Sunday, April 22, 2018

How Much of a Threat is Islamic State Khorasan Province?

By Elizabeth Kendal

Christians Targeted in Quetta

In Pakistan’s south-western city of Quetta, the capital of sparsely populated Balochistan Province, the already vulnerable Christian community is under attack.

On Sunday morning, 17 December, at least nine people were killed and more than 50 injured when two suicide bombers blew themselves up at Bethel Memorial Methodist Church, as some 200 local Christians were participating in a special “Sunday School Christmas Program”. . [See RLPB 437 (19 Dec 2017)].

On the evening of Easter Monday 2 April, four members of a Christian family were travelling along Quetta’s Shah Zaman road when militants on a motorbike intercepted their rickshaw and open fired. A young girl was wounded and rushed to hospital. Her father and three cousins were killed.

Then on Sunday 15 April, four men on two motorbikes opened fire on Christians in Quetta’s Isa Nagri (City of Jesus; a Christian neighbourhood). Some of the victims were emerging from a worship service; others were just sitting in front of their homes. Two Christians were killed and three were critically wounded.

The widow of slain Azhar Iqbal (26).
Christian funeral in Quetta, 18 April [Photo Gallery]

On each occasion, Islamic State Khorasan Province (ISK-P) claimed responsibility.

For more details see: Religious Liberty Prayer Bulletin (RLPB) 451
Pakistan: Islamic State targets Christians in Quetta, 18 April 2018
by Elizabeth Kendal

Islamic State Khorasan Province (ISK-P)

Khorasan denotes a historical region covering all of Afghanistan along with parts of Iran, Central Asia, western China and Pakistan. ISK-P is Islamic State’s franchise in Khorasan Province / Wilayat-e-Khorasan.

After the death in 2013 of Taliban leader Mullah Omar, the Taliban found itself wracked with internal conflicts and divisions. Meanwhile, internal conflicts and divisions were also emerging in the jihadist movement in Meopotamia (Syria-Iraq) between al-Qaeda head Ayman al-Zawahiri and Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi who had established an al-Qaeda franchise in Syria under the leadership of Abu Muhammad al-Julani. The split in May 2013 left two jihadist factions fighting for dominance in northern Syria: Jabhat al-Nusra, which remained loyal to al-Qaeda’s al-Zawahiri and al-Julani, and the Islamic State of Iraq and Sham (Greater Syria / the Levant; ISIS/ISIL), whose members swore allegiance to al-Baghdadi.

In January 2014, ISIS expelled al-Nusra from the provincial capital of Raqqa (in northern Syria) and assumed full control of the city. In April 2014, al-Baghdadi escalated the ideological dispute by insisting that there would be no reconciliation with al-Zawahiri’s al-Qaeda. As far the vehemently anti-Shi’ite al-Baghdadi was concerned, al-Zawahiri’s willingness to cooperate with Shi’ite Iran was proof that al-Qaeda was on a divergent path. When al-Baghdadi threw down the gauntlet and demanded all Muslims recognise his authority, nine prominent al-Qaeda leaders from the region historically known as Greater Khorasan immediately declared their allegiance to al-Baghdadi.

In January 2015, a group of disgruntled Pakistani Taliban and Afghan Taliban commanders produced a propaganda video in which they formerly pledged allegiance to Islamic State. Within days of the video’s release, the Islamic State announced its expansion into Khorasan Province and officially appointed Hafiz Saeed Khan as the Wali (Governor) of Khorasan and former Guantanamo Bay detainee and senior Taliban leader Mullah Abdul Rauf Khadim as Khan’s deputy. The group would be based in Afghanistan.

For more information see:
Mapping the emergence of the Islamic State in Afghanistan
By LWJ Staff, 5 March, 2015

After Saturday Comes Sunday: Understanding the Christian Crisis in the Middle East, by Elizabeth Kendal (Wipf and Stock, Eugene OR, June 2016). Chapter 8 ‘The Evolution of a War,’ from subheading ‘Raqqa and the Al-Nusra-ISIS split’ through ‘The Khorasan Pledge’ (pp 154 through 164).

In Khorasan as in Mesopotamia, Islamic State has shown itself to be the enemy not only of Shi'ites, but of all minorities, Christians included.

In Khorasan as in Mesopotamia, the pro-Islamic State and pro-al-Qaeda Sunni Islamic jihadist factions clash over ideology, tactics, strategy and territory.

In Khorasan as in Mesopotamia, most locals denounce Islamic State's zealous brutality and total disregard for history and local culture. 

In Khorasan as in Mesopotamia, Islamic State exploits a prophetic hadith (alleged saying of Muhammad).

The Khorasan Hadith 

In Mesopotamia (Syria-Iraq) Islamic State rallied around a prophetic hadith concerning Dabiq (a town in north-western Syria) in which Muhammad is alleged to have said:

First issue of Islamic State's
magazine, DABIQ, July 2014.
“The Last Hour would not come until the Romans would land at al-A’maq or in Dabiq.”

