ISIS-K is trying to undermine Afghanistan’s Taliban regime. That is also America’s problem.

At the end of September, Afghanistan‘s new Taliban leaders ordered their commanders to carry out a full background check on all fighters. The sudden move was caused by concerns that other extremist groups have infiltrated the Taliban’s ranks.

Senior members of the former Afghan government and a top Taliban official are currently in a security role, says the leader of ISIS-Khorasan (ISIS-K), a notorious terrorist operator whose identity has been shrouded in mystery for years, is believed to be among the infiltrators. Officials spoke to CBS News on condition of anonymity.

Some Taliban infantry are believed to have abandoned the group to join ISIS-K or al Qaeda and preferred an even more extreme and brutal interpretation of Islam, but these sources say the ISIS faction is deliberately working to undermine the Taliban’s authority. from both inside and outside the group. It poses risks not only to Afghanistan, but to the United States and its allies.

Since its formation in 2015, ISIS-K has carried out some of the deadliest attacks in Afghanistan. The group did not immediately claim devastating bombing on Friday that hit a mosque in Kunduz, leaving dozens of people dead. But ISIS-K has a long history of attacking Afghanistan’s Shiite Muslim minorities, and Taliban spokesman Bilal Karimi told CBS News that ISIS-K was behind the massacre.

Four of ISIS-K’s top commanders were killed by US drones or Afghan security forces within four years of its founding. (ISIS-K is also known by other acronyms, including ISKP.)

In June 2020, the top job went to a militant known as Shahab al-Muhajir. Most assumed from his name that he was of Arab, not Afghan descent. However, two former senior Afghan government security officials and the senior member of the current Taliban regime have told CBS News that he is a veteran of Afghanistan’s domestic insurgency and that his real name is Sanaullah. (Afghans often use only one name.)

They say he is a graduate of the Kabul Polytechnic Institute, which according to a voter registration card found by Afghan security forces is 31 years old. Former Afghan officials say the man now known as al-Muhajir received training in Pakistan from two different extremist groups based there, including the Taliban-affiliated Haqqani network.

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An Afghan government identification card, found and provided to CBS News by former Afghan intelligence officials, shows a man named Sanaullah, believed to be the leader of ISIS-K, commonly known as Shahab al-Muhajir.

CBS


“Regardless of his ethnicity, he has ended up being much better positioned than his predecessors to revive the ISKP,” Ex-Trac, an organization analyzing threats from extremist groups, wrote in an assessment in August. “His takeover of power in mid-2020 culminated in radical changes for the organization, a change that has seen it transition from a fragmented and broken network to the aggressive phalanx it is today.”

While other ISIS-K leaders have focused on seizing territory, former Afghan officials say al-Muhajir is part of a more strategic cadre aimed at undermining Afghanistan’s leadership in order to gain freedom of operation.

Former Afghan security officials say al-Muhajir has managed to keep his real identity hidden and continue to act as a Taliban deceiver. One of the former Afghan government security sources said al-Muhajir had even managed to hold a meeting with Taliban deputy intelligence chief Mullah Tajmir Jawad without the official realizing he was talking to the ISIS-K leader.


What we know about ISIS-K

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A former senior Afghan intelligence officer tells CBS News that about a year ago, the country’s security forces “after a lot of hard work” managed to locate al-Muhajir, but the ISIS-K leader escaped capture. All they found was his national ID card – with his real name on it – and another ID that identified him as a member of the Afghan army.

The other former Afghan security official says captured ISIS-K militants would routinely tell interrogators that they had met al-Muhajir, but “when we showed them photos to identify al-Muhajir, they used to point the finger at the wrong person. , which means even people within the ISKP met a fraudster, not the real boss. “

“ISKP leader Shahab is currently working in the Taliban’s ranks, but the Taliban does not know him,” the former intelligence official told CBS News. “ISKP in Afghanistan is a living bomb that roams freely in the Taliban.”

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A photo provided to CBS News by a former senior member of the Afghan government’s national security community shows an Afghan national voter ID card identifying an Afghan citizen named Sanullah, with a date of birth in 1990, believed to be the leader of ISIS. K widely known as Shahab al-Mujahir.

CBS


A senior Taliban official told CBS News on Wednesday that the new Afghan regime has the former government’s security files on al-Muhajir, but they have not yet tracked him down.

