The Wall Street Journal l 11 January, 2015
Adherents of Islamic State this weekend declared their intention to step up operations in Afghan territory where the Taliban have long held sway, raising the prospect of battling jihadist groups and rising terrorism in the region.
In a 16-minute video released over the weekend and viewed by The Wall Street Journal, Afghan and Pakistani militants pledged their allegiance to Islamic State leader Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi and unveiled the movement’s leadership structure in Afghanistan and Pakistan.
“It’s very significant,” said a Western official who has seen the video. “I think they want to say: ‘This is serious—we are here.’ ” The activity of new extremist groups could complicate efforts by the government of Afghan President Ashraf Ghani to start peace talks with the Taliban insurgency in a bid to end the violence. The groups’ arrival also comes as U.S.-led troops formally ended combat operations in December.
In the video, the Pakistani and Afghan militants publicly reveal the name of their regional leader for the first time: Hafez Sayed Khan Orakzai. Footage shows Mr. Orakzai standing in front of a black-and-white Islamic State banner, flanked by men in black wearing balaclavas and carrying Kalashnikov assault rifles. The video begins with a procession of men on foot and horseback waving Islamic State flags and ends gruesomely, with the beheading of a man the group says is a Pakistani soldier.
Mr. Orakzai was one of the six commanders of the Pakistani Taliban—formally known as Tehreek-e-Taliban Pakistan—who switched allegiance to Islamic State in October. Shahidullah Shahid, the Pakistani Taliban’s former spokesman, also appears in the video, delivering introductory remarks to a crowd of militants. Mr. Shahid introduces local commanders who will be responsible for territory located on both sides of the Afghanistan-Pakistan border.
“We are gathered here with commanders from 10 units,” Mr. Shahid says. “They all want to pledge their allegiance to the caliph of all believers, Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi.” In the video, both Messrs. Shahid and Orakzai speak Arabic, the language of the Quran, instead of their native Pashto.
While the military reach of Islamic State has thus far been limited to parts of Iraq and Syria, the defection of Afghan and Pakistani militants to the group raises fears that a new front line could emerge in South and Central Asia.
The rise of Islamic State could pose a challenge to the Afghan Taliban, a movement loyal to its elusive spiritual leader, Mullah Mohammad Omar, who hasn’t been seen in public since December 2001.
The Taliban movement is fragmented and, in the absence of visible leadership, some of its members have begun to look to Syria and Iraq for guidance and inspiration. A United Nations report released in December noted “a distinct increase in the activities and the visibility” of extremist groups such as Islamic State in 2014, and said that Afghan militants were beginning to defect to the group.
Members of the Afghan Taliban who joined Islamic State include Mawlawi Abdul Rahim Muslim Dost and Mawlavi Abdul Qahir, according to Mr. Shahid and the U.N. Mr. Muslim Dost, who was once imprisoned in the U.S. detention facility at Guantanamo Bay, Cuba, is the most prominent former member of the Afghan Taliban known to have joined the movement. Mr. Qahir, a former Taliban commander, was named a unit commander in the video.
Tensions between the Taliban and groups affiliated with Islamic State in Afghanistan have already turned violent. In the southwestern province of Helmand, local officials and residents say the Taliban are battling militants dressed in Islamic State’s signature black uniforms. The new group of fighters, they say, is led by a former Taliban commander, Mullah Raouf Khadim.
Mohammad Jan Rasoulyar, the deputy governor of Helmand, said the fighting started several days ago in the district of Kajaki, where the government has no control. About 30 fighters, including some women, have moved from Kajaki to the neighboring district of Sangin, according to Abdul Raziq Sarwani, a local police commander in Sangin.
The fighting in Helmand suggests that the Islamic State label could increasingly become attractive to local Taliban commanders disillusioned with their leadership. Two journalists based in Helmand who have spoken to locals in Kajaki said Mr. Khadim set up the new armed group after he was fired by the Taliban leadership. “He established his own armed group in Kajaki and asked Taliban fighters to join him. He says Mullah Omar isn’t alive anymore, and that if he is alive he should join his own group,” one of the reporters said.
Afghan officials have previously raised the alarm on attempts by Islamic State to seek a foothold in Afghanistan, pointing to propaganda material that had been distributed in parts of Afghanistan.
While new information is adding weight to claims that Islamic State is beginning to have an active presence in the region, an Afghan security official played down the extent of its presence. “We have some reports that show their interest in Afghanistan, but they have no base here,” the official said. In this deeply conservative country, extremist ideology still thrives. On Friday, hundreds of men took to the streets in a district in the southern province of Uruzgan in support of the men who carried out the deadly attack on the office of the satirical French magazine Charlie Hebdo, local officials said. The demonstrators also condemned Mr. Ghani for extending his condolences to the people of France, officials added.