ISKP: Who are the murky terrorists behind the Moscow concert hall attack?

The Islamic State Khorasan Province has a history of carrying out attacks in central Asia, but its leadership and structure are largely opaque. Al Majalla explains.

Saidakrami Murodalii Rachabalizoda, suspected of taking part in the attack on a concert hall that killed 137 people in Moscow, which IS-KP claimed, sits inside the defendant's cage on 24 March 2024.
Saidakrami Murodalii Rachabalizoda, suspected of taking part in the attack on a concert hall that killed 137 people in Moscow, which IS-KP claimed, sits inside the defendant's cage on 24 March 2024.

ISKP: Who are the murky terrorists behind the Moscow concert hall attack?

More than a week on from the horrific scenes broadcast from a Moscow concert venue on the evening of 22 March, the organisation that later claimed responsibility for the atrocity has achieved global notoriety.

Russian security forces arrested, beat, and then paraded four men who are alleged members of a Central Asian offshoot of the Islamic State (IS) terrorist organisation.

That offshoot is called Islamic State Khorasan Province, or ISKP. Khorasan is a historical region that includes parts of Afghanistan, Turkmenistan, Tajikistan, Iran, Kyrgyzstan, Pakistan, and Kazakhstan.

The four men, who are understood to be from Tajikistan, now await trial for storming the Crocus City Hall near the Russian capital, killing (mainly by shooting) more than 140 concertgoers before blowing up a large chunk of the building.

History of ISKP

ISKP is one of the most active parts of the Islamic State group, seen as a major and growing threat. It was founded in January 2015 by IS leader Abu Bakr Al-Baghdadi, who appointed Hafiz Khan Saeed as the inaugural ‘emir’ of Khorasan.

Saeed once led the Pakistani Taliban, responsible for operations in Orakzai, a region within the Federally Administered Tribal Areas of Pakistan, known as FATA.

This helped IS infiltrate tribal societies along the Pakistani border, which in turn helped recruitment. Soon, several had pledged allegiance to ISKP, strengthening its presence in this strategically vital border area.

Founded in January 2015, ISKP comprises factions from the Afghan and Pakistani Taliban and remnants of al-Qaeda.

The group consists of factions from the Afghan Taliban, the Pakistani Taliban, and remnants of al-Qaeda.

Since its inception, ISKP has targeted Afghan government forces, international coalition forces, and Taliban insurgents. ISKP's attacks in Afghanistan caused outrage.

In 2018, it bombed an office of Save the Children, a charity. In 2019, it bombed a wedding, killing 92 and injuring 140. In 2020, it bombed a maternity hospital, killing newborn babies, mothers, and nurses.

US and former Afghan government forces went after ISKP militants in eastern Afghanistan and killed several senior figures from the group.

Afghan forces captured its leader, Aslam Farooqi, along with several other senior commanders, including Qari Zahid and Saifullah (aka Abu Talha) in Kandahar province in March 2020.

At the same time, Iran worked with the Taliban to fortify the Iran-Afghan border to curb the movement of ISKP fighters.

Exploiting discontent  

ISKP is against any form of compromise with the West. This resonated with disillusioned former Taliban members who opposed the Taliban's negotiations with the US prior to the latter's withdrawal from Afghanistan in August 2022.

American and Afghan soldiers at the US withdrawal ceremony in 2021.

As a result, ISKP said the Taliban was "collaborating with crusaders" and vowed retribution. It adheres to Tawhid Al-Hakimiyyah, or the sovereignty for Allah alone, so it does not acknowledge the legitimacy of the Taliban as rulers.

ISKP portrays the Taliban as a nationalist faction with parochial ambitions focused on establishing an Afghan state, as opposed to its own goals, such as global jihad.

According to a 2018 report by the Washington-based Centre for Strategic and International Studies, ISKP has had support from the core IS leadership in Iraq and Syria since it was set up in 2015.

Following the loss of IS territory, ISKP shifted its international efforts towards Afghanistan, aiming to establish it as a focal point for its purported global 'caliphate.'

When it pledged allegiance to the global caliphate envisioned by IS, others in Iraq and Syria with the same affiliation applauded the expansion of influence in Central Asia.

To bolster its networks there, IS allocated money to the Khorasan region.

