A war-torn land awash with guns, Afghanistan offers fertile ground for Daesh and ISIS-K 

In this photograph taken on November 17, 2019 members of the Daesh group stand alongside their weapons, following they surrender to Afghanistan's government in Jalalabad. (File/AFP)
In this photograph taken on November 17, 2019 members of the Daesh group stand alongside their weapons, following they surrender to Afghanistan's government in Jalalabad. (File/AFP)
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Updated 11 September 2021

A war-torn land awash with guns, Afghanistan offers fertile ground for Daesh and ISIS-K 

A war-torn land awash with guns, Afghanistan offers fertile ground for Daesh and ISIS-K 
  • ISIS-K is among several terrorist outfits in Afghanistan, each with its own relationship with the Taliban
  • Daesh claimed responsibility for Aug. 26 bombings that killed 13 US soldiers and some 170 Afghan civilians

LONDON/CAIRO: Only three months after the deadly attacks on New York and Washington in 2001, Osama bin Laden and a small band of followers were forced to flee Tora Bora in the mountainous east of Afghanistan as US special forces and their local allies closed in.

The Al-Qaeda leader had been in Afghanistan for five years when he oversaw the 9/11 bombings, which killed nearly 3,000 people in the US. In 1996, Bin Laden had been given protection in the country by the first Taliban regime of Mullah Omar.

Since the days of the first holy war against the Soviet Union, he had been responsible for training and arming thousands of Arab recruits in war-torn Afghanistan.




A frame grab (L) taken 29 October 2004 from a videotape aired by Al-Jazeera news channel shows Al-Qaeda leader Osama bin Laden. (File/AFP)

Nearly 20 years on and under new Taliban leaders, Afghanistan remains a haven for terrorists from Central Asia and the Middle East in the form of Al-Qaeda and Daesh. Since the Taliban seized power in mid-August, hopes and promises for a newer, more peaceable Afghanistan have proved illusory.

On Aug. 26, Islamic State Khorasan Province (ISIS-K) claimed responsibility for twin bombings targeting US service personnel and Afghan civilians in and around Kabul airport. In the chaos and confusion, Daesh and its competitor, Al-Qaeda, have scented new opportunities, much as Bin Laden did two decades ago.

A UN sanctions monitoring team reporting in June found that a significant part of the Al-Qaeda leadership was based in the region along the Afghanistan-Pakistan border and that ISIS-K “remains active and dangerous.” ISIS-K is the most violent of all the groups.




An Afghan security personnel inspects a residential house that was damaged in a gunbattle between security forces and Islamic State (IS) group fighters in Jalalabad on February 15, 2021. (File/AFP)

Although badly mauled by US forces and those of the old Afghan government, its ability to attract and motivate fighters from around the world make it feared from Moscow to Beijing, Tashkent to Damascus — and in Kabul. The group has an ambitious new leader in Shahab Al-Muhajir, the UN sanctions monitoring team said.

The group’s presence in Afghanistan dates back to 2015, around the time when Abu Bakr Al-Baghdadi declared an Islamic State in Iraq and Syria and appointed himself as the caliph of Muslims in all parts of the world.

In Afghanistan, Hafiz Saeed Khan, a former head of the Pakistani Taliban (also known as Tehrik-i-Taliban Pakistan or TTP), pledged allegiance to Al-Baghdadi and founded an affiliate group, ISIS-K.

At its peak in 2016, ISIS-K had an estimated 2,500 to 8,500 fighters in Afghanistan, allowing the group to carry out high-level attacks, the majority of which were concentrated in Kabul and Nangarhar in the east of Afghanistan abutting the border with Pakistan.




Afghan security officials inspect seized weapons near a damaged residential house from where Daesh gunmen were firing mortar shells while another group was raiding a prison, in Jalalabad on Aug.4 , 2020. (FILE/AFP)

Kirill Nourzhanov, senior lecturer at the Center for Arab and Islamic Studies at the Australian National University, told Arab News that while the group had been “nearly wiped out in its main areas of operation” by the end of 2019, “the return of ISIS-K to the eastern provinces of Afghanistan may be only a matter of time. Sectarian violence perpetrated by ISIS-K is set to intensify.”

In the first six months of this year, ISIS-K claimed responsibility for more than 20 attacks targeting the Hazara Shiite community, resulting in an estimated 500 deaths. Such attacks are likely to unsettle the regime in Tehran.

Moreover, according to the Daesh-issued newspaper Al-Nabaa, since the US withdrawal got underway, ISIS-K has carried out more than 91 attacks, killing approximately 345 civilians and Afghan police officers.




