Islamic State creeps east | The World Weekly
Islamic State (IS) began its outreach to jihadis in Asia, home to 62% of the world's estimated 1.6 billion Muslims, in the second half of 2014, starting with Afghanistan and Pakistan, since the 1980s home to as many militants as the Middle East, if not more.
Timing was a key factor: the Pakistani military launched a massive nationwide counteroffensive on Pakistani Taliban (TTP) and al-Qaeda (AQ) safe havens in the northwest tribal areas bordering eastern Afghanistan, destroying command and control networks, and forcing thousands of seasoned militants to scatter. In turn, that built into a growing sense of insecurity created by the May 2011 killing of AQ founder Osama bin Laden, during a US special forces' raid on the northern Pakistani garrison town of Abbottabad, and growing suspicions about the well-being of the Taliban's founder Mullah Mohammed Omar.
A similar sense of abandonment was prevalent amongst the AQ affiliates of Southeast Asia, after being all but hounded into submission by security forces in Indonesia, the world's most populous Muslim state, after making their mark in the 2000s with attacks such as the infamous Bali bombing of 2002.
IS efforts to spread in the region were initially stymied by its inability to produce propaganda in the region's plethora of languages and dialects, but that was soon overcome with help from the increasing number of militants attracted to Raqqa, the eastern Syrian capital of Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi's caliphate. Among them were key militants whose connections to the IS leadership went back to the erstwhile chief of AQ in Iraq, Abu Musab al-Zarqawi, the inspiration for their brutal insurrection.
During 2015, IS produced propaganda in English and several Asian languages, including Bahasa (the national language of Indonesia), Bengali (Bangladesh and eastern India), Pushto (Afghanistan and Pakistan) and Urdu (India and Pakistan). The multilingual campaign subsequently facilitated the creation of IS cells across Asia, from Afghanistan in the west to Indonesia in the east
By January 2016, IS had established a beachhead in Afghanistan, undermined the success of Pakistan's nationwide counter-terrorism campaign, and formed cells in Southeast Asia that announced their arrival with attacks in Bangladesh, Thailand and Indonesia - and only narrowly missed in Malaysia.
To investigate the inside workings of IS in Asia, TWW embedded Asia-Pacific editor Tom Hussain with ranking militants from Afghanistan and Pakistan, while reporter Aimee Brown spoke to leading security experts about the extent and implications of the caliphate's expansion in Southeast Asia.
Al-Qaeda in crisis
"It's happening a lot faster than any of us thought it could," says 'Rafiq', massaging his forehead, indicating the stress he's under as a veteran militant who simultaneously holds positions of responsibility for al-Qaeda and the Taliban.
Now aged 32, he's grown up in the militant world and fought on the frontlines of at least three jihadi wars in Kashmir, Afghanistan and Chechnya, evidenced by the 18 bullet wounds that scar much of his short, stocky body, miraculously sparing his vital organs. His left arm is all but destroyed, because of severe muscular and nerve damage sustained from a seven-wound machinegun burst during close-quarters combat with Northern Alliance forces at Bagram in 2001, prior to the US invasion of Afghanistan. Barely held together by a few withered tendons which could give way at any moment, his arm has been rendered paralysed. The pain of his wounds keeps him up at night, prompting him to pop as many sedatives as it takes to bring about sleep.
Orphaned by the deaths of bin Laden and Omar in 2011 and 2013, respectively - men he knew well, adored, and was prepared to die for - and disillusioned by the duplicitous politics of South Asia, he had decided on a life of peace and retired from "the line", as 'Af-Pak' militants describe their jihadi occupation.
Rafiq was thoroughly enjoying the experience of pursuing a normal human lifestyle, much of it spent doting over his two young daughters, whom he is educating with hopes of them becoming exemplary Muslim women. "I want them to join the military and protect Pakistan from the hypocrites masquerading as holy warriors - like Marium Mukhtiar," he says, referring to Pakistan's first female fighter pilot, who died in a training accident in November.
That's all on the line now because of the speed with which IS is recruiting from AQ's ranks, left leaderless by the disappearance of bin Laden's successor, Egyptian cleric Ayman al-Zawahiri, since his rumoured assassination (since proven unfounded) in October 2014.
It is much the same case with the thousands of militants once united under the umbrella of the TTP, which has been pummeled and splintered by an enormous, countrywide Pakistani military campaign.