The leader of al-Qaeda in Iraq (AQI), Abu Musab al-Zaraqawi (killed in June 2006) sighted this hadith when he predicted that the war in Iraqi was but the first stage of an apocalyptic battle that would culminate with Muslim victory in Dabiq: “The spark has been lit here in Iraq and its heat will continue to intensify…until it burns the Crusader armies in Dabiq.”

Islamic State embraced the prophetic hadith and al-Zaraqawi’s prediction effectively exploiting it to recruit Muslim men and women from all over the world and every walk of life.

A similar dynamic potentially exists in “Khorasan” on account of another prophetic hadith:

“Black standards [flags] will come from Khorasan, nothing shall turn them back until they are planted in Jerusalem.” (Source: Sunan At-Tirmidhi 2269)

The fact that this hadith is widely regarded as weak and probably inauthentic is irrelevant to the jihadists who have exploited it for decades.

early propaganda video
“The Emergence of Prophecy:
The Black Flags of Khorasan” 
As writer Asif Ullah Khan explains, “The first time this hadith was used in the sub-continent was in 1980 when the US and Saudi Arabia cobbled up the biggest global jihad coalition to wage a guerrilla war against the Soviet Union invasion of Afghanistan.

Brigadier Asad Munir, who commanded Pakistan’s intelligence service, the ISI, in the tribal areas until 2005, says the Khorasan hadith was one of the main reasons why Pakistan’s Federally Administered Tribal Areas (FATA) have become a rendezvous of sorts for Jihadists from all over the world.”

So, How Much of Threat is ISK-P?

Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov
addresses the UN Security Council
On Friday 19 January, Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov warned the UN Security Council that jihadists fleeing Syria were turning northern Afghanistan into “a main base for international terrorism with the Afghan wing of the Islamic State in the lead”. Lavrov added that 2017 saw an “unprecedented growth in Afghan drug production”, the funds from which are known to fuel international terrorism. He recommended "prompt measures . . . to curb this threat".

On 20 February,  Lavrov expressed his frustration that the US and NATO simply refuse to confront the reality of ISK-P:

“We are alarmed as unfortunately, the US and NATO military in Afghanistan makes every effort to silence and deny [the IS group’s presence in Afghanistan],” Lavrov told reporters after talks with his Pakistani counterpart Khawaja Muhammad Asif.

“According to our data, the IS presence in northern and eastern Afghanistan is rather serious, there are already thousands of gunmen. This increases the risk of the terrorists’ penetration to Central Asia and it is not that difficult to get to Russia.”

Contrary to this, the position of the US – which is eager to depart from Afghanistan with a semblance of dignity – is that ISK-P is insignificant and does not present a serious threat. According to the US,  Russia is merely “peddling a narrative” and “exaggerating” for political gain. Consequently, Russian efforts to forge security cooperation across Central Asia are being mocked and derided in the West.

According to the US, Russia exaggerates and exploits fears of Islamic State simply so it might further project itself across Central Asia. Further to this, Navy Capt. Tom Gresback, public affairs director at Resolute Support headquarters, told Military Times, “[U.S. Forces-Afghanistan] has no evidence of any significant migration of IS-K foreign fighters. We see local fighters who switch allegiances to join ISIS for various reasons, but the Russian narrative grossly exaggerates the numbers of ISIS fighters that are in the country.”

Gen. John Nicholson, the head of U.S. Forces-Afghanistan, agrees. “This [Russian] narrative then is used as a justification for the Russians to legitimize the actions of the Taliban and provide some degree of support to the Taliban.”

Apart from the fact that Taliban is only a threat to Russia (or the US) if it is providing sanctuary to trans-nationalist jihadi movements such as al-Qaeda, as it did before 9/11,  Russia has no interest in supporting Islamic militancy in its own backyard. Not only does Russia deny that it is supporting the Taliban, so too does the Taliban which insists it has “not received assistance from any country”.

For more on this dispute see:

Is Russia arming the Afghan Taliban?
By Dawood Azami, BBC World Service, 2 April 2018

Is ISIS gaining ‘serious’ ground in Afghanistan? Russia says yes. The US says no.
By Kyle Rempfer, for Military Times, 26 March 2018

Why Russia Exaggerates Islamic State's Presence in Afghanistan
By Samuel Ramani, for The Diplomat, 10 April 2018

Islamic State seizes new Afghan foothold after luring Taliban defectors
Matin Sahak and Girish Gupta, for Reuters, 2 December 2017.

So, How Much of Threat is ISK-P?

ISK-P suffered numerous losses through 2016 – some at the hands of the Taliban, some at the hands of US-backed Afghan forces. This culminated in April 2017 when the US military detonated a Massive Ordnance Air Blast (MOAB) munition over an ISK-P tunnel complex in Nangarhar, eastern Afghanistan.

