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Rivalries and power struggles: a portrait of the Islamic State in Khorasan

A new book focuses on the power struggles that drove the emergence of Islamic State — and its spillover in Central Asia.

Hélène Thibault
17 April 2019
Still from IS-K propaganda footage
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YouTube / CBS Evening News

A review of Antonio Giustozzi, The Islamic State in Khorasan: Afghanistan, Pakistan and the New Central Asian Jihad. London: Hurst, 2018.

By March 2019, the Islamic State in the Levant (ISIL) had been almost entirely eradicated, with only several thousand militants entrenched in Eastern Syria. But given the extent of ISIL’s reach, its demise will have consequences far beyond the Middle East.

In this regard, Antonio Giustozzi’s new book about the Islamic State in Afghanistan and Pakistan is a timely contribution for readers who want to understand how the organisation’s defeat may further destabilise Afghanistan and parts of Pakistan where it has expanded since 2015.

When it proclaimed its Caliphate in 2014, ISIL controlled large swathes of Eastern Syria and Western Iraq, imposing its authority on almost eight million people and pushing to expand into new territories. With thousands of foreign fighters flocking to join it, ISIL was morphing into a global jihad network. In January 2015, IS-Central - as Giustozzi refers to ISIL - announced the creation of the Islamic State in Khorasan (IS-), a historical name for Central Asia - and one which the Islamic State uses to define the territory encompassing Afghanistan, Pakistan, all of post-Soviet Central Asia, India and Russia.

Based on 121 interviews conducted mostly with IS-K militants as well as other jihadists and local actors in Afghanistan, The Islamic State in Khorasan paints a detailed portrait of the extremely complex political situation in Afghanistan and Pakistan’s border regions, and represents ground-breaking work in the study of “an experiment in exporting an insurgency”. Giustozzi and his (anonymous) Afghan and Pakistani collaborators operated in a critically unsafe environment that made data collection hazardous, but produced a unique insight into the realities on the ground. In order to ensure the plausibility of the information collected and to avoid relying on inflated records, as reported by the militants, the interviewers cross-referenced much of the information, comparing data with those obtained from rival factions. The result is a nuanced portrait of the power struggle in Afghanistan - one at the intersection of sectarian, regional and tribal rivalries.

The first chapter shows how IS-K was established in an already fragmented jihadist environment. At the beginning of the civil war in Syria in 2011, the Afghan and Pakistani Taliban, as well as Al-Qaeda, started mobilising and, as a way to show their support for global jihad, together sent at least 500 fighters to Syria in 2012. Giustozzi argues that the recruitment of militants from Afghanistan was made easier because of rumours at the time that the Afghan and Pakistani Taliban would sign a peace deal with their respective governments. This issue still constitutes a line of fracture between the Islamic State and the Taliban, with the former accusing the latter of being co-opted by the enemy.

The following three chapters offer a detailed portrait of IS-K’s structure, aims and strategies. Even though IS-K’s early presence was marked by cooperation with local jihadists, its aim was to eventually replace the Taliban and monopolise power. These chapters provide a month-to-month reconstruction of events, surveying all regions within Afghanistan and parts of Pakistan. The author compares and contrasts IS-K with the Taliban in terms of organisational structure and ideological/sectarian motivations, while chapter five highlights the drivers of support for the Islamic State in Khorasan. Giustozzi reiterates that although IS-K’s insistence on anti-Iranian and anti-Shia rhetoric did not seem to resonate with the local population, for many former Taliban, “it did not really matter which organization they belonged to; they vaguely wanted to fight for what they could perceive as a ‘just cause’”.

Although it ends on a pessimistic note, this book reminds us that peace often depends on the capacity of a state to impose order and provide services to the population

In general, IS-K was more attractive due to its more efficient organisational structure and discipline in military rank, where tribal-affiliations played a lesser role than in the Taliban and positions were allocated more on merit than connections or status. Moreover, IS-K provided better equipment, as well as higher and more regular salaries, ranging between 400 and 800 USD per month for local fighters, and between 1,500 and 2,000 USD for jihadists sent to Iraq. Moreover, the families of martyrs received a one-off 15,000 USD payment. In comparison, the Taliban paid their militants only 100 USD per month. IS-K could offer better salaries because, in 2015, its funding per capita was approximately 10 times larger than that of the Taliban. Their leadership appeared to enjoy some degree of independence from IS-Central even though they maintained strong connections to Iraq and Syria, notably because Arab trainers were sent to Khorasan to train local militants. The organisation had no trouble with recruitment and “every month 1,000-2,000 aspiring volunteers were knocking at its doors”. In this sense, IS-K could afford to be selective.