Meanwhile, the United Nations said IS "continues to facilitate the relocation of some of its key operatives to Afghanistan". These included Abu Qutaiba, the former leader of IS in Salahuddin province, Iraq.

Foreign fighters were drawn to ISKP in Afghanistan in part because it was adept at managing its operations and promoting itself among Muslims. Often, fighters would choose to join ISKP over other more local units.

The US views the group as a serious threat. Since designating it a terrorist organisation in January 2016, US Central Command (CentCom) has launched an aerial offensive against ISKP, which has only expanded.

Between January 2017 and October 2018, the US and NATO conducted more than 300 airstrikes against ISKP, according to the Armed Conflict Location and Event Data Project (ACLED).

Most of these (96%) were conducted in Nangarhar and Kunar provinces, which lie between Kabul and the Pakistani border, where ISKP leaders and bases are sited.

Kabul bombing

In August 2021, the group made global headlines by bombing Kabul Airport, killing more than 170 people, including 28 Taliban fighters and 13 US soldiers.

It was interpreted as a message from ISKP to their Taliban rivals, who had not yet solidified control over Afghanistan. Key facilities remained vulnerable to IS attacks.

The site of the August 26 double suicide bombing at Kabul Airport on August 27, 2021.

ISKP forces based themselves in Nangarhar province so they could benefit from drug smuggling and human trafficking routes into Pakistan. This led to tension and irritation for the Taliban government, Islamabad, and Washington.

After the airport bombing, ABC News interviewed Colin Clarke, a counterterrorism expert, who said ISKP followed a decentralised structure along the model run by al-Qaeda to help evade US forces.

Clarke, a senior research fellow and director of policy at the Soufan Centre, estimated that ISKP had up to 2,200 fighters from Arab countries, the Middle East, Pakistan, and South Asia.

He said one of the main differences between it and the Taliban is that ISKP is a transnational organisation aiming to "remain and expand", while the Taliban is a homogenous group of Pashtuns.

ISKP is against any form of compromise with the West. It said the Taliban was "collaborating with crusaders" and vowed retribution.

He also suggested that when the organisation reaches a point of confidence, it will declare a caliphate again. The American Council on Foreign Relations agrees that future IS attacks should not come as a surprise.

In a separate interview, Clarke said IS would seek to sabotage the Taliban and stoke political tensions with its sectarian agenda, but is unlikely to seek control of Afghanistan.

Clarke even felt that ISKP could attack Iranian interests in the region, adding that its most significant advantage lay in its ability to recruit numerous followers from jihadist groups along the Afghan-Pakistani border.

West stands back

In the wake of the bombing, counter-terrorism experts debated the feasibility of containing ISKP in its heartlands without relying on the Taliban and their primary supporter, Pakistan.

Some felt the Taliban was exploiting the ISKP threat to portray itself both as a victim of terrorism and as a potential ally in the fight against it. Very few think the West should cooperate with the Taliban to confront ISKP.

Bradley Bowman of the Centre on Military and Political Power at the Foundation for Defence of Democracies described ISKP as "horrible" and "the enemies of all humanity".

He added, however, that "just because they're attacking the Taliban too, we should not delude ourselves regarding the murderous and misogynist character of the Taliban".

Clarke, of the Soufan Centre, said because the US views ISKP as a threat, "the Taliban will benefit without having to make any concrete changes in the way it governs".

He and other Washington experts believe that Uzbekistan and Tajikistan might serve as more efficient allies in the fight against terrorism in Afghanistan.

He suggests that bases in Central Asia are preferable to any in Pakistan due to traditional animosity between Pakistanis and Americans regarding the Taliban.

"I don't think the US can or should trust Pakistan's [intelligence agency], which has played a double game for the past two decades," he said.

"In Central Asia, the US might still be at the mercy of mercurial leaders, but it's a preferred alternative to dealing with Pakistan."

Nimble and active

The current affairs magazine Foreign Policy estimates that ISKP possesses a much smaller number of fighters than the Taliban, whose payroll is almost 100,000. What sets ISKP apart is its ability to attract defectors.

They show this in their activity levels. The UN Assistance Mission in Afghanistan documented 77 attacks against US forces in the four months of 2021. That is two attacks every three days.

These attacks bolster ISKP's status as an enemy of the US, which attracting disillusioned Taliban fighters.

