22 August 2017 – Vancouver, CA

by Stewart Webb

The UN Assistance Mission in Afghanistan (UNAMA) released its initial findings on an attack that occurred between 3-5 August. The UNAMA found that the attack, which killed 36 people, was jointly conducted by the Taliban and ISIS. This is a not so surprising development as the ISIS chapter and the Taliban have coordinated in some instances in the past, but if you just read the media headlines than it is. The Taliban and ISIS in Afghanistan are more accustomed to openly attacking one another in statements and in the field. In April, ISIS attacked the Taliban in Jawzjan province. The Taliban have targeted ISIS as well as  attacking the Islamic Movement of Uzbekistan (IMU), which pledged allegiance to ISIS, and other groups.

Former TTP spokesman Shahidullah Shahid and Khorasan chapter founder

However, there is one important factor that is being overlooked by many. The ISIS group in Afghanistan, the Khorasan group, is only an affiliated chapter or offshoot. The group has been recognised by ISIS in Iraq and Syria as an ally, but the Khorasan group is mainly comprised of ex-Tehrik-e-Taliban Pakistan (TTP) members, or as many would recognise them as the Pakistani Taliban. It is estimated the the Khorasan group has less than 1,000 members operating in Afghanistan. US General John W. Nicholson, who commands the US contingent in Afghanistan, stated that up to 70% of the ISIS Khorasan group is comprised of former TTP members. The the TTP affiliation has been important since the Khorasan group’s inception. The Khorasan group was born when TTP spokesman Shahidullah Shahid, and five other commanders, pledged allegiance to ISIS after the ISIS caliphate was announced. The TTP leadership then fired Shahid and the five others as the TTP denounced ISIS and was another chapter in the in-fighting within the TTP. In other words, TTP in-fighting led to the ISIS chapter being formed and probably in hopes that the group would take advantage of the ISIS brand, not only for recruitment, funding, but also technical knowledge transfer from ISIS in Iraq and Syria.

Franchises, or chapters, do not have to proscribe to the group’s core beliefs. Al-Qaeda in Iraq is a great example of the long leash that they had with al-Qaeda Central, although the disbelief and criticism of the AQI’s widely publicized beheadings ultimately led to the chapter’s excommunication from the al-Qaeda brand. The further proof of the leash that the Khorasan group has is that ISIS-central has routinely denounced the Taliban and even featured in its English-language Dabiq magazine. This only confuses the matter for many as ISIS in Afghanistan may be linking up with the Taliban occasionally, but ISIS-central still denounces them and their lack of determination to pronounce a Taliban caliphate.

Troubling times for the ISIS chapter

The ISIS chapter in Afghanistan will not survive and not because of President Donald Trump’s new Afghan strategy. It has been a gamble for the Khorasan group leadership and with their group only having approximately 1,000 members and 700 of those being former TTP, their future does not bode well. The Khorasan group is without formidable allies in the Federally Administered Tribal Area (FATA) in Pakistan, and therefore it will never enjoy the same safe havens as al-Qaeda or Afghan Taliban leadership enjoyed in the early 2000s. Their brand has not added considerable numbers from within the South Asian region or from abroad. The 70% estimation of former TTP members is worrying for the Khorasan group. The issue is that that in-fighting with the TTP will not continue, the TTP will have done its best to plug that leak and therefore the Khorasan group is likely to have its TTP surge and will not benefit from future TTP defectors.

This is in stark contrast with the Afghan Taliban. They have been growing in strength, territory and in numbers which is more than worrying. The Taliban surge has been attributed to disenfranchised ethnic Tajiks, Turkmen, and Uzbeks joining the historically Pushtun-predominant Taliban. In the 1990s, the Taliban was born out of southern Afghanistan in the predominant Pashtun region and when the Taliban expanded to the north, it encountered ethnic Tajik, Turkmen and Uzbek coalition called the Northern Alliance. This ethnic disparity continued on during the NATO-led operation. Ten years after 9/11, only 3 percent of the Afghan Nation Army was comprised of ethnic Pashtuns. The startling issue is that the disenfranchisement has spread.  One can understand a resurgence in the south, but with northern groups aligning themselves with the Taliban does not bode well for the stability of the country and how the already weakened Afghan security forces cannot withstand against the Taliban. Thankfully though it will not bode well for the Khorasan group.

Going Forward

US President Trump announced his Afghan strategy this evening (and we will be providing our analysis on it very soon), but he contradicted himself going from “we are not nation-building again, we are killing terrorists” to “our new strategy is the integration of all instruments of American power — diplomatic, economic, and military — toward a successful outcome” and that “military power alone will not bring peace to Afghanistan”. It still seems that the US will still invest in the Afghan state. That aside, the concern going forward is with ISIS and Trump. Now many presidents would like to re-frame the threat and the war going forward and the ISIS-affiliated Khorasan group is a very tasty bait for reframing. One of President Trump’s first actions was the MOAB bombing of the Khorasan group which killed 92 members. Afghan sources claim that mostly former TTP and Pakistani Lashkar-e-Taiba members from a Pashtun tribe were killed, while Indian sources confirmed that 13 Indians were also killed in the bombing. President Trump may be willing to advertise Khorasan group loses as his greater war on ISIS.

The Trump administration could concentrated itself efforts on eradicating the ISIS Khorasan group threat from Afghanistan. But it will be fruitless. The Taliban and ISIS-central are not cooperating. The Khorasan group, the ISIS affiliate/chapter, is cooperating and attacking the Taliban when it seems fit. But the ISIS chapter cannot continue to exist as it has not been able to add numbers, but the Taliban are and around the country with multiple and diverse ethnic groups. It is likely that as time goes by, we will see the Khorasan chapter fold in with the Taliban and those few that do not will be eliminated. It will be a matter of survival. But we are facing a burgeoning Taliban.

In short, no there is no Taliban/ISIS coalition, but the ISIS chapter will more than likely fold into the Taliban as it continues to gain strength. We can only hope that the Trump administration will realise that the Taliban is the issue and not the headlines that the ISIS-Khorasan group can attain as we saw with the MOAB bombing.


Feature Photo: Taliban fighter, newsonline, Flickr, 2017

Inset Photo: “TTP spokesman Shahidullah Shahid”, Wikimedia Commons, 2017

DefenceReport’s Analysis is a multi-format blog that is based on opinions, insights and dedicated research from DefRep editorial staff and writers. The analysis expressed here are the author’s own and are separate from DefRep reports, which are based on independent and objective reporting


By Stewart Webb

The editor of DefenceReport and Senior Analyst, Stewart Webb holds a MScEcon in Security Studies from Aberystwyth University and a BA in Political Science from Acadia University. A frequent guest on defence issues for CTV National News, and other Canadian media outlets, his specialities include commentary on terrorist/insurgent activity and Canadian defence issues. Stewart can be contacted at: [email protected]