Despite this, ISK-P has not only endured but grown in strength and capability. ISK-P has gone on to commit horrific killings and even spectacular terror attacks, including against high-profile targets in the centre of Kabul such as the 25 December bombing of the National Directorate for Security, and the bombing on 22 April of a voter registration centre in which at least 57 people were killed and around 120 wounded.

A report published in January in the Jamestown Foundation’s Terrorism Monitor gives credence to the Russian assessment that ISK-P is growing, consolidating and expanding and that this is indeed, “rather serious”.

Islamic State Gains Ground in Afghanistan as Its Caliphate Crumbles Elsewhere
Publication: Terrorism Monitor Volume: 16 Issue: 2
By Animesh Roul, 26 January 2018

Roul’s opening assessment is blunt: “Wilayat-e-Khorasan, the Islamic State (IS) affiliate in the borderlands of Afghanistan and Pakistan, is one of the terrorist group’s strongest franchises. Bolstered by defections from the Taliban and boosted further in recent months by an influx of foreign fighters fleeing defeat in Iraq and Syria, IS Khorasan Province (ISK-P) is growing in strength and influence.”

In Roul’s assessment, ISK-P has “expanded its influence beyond its operational headquarters in Afghanistan’s Nangarhar province, which borders Pakistan’s tribal regions”. Roul explains that ISK-P has been able to carry out “mass-fatality attacks in cities from Jalalabad and Kabul in Afghanistan, to Quetta and Lahore in Pakistan.

“Alarmingly,” he adds, “in September last year, an IS flag bearing the message ‘The khilafat (caliphate) is coming’ was even seen hoisted on a pedestrian bridge near Iqbal town in Islamabad, the Pakistani capital.”

As Roul explains, “The rise and consolidation of ISK-P in Afghanistan and Pakistan has been aided by intra-Taliban rivalry triggered by the death of Taliban leader Mullah Omar. Recruitment has been aided elsewhere by the Deobandi seminaries, which have for decades propagated sectarian ideals in the tribal regions. Further, ISK-P – like its parent organization in Syria and Iraq – has gone beyond these more traditional support structures, using social media to attract more educated and tech-savvy city dwellers.”

According to Roul, “in early 2017, Pakistani agencies uncovered IS recruitment networks in Punjab and Lahore”.

As Roul explains, ISK-P’s ranks are increasingly being swelled by foreign fighters – French, Algerian, Uzbeks, Indians, Russians [mostly ‘Chechens’], Pakistanis and Tajiks etc -- including females, most of whom are fleeing the fighting in Syria. [This confirms the Reuters report of 2 December 2017 (linked above).]

Roul concludes, it is “certain that a safe haven for ISK-P militants has developed in the tribal lands of Afghanistan and Pakistan. The present situation suggests fleeing militants could find a new lease on life and win further sympathizers to the crumbling caliphate, allowing ISK-P to grow in stature in the region.”


I make the case in After Saturday Comes Sunday: Understanding the Christian Crisis in the Middle East, that the dar al-Islam (house of Islam) has long exploited divisions in the dar al-harb (house of war). Indeed, it is a fact that Islam has mastered the art of inserting itself as a wedge between East and West, exploiting East-West completion and playing East and West off against each other for its own strategic purposes and geo-political gain.

See: After Saturday Comes Sunday: Understanding the Christian Crisis in the Middle East, by Elizabeth Kendal (Wipf and Stock, Eugene OR, June 2016). Chapter 11, ‘A House Divided’.

Until  East and West can cooperate against their common enemy – revived fundamentalist Islam – then the future remains dark, like a vision of endless war.

If East and West can not cooperate against revived fundamentalist Islam then the chaos in Mesopotamia and Khorasan – which includes nuclear-armed Pakistan – will continue to deepen and spread.

In Khorasan as in Mesopotamia, this bodes ill for religious minorities, in particular for the region’s exceedingly vulnerable Christians who look to the West for help only to be betrayed and abandoned.

In what may prove to be prophetic utterance,  a Syrian Church leader predicted in April 2014 that the time is coming when Christians “will no longer look to the West for support . . . but to the East, to Russia, to India, to China” (After Saturday Comes Sunday, p165).


Elizabeth Kendal is an international religious liberty analyst and advocate. She serves as Director of Advocacy at Canberra-based Christian Faith and Freedom (CFF), and is an Adjunct Research Fellow at the Arthur Jeffery Centre for the Study of Islam at Melbourne School of Theology.

She has authored two books: Turn Back the Battle: Isaiah Speaks to Christians Today (Deror Books, Melbourne, Australia, Dec 2012) which offers a Biblical response to persecution and existential threat; and After Saturday Comes Sunday: Understanding the Christian Crisis in the Middle East (Wipf and Stock, Eugene, OR, USA, June 2016).