ISIS Targets Afghanistan Just as the U.S. Quits

As the United States moves out of Afghanistan, ISIS is moving in to compete with al Qaeda and the Taliban in the legendary region of Khorasan, which also includes Pakistan and Iran.

Photo Illustration by Emil Lendof/The Daily Beast

LONDON — Few sayings of the Prophet Mohammed have a stronger hold on the imagination of the world’s jihadists than his prophecy about the flags: "If you see the black banners coming from Khorasan, join that army, even if you have to crawl over ice,” he is supposed to have admonished the faithful. “No power will be able to stop them and they will finally reach Baitul Maqdisi”—Jerusalem— “where they will erect flags."

And where was this magical land of Khorasan, whence the conquerors would come? Think Afghanistan and pieces of all the countries that surround it, including and especially Iran.

For the great ideologues of modern jihadist terror, Ayman al Zawahiri of al Qaeda and Abu Bakr al Baghdadi of the so-called Islamic State, the strategic and symbolic importance of Khorasan is huge, and there are already signs that they are competing for control there. Some factions of both the Afghan and Pakistani Taliban and some members of al Qaeda in the area have pledged allegiance to Baghdadi’s self-proclaimed caliphate in Syria and Iraq. Zawahiri’s most elite group of operatives, meanwhile, has become known as the Khorasan Group.

As terrorists compete for prestige and authority, they are under attack by the governments of the region. To make their mark on the minds of potential followers, they carry out ever more desperate and horrifying acts, like the slaughter of children at a school in Peshawar, Pakistan, earlier this week.

A central figure in these dangerous wider developments is a soft-spoken scholar, journalist and poet, Sheikh Abdul Rahim Muslim Dost, who spent more than three years as a prisoner of the Americans at Guantanamo, then found himself imprisoned again for several years by the Pakistanis. News reports in the region recently named him as the Islamic State-appointed governor or wali of Khorasan.

A few days ago, Muslim Dost, whom I have known for years, and whose voice I recognize, left two long messages on my cell-phone answering machine. He said the news of his appointment was not true, that it was disinformation spread by “some intelligence agency and my rivals.”

But Muslim Dost made it clear he answers to the Islamic State, widely known by the acronyms ISIS, ISIL and Da’esh, and he called on all Muslims to defend it.

In fact, whatever his nominal position, Muslim Dost is part of an ISIS strategy that, once again, appears to be several steps ahead of most Western thinking. According to anthropologist Scott Atran, who has conducted extensive studies of jihadist ideologies, Baghdadi outlined his strategy clearly in what’s been called his “Volcanoes of Jihad” speech on November 13:

“Glad tidings, O Muslims, for we give you good news by announcing the expansion of the Islamic State to new lands, to the lands of [Saudi Arabia] and Yemen, to Egypt, Libya and Algeria” Baghdadi said. “We announce the acceptance of bayah [allegiance] … the announcement of new wilayat [provinces] for the Islamic State, and the appointment of [leaders] for them.”

With the naming of governors outside of Syria-Iraq, Baghdadi “was telling the world that the Caliphate was going global,” says Atran. These stretched from Abu Sayyaf and Jemaah Islamiyah splinters in the Philippines and Indonesia to al-Maqdis in the Wilaya of Sinai, Egypt, to Jun al-Khalifa in Algeria. In Libya, three wilayat were declared: Tripoli, Fazzan and Barqay (which contains Darna, where whole neighborhoods of young men had earlier joined the jihads in Iraq).

Thus ISIS “is preempting al Qaeda’s claim to be the vanguard of global jihad,” says Atran. Baghadi is creating what amounts to an ideological archipelago “where associated jihadi insurgencies in geographically distant and separated regions can fight for the Caliphate under one supreme leader, with an eye toward eventual unification of all territories.”

Khorasan is vital to this strategy not only because of the Prophet’s predictions, says Atran, but because it is where, in the jihadist view, “the Iranian Shia—the devil—pretends to rule.”

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Muslim Dost played on those sentiments in the messages he left me. “It is our Islamic obligation to pledge allegiance to the Islamic State and give it our Islamic fealty,” he said. The implementation of the will of God could only be carried out by “the resurrection of the Islamic caliphate”, and “since an Islamic caliphate has been restored, it is obligatory for every Muslim to announce his allegiance and support for it.”

To fail to do so would mark a believer as ignorant of his holy obligation, and Muslim Dost claimed that his public support for ISIS is only for that purpose and disclaimed any “personal interest or aim.” But in the same breath, he issued a call to arms. “Apostates and infidels worldwide have made a big alliance against the Islamic Caliphate,” he said, “so Muslims are advised to be united and make sacrifices for the Caliphate, and should not hesitate to give their all.”

According to a Western intelligence source in Kabul, “there is good potential for ISIS to grow in the Afghanistan-Pakistan region.” The source told me, when I saw him recently, that “ISIS and Baghdadi are mentioned widely and with respect in intercepted conversations among militants and al Qaeda’s residual elements in the region.”

“Even among the Taliban,” according to this source, “there are some that might be willing to pledge to ISIS, or have done so already in secret and will reveal themselves in the near future.”

A former minister in the old Taliban government says that ISIS militants already are on the ground in “Khorasan” waiting for the day when the mainstream Taliban factions enter serious peace talks with the U.S.-backed government in Kabul. At that point they will position themselves as the anti-peace-talk group to build support, he said.

“If the minds of Muslims in Europe and the United States can be inspired by the call of ISIS,” says the ex-minister, “think how easy it is to integrate jihadists from Afghanistan and Pakistan, Central Asia and India.”

This article was reported and written by Sami Yousafzai with additional material and editing by Christopher Dickey.