In this photograph taken on Nov. 25, 2019, Afghan security forces take part in an ongoing operation against Islamic State (IS) militants in the Achin district of Nangarhar province. (File/AFP)

Shahram Akbarzadeh, convenor of the Middle East Studies Forum at Deakin University, Australia, told Arab News: “The withdrawal by the US and NATO forces has facilitated the collapse of the Afghan government and created a power vacuum.

“The Taliban found it easy to walk into Kabul, but this also offered opportunities for other groups like the ISIS-K to expand their sphere of influence. We are likely to see significant expansion of influence by this Salafi group.”

The power vacuum was not only likely to attract a stronger ISIS-K presence, but also other terrorist and extremist groups. Al-Qaeda leader Ayman Al-Zawahiri was thought to be living in the tribal areas of Pakistan but ailing. The group has strong links with the Taliban via the Haqqani network which controls Kabul’s security.




A June 11, 2014 image shows a militant of Daesh posing with the trademark flag. (File/AFP)

Al-Qaeda’s media responses, in contrast with those of the Taliban, Daesh and Hayat Tahrir Al-Sham in northern Syria, are slow, implying severely depleted capabilities. Another senior Al-Qaeda leader, Saif Al-Adel, the group’s former No. 3 after Bin Laden and Al-Zawahiri, is believed to be living in Iran with the protection and support of the regime. But the Taliban’s assumption of power should provide a boost to Al-Qaeda as well as Daesh.

Arie Kruglanski, an expert on the psychology of terrorism and political activism, said: “Al-Qaeda has a strong presence in other parts of the world including West Africa, the Maghreb, and Syria. With the takeover by the Taliban, it is likely to gain another haven to recoup and reorganize in the Afghanistan-Pakistan region.”

The ease of movement that Afghanistan provides makes the country attractive to both Daesh and Al-Qaeda, especially compared with other areas where they are currently concentrated. Afghanistan’s weak borders facilitate the movement of fighters, especially from Pakistan, through mountainous areas which NATO and former Afghan government forces found difficult, if not impossible, to police.

In the west, the Iranian border also provides another passage for terrorists to cross into Afghanistan. ISIS-K offers an alternative location for fighters and sleeper cells from Iraq and Syria to recuperate and resume operations.

Gulbuddin Hekmatyar, the head of the Islamic Party and a former Mujahideen leader, has blamed Iran for facilitating the passage of Daesh fighters from Iraq and Syria to Afghanistan, which he says is leading to the formation of a “new Daesh version” in the region.

Nevertheless, the region presents challenges to ISIS-K, notably in the form of the Taliban, who for the moment have near-total control of Afghanistan. The new Taliban regime was quick to underline its religious credentials on Aug. 19 by declaring the Islamic Emirate of Afghanistan, the same name that the group used when it ruled the country between 1996 and 2001.




A June 11, 2014 image shows militants of Daesh posing with the trademark flag. (File/AFP)

Many analysts think that Afghanistan will see intensified clashes between the Taliban and ISIS-K in the coming weeks.

Jonathan Goodhand, professor of conflict and development studies at the School of Oriental and African Studies, said: “There is deep enmity between Daesh and the Taliban. While the likes of Al-Qaeda, the TPP, the Islamic Movement of Uzbekistan and others will celebrate the Taliban victory, it’s very unlikely that Daesh’s footprint will expand in Afghanistan.”

While the Taliban is mainly made up of Pashtuns who come only from Afghanistan and Pakistan, Daesh comprises a multitude of nationalities including Arabs, Uzbeks, Turkmens, Chechens, Kurds, Kazakhs, Tajiks and Uyghurs.




A June 11, 2014 image shows militants of Daesh hanging their flag on a pole at the top of an ancient military fort. (File/AFP)

Nourzhanov said: “The Taliban have been fighting ISIS-K consistently and robustly since 2015. In fact, it’s precisely the Taliban’s efficiency in combating what Russia, Iran, and the Central Asian republics count as enemy No. 1, that has compelled Afghanistan’s neighbors to adopt a flexible and pragmatic stance vis-a-vis the Taliban.”

Akbarzadeh expected ISIS-K to try to expand its influence, thereby exacerbating tensions with the Taliban. He said: “The Taliban and ISIS-K are rivals. ISIS-K dismisses the Taliban as fake Muslims just as it dismisses all other Muslim groups as corrupt and untrue. They have clashed in the past. And the Taliban has tried to distance itself from the overtly sectarian and violent ISIS-K.