Furthermore, members of other ethnic militias may also join ISKP to combat their historical foe: the Pashtun-dominated Taliban.

ISKP has a much smaller number of fighters than the Taliban's 100,000. What sets it apart is its ability to attract defectors.

Various reports suggest that the Taliban deliberately fosters the image of ISKP as a more extremist rival to position itself as the lesser of two evils.

When the Taliban released inmates from government prisons, many extremists who later joined IS were released.

Rahmatullah Nabil, former head of the Afghan National Security Directorate, told Foreign Policy that "the Pul-e-Charkhi prison near Jalalabad and Bagram prison (Parwan Detention Facility) have provided soldiers to ISKP".

According to the Wall Street Journal, ISKP represents a significant threat to the Taliban because "it was formed by former Afghan and Pakistani Taliban members who thought that the insurgent movement wasn't radical enough".

Strongholds and alliances

The US newspaper also highlighted the expansion of ISKP in the Zabul province of southern Afghanistan, now one of its strongholds, where Mullah Dadullah and hundreds of fighters from the organisation have settled.

They have formed an alliance with militants from the Islamic Movement of Uzbekistan, another extremist group that has pledged allegiance to ISKP.

A CBS News report from October 2021 quoted sources as saying that ISKP was "working deliberately to undermine the Taliban's authority from both inside and outside the group".

Taliban fighters carry their flags in Kabul, Afghanistan, on Monday, August 30, 2021.

It also detailed how four top ISKP commanders had been killed since the group was established in American drone strikes or by Afghan security forces allied with the US.

In June 2020, ISKP's top job was handed to Sanaullah Ghafari, known as Shahab al-Muhajir. Most assumed from his name that he was of Arab, not Afghan descent.

But two former high-ranking Afghan government security officials and a senior member of the current Taliban regime told CBS that Shahab was a veteran of Afghanistan's domestic insurgency who graduated from Kabul Polytechnic.

According to a voter registration card found by Afghan security forces, he is 31 years old. The former officials said he was trained in Pakistan by two extremist groups there, including the Taliban-affiliated Haqqani network.

"Whatever his ethnicity, he ended up being much better positioned than his predecessors to revive ISKP," said Ex-Trac, an organisation that analyses threats posed by extremist groups.

Hiding in plain sight

It said his leadership "culminated in radical change for the organisation, change that has seen it transitioning from a fragmented and degraded network into the aggressive phalanx it is today".

In June 2023, Taliban forces went after ISKP in the Sarkani district of Kunar province, decimating several of their facilities and eliminating operatives.

Around this time, Pakistani media circulated reports that al-Muhajir had been killed and replaced by a Syrian, Abu Muhammad al-Khorasani. Verifying these reports is difficult.

The report, based on some Afghan officials, indicates that while other ISKP commanders focused on seizing territory, al-Muhajir focused on undermining the Afghan government in order to gain freedom to operate.

The former officials say al-Muhajir has kept his real identity hidden so well that he continues to operate within the Taliban.

One security source said he even met the Taliban's deputy head of intelligence, Mullah Tajmir Jawad, who did not realise that he was talking to the ISKP leader.

Indeed, most ISKP fighters have never met al-Muhajir and do not know what he looks like.

Attacking to undermine

In late 2021, the news website Politico showed how the Taliban and ISKP were competing to recruit the unemployed, the poor, and the displaced, offering "financial rewards during their lifetime and eternal bliss should they perish as martyrs".

Despite ISKP attacks having killed more than 100 Afghans since the Taliban took over, the official line from the Afghan government is that IS has no tangible presence in the country and that the government maintains full control.

In October 2021, Foreign Minister Amir Khan Muttaqi told Reuters that the government "is able to control the threat from Islamic State militants who launched a series of deadly attacks in recent weeks."

The timing of the statement was surprising, coming between two ISKP suicide bombings of Shiite mosques during Friday prayers on 8 and 15 October.

Al-Muhajir keeps his real identity hidden so well that he met the Taliban's deputy head of intelligence, who did not know that he was talking to the ISKP leader.

The initial attack occurred in the city of Kunduz in north-eastern Afghanistan, carried out by an individual from the Muslim Uighur minority in China, resulting in the deaths of 72 people and injuring over 140.

