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IS Khorasan Able to Stage Attacks Despite Depleted Leadership, Experts Say

FILE - Afghan Special Forces stand during a graduation ceremony in Kabul, Afghanistan.

Inflicting yet another blow to Islamic State Khorasan Province (ISKP), the Afghan government said Tuesday that it had killed the group’s top judge, Abdullah Orakzai.

Some experts charge that while eliminating Orakzai and other top ISKP leaders in recent weeks will hurt the group in Afghanistan, it is unlikely to disrupt its ability to conduct deadly attacks on government forces and civilians.

Orakzai, originally from Pakistan’s Khyber Pashtunkhwa province, was a leading ISKP fighter in the Nazian and Achin districts of Nangarhar in eastern Afghanistan. As an ISKP judge, he was in charge of issuing decrees, including “the beheading of civilians and forced marriages for IS fighters,” according to the Afghan National Directorate of Security (NDS).

Colin Clarke, a senior fellow at the New York-based Soufan Center, said Orakzai was “an important person” but his removal is unlikely to bring about an immediate degradation of ISKP.

“IS Khorasan has cycled through so many tough leaders already that I have little faith that it is going to make lasting difference,” Clarke said, calling the Afghan government’s operation a "tactical maneuver."

In April, the Afghan government announced the capture of another ISKP leader, Aslam Farooqi, along with dozens of his fighters in Kandahar. In early August, the government said that it had killed the group’s intelligence chief, Asadullah Orakzai, in Jalalabad.

“Expecting that decapitation strikes targeting the leadership would have a strategic effect on the group is a mistake,” Clarke added.

ISKP was formed in January 2015 as the Islamic State branch active in eastern Afghanistan and northern Pakistan. Most of its members are estranged members of the Tehrik-i-Taliban Pakistan (TTP), according to experts.

In recent years, the group has suffered major setbacks, including the loss of its key pockets of territory and the removal of its top leadership.

When the group lost its main stronghold in Nangarhar province in November 2019, the Afghan government claimed the ISPK had been "obliterated."

However, experts say the group in recent months has gone mostly underground and adapted tactics to wage insurgency attacks against military and civilian targets.

A U.N. report in May 2020 said that ISKP still has the ability to attract new members, particularly among militants who oppose the recent U.S.-Taliban agreement. The report found that the group still has about 2,200 armed fighters in the South Asian country and remains capable of launching different attacks.

The group claimed responsibility for an ambush early this month on the Nangarhar provincial prison that lasted 20 hours and killed at least 30 people and wounded about 50.

Dozens of IS, Taliban Inmates Escape After Militants Attack Nangarhar Prison
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The Afghan government has blamed the Taliban, particularly the Haqqani Network, for helping ISKP launch the attack.

Using another acronym for the Islamic State group, Nasir Kamawal, a member of the Nangarhar Provincial Council, told VOA the attack “showed that Daesh is not obliterated and they still have strong bases.”

Kamawal said ISKP maintains some bases in parts of Nangarhar.

Derailing the peace process

Some experts warn that ISKP, despite the pressure on its leadership, could increase its militant activity to stop future peace talks between the government in Kabul and the Taliban.

After an endorsement from the Loya Jirga, the Afghan traditional assembly, President Ashraf Ghani issued a decree August 10 to release the remaining 400 Taliban prisoners. The decision is seen as removing the final hurdle before starting peace negotiations with the Taliban.

Scott Smith, a senior expert for Afghanistan peace processes at the U.S. Institute of Peace in Washington, told VOA that ISKP has positioned itself as a spoiler during the peace efforts and remains a threat to the process because of its ability to conduct high-profile attacks.

“I think ISIS is going to be a problem if there is a peace process or if there isn't a peace process,” Smith added.

However, when the Afghan government and the Taliban are able to reach a peaceful settlement, “they would both be able to direct their resources to contain, eliminate or greatly constrain ISIS,” according to Smith.

Marine General Kenneth McKenzie, head of U.S. Central Command, speaks with U.S. troops while visiting Forward Operating Base Fenty in Jalalabad, Afghanistan, Sept. 9, 2019.
Marine General Kenneth McKenzie, head of U.S. Central Command, speaks with U.S. troops while visiting Forward Operating Base Fenty in Jalalabad, Afghanistan, Sept. 9, 2019.

General Kenneth F. McKenzie Jr., commander of U.S. Central Command, told U.S. lawmakers in March that the Taliban operations against ISKP were “very effective.” He said the United States had provided “limited support” to the Taliban in those operations.

A Pentagon report in June said Washington had already shifted its focus to operations against ISKP and other terrorist groups since the Taliban announced a weeklong reduction in violence in February. It said U.S. forces target the Taliban only in defense of Afghan security forces.