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Inside Afghanistan’s ISIS-K stronghold: 'It’s a no-go zone even for Taliban'

International Desk
|  21 Nov 2021, 18:42
Inside Afghanistan’s ISIS-K stronghold: 'It’s a no-go zone even for Taliban'
Photo: Collected
From the outset, the Chaparhar district of Afghanistan’s eastern Nangarhar province seems like nothing out of the ordinary: markets teeming with livestock and fresh fruits, children hawking sugarcane and trinkets, weathered faces peddling rusty bicycles and jammed into brightly-colored rickshaws.

But venture a little deeper, where there is little sign of the white Islamic Emirate of Afghanistan flag flapping in the wind, and therein lies a sense of the unknown, that anything can happen at any time. After all, it has long been the territorial and operational bastion for Afghanistan’s ISIS affiliate known as ISIS-K, or colloquially as Daesh.

“There has been more than twenty dead bodies here since the Taliban came,” one villager tells me from outside the gas station. “Just two days ago, a person was shot dead – we don’t know by who.”

Down a nearby dirt track – where men dig into the earth, and covered women roam with babies in their arms – villagers claim that the number of slaughtered is actually more than forty-five. Several vow that almost every day a man is “taken out of his house and killed.”

Another group of Chaparhar locals solemnly divulge that two days before our visit a “body was found near their house.”

It is impossible to know for sure as the Taliban has gone above and beyond to downplay the looming threat. One Jalalabad-based Nangarhar official mandates point-blank that I “must not do any stories on Daesh or ask questions,” resulting in something of a local media blackout.

But late last year, the now-defunct Afghan government detained ISIS-K’s recruitment head Tasal Aziz, who was listed as a Chaparhar resident.

With a population of around 55,000, the district has long been the base for the militant organization to convene and construct brutal attacks nationwide. These have risen to a steady state of almost daily, ever since the August 15 Taliban takeover.

Villagers in hushed tones spell out that there is a cemetery near the bustling Ghurfa Bazaar (market) which long marked the start of the ISIS-K bastion, but that the Taliban have brought in more reinforcements and managed to repel ISIS-K back a couple of villages into Chaparhar.

“ISIS has been there since the beginning, since 2015,” says Samiullah, a house guard who is around 23. “But the Taliban is only there during the day, at night, they gather at a base and don’t go out. Even the previous government soldiers would only go in the day. So this area has always been theirs.”

That graveyard is marked by decayed Afghan flags striped green, red and black representing the old Ashraf Ghani-led government. Alongside them are remnants of the signature Taliban flag and then a splattering of plain black. The nearby Ghurfa market is thick with a clear Taliban presence, its district headquarters still a pockmarked vision of the nation’s old flag.

“ISIS are there, a few ISIS,” the Chaparhar District Governor, whose name is Ainudin but is “famous by Badrudin,” reluctantly admits. “They might be hidden somewhere, but the Taliban has taken over, and we are fully in control.”

But the further you drive along the narrow Chaparhar Road away from Jalalabad city, the quieter and more sinister it becomes. The Taliban checkpoints disappear, as there is next to no traffic. Some stores are decorated with a plain black cloth, and others show the black flag printed with the white Shahada, making it impossible to know if it is just a coincidence, or meant the signify the U.S. designated militant faction. Some point out that years ago, before the ISIS-K rise, Arabs and Chechens started drifting into homes, and it was made clear that the Taliban – then an insurgency – “did not have permission to enter.”

“ISIS acts as an insurgency, they stay off the main road, but if they have a specific target in mind, they come out from their houses and target that person,” one driver explains. “That is how they operate.”

I see just two teen-looking, plain-clothed fighters’ disappearing into the caramel-colored mounds on the lookout and wielding an AK-47. Pools of sunshine stream down across the lush landscape of rolling hills and primordial dwellings.

There is a sense that nobody knows who anybody is – and if they do, they don’t want to say. Locals attest that they have not identified “who is Talib and who is Daesh,” given that they typically dress and look the same in their Afghan attire.

Most of the men on the street refuse to utter the label Daesh out loud.

“People might have personal problems with each other, sometimes they target each other,” a farmer named Mohammad, 45, surmises.

Hekmatullah, a baker, swears that the Emirate “has control day and night,” and general store owner Haji Khan, 48, cautiously concurs that “nothing is here.”

Outside one black cloth-adorned general store, a young employee whispers into the phone asking whether the “people coming” were in a car. I remember back to a little earlier in the day at the market when a small boy peered through the window at the camera nestled on my photographer’s lap and raced off to tell an adult observing nearby – who immediately pulled out a flip-phone.

Regardless of the situation, it’s not a place to linger too long.

Since ISIS-K’s inception into Afghanistan in 2015 – as the outfit gained momentum in its flagship of Iraq and Syria – loyalists have swarmed into the otherwise quiet, picturesque rural parcel. It is from its bulwark of Chaparhar that ISIS-K for years has plotted, planned and dispatched its cadre of assailants – from suicide bombers and shooters to those who ambush security checkpoints and plant bombs – to take the lives of hundreds, if not thousands.

Much of the uptick of offenses has occurred since scores of ISIS-K operatives escaped during the chaotic transition period, with many former security forces abandoning their positions ahead of the Taliban encroachment. But since then, the Taliban themselves have also enabled prison releases.

Badrudin concedes that around 50 ISIS have been apprehend in Chaparhar alone and that 14 were sent to the provincial intelligence department.

“The other people agreed not to fight back, so we released some of them,” he said.

ISIS-K – sometimes termed the Khorasan group in historical reference to the greater Iranian region meaning “the Eastern Province” in Persian – first surfaced in the Afghan war theater almost seven years ago. Most of its recruits are believed to have defected from the Taliban branches in Afghanistan and neighboring Pakistan, seeking an even more extreme interpretation of Islam with more international rather than domestic-centered goals of “caliphate” control.

While precise numbers of ISIS fighters are impossible to verify, U.S. intelligence believes that figures hover around the two thousand mark – and could now be much more. It’s a far cry from 2019 when the former Afghan government claimed that the terrorist affiliate had been defeated. But by mid-2020, attacks claimed by the outfit sparked again, triggering alarm from the international community.

Running afoul to the official Taliban position that ISIS is a “small problem” or simply doesn’t exist at all,  some Kabul-based, Taliban intel heads quietly consider the district “one hundred percent” ISIS-K domineered – and essentially a no-go zone for their foot soldiers.

“It is the barbaric duties they do – decapitating, removing eyes and things. That activity only gets them stronger,” Samiullah adds. “That is how much fear the Talibs have of ISIS.”

Source: Knewz (This feature is an exclusive story published in knewz.com)

 

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