TORKHAM, Pakistan -- As it tries to consolidate its interim government in Kabul, the Taliban is facing security threats from ISIS-K, Islamic State's regional affiliate, which has been leveraging the withdrawal deal with Washington to position itself as Afghanistan's last remaining jihadi movement.
ISIS-K represents Islamic State in Afghanistan and Pakistan, and has been applying a multi-faceted strategy to discredit the Taliban. By carrying out violent attacks, the militant group wants to distinguish its brand from the Taliban's, and challenge the new rulers' ability to govern the country. As part of a recruitment drive, ISIS-K has attempted to tarnish the Taliban by depicting them as 'U.S. collaborators.'
The Taliban has responded with a crackdown on ISIS-K and its supporters in eastern Afghan provinces that border Pakistan. Mullah Neda Mohammad, a Taliban provincial governor, recently told media, that over 80 people have been arrested in Nangarhar Province for suspected ISIS-K links.
The Taliban is reported to have killed around 150 ISIS-K fighters, including its former chief Abu Umar Khurasani while prisoners were being released from jail in Kabul on Aug. 16. A spree of prison breaks in August right across the country enabled many ISIS-K fighters to rejoin.
On Sept. 5 in Kabul, the Taliban killed an influential Sunni Muslim, Salafi cleric Mullah Abu Obaidullah Mutawakil, because a large number of his students belong to ISIS-K. The Taliban also shut down over three dozen Salafi mosques and religious schools around the country.
On Sept. 8, the Taliban assassinated Farooq Bengalzai, the head of ISIS-K head in Balochistan Province in neighboring Pakistan, while he was in Afghanistan's Nimroz Province.
Washington meanwhile went after ISIS-K after a deadly suicide bombing outside Kabul airport on Aug. 26 killed over 170 including 13 U.S. troops. Gen. Mark Milley, the Pentagon's most senior officer, said at a Sept. 1 press conference that "it's possible" the military will coordinate with the Taliban against ISIS-K.
The U.S. executed a drone attack on Aug. 28 in Nangarhar Province that it claimed killed two "high-profile" ISIS-K members. A second airstrike targeting ISIS-K suspects in Kabul the following day killed 10 civilians.
Security experts believe ISIS-K is intent on discrediting the Taliban in any way possible. After the last-minute U.S. withdrawal, ISIS-K mocked the Taliban's triumph in its official weekly publication, Al-Naba, alleging that the Taliban had not engaged in genuine "jihad," and claiming that the country has been handed back in a "global conspiracy."
"The more the newly formed Taliban government makes concessions to accommodate segments of Afghan society, the more ISIS-K will find room for new propaganda against them to attract fresh recruits," Riccardo Valle, a Venice-based independent researcher focusing on violent Islamism in Afghanistan, told Nikkei Asia.
"Those Taliban members who are skeptical of the Taliban's more conciliatory decisions may find in ISIS-K an alternative group which still today claims they are the rightful heirs to Osama bin Laden and Mullah Omar [the deceased founder of the Taliban]," he said.
Following its formation in January 2015 by former militants of the Afghan Taliban and the Terheek-e-Taliban Pakistan (TTP), a Pakistani terror group, ISIS-K rapidly rose to become Islamic State's most successful affiliate outside Syria and Iraq with a large number of fighters in eastern Afghanistan.
But the group has lost its footholds in Kunar and Nangarhar provinces following U.S. and Afghan counterterrorism operations as well as Taliban offensives over the years.
Experts say that ISIS-K has a long track record of propaganda accusing the Taliban of "being a puppet" of Pakistan and the U.S. "The U.S. aerial campaign in tacit support of the Taliban's 2019-2020 offensive in Nangarhar and Kunar against ISIS-K boosted this rhetoric," said Valle.
Anticipating the Taliban takeover, Shahab al-Muhajir, ISIS-K's new chief appointed by the group's central council in May 2020, announced a new urban terrorism campaign against the Taliban, the Kabul administration and "their U.S. masters."
With a core group of around 1,500 to 2,200 fighters in eastern Afghanistan, ISIS-K has mounted 115 attacks between April 2020 and March 2021, according to a U.N. report in June.
"The Taliban does not have experience of counterterrorism operations to crack down on ISIS-K's network of small cells spread across the country," Valle said.
Khan, a political science lecturer at Nangarhar University who asked not to be fully identified, said that the efforts of the new Taliban government to cooperate with the international community, particularly the U.S., could spur a backlash that will see more rank-and-file members defect to ISIS-K.
"Islamic militancy is about being anti-state and anti-West, and the Taliban is now the state and wants to cooperate with western countries," Khan told Nikkei Asia. "It is hard for the Taliban to convince its street cadres who have struggled for years in an anti-West jihadi cause -- and ISIS-K is prepared to exploit the situation."
Neighboring countries, particularly Pakistan and China, have meanwhile been pressuring the Taliban leadership to expel militant groups, such as the TTP and the East Turkistan Islamic Movement (ETIM), which helped the Taliban capture the country's northern provinces.
"If the Taliban tries to take action against the TTP or ETIM because of external pressure, these groups could form alliances with ISIS-K and make it difficult for the Taliban to rule," said Khan.