The emergence of the Islamic State in Afghanistan and Pakistan has the potential to radically alter the balance of militant forces in the region. 

The emergence of the Islamic State, also known as ISIS or ISIL, in Afghanistan and Pakistan is changing the dynamics of militancy in a region that was already home to a number of local and foreign militant groups. The establishment of ISIS’s Khorasan branch – which uses an ancient name for Afghanistan and the surrounding parts of Pakistan, Iran and Central Asia – in January 2015 marked the first time that ISIS had officially spread outside the Arab world. ISIS was also the first major militant group to directly challenge the Afghan Taliban’s dominance over local insurgency, and to reject the authority and legitimacy of the group’s founding leader, Mullah Mohammad Omar. From its inception, ISIS has tried to differentiate itself from the Taliban, which it has repeatedly attacked on both the military and ideological fronts. In the process, it has managed to gain a foothold in the Afghanistan–Pakistan region, though it has also experienced several ideological and military setbacks. The group’s emergence, and the related intensification of conflict among militant groups in South and Central Asia, has the potential to radically alter the balance of militant forces in the region.

Khorasan: land of the rising sun
A week after announcing the establishment of a caliphate (Khilafah) on 29 June 2014, ISIS leader Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi, dressed in black robes and wearing a black turban, addressed the world for the first time from a well-known mosque in the Iraqi city of Mosul during Friday prayers. In his call for global jihad, the self-proclaimed caliph (Khalifah) listed the countries and regions where, according to him, mosques were being desecrated and Islamic sanctities violated, referring several times to Afghanistan, Pakistan and Iran, as well as to India, Kashmir, Myanmar and China.

Baghdadi’s public demonstration of leadership was in some ways similar to the appointment of Mullah Omar as ‘leader of the faithful’ (Amir al-Mumineen) in April 1996, when he appeared on the roof of a famous mosque in Afghanistan’s southern city of Kandahar holding a cloak said to have belonged to the Prophet Muhammad. Yet Baghdadi’s own public appearance was aimed not just at asserting his position as the ‘spiritual leader’ of Muslims, but also indicated that, unlike Mullah Omar or al-Qaeda leaders Osama bin Laden and Ayman al-Zawahiri, all of whom had eventually disappeared from public view, Baghdadi intended to be more visible. Above all, the ISIS leader wanted to send a message to jihadis worldwide that the Islamic State, unlike previous groups, had achieved a secure territory and built a functioning state.

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Dawood Azami is a Multi-Media Editor at the BBC World Service in London and a Consulting Member at the IISS.

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Survival: Global Politics and Strategy

August–September 2016

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