ISIS Have Made Their Move Into Afghanistan Says Army General

ISIS flag
Homosexuality is regularly publicly punished in ISIS-controlled territories. Stinger/REUTERS

The Islamic State of Iraq and Syria (ISIS) is now active in southern Afghanistan, according to Afghan officials, who say the extremist group are now fighting the Taliban and recruiting new members in the country.

A man known as Mullah Abdul Rauf has been identified as ISIS' representative in the region. General Mahmood Khan, a commander in the Afghan army's 215 corps, told Associated Press: "A number of tribal leaders, jihadi commanders and some ulema (religious council members) and other people have contacted me to tell me that Rauf had contacted them and invited them to join him."

It appears that Rauf was previously on the Taliban's side. According to AP, Amir Mohammad Akundzada, who is a regional governor in Afghanistan, says Rauf is a former member of the Taliban: "People who want to fight in Afghanistan just create new names - one day they are wearing the white clothes [of the Taliban], and the next day they have black clothes and call themselves ISIS, but they are the same people."

Last November, ISIS' leader, Abu Bakr Al-Baghdadi's 'Volcanoes of Jihad' speech appeared online. In it he said: "We give you [Muslims] good news by announcing the expansion of the Islamic state to new lands, to the lands of Al-Haramayn [Saudi Arabia] and Egypt, Libya, and Algeria", clearly stating ISIS' intentions to expand beyond Iraq and Syria where it primarily operates. Organizations in as many as 11 countries have already reportedly pledged fealty to ISIS, including jihadists in Algeria, Egypt, Saudi Arabia, Yemen, Libya and even as far as the Philippines.

In an article published last year on The Daily Beast, prompted by rumours that ISIS were moving into Afghanistan, a western intelligence source said: "There is good potential for ISIS to grow in the Afghanistan-Pakistan region. Even among the Taliban, there are some that might be willing to pledge to ISIS, or have done so already in secret and will reveal themselves in the near future."

Ben Barry, a former brigadier, 35-year British army veteran and current senior fellow for Land Warfare at the International Institute for Strategic Studies told Newsweek: "We have to treat these reports with some caution; I don't believe they've been confirmed by anyone high up in the ISIS organization. A consistent feature of the Afghan Taliban's argument is that they are the legitimate government of Afghanistan. Mullah Omar (the supreme commander of the Taliban) is the head of state in exile."

He adds, "Of course the Islamic state does claim itself to be a state. So there is a potential clash of legitimacies there." In terms of tactical implication Barry admits that "There will be those in the Afghan Taliban who will see what is achieved [by ISIS]," and some "may find that very attractive."

Allegiances in terrorist factions are sometimes rather loose, with fighters moving between factions or even changing sides. News of ISIS activity in Afghanistan comes several months after a BBC report that disclosed that fighters from Hezb-I-Islami, a group allied with the Afghanistan Taliban, were considering defecting to ISIS. They interviewed one of the group's commanders who said: "We are waiting to see if [ISIS] meet the requirement for an Islamic caliphate… if we find they do, we are sure that our leadership will announce their allegiance to them. They are great mujahedeen. We pray for them, and if we don't see a problem in the way they operate, we will join them."

According to the news website Vocativ, ISIS leader Baghdadi has previously appealed to the leader of al-Qaeda, Ayman Al-Zawahiri, to abandon the Taliban in return for a major position within ISIS.

Fawaz A. Gerges, a professor of International Relations at the London School of Economics and the author of The Far Enemy: Why Jihad Went Global, is sceptical: "I doubt if the presence of ISIS will make a qualitative difference. ISIS does not possess a critical mass to dramatically change the dynamics of the conflict in Afghanistan at this moment", despite the fact that certain elements of the Pakistani Taliban have defected to ISIS.

Gerges adds: "While the presence of ISIS in Afghanistan would pour gasoline on a raging fire there, the Arab-dominated organization cannot aspire to gain power in the war-torn country. The Taliban in Afghanistan are hard-core religious nationalists; they won't tolerate domination by non-Afghans, even if they are co-religionists from other Muslim countries."