Jalalabad, Afghanistan (AP) – Bashir was a young Taliban fighter when an Islamic State group captured his village in eastern Afghanistan about eight years ago. The militants surrounded and killed villagers identified as Taliban, often beheaded and forced to visit their families.
Bashir escaped and lived in hiding while IS controlled several districts in Nangarhar province. Over time, he rose through the ranks of the Taliban.
Now known as Engineer Bashir, he is the head of Taliban intelligence in eastern Afghanistan and has played a key role in the campaign to crush IS. He did not forget the atrocities he witnessed on his home district line.
“I can not describe their cruelty in words, and whatever comes to your mind, they have done more than that,” he told the Associated Press in a recent interview at his headquarters in Jalalabad, the capital of Nangarhar.
Since coming to power in Afghanistan eight months ago, the Taliban have claimed their victory in suppressing the Islamic State group, but the militants have expanded to neighboring Pakistan, where they have stepped up attacks. Analysts say IS has emerged as the deadliest terrorist group in the region, where many violent, extremist organizations have sprung up.
In northwestern Pakistan, its impact is brutally clear. Remnants of an IS suicide bomber can still be seen on the decorated walls of the mosque at one time, when he blew himself up and killed more than 60 worshipers. ISIS has claimed responsibility for the attack in Kabul.
After a steady decline over the past decade, the March 4 bombing of the Kusha Kisaldar Shia Mosque in the old city of Peshawar stunned Pakistanis.
Amir Rana, managing director of the Pakistan Institute of Peace Studies, an independent think tank that monitors terrorist activities in Pakistan, said the increase in attacks began and accelerated last year.
At the end of March this year, Pakistan saw 52 attacks by militants, carrying out 35 attacks during the same period last year, according to institute data. The attacks have also become deadly. In Pakistan, 155 people have been killed in similar attacks so far this year, up from 68 last year.
The worst has been demanded by a known Islamic State in the province of Corazon or a subsidiary of the ruthless Islamic State known as IS-K.
Meanwhile, IS attacks in Afghanistan seem to be declining.
IS-K first appeared in 2014 in eastern Afghanistan. By 2019, it had significant land area in Nangarhar province and was pushed to neighboring Kunar province. The U.S. military has launched a massive airstrikes against the so-called “mother of all bombs”, including targeting a suspected IS hideout with the United States’ largest conventional bomb.
But the survival of IS was the biggest security challenge for the Taliban when they seized power in Afghanistan last August.
IS-Q is a longtime enemy of the Taliban. The Taliban support the strict interpretation of Islamic law and have frequently used suicide attacks during the nearly 20-year uprising against the United States and its Afghan allies. But they often mix tribal traditions with religious orders and reach out to Shias. IS, meanwhile, opposes any group known for its atrocities that are not acceptable to its radical, profound Shiite ideology and for spreading fear. IS, unlike the Taliban, sees their war as one to establish an integrated Muslim world under one caliphate.
The Taliban responded with their characteristic heavy hand, wiping out suspicious IS strongholds. In October and November, residents reported bodies hanging from trees. They were said to be IS militants.
Bashir says the Taliban have succeeded in controlling the group.
“We have taken control of all those areas … At present, some people may be lurking in the houses (but) they have no part under their control. There is no dash, ”he said, using the Arabic acronym IS.
He said the Taliban have long been experts in guerrilla warfare, which is detrimental to IS-Q fighters. He said the IS-Qaeda did not have any tactics that the Taliban did not already know or use.
Some militant observers say the Taliban’s deep access to Afghanistan’s villages and links to mosques and madrassas in small hamlets have reduced the space for IS operations.
Senior U.S. military officials say Washington’s ability to gather intelligence about IS has plummeted since the chaotic US withdrawal from Afghanistan last year.
The region is also devoid of hospitality to the United States. Political turmoil has sparked anti-US sentiment in Pakistan. In Afghanistan, the Taliban imposed a rule in the late 1990s that was detrimental to their hardline government. China plays a key role in the region, soon surpassing US influence.
IS-K is not the only militant group in the region. Others include the India-based Lashkar-e-Taiba, China’s Uyghur rebels in the East Turkestan group, and Uzbekistan’s insurgent Islamic movement in Central Asia.
The threat of IS has become more fluid and harder to control.
Dr. Amira Jadoon, an assistant professor at the Center for the Fight Against Terrorism at the U.S. Military Academy in West Point, said IS-K is weaker than it was in 2019. The difference, she said.
“It is now a stronger terrorist group than it was in 2019, but may have a weaker ‘insurgency’ compared to its previous peak years because it does not have the same level of regional control and controls any civilians,” Jadoon said.
A February UN report estimated the number of IS-K fighters at about 4,000 and said it was “enjoying more freedom than at any time in recent history.”
Not everyone agrees. Bill Rogeo, who oversees militant movements, said that the Taliban’s rise to power had prompted some former members of the group that had defected to IS-Q to return to the Taliban fold.
“The Taliban received a great deal of encouragement after its victory in Afghanistan,” Rojio said, adding that he was also a senior member of the Conservative Foundation for the Defense of Democracies.
Unlike in Afghanistan, IS-K is not trying to claim rights in Pakistan.
Instead, it often backs well-established anti-Shiite groups such as Lashkar-e-Jhangvi, which has carried out numerous brutal attacks against Pakistan’s Shiite Muslim minority. In both countries, an extremist Sunni Muslim group is branding Shiites as extremists and mercilessly targeting them.
Rana, who belongs to the Pakistan Terrorism Monitoring Group, said IS aims to provoke tensions between Islamabad and Kabul. But he said Pakistani authorities still view the Pakistani Taliban, a domestic opposition group, as a major threat.
“This is a very blatant and simplistic view,” he said, warning that IS attacks could escalate.
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