “Khorasan Province” (ISKP) was announced in January 2015 and swiftly given formal, public recognition by IS-Centre, which had sent a high-level delegation to Afghanistan in November 2014 to oversee the final stages before they announced their project. ISKP has had seven leaders.

FOUNDATIONAL PHASE

The first leader was Hafiz Saeed Khan, a Pakistani defector from the Tehrik-i-Taliban Pakistan (TTP). Khan was killed on 26 July 2016 in an airstrike in the Achin area of Nangarhar.

IS’s presence in Kashmir had begun to be detectable in the months before Khan was killed, with their forces dubbed “Jundul Khilafa” and “operating under [ISKP] in IS’ organizational structure”. IS’s propaganda apparatus in Kashmir became more overt in the summer of 2017 through a cell flagged as “Ansarul Khalifa” or “Ansar al-Khalifa”, the same name IS uses for part of its presence in the Philippines, and IS’s first attack in Kashmir took place in November 2017 in Srinagar. In May 2019, IS announced the formation of two separate divisions—Wilayat Hind or India Province (ISIP) and Wilayat Pakistan or Pakistan Province (ISPP), though these divisions quickly fell into disuse, albeit there was a recent exception. These distinctions do not matter in a global organisation as centralised as IS and the ISKP node oversees South Asia. There are recent indicators that IS is going to add more emphasis to Kashmir, contesting that zone, as well as Afghanistan, with Pakistan’s jihadists.

Khan was replaced by his deputy, Abdul Haseeb Logari (or Abdul Hasib), also a Pakistani and also killed in Achin, in a three-hour firefight with U.S. Marines, on 27 April 2017. (All six U.S. combat deaths in Afghanistan in 2017 were inflicted by ISKP, and still that toll was far lower than the recent death toll caused by “ending” the war.) ISKP was simultaneously fighting the Taliban at the time of Logari’s demise. The de facto joint operations against ISKP by the U.S. and the Taliban would become ever-more-directly coordinated over time.

Logari’s successor, Abdul Rahman Ghaleb (Abu Sayed or Abu Saeed Bajawori), a Pakistani, was killed in a U.S. drone strike on 11 July 2017 in Watapur district in Kunar province.

WEATHERING THE STORM

Ghaleb’s replacement, Abu Saad Erhabi or Abu Saad Orakzai, a reference to his origins in the Pakistani Orakzai tribal agency, lasted until 25 August 2018, when he was killed alongside ten of his comrades in a drone strike on the Jangal Keli village in Nangarhar.

Abu Saad was killed amid a generally grim picture in Afghanistan, as the U.S. began the process of legitimising and emboldening the Taliban, one part of which was backing the then-ongoing Taliban offensive. Earlier in August 2018, the Pentagon claimed to have largely rolled up the Tajik-dominated ISKP pocket in Jowzjan, while making steady progress against the ISKP presence in Kunar and Nangarhar.

In November 2019, President Ashraf Ghani announced that ISKP had been “obliterated” after a mass-surrender of allegedly 600 ISKP jihadists in Nangarhar. The Taliban spokesman Zabihullah Mujahid said the government had a “zero percent role” in defeating ISKP and the Coalition had “created hurdles” for the Taliban in fighting ISKP, a flat-out lie since the U.S. provided air support for the Taliban’s operations. Even at the time it was clear that ISKP had more given up Nangarhar than been driven out—it still had 4,000 or more men under arms—and chosen to relocate to Kunar. Soon, ISKP would abandon overt territorial control in Afghanistan, but the defeat was largely illusory as ISKP followed the lead of IS at the Centre in reverting to insurgent form and as we can now see had held together a lethal attack capability.

Aslam Farooqi (Abdullah Orokzai) | IMAGE SOURCE

Abu Saad’s replacement, Aslam Farooqi (Abdullah Orokzai), was announced arrested on 4 April 2020, shortly after the 25 March attack on the Gurdwara Har Rai Sahib, a Sikh shrine in Kabul. Farooqi, a Pakistani as of course his kunya indicates, was once a member of Lashkar-e-Tayyiba (LeT) and then the TTP before he joined ISKP and was, interestingly, arrested in Kandahar.