Muttering over a cup of green tea, the beverage of choice for the ethnic Pashtun of Afghanistan and Pakistan, Rafiq bemoans the loss of his short-lived experience of normal, family-centered life. "It was great while it lasted. But now there are these (IS) beasts to contend with! God damn them, I doubt I will ever experience peace in this lifetime."
Now he is back in Karachi, far from the cozy environs of his family home in a distant Pakistani city. We are seated in the reception of a "library" in Haroonabad, an inner city area that has long been a hub for militant groups involved in the conflicts in Afghanistan and Kashmir, the disputed Himalayan state over which India and Pakistan have fought two wars.
Often, such libraries, named after renowned historical Muslim warriors, are fronts for the militant groups seeking to avoid the prying eyes of the Inter-Services Intelligence (ISI) directorate of the Pakistani military - although Rafiq has repeatedly sworn, in previous meetings, that he has "never, God forbid, ever" committed an act of aggression against "our resting place", as he calls Pakistan.
The dimly-lit room has no furniture, as is the custom amongst militants originating from the tribal societies of Pashtun Afghanistan and Pakistan, and Pakistan's Balochistan and its Iranian sister-province of Sistan Balochistan. There, The World Weekly is introduced to three other men, two aged in their early-to-mid-20s and one in his late 30s, who has the authoritative bearing of being the senior man in the room. He is identified only as an aide to Abdullah Sarhadi, the chief commander of combined Taliban and AQ special forces in Afghanistan, and at whose home in the Kuchlak area of Balochistan the Taliban chief, Mullah Akhtar Mansoor, was shot and wounded during a reconciliatory meeting with dissidents that went wrong. Reportedly, Mr. Sarhadi took offence when the dissidents entered the meeting carrying guns and started the gunfight.
Salams and embraces are exchanged with warm smiles, as tribal social graces supersede mutual suspicion, and The World Weekly is offered a place by a cushion placed on thick red rug that covers the floor in a room decorated only by a couple of framed Quranic verses and fading jihadi propaganda posters hung on the faded, cracked white walls.
Repeatedly, each inquires about the health of the other, of Mr. Sarhadi, and about the weather here, in Islamabad where the The World Weekly’s Asia office is located, and - eventually - in Afghanistan, because this is what the conversation is really about. Green tea, dried figs and sultanas, and whole walnuts and pine nuts are passed through a door connecting the reception to the interior of the library, and the conversation begins with the obvious question about the extent of IS' spread in Afghanistan and Pakistan, since it announced its Khorasan Governorate for Afghanistan and Pakistan in January 2015.
The four militants lean forward, discussing the question softly for more than a minute in Balochi, the language of Pakistan's vast, sparsely populated western province of Balochistan, which borders Karachi to the east, Iran in the west and Afghanistan to the north.
Finally, nodding as if to indicate agreement on what they will and won't say, Rafiq adjusts his posture, seeking the support of an adjacent cushion as he rubs an aching knee injury. "IS knew it was coming and were waiting to reap the harvest," says Rafiq, referring to the Pakistani military's nationwide crackdown on terrorism, launched in June 2014. "They have already recruited 80% of AQ's commanders. These aren't ordinary mujahideen, they're seasoned special operations leaders, the warrior elite of all militant groups that have worked with AQ and the Taliban since the 1990s."
Reluctantly, Rafiq has stepped out of retirement on the orders from Mr. Sarhadi and is gathering together AQ and Taliban special forces' reservists who, disillusioned like himself, had retired to the sidelines. "It's no longer just talk and planning. It's deadly serious now. The order has been given: find them, try to bring them back into the fold, and if they refuse, kill them," he says. "I have 242 boys now, all ideologically strong commanders who won't sell out to IS."
"We have to stop them here, or there's nothing to prevent them from spreading throughout Pakistan - and beyond," he explains. "What you must understand is: Karachi is the jihadi hub of Pakistan, Pakistan is the hub for South Asia, and Afghanistan is the hub for the world. So when pressure builds on one hub, it is inevitably felt everywhere else in the world."
Cuckoo in the nest
After two years of operations by paramilitary troops, taxi drivers in Karachi's seafront Clifton area are relaxed about taking a fare to Ittihad Town, previously a no-go area virtually ruled by Pakistani Taliban factions. However, our driver, an ethnic Punjabi, can't help but stare at his incongruous passengers: a middle-aged, caucasian-looking journalist and two bespectacled bearded men whose appearance practically proclaimed their religiosity.
