ISIS-K and The Shifting Theater of Radicalization


(Dr. Shujaat Ali Quadri)

The recent attack by ISIS in Moscow that killed over 137 people has once again brought the terrorist group into limelight. The ability of ISIS-K to carry out such a deadly attack is proof that neither its ouster from the Middle East, nor the Taliban’s war against the group has proved effective in countering it.

Russia’s involvement in the Syrian civil war, wherein Moscow intervened to protect the Assad regime has come to haunt it as ISIS-K awaits more such attacks in Russia. Further, Russia’s closeness to the Taliban regime remains a bone of contention, given the latter’s all-out war against ISIS-K in eastern and northern provinces of Afghanistan. The same areas, especially Kunar and Nangarhar, along with the erstwhile FATA territory were also central to Al-Qaeda’s strategy as it hoped to exhaust the American forces in the complex terrain along the Durand Line, that is also understood as part of the Khorasan region. Like Al-Qaeda, the ISIS-K hoped to control post-withdrawal Afghanistan beginning with wresting control of the same territories.

The attack comes despite Russia’s vociferous support for Palestine, clearly implying that the primary goal of ISIS is to strike terror in humanity at large. Back in 2022, the group claimed as suicide attack near the Russian embassy in Kabul which had killed six people. Russian media channels reported that in March 2024 alone, multiple attack attempts were thwarted by the security agencies.
The other larger issue to be addressed is the flourishing ISIS-K sanctuaries in the Af-Pak region that are no longer an open secret as they arose out of disgruntled members of the Tehreek-e-Taliban Pakistan (TTP). The Pakistani Army claims to have taken a serious stance against terrorism but its approach remains ambiguous at best. The districts in the Pakistani side of the Durand Line remain one of the most volatile areas in the Af-Pak region with fluourshing sanctuaries of TTP-ISIS nexus. Sanaullah Ghafari, the head of ISIS-K is known to have escaped Afghanistan and crossed into Pakistan, and at present he is believed to reside in Balochistan.

In July 2023, the ISIS-K claimed a suicide bombing in political rally in Bajaur, a border region in Khyber Pakhtunkhwa. Leaders of Jamiat Ulema-e-Islam Fazal (JUI-F) were the primary target of the bombing and coincidentally, Maulana Fazlur Rehman emerged as one of the fiercest critics of the Pakistan Army due to its alleged role in reducing his party’s influence in the Pashtun belt. Both TTP and ISIS have targeted religious parties that remain critical of the Pakistan Army. Pakistan’s inability to tackle growing radicalization is reflected in its haphazard policy wherein it began expelling millions of Afghans, accusing them as potential terrorists.

Under Sanaullah Ghafari’s leadership (an Afghan of Tajik ethnicity), ISIS-K has made successful inroads into Tajikistan and the discovery of Tajik passports with the attackers is a grim reminder of ISIS-K’s influence deep into Central Asia. A July 2023 report by the UN Security Council estimated 4000 to 6000 active fighters in Daesh at the moment.

The growing strategic engagement between the India and the Taliban leadership and the gradual revival of Indian projects in Afghanistan should be a cause of worry as ISIS-K recently issued a threat to carry out attacks in India and may use this occasion to attract potential recruits. While India remains largely peaceful owing to the presence of a robust deradicalization program and the strong influence of Sufi institutions, the threat of Daesh’s influence can not be ruled out and the role of community elders, academics and experts on Political Islam will be paramount in working with security institutions in exposing Daesh’s influence on youth in India.


(The Author is the Chairman of the Muslim Students Organisation of India)

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