The other former Afghan official told CBS News that ISIS-K shares its efforts, “some of them openly oppose the Taliban, while some of them remain in the Taliban for their own interests, as enemies who stay in the enemy’s house and look for an opportunity, 24/7. ”

Taliban denial

Saeed Khosty, a spokesman for the Taliban regime’s interior ministry, told CBS News on Thursday that it was “not true” that al-Muhajir was operating within his group.

Khosty insisted that ISIS-K “was not as big a threat” in Afghanistan as reports suggest, and he said media ignored the Taliban’s claims of having “expelled” ISIS-K fighters from fortresses east of Kabul.

“Talking about ISIS threats in Afghanistan is like propaganda for ISIS,” Khosty protested. “This confuses people, but the level and skills of the ISIS-K threat are not at the high level.”

“Room to breathe”

Both the Trump and Biden administrations, in defense of their decisions to withdraw from Afghanistan, promised to hold on to the Taliban’s pledge to prevent other groups, al Qaeda and ISIS, from using Afghan soil to plan attacks on America. and its allies.

But heavy violence from ISIS-K and the group’s alleged infiltration of the Taliban regime could complicate the new leaders’ ability to deliver.

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Afghan men transport a body victim to an ambulance after a bomb attack on a mosque in Kunduz, northern Afghanistan, on October 8, 2021.

AFP via Getty


“The more pressure the ISKP exerts on the Taliban, the harder it will be for its burgeoning government to maintain centrifugal power. A fragmented Taliban created by fighting and distrust of the communities it governs would give the ISKP room to breathe. , “Ex-Trac warned in its report from the end of August.

While shutting down the ISIS-K threat, it seems that the Taliban are also taking it very seriously, claiming a series of raids targeting the group in recent days and promising more to come. An internal statement from the Taliban regime’s Intelligence Commission, seen on Wednesday by CBS News, plans to target two districts east of Kabul believed to be ISIS-K strongholds. Taliban security officials say in the document that the areas must be “completely cleared” of ISIS-K fighters.

The threat to increase operations comes amid reports that the Taliban are indiscriminately killing men from areas they believe are saturated with ISIS-K supporters. The Taliban has claimed that raids in recent weeks have killed ISIS-K fighters, and it insists the Afghan people do not support ISIS-affiliated companies. But locals have reported that only civilians were killed in some of the Taliban raids and at checkpoints on major roads out of these areas.

Ex-Trac said ISIS-K – which the newly ousted government estimated to have between 2,000 and 3,000 fighters – went silent for a few weeks when the Taliban regained control of the country in late August. The notable exception was the devastating bombing of Kabul airport killed 13 U.S. troops and 170 Afghans.


More than 100 people kill deadly attacks in Kabul …

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On September 18, ISIS-K resumed operations completely, according to Ex-Trac, with 22 attacks in just 11 days, targeting primarily the Taliban and civilians.

The violence “proves allegations wrong that the Taliban’s military rise has ended the war in Afghanistan,” former Pakistani lawmaker Afrasiab Khattak, who founded the Transatlantic Afghanistan Pakistan Peoples Friendship Association, told CBS News.

There are new attacks in Afghanistan that are blamed on ISIS-K almost every day. One of the most recent was a suicide bombing aimed at a Kabul mosque on Sunday. ISIS claimed responsibility for the attack, which left at least five civilians dead. As it often does, the group exaggerated the scale of the strike, claiming to have killed “dozens in the ranks of the Taliban.”

“Hope to attack the United States”

The United States has targeted ISIS-K with air strikes since withdrawing its forces from Afghanistan in August.

Earlier this month, Secretary of Defense Lloyd Austin said the U.S. military “remains focused on ISIS-K” to the extent possible after the withdrawal. He vowed that “at the time of our elections in the future, we will hold them accountable for what they have done”, referring to the bombing of Kabul Airport.

Joint Chiefs of Staff President General Mark Milley said during the congressional testimony that it was “possible” that the United States would cooperate with the Taliban at some point in the future to counter the ISIS-K threat.

“A reconstituted al Qaeda or ISIS, with ambitions to attack the United States, is a very real possibility,” Milley said. He estimated that ISIS-K would need between six months and several years for “reconstitution”.


Pentagon leaders testify about Afghanistan

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He acknowledged that the mission to counter ISIS-K and other groups would be “much more difficult now. But not impossible.”

U.S. Commander-in-Chief Kenneth McKenzie was asked if he was convinced that the U.S. military could deny ISIS-K and other groups the opportunity to stage attacks from Afghan soil.

“I think it is not yet to be seen,” said the general. “I do not yet have that level of confidence.”

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