As the 45-minute journey progressed, he relaxes when offered a cigarette in the Punjabi dialect of his native Bahawalpur. "Thanks," he says, grinning. "Y'know, I thought I'd picked up the CIA."
Rafiq and his colleague burst out laughing. "Wrong number, brother," he quips, sparking another round of guffaws.
The banter continues until we turn off the main road into Ittihad Town, driving past several paramilitary and police check posts located at road intersections. Beyond them, however, it is as if the Pakistani government has given up: there are no police stations, schools or banks - nothing to identify the area as part of a major urban centre populated by more than 20 million people. Even the electricity poles only run along the main thoroughfares, with the local shopkeepers and residents procuring power through illegally attached cables that lead into narrow residential streets.
By Karachi standards, the traffic is light - mostly privately-operated public transport vehicles carrying shawl-wearing Pashtun men and burka-clad women. There is no greenery to speak of and the baked beige ground builds give the impression that this could be a town in Pakistan's federally-administered tribal areas (FATA), described five years ago as "the epicentre of global terrorism" by US President Barack Obama.
"This feels like Khyber agency," The World Weekly observes, alighting from the taxi.
"You're not far wrong," says Rafiq. "This place is called Khyber Chowk (junction) and a jihadi from Tirah (a militant-occupied valley in Khyber) is the imam of that mosque," he says, pointing.
Seconds later, he is embraced by two men loitering nearby and we are led to a room located behind an nearby real estate agency.
Our host is introduced as 'Abdullah' , the Karachi operations chief for Lashkar-i-Jhangvi (LJ), a Pakistani AQ affiliate infamous for its targeting of the country's Shia Muslim community, which makes up roughly 20% of Pakistani Muslims, in turn about 97% of the estimated population of over 200 million people.
Because of its 20-year enmity with the Pakistani state, LJ has long been a focal point of the counter-terrorist and internal security wings of the ISI, Pakistan's premier security agency, and its membership, while never numbering in the thousands like the Afghan and Pakistani Taliban, has dwindled to a few hundred.
The murderous, sectarian ways of LJ have also made it a prime recruitment target for IS, and it has made fine use of the opportunity presented by the killing in July of LJ chief Malik Ishaq, allegedly during a botched escape attempt in eastern Punjab province. To demonstrate its sympathy, IS collaborated with angry LJ commanders to carry out the revenge assassination of the Punjab home minister, Shuja Khanzada; he was killed in a suicide bombing at his home in Attock, a town near Islamabad, along with 16 other people, in August. In turn, Pakistan's security services have cracked down on the group's cells, especially in Karachi and Quetta, destroying its command-and-control structure, forcing leaderless LJ militants to scatter. Some have returned to Afghanistan, boosting the Taliban's ranks, but most have switched allegiance to IS, the militants say.
"The most dangerous characteristic of IS is it isn't driven by Islamist ideology. They are driven solely by the lust for power." Abdullah says. "They arrive, identify assets, look for the asset's weaknesses, and leverage the asset accordingly."
It was through Jundullah - like LJ, a sectarian terrorist group active mostly in Karachi and Balochistan - that IS initiated recruitment in Pakistan in November 2014, when Jundullah said its leaders had met with a delegation of IS representatives - comprising a Saudi, a Kuwaiti and an Uzbek, reportedly sent from Australia - near the Balochistan port town of Gwadar, close to the border with Iran.
Since 2006, vast, sparsely populated Balochistan has been plagued by a low-intensity insurgency staged by secular ethnic rebel groups, barely held in check by some 60,000 paramilitary troops, led by Pakistani army officers.
It is Balochistan, rather than FATA, that was identified as the location of a future IS Khorasan 'capital' - like Raqqa in Syria and Mosul in Iraq - by the group's deputy governor for Pakistan, Mufti Hassan Swati, in a January 2015 interview with American broadcaster NBC News.
Initially, IS activists masqueraded as members of the same "line" as the Af-Pak conglomerate of Taliban factions and AQ affiliates, enabling it to plug into a decade-old logistics network - shared by the shadow community of militants, Baloch rebels and criminals - that facilitates safe movement of personnel and weapons into Balochistan from neighbouring areas of Afghanistan and Iran, as well the northwest tribal areas of Pakistan.
