The attack, which was led by a man from Kerala, focused attention on the radicalisation of a section of the population in this Indian state.
While the entire world is fighting a battle against the Covid-19 pandemic, three persons having allegiance to the Islamic State Khorasan Province (ISKP), attacked a historic gurudwara in Kabul on 25 March. Twenty-five persons were killed in the attack, while several were injured, instilling fear in this trouble-torn country which was inching towards normalcy. This was not the first time that such an attack took place against the minority Sikh community. In 2018, ISKP had carried out an attack against the Sikhs in Jalalabad. However, what is baffling this time is that an Indian, Abu Khalild al-Hindi, alias Mohammad Muhsin, was part of the ISKP team which carried out the 25 March attack.
The attack raises many pertinent questions that have implications for the peace and stability of Afghanistan.
The timing of the attack is quite important as it took place just after the peace deal reached between the United States and the Taliban in February. Second, was this attack a warning signal (from the ISKP and its chief patron, Pakistan’s ISI) to India about not playing an active role in the political process of Afghanistan? One may recall here that the international community, including the US consistently reposed faith in India to bring normalcy to this war-ravaged state. Thirdly, it has been reported that Pakistan’s ISI has roped in the ISKP to dislodge peace and stability in Afghanistan in a bid to get the upper hand there. This is because the US dumped Pakistan as its proxy in Afghanistan since the Cold War days, and went ahead to sign a peace deal with the Taliban directly in February 2020. Some of these developments need to be examined carefully to get a clear picture about the ISKP’s motive behind attacking the gurudwara.
Since 2015, ISKP, as a branch of ISIS, is playing a crucial role in Afghanistan’s Nangarhar region. During its formative years, it opposed the Taliban and got the sympathy of the local population. Even Afghan government forces thought that ISKP was a counterweight to the Taliban and so did not pay much attention to its activities in its formative years in 2014-2015. ISKP mostly comprises terrorists from the Tehreek-e-Taliban Pakistan (TTP); some disgruntled members from the Taliban along with Central Asians from the adjoining states; terrorist groups such as Lashkar-e-Jhangvi (LeJ), Lashkar-e-Tayyaba (LeT), and the notorious Haqqani Network are operating with the strong support of Pakistan’s ISI and providing necessary support to ISKP.
A strong nexus between Pakistan’s ISI and ISKP is evident from the fact that the Pakistan government knowingly turned a blind eye to the activities of ISKP in its territory. It is known that some of the radical organisations that constitute the core of the ISKP, in the past, had acted as ISI’s frontal organisations and carried out many subversive attacks in Afghanistan to derail the peace process. Even Pakistan’s Dawn newspaper reported that the link between ISKP and Pakistan-based insurgents groups “Sipah-i-Sahaba Pakistan and Lashkar-e-Jhangvi cannot be ruled out”. The deep bonhomie between ISI and ISKP was succinctly exposed by Husain Haqqani, who revealed that Lt General Shahid Aziz, an ISI man, went to Kunar, the stronghold of ISPK bordering Pakistan and served the terrorist organisation. Even former President of Pakistan, General Pervez Musharaf stated that Aziz went to Syria and fought along with ISIS and died there. Another instance of ISKP-ISI link can be evident from the fact that Aslam Farooqi, a former LeT terrorist and known for his proximity with ISI, headed ISKP despite resentment from the Central Asian cadre of this terrorist organization.
In the initial years of its formation, ISKP started imposing Sharia law in Nangarhar, considered to be its stronghold. The general masses accepted the group as it provided security to the common people and fought against the Taliban. However, soon disgruntlement set in as ISKP started activities liking kidnapping, killing innocent villagers, demanding ransom from the local population, imposing strict Sharia laws, etc. Soon the local population started distancing themselves from this radical group. Taking advantage of the growing public resentment against ISKP, the Afghan government armed the local people against the ISKP, which contributed to the isolation of this jihadi group in Nangarahar. The growing isolation of the ISKP and assertive action on part of the Afghan National Defence and Security Forces (ANDSF) at the local level contributed to the quelling of the ISKP after a month-long operation in their stronghold at Bandar Valley in the Achin district in November 2019. Though the quelling of ISKP gave temporary success to the Afghan forces but the latest attack on the gurudwara brought the focus on this radical organization once again.
Coming back to the issue of the recent attack on the gurudwara in Kabul, as initial reports indicate, Muhasin, who carried out the terror attack, was being indoctrinated by ISI in Dubai, after which he joined the ISKP. It may be recalled here that other dogmatic and indoctrinated youths from Kerala too have joined ISKP. Prior to this, in November 2019, 10 Indians as part of an ISPK module and their family members also surrendered to the Afghan security agency. Even during Sri Lanka’s 2019 Easter carnage, which resulted in heavy casualties, the probe showed a Kerala trail. Over a period of time, Kerala has been becoming the hotbed of ISIS extremism. It may be recalled that the ISIS even gave a call to establish an Islamic State-Hind (India), in May 2019—which means that after facing defeat in Syria, the ISIS is trying to expand its footprints in India. The existence of radical groups in South Asia, operating especially at the behest of Pakistan’s ISI, is providing sanctuary for recruitment to the radical ISKP fold. The growing proliferation of this deadly terror group is accentuating new sort of challenges to the security of both South and Central Asian states.
The terror attack on the gurudwara is an attempt by ISKP to make its presence felt and to grab international headlines.
In a nutshell, the attack by ISKP revealed Pakistan’s nefarious design of destabilising Afghanistan and deny India an active role there. However, ISPK will die its natural death if Pakistan can be isolated by the international community for patronising terrorist forces. Let us hope that global powers like the US and Russia, who have vital stakes in Afghanistan, will cooperate with India in stabilising the situation there.
Nalin Kumar Mohapatra teaches at the School of International Studies, Jawaharlal Nehru University, New Delhi.