Rumours abound about the power of Daesh in Afghanistan, going as far as to claim that the terror group’s leader is in the country, but is this simply a convenient theory for Russia, the US and the Afghan government?
A few weeks ago, following years of silence, a new video of Abu Bakr al Baghdadi appeared proving that the Daesh leader seems to be alive and well.
While large parts of the extremist group have been eradicated in Syria and Iraq at a significant cost to civilians, many observers wondered about the current hideout of the ‘caliph’, and after a short time, some of them pointed out that he might have moved to Afghanistan after his loss of power in the Middle East.
Afghanistan's Daesh branch, the Islamic Stace in Khorasan Province (ISKP), is still very active across the country and responsible for several attacks in different provinces.
In fact, ISKP has become one of the main insurgent groups along with the Taliban since its first appearance in 2013. According to the United Missions Assistance Mission in Afghanistan (UNAMA), at least 1,773 civilians have been killed and injured during the first quarter of 2019.
UNAMA points out that ISKP is responsible for at least 12 percent of the civilian casualties, and that the group regularly inflicts violence on religious minorities.
Last March, for example, ISKP fired 12 mortar rounds into a crowd of people marking the anniversary of the death of a prominent ethnic Hazara leader in the middle of Kabul. As a result, 11 civilians were killed, and more than 100 were injured.
In 2018, ISKP's violence reached its peak, resulting in at least 2,181 civilian casualties (681 deaths and 1,500 injured) which represented a 118 per cent increase from 2017.
The majority of the incidents occurred across districts in Nangarhar province while some – according to UNAMA, at least 20 – took place in Kabul. Generally speaking, ISKP proved that it’s able to conduct sophisticated attacks in urban areas while it is also present in some rural areas of the country.
The presence of the group in Afghanistan is undeniable, but also limited. Nevertheless, since the beginning of its emergence, the ISKP threat has regularly been exaggerated by various politicians, security analysts and journalists. And it seems that after Baghdadi's recent video appearance, this trend is going to continue. Several observers claimed that the Daesh leader might hide himself in Afghanistan.
A tweet by Pakistani commentator Zaid Hamid went viral. Hamid addressed the furnishings that appeared in the video: "This is a grab from the latest video of ISIS [Daesh] leader Baghdadi. Note the style of the bedding & the pillows...Is he already in Afghanistan?" he wrote.
Many media outlets quoted Hamid's thoughts and retweeted by many figures from the Afghan Twitter bubble. At the same time, many people ignored the alleged analyst's problematic background. In fact, Hamid is a well-known conspiracy theorist famous for spreading fake news.
Several Afghanistan experts criticised the claims regarding Baghdadi's alleged Afghanistan hideout and especially the reckless use of problematic sources. "Haven't people learned anything? They retweet whatever nonsense they find on social media without checking the source," said Barnett Rubin, a senior Afghanistan expert who used to work with the UN and the US government. "I have just sent you proof that I am in Afghanistan with Baghdadi. Feel free to distribute or use to illustrate your article," he added ironically by sending a picture of himself wearing an Afghan ‘pakol’ hat while laying on a traditional Afghan mattress.
Rubin also hinted at other problematic statements made by Hamid. For example, the alleged analyst once also claimed that the Mumbai terrorist attacks from 2008 were a "Hindu-Zionist conspiracy".
Thomas Ruttig, a co-founder of the Afghanistan Analysts Network, agrees with Rubin. He also underlines the fact that similar rumours appeared in the recent past. "Repeatedly, there were reports, more likely rumours, about massive movements of IS fighters from Iraq and Syria to Afghanistan. However, I'm sceptical. My organisation followed such reports in Afghanistan, and it found barely something substantial," he said.
According to Ruttig, many similar reports are based on rumours about "mysterious fighters" who run around "wrapped up" and "never talk". Many people conclude that such figures must be Daesh fighters.
The Afghanistan expert is also sceptical about UN reports about this issue. "Often, they just echo the information of certain governments. Some of them, like Russia but also the Afghan government, want to exaggerate the IS [Daesh] threat for good reason", Ruttig said.
In recent years, Russia has regularly claimed that Daesh has become a significant threat in Afghanistan. In 2016, during the annual Munich Security Conference, Afghan President Ashraf Ghani said that Daesh in Afghanistan endangered the Western allies of his Kabul-based government and described the terrorist group as a "global threat".
Last but not least, the US government itself believes that its ‘War on Terror’ in Afghanistan might be extended for years due to Daesh. During the last few years, both the US military and the Afghan army have killed thousands of people who were alleged Daesh fighters.
The American fight against Daesh in Afghanistan reached a peak in April 2017 when the US military dropped the so called ‘Mother of All Bombs’, its biggest non-nuclear bomb, on Nangarhar's Achin district in the country’s east. Achin was known as one of ISKP's centres.
Until today, it is not really known who has been killed or injured by the bomb. When I visited Nangarhar in 2017, locals claimed that civilians had been killed.
Some reports suggested that militants were among the victims. Back then, Taliban fighters told me ISKP left the area before the bomb was dropped. Shortly after the detonation, the whole area was closed off by Afghan and American soldiers.
"It's the same after many other operations against IS [Daesh]. Often, civilians are being killed. But the government always claims that 'IS [Daesh] terrorists' were the sole victims," said Waheed Mozhdah, a political analyst from Kabul. "If we count all the thousands of dead bodies that have been declared as IS fighters by the Afghan Army or the Kabul government during the last years, I wonder against whom the troops are still fighting. IS [Daesh] has become very deadly, but it is still a small group," he said.
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