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

Afghan Talks Are Historic Chance for Peace, Says Top U.S. Negotiator

Afghan Talks Are Historic Chance for Peace, Says Top U.S. Negotiator

Thursday, September 24, 2020

By: Adam Gallagher

Afghan peace talks that began in Doha on September 12 are a “historic opportunity” that could bring a close to four decades of conflict in the country and end America’s longest war, said the U.S. special representative for Afghanistan reconciliation on Thursday. The ongoing talks are the “heart of the Afghan peace process,” said Ambassador Zalmay Khalilzad. “It's important to be fully aware of the significance of this moment, and to recognize its historic relevance.” With a note of a cautious optimism, he said there is hope but still a long road ahead, with many thorny issues to be negotiated.

Type: Analysis and Commentary

Peace Processes

Scott Worden on Afghan Peace Talks

Scott Worden on Afghan Peace Talks

Wednesday, September 23, 2020

By: Scott Worden

With talks finally underway between the Taliban and Afghan government, USIP’s Scott Worden says initial expectations should be tempered, as the chances for success are “low in the short term, but much higher than if the talks hadn’t begun,” adding, “you can’t end a war without starting a peace process.”

Type: Podcast

Peace Processes

Five Things to Know About the Afghan Peace Talks

Five Things to Know About the Afghan Peace Talks

Monday, September 14, 2020

By: Vikram J. Singh; Scott Smith; Scott Worden; Belquis Ahmadi; Johnny Walsh

The intra-Afghan negotiations that began on Saturday represent a watershed moment in the war: the first direct, official talks between the Taliban and the Afghan government. These historic talks commenced 19 years and one day after al-Qaida's 9/11 terrorist attacks drew the United States into Afghanistan's civil war. Just getting the Afghan government and the Afghan Taliban to the table is an accomplishment. The main reason the talks materialized is the U.S.-Taliban agreement signed in February of this year; that agreement delivered a timetable for the eventual withdrawal of foreign troops, which met the Taliban’s years-long precondition for opening talks with the Afghan government.

Type: Analysis and Commentary

Peace Processes

View All Publications