Under that guise, IS Khorasan rapidly established a network of cells - each manned by one to 10 operatives - that quietly worked to cause splits within existing jihadi groups, starting with militants most susceptible to its promises of monetary and logistical support. It sweetened the pot by telling militant faction leaders they would be free to claim credit, under their existing identities, for any terrorist activity, whether carried out on their own initiative or on the orders of the IS Khorasan leadership.
Jundullah snapped up the offer, launching a suicide-bombing attack in January 2015 that killed 60 people during Friday congregation prayers at a Shia mosque in Shikarpur, a town in Sindh province near the administrative boundary with Balochistan. Similarly, IS Khorasan provided support to Jundullah and a group of educated sympathisers who hijacked a bus in the Safoora Goth area of Karachi in May 2015 and executed 43 members of the Ismaili community, a Shia sect that follows of the teachings of Aga Khan. Instructively, credit for the attack was claimed both by Jundullah and LJ, whilst the attackers left IS propaganda literature at the site of the massacre. "That's because IS came up with the plan, and drew in people from both groups, as well as shooters from criminal gangs, and financed the operation," explains Rafiq. "It's how IS markets itself, both to potential recruits and the public."
Concurrently, IS infiltrated operatives into legitimate political and religious organisations to establish its own network of intelligence gathering, recruitment and logistics support. Among its major targets is the Tableeghi Jama'at, a peaceable orthodox Sunni group of preachers and proselytisers active across Pakistan, and well represented throughout the civil service and military.
"IS is not seeking to acquire territory in Pakistan," Abdullah says. "It is continuing to grow its network within the government and other organisations, with the long-term objective of having sympathisers who have a bearing on decision-making at the highest level. The situation will become particularly dangerous when IS starts using its infiltrators and sympathisers within the state to strike. That will be alarming because the state won't know where it came from or where the next strike will come from."
In late November, a group of "IS-inspired" militants carried out two deadly attacks on military personnel engaged in counter-terrorism operations in Karachi, killing two military policemen and four paramilitary soldiers, the counter-terrorism department of the Sindh provincial police said. The assassins are believed to be part of the same IS cell involved in the Safoora Goth bus massacre in May.
"The attacks on military personnel in Karachi represent a significant step forward for IS," says Rafiq. "It means IS has gathered enough momentum to independently plan and execute attacks, rather than outsourcing them to other groups. Soon, we will see IS take credit for a campaign of such operations and, in doing so, convince Pakistanis that IS has supplanted the TTP and AQ as the major jihadi threat to the country."
Subsequent investigations by the counter-terrorism department of the Sindh provincial police uncovered a network of 59 IS activists, including six commanders each heading six-man teams of militants.
Speaking privately and on condition of anonymity, however, a senior Sindh police counter-terrorism department official says the recent disclosures do not represent the success of a concerted intelligence-led nationwide operation against IS.
"We've only been able to make in-roads because we had that particular group of militants under observation since before the Safoora Goth attack," he says. "The fact is, we have no chance of stopping their terrorist attacks. The militants are way ahead of us, in terms of their ideological motivation, their covert networks, their intelligence gathering capability, their guerrilla warfare techniques, their weaponry, even their technology - they have encrypted mobile communications, we don't and nor does the military."
Shortly after the attacks on military personnel in Karachi, the Pakistani government for the first time acknowledged that Islamic State is fast spreading in the country. The home minister of eastern Punjab province, Rana Sanaullah Khan, disclosed the arrests of 42 IS militants, including the organisation's chiefs for southern Sindh province (of which Karachi is the administrative headquarters) and Islamabad, the federal capital.
About 100 people had departed from Punjab province to join IS frontlines in Iraq and Syria, Mr. Khan said. The total number of Pakistanis fighting in the Middle East is relatively small - just 500 out of the estimated 25,000 to 30,000 foreign fighters there, according to the ‘Global Terrorism Index - Vision of Humanity’ report issued in November by the Institute for Economics and Peace, an independent think-tank based in New York. France and Russia account for more than three times that number, the institute estimates.
The detainees included nine members of Jama'at-ud-Dawah, the group responsible for the November 2008 terrorist assault on the Indian commercial hub of Mumbai, in which 166 people were killed. Alarmingly, they were arrested from a training camp they had set up near the eastern town of Daska, located within a few miles of the northernmost point of Pakistan's international border with India.
