As the Taliban extends its state and governance instrument in Afghanistan, it is also encountered with the unexpected assignment of developing a counter-terrorism strategy. The Islamic State in Khorasan has now shifted to the Taliban, drawing alert to the complexity of extreme right-wing terrorism, deeply rooted as it is in the social fabric of Afghanistan.
In August 2021, the Taliban unexpectedly went from being a rebellious organisation, not alien to deploying terrorist tactics, to standing a government, even if not recognised by anybody as such as yet. The Taliban themselves were surprised by their faster-than-anticipated rise to power and were caught impromptu. They had to move fast and figure out how to reorganise the state machine.
If seizing the state had always been their purpose, it was more surprising that they also had to develop a counter-terrorism strategy. This was because the competing rebels of the Islamic State (IS) in Khorasan did not fade away, defiant to what many Taliban had hoped, who were seeing it mainly as a broker of the previous government and thus imagined that it would melt away. Instead, after a lull of a few weeks, the IS was back with a resumed campaign of terrorist attacks in the cities, more severe and overall than the Taliban’s own in earlier years. After initially targeting religious minorities almost solely, the IS slowly widened its targets to include Taliban state associations and pro-Taliban clerics; ultimately, it would start targeting individual Taliban officials.
Indeed, the IS in Khorasan has launched a transformation from being primarily an insurgent organisation which deployed terrorist tactics in urban backgrounds to one almost entirely focused on terrorist campaigns. By 2022, it had given up on a half-hearted endeavour to wage a guerrilla war in the east and went utterly underground, comprising secret cells and abandoning all fixed commands. Once a centralised organisation willing to contest its enemies, especially the Taliban, on the open battlefield, the IS had to alter its modus operandi and adopt a more decentralised structure.
The IS became dependent on delivering a steady flow of reliable cadres to run a structure based on hundreds of small cells. Its original essence of being a coalition of disparate hardline Taliban, Tehrik-e Taliban Pakistan and Central Asian fragment groups had changed over the years. The in-flow of former Taliban and TTP members had primarily parched up by 2017, and casualties wore down the original nuclei. The IS had to rely increasingly on other sources of recruits and discovered them in the Salafi community and in different radical Islamist groups such as Hizb ut Tahrir, whose principles had some contiguity with that of the IS and were active primarily among university students. With that, the ideological unity and ‘quality’ of the IS in Khorasan’s rank and file improved. However, most recruits were still poorly familiarised villagers, typically obtained into the organisation by community elders who felt the community was intimidated.
The IS in Khorasan operated to establish a strong company in the universities of Kabul and Nangarhar quite rapidly once it began focusing more on the Salafi community and pious individuals leaning towards Salafism. The Taliban should have spent more time cracking down on IS recruitment in the universities, charging a strict security regime. Recruitment became more demanding for the IS, but not inconceivable, especially as it moved much of its recruitment activity online.
In brief, the IS formed technical cells, each assigned to focus on a particular phase of the recruitment process. A team would identify appropriate recruits among Salafi or Salafi-leaning students known to have poor connections with Taliban security staff, non-Salafi teachers, or Hanafi and Shi’a students. These people would then be targeted for recruitment by a reliable team inviting them to social media accounts sharing challenging Salafist literature and videos. Then, relying on their response, another team would step in, sharing more political, pro-IS material via private chats with them. Finally, a third team would start face-to-face contact, considering the targeted recruit does not bail out.
The Taliban’s security establishment has been restricting the ability of the IS to recruit in university campuses to someplace between 100-200 students per year, according to IS sources that appear entirely credible. This number may seem subtle, but these recruits mostly turn into cadres, whom the IS believes are of essential importance for supporting and reinforcing the ideological force of the organisation. Few of these recruits turn into standard fighters or even commanders; instead, they staff the terror enclosures or take up the position of trainer/indoctrinator, an increasingly important role in an organisation that needs to strengthen the ideological conformity of its members.
Whereas in the past, it was standard to recruit members of the Salafi community, even villagers, and persuade them into the organisation without much indoctrination, now the three-month-long idealistic/religious training courses are much more significant, so more trainers are required.
The Taliban have, of course, witnessed the shift towards online training and have tried to disrupt them with some victory. But social media propaganda and recruitment do not need to be taken out locally, at least not entirely, and clearly, a growing number of propagandists of the IS in Khorasan are located in Europe and other locations outside Afghanistan.
The Taliban are attempting to infiltrate their private chats to identify the cells based inside Afghanistan. So far, the IS has preserved most of its social media functions despite some losses. Prevailing, the Taliban have been faster at taking on the cover of counter-terrorism than many believed they would, but the IS remains an approvingly adaptive organisation that will probably defy attempts to destroy it.