“With the US out of the picture these tensions are likely to be exacerbated as ISIS-K moves to expand its influence and comes into direct conflict with the Taliban,” Akbarzadeh added.


UK monarch won’t visit UN climate conference in person

UK monarch won’t visit UN climate conference in person
Updated 56 min 59 sec ago

UK monarch won’t visit UN climate conference in person

UK monarch won’t visit UN climate conference in person
  • The 95-year-old monarch has “regretfully’’ decided that she will no longer travel to Glasgow to attend the reception on Nov. 1
  • “Her Majesty is disappointed not to attend the reception but will deliver an address to the assembled delegates via a recorded video message,’’ the palace said

LONDON: Queen Elizabeth II has canceled her planned engagement at the UN climate conference, accepting doctors’ advice to rest, Buckingham Palace said Tuesday.
The 95-year-old monarch has “regretfully’’ decided that she will no longer travel to Glasgow to attend the reception on Nov. 1 — a move that will dash the hopes of Britain’s Conservative government, which is hosting the event. The climate conference runs from Oct. 31 to Nov. 12.
“Her Majesty is disappointed not to attend the reception but will deliver an address to the assembled delegates via a recorded video message,’’ the palace said.
The news came after the sovereign held virtual audiences Tuesday at Windsor Castle — the first work obligations since revelations that her doctors ordered her to rest last week.
The 95-year-old sovereign greeted the ambassador of the Republic of Korea during her first technology-aided appearance since she was driven to London’s King Edward VII’s Hospital on Oct. 20 for “preliminary investigations.” She returned to her Windsor Castle home at lunchtime the next day.
The queen underwent the medical tests after she canceled a scheduled trip to mark 100 years since the creation of Northern Ireland, and the palace said she had “reluctantly” accepted advice to rest for a few days. The matter was not related to COVID-19.
The period of rest followed a hectic few days for the monarch in which she held audiences with diplomats, had a reception at Windsor Castle for global business leaders and attended the horse races at Ascot.
Her hospital visit last week came amid general disquiet about Elizabeth’s health. Days earlier, she was seen using a walking stick at a Westminster Abbey service marking the centenary of the Royal British Legion, an armed forces charity. Though she had used a cane in 2003, it was after she underwent knee surgery.
The queen’s husband, Prince Philip, died in April 2021 at age 99. Though Elizabeth has enjoyed robust health throughout her life, she is Britain’s longest-lived and longest-reigning monarch. She is due to celebrate her Platinum Jubilee — 70 years on the throne — next year.


Up to 3 migrants feared dead off English coast

Up to 3 migrants feared dead off English coast
Updated 26 October 2021

Up to 3 migrants feared dead off English coast

Up to 3 migrants feared dead off English coast
  • Search teams continue to look for the people, believed to be Somalis
  • MP: ‘The potential loss of life is extremely distressing’

LONDON: British Border Force officers and rescue teams are searching the English Channel amid fears that three migrants have died trying to cross from France to England in a small boat.

Two more people have been pulled from the water by rescuers, who continue to search the area using a helicopter and plane.

After being alerted to the distressed boat on Monday, officers continued to search for any more survivors well into Tuesday.

It is understood that they are looking for Somali passengers who may have left France as early as the weekend, the Daily Mail reported.

Days of treacherous weather and winds have further exacerbated fears for the safety of the other passengers.

Harwich and North Essex MP Sir Bernard Jenkin said: “Obviously the potential loss of life is extremely distressing. We should be extremely grateful to Border Force, the RNLI (Royal National Lifeboat Institution) and search and rescue teams for all their efforts.”

He added: “We must redouble our efforts to deal with the criminal gangs who are trafficking migrants, taking money from them and putting them in great peril.”

If the three missing individuals are confirmed dead, this incident will have been one of the deadliest ever off the coast of England.

The UK has experienced record numbers of arrivals of refugees and migrants crossing in small boats from France.

The short but treacherous journey has been made by an estimated 2,500 people in October alone.

Figures so far this year have tripled those from the whole of 2020, with some 19,500 making crossings compared with 8,410.

A Coastguard spokesperson told the Daily Mail: “HM Coastguard will continue to safeguard life around the seas and coastal areas of the UK, working with search and rescue resources in the area.

“If a vessel needs search and rescue assistance, HM Coastguard will continue to respond and rescue those in danger.”

Despite controversy from anti-immigration elements of British society and media, the RNLI — a life-saving service at sea that relies almost entirely on public donations — has reiterated its firm commitment to protecting the lives of anyone caught in distress off Britain’s coast.