The Khorasan Governorate
The Syria-based leadership of Islamic State made its first inroad into the Afghanistan-Pakistan militant theatre in April 2014, when a ranking Afghanistan-based Arab al-Qaeda commander, Abu al-Huda al-Sudani, switched allegiance, accusing Ayman al-Zawahiri of "deviating" from AQ's mission since the killing of Bin Laden three years earlier.
Significantly, Mr. al-Sudani was a former associate of Abu Musab al-Zarqawi, the erstwhile Jordanian chief of al-Qaeda in Iraq (which would go on to become IS) until he was killed by a US airstrike in June 2006. Scattered by US forces, the remnants of al-Zarqawi's forces reformed four years ago as the core membership of IS.
Mr. al-Zarqawi himself lived in the northern Pakistani city of Peshawar for several years during the 1990s, as did many of the Arab militants attracted to the region in the 1980s to fight Soviet occupation forces in Afghanistan.
Indeed, many jihadi groups previously in Pakistan's tribal areas have longstanding relations with militant commanders in Iraq and Syria who have joined IS. Among the Pakistan-based militants are a select group who, on the basis of their ideological commitment to global jihad and credentials as fierce warriors, were hand-picked by AQ for 45-day "live training" tours of Iraq under tutelage of Mr. al-Zarqawi and of others now in positions of responsibility in Raqqa.
In Iraq, they learnt new tactics and skills - notably the use of improvised explosive devices and suicide bombers - and introduced them in Afghanistan and Pakistan when the insurgencies there gathered momentum in 2005.
The same relationships were leveraged by Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi himself in the aftermath of the Arab Spring of 2011, when he sought refuge in the Pakistani tribal area of North Waziristan, according to Pakistani researchers focused on the FATA. "According to my sources, he lived in the Dattakhel area for about a year between 2012 and 2013," says Mansur Mahsud, director of research for the FATA Research Centre, an independent Islamabad-based think-tank. "I've spoken to several eyewitnesses."
At the time, Pakistan's government was seeking to engage the TTP in peace talks, a last-ditch tactic ahead of a decisive military push into the FATA that all the militants, Mr. al-Baghdadi included, knew would be forthcoming. Similarly, it was inevitable that many TTP commanders and foreign militants would be forced flee their North Waziristan strongholds and take refuge in adjacent Afghan provinces, and that the crackdown would massively disrupt the command structure of the Pakistani Taliban. It was those disconnected, under-resourced militants who were the prime targets for recruitment by the Syrian-based leadership of IS.
The first mass defection from AQ to IS from factions based in Pakistan's tribal areas was announced on October 6, 2014, by the Islamic Movement of Uzbekistan, a battalion of several hundred militants notorious for their involvement in high-profile attacks against Pakistani military installations. The announcement followed reports that 17 Uzbek militants had been killed the month before in Syria during a US-led coalition air raid against IS forces.
Similarly, some 1,000 Uighur militants from the restless western Chinese province of Xinjiang moved to Syria from FATA; about half joined the ranks of the Nusra Front, an AQ affiliate still answering to Mr. Al-Zawahiri, while the other half switched allegiance to IS.
Mr. al-Sudani was instrumental in the October 14, 2014 defection to IS of six faction leaders of the Pakistani Taliban, led by its former spokesman, Sheikh Maqbool Orakzai (better known by his militant alias, Shahidullah Shahid), according to the detailed account of events released by them. They had approached Mr. al-Sudani and asked him to put them in contact with the IS leadership and he subsequently arranged an encrypted phone call with a Syria-based representative of the group, during which the militants became the first Pakistanis to swear an oath of allegiance to Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi.
Under Islamic custom, a Muslim may seek to renew their faith by swearing an oath of allegiance to a single religious guide. All Afghan and Pakistani Taliban militants have already pledged their allegiance to Mullah Omar in his capacity as "leader of the faithful", the title he adopted during Taliban rule in most of Afghanistan from 1997 to 2001.
The defections were first instance of Mr. Omar publicly losing that status and Mr. Maqbool was vilified for his betrayal in a TTP statement.
Thus in the matter of eight months, the emergence of IS had caused significant splits in the ranks of both al-Qaeda and the Taliban - something that had previously seemed nigh impossible.
