Battered and beaten in Iraq and Syria, the Islamic State terror group is surging fighters into Afghanistan, rebuilding its presence and perhaps setting up a new base for attacks on both the West and Russia.
Afghan officials tell Voice of America that Islamic State may now have as many as 3,000 foreign fighters in the country, many of them coming from Pakistan and Uzbekistan. They also fear those numbers are only likely to increase as IS fighters from Iraq and Syria leave those countries as part of an effort to regroup.
“A large number of Daesh fighters are foreign fighters,” said Afghan Ambassador Hamdullah Mohib, using an Arabic acronym for the terror group.
Those numbers have been further bolstered by “a small number of Afghans within,” Mohib said in Washington this week. “The Taliban, some of the factions — some of the irreconcilable elements that are much more extreme — are also joining Daesh.”
The latest Afghan assessment on Islamic State in Afghanistan, also known as IS-Khorasan province, runs counter to much of what U.S. and coalition officials have long been saying. Those officials, while careful not to minimize concerns, have depicted a terror group in retreat.
Targeting IS in Afghanistan
U.S. Defense Secretary Jim Mattis himself characterized the fight against IS in Afghanistan as going “in the right direction” this past July, following an airstrike in Kunar province that killed then-IS-Khorasan leader Abu Sayed.
“Every time you kill a leader of one of these groups, it sets them back,” Mattis said at the time.
The July strike followed an operation in April that led to the death of the previous emir, Abdul Hasib, following what U.S. officials described as a brutal, three-hour firefight in Afghanistan’s Nangarhar province.
And just two weeks before that, on April 13, the U.S. targeted an extensive IS tunnel-and-cave complex in Nangarhar with the largest non-nuclear bomb in the U.S. arsenal, a GBU-43 Massive Ordnance Air Blast bomb.
As a result of the sustained efforts, U.S. officials estimated the terror group’s ranks in Afghanistan had been cut from a peak of about 3,000 fighters to about 600, believing most of them to be disgruntled former Taliban fighters.
But if the new estimates from Afghan officials are to be believed, IS has not only rebuilt its presence in the country in a span of about four months, but they have replaced them with new fighters, not worn down after losing the group’s strongholds in Iraq and Syria.
It would also seem to indicate that the terror group is capable of doing more than just leveraging local insurgencies to keep its brand alive.
IS in Afghanistan’s north
One area of particular concern is Afghanistan’s northern Jowzjan province, a remote area where IS has been relocating fighters, many aligned with the Islamic Movement of Uzbekistan, as well as their families.
“They’re establishing a military presence. They’re implementing social control,” said Caitlin Forrest, with the Washington-based Institute for the Study of War (ISW). “They’re collecting taxes.”
According to Forrest and ISW’s Jennifer Cafarella, some IS supporters and fighters are flocking to the region from Central Asia, places like Tajikistan and Chechnya, while others have come from as far away as France and Sudan.
“It’s a sign of what’s to come,” Cafarella said. “This kind of consolidation of foreign fighters in one place is a signature of an external operations node.”
And without much pushback from local or national Afghan forces, IS fighters have also been free to recruit both men and children from towns and villages, seemingly undeterred by the fall of the physical caliphate.
“ISIS is still cashing in on the image of itself as the defender of the weak,” Cafarella said, using an acronym for the militant group. She said the group is still able to sell the idea that it alone is willing to stand up to the West or to defend Sunni Muslims from Shi’ite forces controlled by Iran.
IS threatening West, Russia
There are also concerns that Afghanistan may not be the only area in which IS has managed to secure new footholds, and based on the type of propaganda, some counterterror analysts believe many of these IS nodes are bent on finding ways to strike the West and Russia as well.
“The long wind-up to the fall of Raqqa and Mosul gave ISIS the window to prepare for its future in the so-called post-caliphate era,” said Katherine Zimmerman with the American Enterprise Institute’s Critical Threats Project.
“ISIS began planning attacks in Europe from Libya, and all indicators point to ISIS strengthening in Libya,” Zimmerman said, adding, “ISIS will continue to cultivate its branches in the Sahara and Nigeria.”
Some analysts also argue that even the presence of a small number of foreign fighters in certain areas has allowed IS to grow.
But top U.S. military officials argue that will be difficult.
“I think they had aspirational views of going to other places,” Joint Staff Director Lt. Gen. Kenneth F. McKenzie told Pentagon reporters Thursday. “But I would tell you, because of the global coalition that we’ve assembled and the ability of those nations in these disparate areas of the world to operate effectively against ISIS when it arises, that plan has not been terribly successful for them.”
As for Afghanistan, officials there worry Islamic State will find a way to persist and strengthen, co-opting other extremists along the way.
“The brutality will continue to increase, which is why we need to address it so rapidly,” said Afghan Ambassador Mohib. “The more time it takes, the more radical some of these groups become and their ideologies start to sync with each other.”