The second took place at the Bibi Fatima Mosque in the city of Kandahar in the south of the country, resulting in the deaths of 63 people and injuring over 70.

Antonio Giustozzi, an expert on jihadist groups from the Royal United Services Institute (RUSI) in London, told Reuters that ISKP aimed to "undermine and discredit the Taliban Emirate... The Emirate promised security and they're trying to show they can't deliver it."

Afghan affairs specialist Rina Amiri told Foreign Affairs magazine in November 2021 that ISKP was increasing its attacks "as frustration with Taliban rule increases".

Amiri said it "may be able to mobilise greater support, particularly among the young and other groups feeling the brunt of Taliban restrictions.

"In Syria and Iraq, IS recruited sectarian groups and women by harnessing their frustrations and projecting messages of resistance and empowerment."

An Iraqi forces member walks past a mural bearing the IS logo in a tunnel in Mosul.

Extremism fuelled by the frustration of marginalised groups is not new. It follows patterns seen in Iraq, Syria, and parts of Africa.

A threat to neighbours

Some reports indicate that ISKP is targeting China, using the Uyghur minority to carry out suicide attacks, particularly against Shiite mosques.

ISKP accuses the Taliban of betraying the Uyghurs because it wants good relations with Beijing.

According to Radio Free Europe, the targeting of Shiite mosques in Kandahar by ISKP aims to "highlight the plight of Iran's Sunni minority".

In early 2024, ISKP attacked a crowd in Iran commemorating the anniversary of the death of Iranian commander Qasem Soleimani, killing more than 100 people.

ISKP also attacked the mausoleum of the late Iranian Supreme Leader Khomeini in 2017.

Nor has Pakistan been spared by ISKP, most notably with the attempted assassination of the Pakistani ambassador, Rahman Nizami, in Kabul, in December 2022.

ISKP exploits tensions between the Pakistani government and the Pakistani Taliban to target the interests of the Pakistani government that backs the Afghan Taliban and exerts pressure on the Pakistani faction.

It seeks to disrupt relations between the Taliban-led government in Afghanistan and its neighbours, aiming to undermine it diplomatically and delay international recognition.

In using Afghanistan as a launchpad for ISKP attacks, it also wants neighbours to turn against the Taliban.

The Taliban sees extremism as a tool to achieve its vision for an 'Islamic Emirate', while keeping it in government. To this end, it has been pragmatic and cut deals when doing so serves its interests.

Other groups see extremism as the goal, rather than a means to an end. These groups have little interest in state-building or political power. They simply enforce their narrow interpretation of texts literally, regardless of the repercussions.

The early Taliban was less interested in running a state, and more similar to al-Qaeda or IS who, if they fail to achieve their primary goal (victory), will settle for martyrdom.

Drawn to turmoil

IS in Iraq and Syria was nearly wiped out, so IS moved into different regions prone to instability, including Afghanistan and parts of Africa.

While IS Africa relies on indigenous leadership, ISKP incorporates foreign leaders, a precedent set by al-Qaeda in Afghanistan, which was previously led by foreigners.

ISKP attracts disaffected Afghan youth by portraying itself as outdoing the Taliban. Most young Afghans have not experienced any tangible improvements in their lives following the US withdrawal in August 2021.

IS in Iraq and Syria was nearly wiped out, so IS moved into different regions prone to instability, including Afghanistan and parts of Africa. 

According to UN data, ISKP now has up to 6,000 fighters across 13 provinces, with an undisclosed network of dormant cells that could activate at any moment if needed.

It does not seem capable of gaining control of Afghanistan, or even big chunks of it, but it is a constant source of instability.

This allows for an increase in crime and drugs, and suggests that Afghanistan may revert to being a gathering ground for extremists worldwide.

That would affect neighbours China, Iran, and Pakistan. They may soon begin US-style aerial sorties against ISKP to retain the upper hand.

After years of corruption in Afghanistan, there is widespread resentment both towards the US and any home-grown extremists.

Despite all its shortcomings, therefore, the Taliban is now seen as the lesser of two evils when compared to ISKP.

What major Western and Islamic powers will do to safeguard their citizens from ISKP remains to be seen. Until then, ISKP continues to be a magnet for extremists whose own local extremist groups aren't extreme enough.

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