IS Khorasan formally opened for business on January 10, 2015, announcing in a video it had established an organisational structure dominated by notoriously anti-Shia former commanders of the TTP. The video included a speech by Hafiz Saeed Khan Orakzai, anointed as the affiliate's chief, and showed Afghan and Pakistani militant commanders and fighters swearing an oath of allegiance to the group. Gruesomely, the Islamic State video concluded with the beheading of a man the militants claimed was a captive Pakistani soldier.
Although furious at the defections from its ranks to IS, the TTP soon found itself in a tactical military alliance with IS Khorasan and two other factions, formed to resist advancing security forces in Pakistan's Khyber tribal area, which borders the militants' newly established safe havens in the adjoining Afghan province of Nangarhar. IS Khorasan provided a significant number of experienced, highly-trained fighters, and an initial injection of cash from its Syria-based leadership, dazzling its newfound allies with an official "blessing" from Mr. al-Baghdadi.
Initially, IS Khorasan and its Pakistani Taliban allies found space in two districts of Nangarhar - Achin and Nazyan - but they spread quickly, in the absence of a concerted effort by the Afghan military or US-led NATO forces to expel them, despite the repeated protestations of Pakistan's government.
IS Khorasan swelled its ranks in Nangarhar by offering monthly salaries of $500 to militants, attracting fighters from some 27 small factions. While a mere pittance in comparison to incomes in developed countries, that is a handsome amount in Afghanistan and Pakistan where, respectively, the annual per capita income was $634 and $1,317 in 2014, according to the World Bank.
By April, IS Khorasan had made enough headway for Mr. al-Baghdadi to confidently proclaim the group's scorn for Mr. Omar and its intention to take on the Taliban, and the fighting commenced. In June, IS beheaded 10 captive Taliban fighters, an act of viciousness unprecedented amongst South Asian militants, who have historically tended to kill antagonistic colleagues by firing squad, because it is considered "honorable".
Very quickly, IS Khorasan militants reached the boundaries of Hesarak District, which shares a border with Kabul Province, before encountering resistance from the Taliban, which reinforced its estimated 4,200 fighters in Nangarhar with 1,000 men from adjacent provinces.
From its fighters’ initial encounters with IS Khorasan, the Taliban understood that it was up against a sizeable force led by expert militant commanders. Appropriately, it selected one of its top veterans, the shadow governor of southern Zabul Province, Mullah Mohammed Rasool, to lead a Taliban task force, containing some 1,200 men headed by 100 Taliban and AQ special forces commanders, to take on IS Khorasan in Nangarhar and adjacent provinces.
However, shortly before Mr. Rasool was to have launched the counterattack, on July 31, the Afghan government disclosed the Taliban's founder had died of natural causes at a Karachi hospital in May 2013. Like many other top Taliban officials, Mr. Rasool was infuriated that the death of the leader had been kept a secret by Omar's deputy, Mullah Akhtar Mansoor, and by the way he hurriedly assumed the Taliban's leadership without consulting most members of the group's ruling council.
In August, he rebelled and, to resist a forthcoming attack by Taliban commanders loyal to Mansoor, Mr. Rasool formed a tactical alliance with IS Khorasan, ironically.
By September, a report by the United Nations’ AQ/Taliban Monitoring Team found that IS Khorasan was recruiting followers in 25 of Afghanistan’s 34 provinces. Its ranks had been boosted by the arrival of 70 IS fighters from Iraq and Syria, the UN investigators said.
It was during fierce fighting in Zabul Province in November between the Taliban and Mr. Rasool's rebel forces that IS Khorasan left an indelible scar on the Afghan political consciousness - by slitting the throats of seven ethnic Hazaras, a predominantly Shia ethnic minority, including three women and a child.
The brutal killings sparked angry demonstrations against the government's security failures by an estimated 10,000 protesters in Kabul, the biggest such protest in recent years.
In December, the commander of US forces in Afghanistan, General John Campbell, estimated there were between 1,000 and 3,000 IS fighters in the country, mostly in Nangarhar and the neighbouring provinces of Kunar and Nuristan to the north. That compares to a Russian intelligence estimate of 3,500 IS militants in Afghanistan, made public by Zamir Kabulov, President Vladimir Putin's special representative for Afghanistan. “The rise of IS in Afghanistan is a high-priority threat. Just think about it: IS showed up in Afghanistan for real just a year ago, and now it has 3,500 fighters plus supporters who may be recruited into the ranks of the militants,” Mr. Kabulov told a security conference in Moscow in October.
