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ISIL in Afghanistan? Not so fast




By Olof Blomqvist

06 May 2015

A few weeks ago, a series of bombs ripped through the city of Jalalabad in eastern Afghanistan, killing at least 33 people and injuring more than 100. The targets included a Sufi shrine and a bank where government employees were drawing their salaries.

By Afghanistan's grim standards, there was nothing in particular that stood out about the attacks - except for who was supposedly behind them. The Taliban were quick to deny responsibility and even called the bombings an "evil act". Instead, a small group claiming to be part of the Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant (ISIL) said they were behind the carnage.

Deadly suicide bombings hit Afghanistan's Jalalabad

President Ashraf Ghani appeared on national TV soon after the attacks and also pointed the finger at "Daesh" (the Arabic term for ISIL), but without providing details.

Black Flag

Soon, headlines in both Afghan and international media announced that ISIL had just pulled off one of their largest attacks yet outside the Middle East. This came on the back of months of speculation about ISIL's reach in Afghanistan, with militant groups flying the feared black flag being spotted from Kandahar in the south to Kunduz in the north.

The problem, however, is that there is little concrete evidence to substantiate any ISIL involvement in what happened in Jalalabad. The claim of responsibility was traced back to a Facebook page, featuring a picture of one of the Balaclava-clad alleged attackers posing with a badly drawn ISIL flag.

The Daily Beast even reported an official denial of any responsibility from ISIL's apparent spokesperson for Afghanistan and Pakistan. The attack, in fact, bore all the hallmarks of the Taliban - the Jalalabad bank had been a target of the group previously, and it is not unheard of for the Taliban to deny responsibility as a public relations move when civilian casualties have been particularly high. All of this is speculation, and we are still no clearer on knowing who was actually behind the bombings.

The confusion points to a larger problem. While officials both inside and outside of Kabul have nervously been looking for signs that ISIL would seek to turn Afghanistan into its next battlefield, there is little evidence of a substantive presence of the group in the country.

While reports of various militant groups across Afghanistan operating under the ISIL flag have increased in recent months, nothing indicates that they have any formal connection to ISIL "headquarters" in Syria and Iraq.

In fact, Afghanistan has a long tradition of various militant groups shifting allegiances, and most of the suspected ISIL groups appear to be former Taliban or local militias that have simply spontaneously decided to use the black flag to attract support or attention. There is little evidence of widespread funding or ISIL fighters travelling from the Middle East to Afghanistan.

Exaggerated Reports

Many of the reports of ISIL attacks have also, like the Jalalabad bombing, been proven to be exaggerated or flat out untrue. In September last year, for example, the alleged killing of scores of people - including beheadings - in Ghazni province by "Daesh militants" hit international headlines.

But, as an investigation by the Afghanistan Analysts Network showed, the attack had been "enormously exaggerated" by local officials to send an urgent message for support from the government. In fact, villagers in the area said no beheadings had taken place and casualty figures were nowhere near what had been reported.

Ghani has frequently played up the potential of ISIL in Afghanistan, calling the group a "terrible threat" while addressing the US Congress in March. But much of this seems to be hyperbole and an - understandable - attempt to ensure continued international interest and engagement with Afghanistan.

In January this year, ISIL did "go official" in Afghanistan, announcing the creation of a chapter for "Khorasan" (an ancient name for the region made up of Afghanistan, Pakistan and parts of neighbouring countries). But the new chapter's leader, Abdul Rauf Khadim, was killed in a US drone strike just weeks later - and more recent reports indicate that other senior leaders have met the same fate.

If ISIL is serious about expanding into Afghanistan, it faces huge challenges in doing so. The biggest obstacle of all is that ISIL is hardly a natural partner for the Taliban, who are by far the biggest security threat to the government.

The groups' ideologies are superficially similar but rooted in separate Islamic traditions that clash in important ways. Both groups' leaders - Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi and Mullah Omar - have declared themselves amir al-mu'minin or "Commander of the Faithful". The Taliban has also always been a nationalist movement whose ambitions have never gone beyond Afghanistan's borders, unlike ISIL who aspire to create a global caliphate.

Too Brutal

To add to all of the above, there is reason to believe the brutal methods of ISIL are too extreme even for the Taliban. Since 2001, the Afghan Taliban have largely stayed away from sectarian attacks, and even condemned their Pakistani counterpart, whose indiscriminate suicide bombings have killed hundreds of civilians, as too barbaric.

Sadly, though, we can't rule out recent reports that some of the ISIL's more reprehensible tactics have inspired other militant groups in Afghanistan. The Islamic Movement of Uzbekistan has over the past months, for example, claimed credit for kidnappings targeting the Shia Hazara minority as well as beheadings of Afghan soldiers.

This is not to say the threat of ISIL should not be taken seriously in Afghanistan, and there are certainly conditions the group could exploit. The Afghan Taliban are fractured - frustrations are growing in the ranks over the continued absence of its elusive leader Mullah Omar, and there is much resistance to the proposed peace talks with the Afghan government.

Disgruntled commanders from the Taliban or other armed groups could well "rebrand" under the ISIL black flag - something that appears to have happened already, although not to the extent that has been reported. Competition with al-Qaeda, who last year announced a new South Asia chapter, could also lead ISIL to intensify its efforts to expand beyond the Middle East, with Afghanistan and Pakistan as prime targets.

But for now, the prospect of an ISIL takeover of, or even substantial presence in Afghanistan, is far from becoming reality. The UN has represented a voice of reason, calling for a thorough investigation into the Jalalabad bombings before jumping to conclusions.

With civilian casualties mounting, serious questions about the effectiveness of both the new government and security forces, and a mounting economic crisis, Afghanistan is facing some very real and daunting challenges. These should be the focus for policy makers in Kabul and abroad for now.

Olof Blomqvist is a writer specialising in South Asia. He spent 2012 in Afghanistan working in the communications and humanitarian aid sectors.