“Those we rescue are vulnerable people in danger & distress,” it tweeted earlier this year. “Each of them is someone’s father, mother, son or daughter — every life is precious. This is why we launch.”


Daesh in Afghanistan could be able to attack US in 6 months-Pentagon official

Daesh in Afghanistan could be able to attack US in 6 months-Pentagon official
Updated 26 October 2021

Daesh in Afghanistan could be able to attack US in 6 months-Pentagon official

Daesh in Afghanistan could be able to attack US in 6 months-Pentagon official
  • Afghanistan could still pose serious national security concerns for the US even after it ended its two-decade-old war in defeat in August
  • Undersecretary of defense for policy said it was still unclear whether the Taliban has the ability to fight Daesh effectively following the US withdrawal

WASHINGTON: The US intelligence community has assessed that Daesh in Afghanistan could have the capability to attack the US in as little as six months, and has the intention to do so, a senior Pentagon official told Congress on Tuesday.
The remarks by Colin Kahl, undersecretary of defense for policy, are the latest reminder that Afghanistan could still pose serious national security concerns for the United States even after it ended its two-decade-old war in defeat in August.
The Taliban, which won the war, are enemies of Daesh and have seen its attempts to impose law and order after the US pullout thwarted by suicide bombings and other attacks claimed by Daesh.
They include bombings targeting the minority Shiite sect and even a Daesh beheading of a member of a Taliban militia force in the eastern city of Jalalabad.
In testimony before the Senate Armed Services Committee, Kahl said it was still unclear whether the Taliban has the ability to fight Daesh effectively following the US withdrawal in August. The United States fought the Taliban as well as striking groups like Daesh and Al-Qaeda.
“It is our assessment that the Taliban and Daesh-K are mortal enemies. So the Taliban is highly motivated to go after Daesh-K. Their ability to do so, I think, is to be determined,” Kahl said, using an acronym for Daesh in Afghanistan.
Kahl estimated Daesh had a “cadre of a few thousand” fighters.
Acting Foreign Minister Amir Khan Muttaqi of the new Taliban government has said the threat from Daesh militants will be addressed. He also said Afghanistan would not become a base for attacks on other countries.
Kahl suggested Al-Qaeda in Afghanistan posed a more complex problem, given its ties to the Taliban. It was those ties that triggered the US military intervention in Afghanistan in 2001 following Al-Qaeda’s Sept. 11 attacks on New York and Washington. The Taliban had harbored Al-Qaeda leaders.
Kahl said it could take Al-Qaeda “a year or two” to regenerate the capability to carry out attacks outside of Afghanistan against the United States.
Democratic President Joe Biden, whose supervision of the chaotic end to the war last summer has damaged his approval ratings, has said the United States will continue to be vigilant against threats emanating from Afghanistan by carrying out intelligence-gathering operations in the country that would identify threats from groups like Al-Qaeda and Daesh.
Kahl said the goal was to disrupt those groups so that Daesh and Al-Qaeda don’t become capable of striking the United States.
“We need to be vigilant in disrupting that,” he said.
Still, US officials privately warn that identifying and disrupting groups like Al-Qaeda and Daesh is extremely difficult without any troops in the country. Drones capable of striking Daesh and Al-Qaeda targets are being flown in from the Gulf.
Kahl said the United States did not yet have any agreement with countries neighboring Afghanistan to host troops for counterterrorism efforts.


British police allegedly tried to remove protesting husband of Nazanin Zaghari-Ratcliffe

British police allegedly tried to remove protesting husband of Nazanin Zaghari-Ratcliffe
Updated 26 October 2021

British police allegedly tried to remove protesting husband of Nazanin Zaghari-Ratcliffe

British police allegedly tried to remove protesting husband of Nazanin Zaghari-Ratcliffe
  • Richard Ratcliffe was protesting outside UK Foreign Office over London’s alleged inaction regarding his wife’s detention in Iran
  • Zaghari-Ratcliffe has been detained by Tehran for over five years for allegedly plotting to overthrow the government

LONDON: Richard Ratcliffe, the husband of Nazanin Zaghari-Ratcliffe, has claimed that British police tried to remove him from his protest outside the UK Foreign, Commonwealth and Development Office and has pledged to stay until the government responds to his demands.

Nazanin Zaghari-Ratcliffe has been detained in Iran for over five years on national security charges that she strenuously denies. Her husband has argued repeatedly that the UK is not doing enough to secure her release.