By New Year's Day 2016, IS militants were active in 10 of 21 Nangarhar's districts, Afghan broadcaster ToloNews quoted residents and officials alike as saying. They are now threatening to seize control of an entire province, Nangarhar, officials there said. "My request from the central government is as soon as possible deploy additional forces to Nangarhar province and prevent Daesh (an Arabic pejorative acronym for IS) militants spreading in Nangarhar because they are creating a threat for the province," provincial council head Ahmad Ali Hazrat told ToloNews.
Visiting the provincial capital Jalalabad on January 3, President Ashraf Ghani promised to respond to the threat, telling gathered officials from Nangarhar and neighbouring provinces: "Daesh has no place in our society, so we have to take urgent steps against the group".
However, the only substantial resistance to the IS expansion is coming from Taliban reinforcements drafted in from other areas of Afghanistan, with fighting ongoing in Batikot and Chaparhar districts, ToloNews reported.
Rather than throwing its fighters at IS in its relatively small patch of territory in Nangarhar, however, the Taliban is currently concentrating on preventing further AQ defections from its ranks, and on attracting back AQ and Taliban commanders who have switched sides.
A notable success was the return of Mr. Rasool to the Taliban ranks in December. "Now that Rasool is back, we have first-hand knowledge of the IS network," Rafiq, who has resumed his role as a ranking al-Qaeda cum Taliban commander, tells The World Weekly. "That gives us the edge over them, but the fighting is going to be fierce and we will lose some of our best commanders."
"Right now, this is a straight-up fight, with the [Afghan] Taliban and the Pakistani military on one side and an alliance of IS Khorasan and all other militant groups and criminals on the other," the aide of Mr. Sarhadi says in the interview with The World Weekly in Karachi. "The Taliban passes on intelligence to Pakistan's ISI, which forwards it to the Afghan and US governments seeking action."
"But the longer it goes on, the more AQ and Taliban commanders will join IS. It is understood [by Pakistan and other involved states] that IS can only be stopped if there is a political settlement in Afghanistan, but inevitably there are spoilers on all sides - that is the nature of politics here," he says.
He was referring to hardliners within the Taliban, opposed to any negotiations during the presence of foreign forces in Afghanistan, and within the Afghan government, led by chief executive Abdullah Abdullah, who are steadfastly opposed to any compromise with the Taliban. Common amongst them is their non-acceptance of any dialogue that empowers Pakistan: it wants the Taliban to make significant compromises so that it can be included in Afghanistan's governing structure, ensuring a friendly presence on its northwest border and a strong influence over decision-making in Kabul.
Nonetheless Pakistan is key to the four-nation diplomatic effort being undertaken to bring about a resumption of direct talks between the Afghan government and the Taliban; a session took place near Islamabad in July, but a second scheduled meeting was postponed indefinitely after Kabul's disclosure of the death of Mullah Omar.
The Taliban's subsequent seizure of the northern Afghan city of Kunduz in September was a riposte by Mr. Mansoor - and, top Afghan officials have alleged, the Pakistani military - in response to the ill-timed disclosure by Mr. Abdullah's lobby within the Kabul administration, leading to protracted recriminations that lasted until November.
At the urging of the US and China, Afghan President Ashraf Ghani agreed to fly to Islamabad in early December to co-host the Heart of Asia - Istanbul Process multilateral conference on the future of Afghanistan. That was followed later in the month by a visit to Kabul by Pakistan's army chief of staff General Raheel Sharif, who dominates Pakistan's foreign policy agenda.
Thus on January 4, diplomats from China and the US joined their Afghan and Pakistani counterparts in Islamabad for what was headlined as a meeting about the resumption of peace talks between the Afghan government and Taliban insurgents. While not stated in as many words, the four countries and one non-state actor involved in the fresh push for a political settlement in Afghanistan have one thing in common: growing fear of the expansion of IS into South Asia.
At the meeting in Islamabad, the US apparently agreed to step up its action against IS Khorasan and on January 15 - three days before the diplomats convened for a second time in Kabul - formally outlawed the group.
