The retreat of Daesh’s Khorasan chapter
When the Afghan government announced the capture of Abdullah Orakzai aka Aslam Farooqi along with 19 of his fighters on April 4, it was one of the biggest losses for the Khorasan chapter of Daesh, considering the fact that Orakzai was heading the group for the last year.
Most other walis (governors) of Khorasan province were killed, but Pakistan-born Orakzai survived even though his group has been steadily losing fighters and territory in Afghanistan. The previous walis had a short span of life after their appointments as they were relentlessly targeted and killed mostly in US drone strikes. This forced the Khorasan chapter not to publicly reveal the names of its new heads to protect them from being hunted down. No formal announcement was made when Orakzai was made the wali in April 2019 in place of Maulana Ziaul Haq aka Abu Omar al-Khorasani.
Other previous heads, including Abdul Haseeb, Abdur Rahman Ghaleb and Abu Saad Emarati, also came and went almost unnoticed as their appointment wasn’t made public.
Their tenures were short as they were eliminated fairly soon. Only Hafiz Saeed Khan Orakzai, the founder head of Daesh’s Khorasan chapter named after ancient Khorasan which included Afghanistan and its neighborhood, was widely known as his appointment was centrally announced by the Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi-led headquarters of Daesh in Iraq and Syria in January 2015, and celebrated by his supporters.
He had a long militant career having remained the head of the Tehrik-i-Taliban Pakistan (TTP) for his native Orakzai tribal district in Pakistan’s erstwhile FATA before quitting it and joining the Khorasan chapter. By July 2016, he was dead after being targeted in a US drone attack in Afghanistan’s eastern Nangarhar province.
The Afghan intelligence agency, National Directorate of Security (NDS), which announced Abdullah Orakzai’s capture, didn’t disclose the place and circumstances in which he was apprehended. However, sections of Afghan media claimed he was captured in southwestern Afghanistan in Kandahar, the birthplace of Taliban.
This is surprising as the group wasn’t known to have a presence in Kandahar. It was strongest until early 2020 in Nangarhar bordering Pakistan when both the Afghan government and Taliban claimed they had eliminated Daesh after intense fighting. The group also had some presence in the past in Kunar, Zabul, Logar, Jauzjan and Farah.
Not long ago, the group claimed scores of terrorist attacks not only in Afghanistan and Pakistan, but also in Bangladesh, Sri Lanka and Tajikistan. Though it is able to undertake occasional attacks like the one recently against a Sikh temple in Kabul, its power is diminished and it is unable to recruit from among the Afghan and Pakistani Taliban.
It is possible Orakzai escaped after the dismantling of his strongholds in Nangarhar and Kunar and tried to find refuge in southwestern Afghanistan. It is obvious the surviving members of the group are on the run. However, getting help from militant groups such as Islamic Movement of Uzbekistan (IMU), Jamaat al-Ahrar, etc which had declared their allegiance to Daesh during its peak days isn’t going to be easy as they too have been rendered weak due to battlefield losses and splits.
Contrary to the Afghan government’s claims, Taliban maintained that Orakzai wasn’t captured at all, and instead was protected and sheltered.
In the past also, Taliban accused the Afghan government and the US of sponsoring Daesh in Afghanistan and coming to its rescue whenever its fighters came under Taliban siege in Nangarhar and Jauzjan.
As Abdullah Orakzai’s past shows, he was, like most other militants, radicalized at a young age. Akhundzada Mohammad Aslam Farooqi-- his real name-- had emerged as an extremist cleric running a madrassa in the 1990’s years before the TTP came into being and declared a form of Shariah, or Islamic law, in Orakzai district by banning television, publicly burning TV sets and taking action against drug traffickers. He later joined the anti-Shia militant group, Sepah-i-Sahaba Pakistan, which subsequently merged with the TTP.
The militants from Orakzai district, led by Hafiz Saeed Orakzai and Abdullah Orakzai, fled to Afghanistan when Pakistan launched a major military operation, Zarb-e-Azb, against local and foreign militants in June 2014.
Daesh’s Khorasan chapter is now on the retreat after having shown resilience earlier. It no longer controls territory in Afghanistan and was never able to gain a foothold in Pakistan. Not long ago, the group claimed scores of terrorist attacks not only in Afghanistan and Pakistan, but also in Bangladesh, Sri Lanka and Tajikistan. Though it is able to undertake occasional attacks like the one recently against a Sikh temple in Kabul, its power is diminished and it is unable to recruit from among the Afghan and Pakistani Taliban.
The collapse of the group’s caliphate in Iraq and Syria deprived the group of monetary support and inspiration. The Taliban-US Doha peace agreement and success of the intra-Afghan negotiations could further limit its operations as Taliban fighters and Afghan government forces free up to fight the group. Taliban fighters, who recently won praise from the US for evicting the group from Kunar province, are committed to defeating the group as it threatens their military dominance-- and most global and regional powers would back Taliban to accomplish this mission.
– Rahimullah Yusufzai is a senior political and security analyst in Pakistan. He was the first to interview Taliban founder Mullah Mohammad Omar and twice interviewed Osama Bin Laden in 1998.