Ratcliffe began a hunger strike over the weekend to pressure the government to do more to bring his wife home, and he alleges that police tried to remove him from his picket outside the FCDO at 3.45 a.m. on Monday morning.

He said that despite the attempted removal, he intends to stay until Whitehall takes action, according to the Evening Standard newspaper.

Ratcliffe was joined by his daughter Gabriella on Monday.

Zaghari-Ratcliffe, a British-Iranian dual national, has been in custody in Iran since 2016 after being accused of plotting to overthrow the government. She has spent four years in the notorious Evin prison and one under house arrest in her family’s home in Tehran.

Her family said Iranian authorities revealed she was being held as a bargaining chip over a historic debt between the UK and pre-revolutionary Iranian government worth £400 million ($552.168 million).

Ratcliffe told the Standard: “I’m staying until the government responds. I’m hoping that response is to engage with the demands and not to tell the police to move me on.”

He has demanded that Whitehall “acknowledge Nazanin and the others as hostages, punish the perpetrators, keep the promise to settle the debt and commit to end state hostage taking in Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action negotiations.”

The JCPOA, often referred to as the Iran nuclear deal, is currently being renegotiated by world powers including the US and European nations with Iran. Critics have said that the narrow deal focuses too heavily on Iran’s nuclear activity without addressing other malignant behavior, such as support for regional proxies and the use of kidnapping as a tool of diplomacy.

Ratcliffe has lamented the harm that the ordeal is doing to his daughter, who herself was previously not allowed to leave Iran. He has also criticized the British government for its treatment of his family.

“Two years ago we were allowed to camp in front of the Iranian Embassy for 15 days, much to their considerable anger. But it got Gabriella home. We are now giving the UK government the same treatment.

“In truth, I never expected to have to do a hunger strike twice. It is not a normal act,” he said. “It seems extraordinary, the need to adopt the same tactics to persuade the government here, to cut through the accountability gap.

“Of course Iran still remains the primary abuser in Nazanin’s case. But our family is caught in a dispute between two states.”

He added: “The UK is also letting us down.”

Sacha Deshmukh, interim CEO of Amnesty International UK, said: “It’s so incredibly upsetting that it’s come to this.

“Like Richard, we’ve grown tired of hearing ministers saying they’re ‘doing all they can’ for Nazanin and other arbitrarily-detained Britons in Iran — it doesn’t look like that to us, and it certainly hasn’t produced results.”

A spokesperson for the FCDO said: “Iran’s decision to proceed with these baseless charges against Nazanin Zaghari-Ratcliffe is an appalling continuation of the cruel ordeal she is going through.

“Instead of threatening to return Nazanin to prison, Iran must release her permanently so she can return home.

“We are doing all we can to help Nazanin get home to her young daughter and family and we will continue to press Iran on this point.”


30 Brits in video plea for help escaping Afghanistan

30 Brits in video plea for help escaping Afghanistan
Updated 26 October 2021

30 Brits in video plea for help escaping Afghanistan

30 Brits in video plea for help escaping Afghanistan
  • UK govt appears to have ‘completely forgotten and abandoned us’
  • The 30 are part of group of 100 stranded Brits

LONDON: A group of 30 Britons stranded in Afghanistan has released a video pleading for help in getting them and their families out of the country, accusing London of abandoning them to the Taliban.

Sixteen men, many of them clasping their British passports, appeared in the video, begging the British government to evacuate them and their families.

A spokesperson for the group said there are 100 of them in the country, all part of a WhatsApp group, and 30 had managed to make it to Kabul in secret to record the message earlier this month.

“We demand that the government doesn’t walk away from its responsibilities towards its citizens and their families,” he said. “We need to get back to our lives in the UK.”

The Taliban seized Afghanistan from the former government in July and August this year, in an offensive that was so swift that it caught the US, the UK and other countries off guard.

The British group’s spokesperson said their numbers include healthcare workers, plumbers, taxi drivers, engineers and more, and requested that visa requirements be waived for their family members in order to speed up their removal from Afghanistan.

“We can’t forget the enormous sacrifices men and women in uniform made to help and evacuate thousands to safety during Operation Pitting — we stand with them and we thank them. But the mission isn’t accomplished yet,” he said. “We’re still stranded and need to get back to our lives in the UK.”

In their video message, the Britons highlighted how American evacuations from Kabul airport — which is now fully functional — have continued, while it appears that London has “completely forgotten and abandoned us.”

The spokesperson said: “We demand the UK government to act now and arrange for chartered flights immediately for all the British citizens and their immediate family members.”