This report details the structure, composition, and growth of the Islamic State’s so-called Khorasan province, particularly in the eastern Afghan province of Nangarhar, and outlines considerations for international policymakers. More than sixty interviews carried out by The Liaison Office with residents of Nangarhar and provincial and national Afghan security officials informed this report. 

Summary

  • The Islamic State’s Khorasan province (IS-K) is led by a core of former Tehrik-e-Taliban Pakistan commanders from Orakzai and Khyber Agencies of Pakistan; the majority of mid-level commanders are former Taliban from Nangarhar, with the rank and file a mixture of local Afghans, Pakistanis, and foreign jihadists mostly from Central Asia.
  • IS-K receives funding from the Islamic State’s Central Command and is in contact with leadership in Iraq and Syria, but the setup and day-to-day operations of the Khorasan province have been less closely controlled than other Islamic State branches such as that in Libya.
  • IS-K emerged in two separate locations in Afghanistan in 2014—the far eastern reaches of Nangarhar province along the Afghanistan-Pakistan border, and Kajaki district of southern Helmand province.
  • IS-K expanded in Nangarhar through the spring and summer of 2015, gaining partial control of seven districts by first remaining nonviolent and appealing to local Salafi networks and later entering into strategic alliances with cross-border militant networks. The Helmand front was quickly defeated by the Taliban.
  • By the fall of 2015, IS-K grew more violent, announcing a ban on poppy cultivation and threatening aspects of the tribal social order; the limited public support in Nangarhar began to erode.
  • In early 2016, as IS-K leadership fractured into Pakistani and Afghan factions, the Taliban launched a counterattack that—along with U.S. air strikes and operations by private Afghan militias—stalled the IS-K advance.
  • As of July 2016, IS-K was still present in a handful of Nangarhari districts and capable of launching spectacular attacks, including a suicide bombing in Kabul that killed more than eighty.
  • There are few indications that the Islamic State is looking to shift its main effort to Khorasan if or when Mosul and Raqqa fall, however there are signs that IS-K is looking to strengthen its relationship to Islamic State Central, is seeking more assistance in the form of trainers, and is pressing for the return of Afghan nationals currently fighting for the Islamic State in the Levant to support operations along the Afghanistan-Pakistan border.
  • The Taliban remain a greater threat to the Government of Afghanistan than IS-K. The government’s strategy of stepping aside as the Taliban and IS-K fight each other may have diminishing returns, particularly in places such as eastern Afghanistan where Taliban-Islamic State alliances of convenience could further undermine security.

About the Report

This report details the structure, composition, and growth of the Islamic State’s so-called Khorasan province, particularly in the eastern Afghan province of Nangarhar, and outlines considerations for international policymakers. More than sixty interviews with residents of Nangarhar and provincial and national Afghan security officials carried out by The Liaison Office, an Afghan research and peacebuilding organization, in Nangarhar and Kabul in the spring and summer of 2016 informed this report.

About the author

Casey Garret Johnson is an independent researcher focusing on violent extremism and local politics in Afghanistan.

Related Publications

First Lady Rula Ghani on Afghan Women’s Consensus

First Lady Rula Ghani on Afghan Women’s Consensus

Friday, November 15, 2019

By: USIP Staff

As Afghans, the United States and the international community seek an end to the war in Afghanistan, the country’s first lady, Rula Ghani, says thousands of Afghan women nationwide have expressed a clear consensus on two points. They insist that the war needs to end, and that the peace to follow must continue to build opportunities for women. The single greatest step to advance Afghan women’s cause is education and training to build their professional capacities, Ghani told an audience at USIP.

Type: Analysis and Commentary

Gender; Peace Processes

Scott Smith on What’s Next in the Afghan Peace Process

Scott Smith on What’s Next in the Afghan Peace Process

Thursday, November 14, 2019

By: Scott Smith

The Afghan government and Taliban announced an agreement on a prisoner exchange this week, but it remains unclear what comes next. With the presidential election still undecided, “The question is if this is the beginning of a new peace strategy on the part of President Ghani, will he be the president a few months from now to carry that strategy forward?” asks USIP’s Scott Smith.

Type: Podcast

Peace Processes

What Has the U.S. Got Against Peace Talks?

What Has the U.S. Got Against Peace Talks?

Wednesday, November 6, 2019

By: Johnny Walsh

Last month, U.S. President Donald Trump withdrew from the Afghan peace process, closing off for the time being a rare opening to resolve a long, stagnant, and unpopular war. Whatever one thinks of the specifics of the deal that the U.S. representative at the talks, Zalmay Khalilzad, had nearly finalized with the Taliban, the episode was a perfect demonstration of the conflicted, often self-defeating view of peace agreements that mires U.S. foreign policy.

Type: Analysis and Commentary

Mediation, Negotiation & Dialogue; Peace Processes

To Protect Afghan Women’s Rights, U.S. Must Remain Engaged

To Protect Afghan Women’s Rights, U.S. Must Remain Engaged

Wednesday, October 23, 2019

By: Adam Gallagher

It’s been over a year since the U.S., led by Amb. Zalmay Khalilzad, opened talks with the Taliban aimed at ending the 18-year war. Over that year, Afghan women have demanded a seat at the negotiating table, worried that the hard-won gains made over the last two decades could be in jeopardy. Even with the peace process stalled, “it is vital that the U.S. remain engaged” to ensure that Afghan women’s rights are protected, said Rep. Martha Roby (R-AL) last week at the U.S. Institute of Peace’s latest Bipartisan Congressional Dialogue.

Type: Analysis and Commentary

Gender; Democracy & Governance

View All Publications