The Kandahar arrest lends credence to the assessment by John Foulkes that there had been a schism within the ISKP ranks after Farooqi’s rise to power, which came amidst the heavy defeats for ISKP around Darzab, inflicted by the Taliban, with U.S. support:

A sizable portion of the organization consisting of those of Central Asian origin and veterans of the Islamic Movement of Uzbekistan (IMU) who joined IS-K when it was founded suspected Farooqi, due to his LeT and TTP past, of having connections with Pakistan’s Inter-Services Intelligence (ISI) agency (Afghanistan Analysts, 23 July 2017). Refusing to recognize Farooqi’s leadership, this group de facto split from the larger organization, and began operating under the leadership of the mysterious Moavia Uzbeki. Uzbeki’s faction reportedly focused its operations in the northeastern provinces of Afghanistan, while Farooqi’s forces were in the eastern and southeastern provinces (see MLM, 10 December 2018).”

The Moavia-Farooqi schism seems to have been patched up after ten months, however, even if they largely kept to their own fiefdoms after that. (It is not clear if “Moavia” is the same person “Mauaviya”, as Tajik national and IS-Centre operative named by the U.N. as Sayvaly Shafiev.)

Farooqi’s replacement, Zia ul-Haq (Abu Umar al-Khorasani), lasted about six weeks as ISKP leader, arrested on 11 May 2020. Zia was killed in prison on 16 August 2021 after the Taliban took Kabul. There was a claim that Zia had replaced Farooqi as ISKP leader in October 2019. There is also a report from the United Nations that Zia took over after Abu Saad was killed in late 2018 and was then replaced by Farooqi in April 2019 after a delegation from IS-Centre arrived to demote Zia for poor performance during the battles in Nangarhar. It is possible that one or both of these are true.

ISLAMIC STATE IN AFGHANISTAN NOW

Whatever the vagaries around Zia’s tenure, it is clear that after he was arrested in May 2020, Shahab al-Muhajir was appointed and is the current leader of ISKP.

There are reports that Shahab is an Iraqi Arab, but this seems to be significantly based on his kunya, and this is not necessarily dispositive. For instance, according to the U.N., a senior ISKP commander uses the kunya “Abu Said Muhammad al-Khorasani”, while having been born in Syria. That said, Shahab’s statements have been read in Pashto by ISKP’s spokesman, Sultan Aziz Azzam: there are perfectly good reasons of operational security to do this; it is also a useful way of disguising an obvious accent or an incapacity with the local language.

A U.N. report noted: “Prior to his capture in Kandahar, Aslam Farooqi was reportedly in competition with Sheikh Matiullah [Kamahwal] to become Emir, following events in Nangarhar. The Monitoring Team was informed that other candidates for the leadership were Abu Saeed Mohammad al-Khorasani (a Syrian) … and Sheikh Abdul Tahir”. All caveats about the quality of these U.N. reports, it suggests it is possible Shahab is Kamahwal (also spelled Kamawal) or Abu Saeed/Abu Said.

Some argue that Shahab being a foreigner makes managing ISKP more difficult, but there are more compelling arguments running the other way: Arabic is the language of the Qur’an and, in combination with the legacy of the Arab-Afghans, this has an immense status in Af-Pak, which actually makes it easier for Shahab to mediate the ethno-linguistic disputes in ISKP’s ranks—he is seen as an impartial and authoritative arbiter, rather than a participant.

After the massacre at Kabul airport on 26 August put ISKP on the global map, the question on most minds is about its foreign attack capabilities. IS began using the ISKP node for such operations no later than 2016, starting in the United States. Since then, as well as India and Pakistan, ISKP’s tentacles have been uncovered in Australia, Indonesia, and Germany. This was all done with the U.S. watching and pressuring; for ISKP, Talibanized Afghanistan will be a much more permissive environment.

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