Daesh-Khorasan: Bruised but not finished
Most terror groups disappear within a year of their infancy, and only 10 percent survive and evolve into functional violent entrepreneurs. The survival becomes even more difficult if the new terror groups are born into a competitive and multi-actor threat landscape like that of Afghanistan and Pakistan. Of the 10 percent surviving terror groups, very few develop the knack of regeneration, outliving the projections of their demise. Such groups survive through resilient and diverse support bases, agile organizational structures, innovative operational strategies, alliance-makings and defiant ideological narratives.
Daesh-Khorasan is one such formidable group which has created a firm space for itself in Afghanistan-Pakistan region’s hostile and rapidly evolving operational environment and has kept its brand of militancy alive against a multitude of adversarial pressures. For instance, Daesh-K survived the US move in 2017 to drop the Mother of All Bombs, the biggest non-nuclear bomb ever used in combat, on a network of caves in Afghanistan’s eastern Nangarhar province where its fighters were hiding. Likewise, it also defied then Afghan President Ashraf Ghani’s victory claim against it in November 2019.
Between December 2022 and May 2023, a spate of high-profile decapitations of Daesh-K’s leaders by the Taliban’s General Directorate of Intelligence (GDI) slowed the group’s attacks and social media operations. In these intelligence-guided raids, the GDI eliminated Daesh-K’s deputy chief Engineer Abbas Omar, intelligence chief Qari Fateh, prominent ideologue Ziauddin Mullah Muhammad and the chief of its so-called Indian Subcontinent unit Ijaz Amin Ahangar.
Though there is no love lost between the two groups, TTP has been less hostile toward Daesh-K as compared to the Taliban regime. So, Daesh-K’s chances of survival in ex-FATA, notwithstanding the state’s ongoing military offensive, are higher than Afghanistan.
- Abdul Basit Khan
Once again, the lull in Daesh-K’s activities created the impression of its elimination. However, the group laid all such rumors to rest by two high-profile attacks in northern Badakhshan province killing its Deputy Governor Nisar Ahmed on June 6 and a follow up assault on his funeral prayer that left 19 people dead on June 9. Furthermore, a recent United Nations Security Council report spotlighting Daesh-K’s expanding influence in Afghanistan has also belied claims of its demise. The report has also pointed to Daesh-K’s diverse recruitment pool, including militants from Pakistan, Iran, Russia, Azerbaijan, Turkiye, the Central Asians states and a small number of Arabs fighters from Syria.
Ostensibly, Daesh-K has weathered the brunt of the Taliban’s decapitation raids and is rebounding. Since August 2021, Daesh-K has emerged as the most formidable threat to the Taliban’s interim regime continuously poking holes in its claims of restoring order in Afghanistan and challenging its claims of creating a theocracy in Afghanistan. Similarly, through its transnational network connections and terror plots, Daesh-K has threatened the security of the West as well. For instance, Western security institutions discovered Daesh-K’s nine specific plots in December 2022 to target Western embassies, churches and business centers, and the number rose to 15 in February 2023. These plots were coordinates from Afghanistan. For external operations, Daesh-K has reportedly developed a cost-effective model where it relies on “resources from outside of Afghanistan, operatives in target countries and extensive facilitation networks.”
After losing territorial holdings in 2019 in Afghanistan, Daesh-K adjusted its operational strategy from capturing and holding territory to guerilla warfare and urban terrorism. The group devolved its organizational structure by splitting it into discreet cells in Afghanistan’s main cities. The organizational restructuring not only allowed Daesh-K to carry out high-profile urban attacks, but also survive as a group. The discreet nature of cell formations made Daesh-K immune to the Taliban’s crackdown. Due to their discreet nature, the elimination of one or more cells does not really impact the existence and work of others.
Also, to avoid detection and elimination, Daesh-K has shifted its recruitment drive from Afghanistan’s university campuses to social media. It bears mention that when the Taliban ruthlessly targeted Afghanistan’s Salafi community on the suspicions of supporting Daesh-K’s activities, the group turned its attentions to university campuses as new recruitment grounds. Earlier, Daesh-K also recruited disgruntled elements of other militants groups.
Likewise, Daesh-K has moved some of its social media operations abroad, especially Europe. So, even if the group’s propagandists and social media operatives in Afghanistan are captured or killed, the propaganda activities will continue. Similarly, to further secure its social media operations in Afghanistan, Daesh-K’s militants have migrated from open-end platforms like Facebook and Instagram to encrypted apps like Telegram and WhatsApp. In recent months, the Taliban have managed to infiltrate Daesh-K’s Telegram and WhatsApp groups as well, prompting the group to issue new directives to its supporters to remain vigilant and only use officially sanctioned channels for communication. Meanwhile, the group is also searching for more secure alternative platforms and also exploring the possibility of developing its own social media communication tools.
Similarly, Daesh-K has relocated a sizeable portion of its Pakistani militants to the ex-FATA region. The operational environment of the ex-FATA region is less hostile as compared to Afghanistan. Daesh-K’s Pakistani contingent was formerly associated with Tehreek-e-Taliban Pakistan (TTP) among others. Though there is no love lost between the two groups, TTP has been less hostile toward Daesh-K as compared to the Taliban regime. So, Daesh-K’s chances of survival in ex-FATA, notwithstanding the state’s ongoing military offensive, are higher than Afghanistan.
Groups like Daesh-K excel in chaos; they are byproducts of anarchy and adversity. It is a way of life for them. In hostile circumstances, they not only survive but thrive and expand by learning new skills, tactical innovations, coalition-building and exploiting communal and political fault-lines of a society. Furthermore, they rely on their organizational resilience instead of leaders to survive. Henceforth, the leadership decapitations, as seen in the past as well, affect them marginally.
Across the Afghanistan-Pakistan border, the political uncertainty, economic turmoil coupled with active conflicts and poorly governed peripheral areas provide Daesh-K with enough space to survive and bounce back from recent leadership losses. Hence, it will be a grave mistake to write off Daesh-K as a spent entity.
The author is a research fellow at the S. Rajaratnam School of International Studies, Singapore. Twitter @basitresearcher.