Chapters six and seven detail IS-K’s expansion, as well as its source of funding, with the support of maps and graphics. The author includes meticulous information on the local jihadist factions that pledged allegiance to IS-K, including non-Afghan and non-Pakistani groups such as Iranian Baluchis, Central Asians as well as Chinese. IS-K received most of its funding from the Arabian Peninsula and Pakistan, highlighting how regional rivalries came into play as many Arab donors, both state and private, sent funds to IS-K as part of a proxy war with Iran. Overall, for 2016, external funding for IS-K was estimated at 238 million USD.

The final two chapters offer some reflections on the consequences of IS-K’s establishment for the Afghan jihadist landscape. Ordinary Afghans saw IS-K as a more oppressive force than the Taliban as, in Giustozzi’s words, they “perceived the Taliban’s imposition of Shari’a as much more tolerable than IS-K’s version of it”. Interestingly, people also seemed to oppose the group’s Salafi inclination, which they regard as contrary to true Islam. In this respect, the book could have better detailed the religious subtleties behind its analysis of local resistance and cooperation.

The author shows IS-K’s attempt to export an insurgency that is strongly driven by regional rivalries. Whereas the focus on details is one of the most poignant features of the manuscript, it is also one of its main flaws. The complexity and volatility of the situation over the span of just two years, together with the large number of actors involved - which leads to the use of an overwhelming number of acronyms - makes it hard for the reader to untangle the dynamics of the larger context. So, for example, the motivations behind the United States’ enduring presence on Afghan soil, the Afghan and Pakistani governments fighting IS-K, as well as Middle East countries funding it, along with the structural factors that enabled the expansion of the Islamic State, are left unexplored.

It is revealing that Giustozzi seldom mentions the Afghan national security forces or the Afghan government. IS-K’s rivals are not state troops, but other militant groups, mostly the Taliban. In this way, although the author does not explicitly discuss it, the book reveals a complete absence of the state in Afghanistan. Instead, it is the enduring war in the country (“a war without end and as a way of life”) that enables IS-K to establish a foothold. After reading how IS-K is able to recruit thousands, impose its authority, and even collect taxes, it becomes obvious that the nonexistence of proper functioning state structures was a major cause of the organisation’s success.

Although it ends on a pessimistic note, the book reminds us that peace often depends on the capacity of a state to impose order and provide services to the population. ISIL was born in the midst of a power vacuum in Iraq caused by the 2003 invasion and occupation of the country by the US, UK and their allies, which spilled over into the chaos of Syria’s protracted civil war. This means that IS-K’s presence in Central Asia has a strong territorial character, and one that is enabled by the chaotic environment in Afghanistan and Western Pakistan. In this perspective, the prospects of a spillover into Central Asia, including Tajikistan, are limited.

Giustozzi reports that IS-K claimed to have accomplices within Tajik government institutions, either because officials could easily be bribed or because they had sympathy for the cause. The shocking defection to ISIL of former top Tajik security officer Gulmorad Halimov in 2015 is the most obvious example. Moreover, in July 2018, ISIS sympathisers attacked a group of tourists cycling in south Tajikistan, killing four people and injuring three. IS-Central claimed responsibility for the attack, which might indicate that it is trying to increase its presence in Central Asia. For the most part though, Central Asian recruits were active in Syria and Iraq rather than their respective countries.

The demise of IS-Central and the subsequent relocation of thousands of militants from the Middle East to Khorasan might be a game-changer. Some observers believe that the geographical dismantlement of the Caliphate does not signify the end of the Islamic State. The militant organisation might just relocate their efforts to another location and Giustozzi’s book shows us that Afghanistan is an ideal battleground.

On the one hand, the negotiations involving the Afghan government, the US and the Taliban might lead to a peace agreement, which could curtail IS-K’s expansion. On the other hand, a peace agreement is likely to give more rhetorical ammunition to the group, which has been accusing the Taliban of cooperating with enemy forces. As Giustozzi writes, “IS-K’s hope was always that the leadership of competing jihadist organisations would sign a peace deal with Kabul.”

Considering how long it will take to bring stability and prosperity to Afghanistan, IS-K could, with the support of radical foreign funders, continue to tap into local disillusion and ensure the continuation of the country’s endless war.

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