Afghanistan’s Taliban said Wednesday that they have rounded up nearly 600 members of the local Islamic State affiliate, known as Islamic State-Khorasan Province, since returning to power in mid-August.
A spokesman for the General Directorate of Intelligence, the new name of the Afghan spy agency under Islamist Taliban rule, told reporters in Kabul that “high-ranking” commanders of IS-Khorasan were also among the detainees.
“These men linked to Daesh are now being held in jails under tight security,” Kahlil Hamraz told a news conference in Kabul, using a local, derogatory name for IS-Khorasan.
He said ongoing security operations against the group have also killed almost 40 militants.
Hamraz accused the former Afghan government of releasing some 1,800 IS-Khorasan militants along with other criminals from detention facilities just before the Taliban took over Kabul in August. He said the freed prisoners were behind a recent uptick in car bombings and other violent activity in parts of Afghanistan.
IS-Khorasan has claimed responsibility for dozens of attacks across the country, including suicide bombings. The violence has killed and injured hundreds of Afghan civilians and Taliban forces.
The Taliban released details of their purported successes against IS-Khorasan amid growing criticism of their ability to effectively deal with an increasing terrorist threat.
And some officials who spoke to VOA expressed skepticism.
“We have seen the Taliban claims,” a State Department spokesperson told VOA on the condition of anonymity in order to discuss the unverified claims. “We note that ISIS-K remains a resilient enemy.”
“It is clearly in the Taliban’s interest to continue to focus their efforts on eliminating this virulent terrorist group,” the spokesperson added.
Earlier this week, U.S. Special Representative for Afghanistan Thomas West said this week the rise in IS-Khorasan attacks and al-Qaida’s ongoing presence in the South Asian nation was a matter of deep concern for Washington.
“I think we’re worried about the uptick in ISIS-K attacks, and we want the Taliban to be successful against them,” West told reporters in Brussels on Monday, commending the Taliban for what he described as “a very vigorous effort” against the terror group.
But some experts warn that the sudden arrest of so many IS-Khorasan members seems unlikely.
“The reports from the ground suggest that the Taliban arrested hundreds of people on charges of having links with ISKP who are [mostly] common Salafists, not involved in militancy or affiliated with the ISKP,” Abdul Sayed, a security specialist and researcher on radical militant groups in Afghanistan and Pakistan, told VOA. Salafists are often described as ultraconservative Sunni Muslims.
Sayed, who is based in Sweden, also said that the mass arrests appear similar to those carried out by the Taliban elsewhere, such as a recent roundup in Nangarhar province.
“The arrested people are either relative[s] or former friends of the ISKP members,” he said.
U.S. officials have warned that IS-Khorasan commands at least 2,000 “hardcore” fighters in cells across Afghanistan and could develop the ability to strike against the United States and the West in as little as six months.
U.S. officials have also accused the Taliban of boosting IS-Khorasan’s fortunes by releasing thousands of its fighters from prison as Taliban forces took over Afghanistan this past August.
The 2020 U.S.-Taliban deal that ended the two-decade U.S.-led foreign military presence in Afghanistan requires the Islamist group to prevent transnational terrorist groups, including IS-Khorasan and al-Qaida, from recruiting, fundraising, training or planning attacks.