Under pressure from the Afghan and Pakistani governments, the US has deployed its CIA drones against IS Khorasan, killing about 300 militants and several key commanders in 21 strikes between July and November, according to the New York-based Economics and Peace Institute’s “Global Terrorism Index 2015” report.
The brewing return to diplomatic engagement with the Taliban saw an upsurge in IS Khorasan activity both in Afghanistan and Pakistan. It made known its presence known by staging its two most high profile attacks: on January 13, a three-man IS suicide squad attacked Pakistan's consulate in Jalalabad, the provincial capital of Nangarhar, killing 17 people, including seven Afghan security personnel; on January 17, a suspected IS suicide bomber blew himself up at the home of prominent pro-peace Jalalabad politician, Obaidullah Shinwari, who escaped unharmed.
The escalation represents the IS determination to consolidate and expand its territory in Afghanistan and its onward linkages into Pakistan, the militants tell TWW in Karachi.
"Of course, Afghanistan and Pakistan is a top priority for IS: there are more fundamentalist Muslims here than in any other part of the world and there are vast numbers of impoverished people who will grab any opportunity to make money. It makes recruitment much easier than in most other places," says the aide of Sarhadi. "And when they are eventually squeezed out of Iraq and Syria by the global powers, it is in Afghanistan and Pakistan that the IS leadership will regroup."
Parallel to the surge in the Khorasan governorate's activity in Afghanistan and Pakistan, the Syria-based leadership of IS was working towards the creation of a new governorate in Southeast Asia, home to the Muslim-majority states of Bangladesh, Indonesia and Malaysia, as well as sizeable Muslim minorities resident in China, India, Myanmar, Philippines and Thailand.
The first IS attack came in August, when ethnic Turkey-resident dissident Uighurs from China bombed the popular Erawan Shrine in Bangkok, killing 20 people. Although links between IS and the attackers, who were subsequently arrested, were downplayed by the Thai authorities, they did make public a warning received from Russia's FSB security agency in November that 10 IS militants from Syria had entered the country on October 15-30, with specific plans to target Russian nationals. The militants were tracked as far as Bangkok and the tourist resorts of Pattaya and Phuket before falling off the FSB's radar.
As the Christmas-New Year tourism season approached, police in Indonesia and Malaysia said they had received intelligence that 30 militant groups were competing for the leadership of a planned IS governorate in the region, and were working through colleagues who had joined IS frontline forces in Syria to stage major incidents at crowded public venues. "The Uighur cell that attacked Bangkok" planned the whole campaign, says Rohan Gunaratna, head of the International Centre for Political Violence and Terrorism Research at Singapore's Nanyang Technological University.
However, the limited effectiveness of the attack - five assailants died in the process of killing four victims - indicates "IS has not provided any material support to its sympathisers in Indonesia," says Anton Alifandi, deputy head of Asia analysis for IHS Country Risk.
"However, by taking responsibility for the attacks, this is likely to signify closer IS involvement in the future. Given that Southeast Asia is the only region with a significant Muslim population where the Islamic State has not established a wilaya (governorate), its claim of responsibility means that is likely to be working towards its formation."
Despite the rising sense of alarm, however, Mr. Gunaratna believes IS will find it tougher to recruit in Asia than in the Middle East. "Asian Muslims live under the shadow of large non-Muslim communities. Asian Muslims value co-existence," he tells The World Weekly. "Although Asia presents a vast terrain for IS recruitment, IS faces many difficulties to politicise, radicalise and mobilise Muslims to support and participate in the IS dream.”
Nonetheless, Asia's political leadership is preparing for a bloody terrorist campaign. "The proliferation of charismatic preachers who advocate intolerance, violence; the availability of such teachings on the Internet; the glorification of terror, violence, beheadings - these international events, trends are fusing perfectly with fertile conditions in this region, to beget violence and terror," said K Shanmugam, Singapore's home affairs and law minister, in a speech on Tuesday.
Like the al-Qaeda and Taliban militants in Karachi, Mr. Shanmugam said the IS leadership is motivated by the base desire for power and furthers its ambitions by cynically exploiting Muslims' issues: officials in New Delhi on Wednesday confirmed IS wrote to India's Prime Minister Narendra Modi, threatening to "fix" him for enforcing a ban on beef consumption that has led to attacks by Hindu nationalists on Indian Muslims, some of them fatal.
"These ideas will not win in the end," Mr. Shanmugam said. "But the cost in terms of blood and misery will be high."