Thursday, 08 September 2016

The phantom menace of ISIS in Northern Afghanistan

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By Franz J. Marty

September 8th, 2016, The CACI Analyst

Many accounts allege that the terrorist organization known as the Islamic State in Iraq and Syria (ISIS) has expanded to northern Afghanistan and intends to infiltrate Central Asia from there. Taking a closer look, however, it becomes apparent that virtually all such claims lack a sound foundation and that the remaining, more specific hints like reported sightings of black flags also stand on shaky ground. Consequentially, and contrary to the eastern parts of Afghanistan, there is no compelling evidence of a presence of the self-styled Caliphate in northern Afghanistan and, hence, also no immediate threat to Central Asia.

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BACKGROUND: Initial reports of an actual ISIS presence in Afghanistan emerged in late 2014 and early 2015 and Abu Muhammad al-Adnani, an official spokesman of ISIS, announced on January 26, 2015 the establishment of the province of Khorasan, an ancient name referring to a region encompassing Afghanistan, Pakistan and other nearby areas, including parts of Central Asia. Afterwards, several accounts claimed that, during late 2015 and 2016, ISIS has expanded its presence that has so far been limited to eastern Afghanistan to the north of the country with the goal to infiltrate Central Asia from there.

Such reports came, for example, from the northern Afghan provinces of Kunduz, Baghlan and, more recently, also from the northeastern province of Badakhshan, which shares a long border with Tajikistan. However, on July 25, 2016, U.S. Army Brigadier General Charles Cleveland, Deputy Chief of Staff for Communications of the international coalition in Afghanistan, stated that Daesh, the Arabic acronym for ISIS, is still believed to be primarily present in Afghanistan’s eastern province of Nangarhar with “some” presence in the neighboring province of Kunar and “a couple of other smaller locations,” but that there is no spread to the northeast and that Daesh is under pressure from Afghan security forces, U.S. airstrikes and even the Taliban who reject and fight the so-called Islamic State.

During this author’s visit to the remote district of Raghistan in Badakhshan in early August, locals nevertheless contradicted this assessment. “All the Taliban are in reality Daesh,” a man from an insurgent-controlled village in Raghistan said. On the surface, local residents and officials as well as soldiers and pro-government vigilantes in Raghistan all confirmed that ISIS is present in that district. They only disagreed on whether all the insurgents are ISIS or only a part of them, while the rest remain loyal to the Taliban movement. Some even asserted that ISIS intends to transform Raghistan, which directly borders Tajikistan on a small stretch, into a hub and warned that this would not only threaten Afghanistan, but Central Asia as a whole.

On a more specific note, locals in Raghistan claimed in conversations with this author that black flags have been sighted in two locations in their district. This followed media reports from early July about black flags in Jurm and Yamgon, two other districts of Badakhshan. In addition, Raghistanis recounted that an insurgent who defected to the local armed civil uprising had two black headbands with the shahada, the Islamic creed, written on them that would prove the presence of ISIS there.

IMPLICATIONS: The situation in Badakhshan is, however, far less clear than these accounts suggest. It turns out that, under scrutiny, nearly all claims of an alleged ISIS presence in Raghistan lack any sound foundation. In fact, when this author asked the locals why they are certain that the insurgents are indeed members of ISIS, most did not have a clear answer. Many, among them also the district governor of Raghistan, apparently base their assertion that the insurgents are ISIS solely on the unprecedented violence in the area – the insurgents in Raghistan reportedly beheaded people and beheadings are a hallmark of ISIS, after all. But while the Taliban indeed officially condemn beheadings, they themselves acknowledge that in some instances Taliban fighters beheaded government forces, for example in Jurm in April 2015. So the unprecedented violence alone hardly makes ISIS responsible.

An old man with a close-cropped white beard in Ziraki, the district center of Raghistan, gave another explanation with a similar problem: Mullah Najib, the leader of the insurgents in the district who is himself from Raghistan, is a follower of the Salafist interpretation of Islam. And as the Taliban adhere to the Hanafi school of Islam and this school contrasts with the Salafist movement followed by ISIS as well as Mullah Najib, the latter must consequentially be ISIS. The fact that not every Salafist by far is a member of ISIS, did not seem to have occurred to the old man. Furthermore, while the Taliban are nominally Hanafi, they are strongly influenced by the ultra-Orthodox Deobandi movement.

It should also be noted that all accounts of an alleged ISIS presence in Raghistan agreed that, so far, the insurgents do not openly acknowledge their allegiance to the self-styled Caliphate but keep it a secret, even still hoisting the white flag of the Taliban, as they fear infighting with their current Taliban allies that reject ISIS. Given that apparently every villager in Raghistan “knows” about this, it would hardly be a secret anymore and such an explanation does not make sense.

Furthermore, also the more specific hints to ISIS in Raghistan turn out to be shaky. The reported sightings of two black flags in, even for a remote district like Raghistan, forlorn areas are based on hearsay that one local himself described as unconfirmed to this author. And even if there were indeed black flags flying in the skies of Raghistan, this would not suffice as proof. “There are at least five to six extremist groups in Badakhshan, among them the Islamic Movement of Uzbekistan (IMU), which use a black flag,” explains Borhan Osman, a researcher with the Kabul-based Afghanistan Analysts Network and an expert on ISIS in Afghanistan, “so a black flag in Badakhshan would say nothing definitive about the Islamic State.” Similarly, the alleged black headbands of the defector could also have been misidentified. As the locals could not display the black headbands to this author and the defector died fighting for the vigilantes against his erstwhile insurgent allies, this could not be verified. The only remaining and most direct indication for the claimed ISIS presence in Raghistan therefore is an old man who recounted having overheard some insurgents calling themselves members of ISIS. However, as this could not be corroborated, it remains a very thin lead.

Finally, the possibility that assertions about ISIS fighters are misused for propaganda purposes cannot be discarded. One Talib fighting in Raghistan claimed in a telephone conversation with this author on August 10 that all allegations of an ISIS presence are false government propaganda. While the Talib could well be biased, it is interesting to note that a commander of the local armed uprising against the insurgency at one point asked this author: “Who are the Americans more interested in, the Taliban or Daesh?,” and was probably just looking for a confirmation that the answer is Daesh. And in view of the constant cry for U.S. air support, it is not a far stretch to imagine that someone could claim an ISIS presence, simply hoping to attract more attention from the U.S. forces.

CONCLUSIONS: In the end, and although it cannot be ruled out completely that ISIS sympathizers are located in Raghistan, there is no compelling evidence of an ISIS presence there and the self-styled Caliphate remains a mere phantom menace. The same applies to Badakhshan as a whole and to northern Afghanistan, where many stories circulate, but lack hard facts. Perhaps the clearest sign of this is that even locals question the claims about ISIS. Two residents of Raghistan separately asked this author, nota bene a foreign journalist, in private conversations: “Are the reports about Daesh true? Are there really black flags flying in our district?”

AUTHOR’S BIO: Franz J. Marty is a freelance journalist, currently based in Afghanistan. He covers a broad range of topics, but focuses on security and military issues. He can be followed @franzjmarty on Twitter.

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