It was interrogation time for the six Islamic State prisoners, and access to see them was denied. The Taliban CID chief supervising their detention, bearing an American bullet wound to his leg and shrapnel injuries from French airstrikes to his head and back, seemed confident they would crack.
“Four are Afghans but it seems the other two are Malaysian,” said Maulawi Saifullah Mohammed, 28, whose men captured the six in a gun battle on the western side of Kabul on Thursday night. “They aren’t as tough as they think they are. We’ve just beaten the armies from 36 Nato countries so we know we can capture and kill the Daesh (Isis) wherever we find them.”
The men surrendered during a clash between the Taliban and Isis-K, Islamic State’s affiliate in Afghanistan, in the streets of west Kabul in the two hours before midnight; one of several encounters between the rival Islamist forces in the aftermath of the suicide attacks on Kabul international airport that left up to 200 people dead, including 13 US troops, two Britons and an unknown number of Taliban.
Thursday’s violence in the airport and inside the city represented not just a strategic strike by Isis against the departing US troops but a bloody continuation of their unfinished struggle with the Taliban that could be the harbinger of a new chapter of conflict in the Afghan war.
“The Daesh are coming into the city disguised like us to sow chaos and fear among the people,” Mohammed, 28, said, inscrutable behind a set of tinted shades at his base yesterday morning. “It is easy enough at this moment of confusion for them to launch attacks, but they are not nearly as powerful as the enemies we have just defeated, and we will annihilate them.”
The Taliban are still high on their sudden, overwhelming victory in Afghanistan in which they toppled the government and repelled the US-led coalition, but Thursday’s attacks will have given them little time to savour their triumph before being confronted with the reality of an ultra-violent and implacable insurgency in their midst.
Isis-K may not have the power to defeat the Taliban in battle, but they do have the means to further cripple Afghanistan with suicide attacks, now that the intensive electronic eavesdropping used by the US and its allies to pinpoint potential threats has disappeared. It remains to be seen whether confidence alone will allow the Taliban to defeat a pernicious and merciless terrorist group that has always avoided total defeat.
“We don’t need western intelligence assets or high technology to defeat the Daesh,” Mohammed insisted. “And we don’t want any American help in fighting them. We just want the Americans to go, and then we will deal with Daesh in the way we know.”
The CID chief, black-turbanned and clutching an MI6 rifle, was alerted late on Thursday at his headquarters in western Kabul to the presence of an Isis-K cell after reports that gunmen were shooting into homes. Earlier in the night a Taliban vehicle had been blown up in the city centre.
He rushed to join the action, leading a column of newly captured police Ford Ranger vehicles. “We were hungry to fight the Daesh,” he grinned. “We were superior to them in every way; religiously and as fighters.”
Indeed, Mohammed’s CID unit might be unconventional compared with their western counterparts, full of scars and battle wounds from years of fighting, but they lack neither combat experience nor ruthlessness. I asked one of his 21-year-old fighters, Hamza, involved in the night’s clash with Isis-K, how he came to be in the Taliban. He told me proudly that last year he had lured an Afghan soldier to a bazaar then killed him with a pistol as part of an initiation. “I spoke with that soldier many times first, to make him believe he was my friend,” he added, matter-of-factly.
Mohammed’s CID unit was coy about the number of casualties sustained in the battle with Isis-K, but boastful over the six prisoners they had captured. They surrendered, disorientated in unfamiliar streets, after being surrounded. All were still present at the base when I visited it yesterday morning, but were declared off-limits during interrogation.
“The war with the Americans has ended with both they and us losing fighters in a suicide attack done by Daesh at the airport,” Mohammed mused, leaning on a captured police car. “But we are sure that once the Americans have gone completely, we can defeat the problem they left behind. Biden can say as much as he likes that he will ‘hunt’ the Daesh down, but it is we, the Taliban, who will finish them here — as we finished the Americans and all the Nato armies too.”
It was in the autumn of 2014 that Isis-K first arrived as a Trojan horse in eastern Afghanistan when hundreds of Orakzai tribesmen and their families crossed from Pakistan into four eastern Afghan districts, including Achin, south of the city of Jalalabad. They asked Pashtun tribes for shelter from Pakistani military operations over the border. United by kinship, the Afghan villagers readily agreed.
“They said they were seeking sanctuary and asked us to shelter them,” a student from Achin district told me at the time. “At first they were kind and lived alongside us. We heard only rumours that ‘the black flags’ were coming.”
That first influx lasted five months into the spring of 2015, when a second group arrived from Pakistan’s tribal agencies. These were a splinter faction of the Pakistani Taliban, the TTP, who came bearing arms.
“As soon as they arrived, the first group also produced weapons and joined them,” the student recalled. “As one they declared themselves Islamic State, loyal to [Abu Bakr al-] Baghdadi. They raised their black flags, called us to gather in mosques and bazaars, told us they would break the borders between Afghanistan and Pakistan, establish a new region of Baghdadi’s caliphate, and began ordering us to change our lives.”
They were named by Isis’s official spokesman in Syria, Abu Mohammed al-Adnani, in an audio statement in January 2015, in which he resurrected the creation of Wilayat Khorasan, a historical region incorporating parts of Afghanistan and Pakistan.
Foreign diplomats and coalition commanders were initially dismissive of the threat they posed in Afghanistan, describing the reports emerging from the eastern border with Pakistan as probably related to an opportunistic Taliban splinter group rather than a growing wing of Islamic State.
Yet as spring turned to summer that year, the behaviour of the Orakzai tribesmen in the mountains of eastern Afghanistan began to mimic that of Isis in Syria and Iraq in a way that caused sudden alarm to the US-led Nato mission in Afghanistan.
American intelligence officers tracked lines of communication between Isis in Afghanistan and Isis in Syria, though noted that response times became more protracted as Isis was crushed in the Middle East. However, they also noted that Isis-K managed to maintain healthy funding lines, which kept it better armed and financed than Taliban formations.
The Taliban took notice of the new presence too, challenged the group and promptly lost the first round of fighting. In June 2017 an Isis-K video emerged showing ten captured Taliban fighters from the Shinwari tribe, including grey bearded elders, who were forced to kneel in line on a chain of explosives before being blown to pieces.
The atrocity was filmed in detail from different angles, then released as propaganda by Wilayat Khurasan, replicating Isis videos from Syria and Iraq.
The terror group had its strength boosted in August 2015 when the Afghanistan-based militant organisation, the Islamic Movement of Uzbekistan, pledged allegiance to Isis-K and began fighting with the Taliban in Zabul province. Simultaneously, Isis-K, who by then were joined by fighters from elsewhere in Asia and the Caucasus, began to imprint their codes on the communities they subjugated.
Religious police issued printed edicts to locals with articles of Sharia bearing the Isis logo. Isis fighters blew up Afghan shrines and smashed tombstones that were higher than hand height. They routed police and militia units in the mountain districts of eastern Afghanistan, butchering captured service personnel in front of captives. One former Isis-K detainee described to me how, as a captive, a large saucepan containing the severed heads of Afghan border police officers was placed outside his prison cave. The 40-year-old farmer saw one of his cousins, a captured border police officer, forced to the ground, his hands tied behind him, his chin forced down on a block of wood. Several men filmed the scene. As two guards stood on his back, a black-clad Pakistani mullah known to the prisoners as Maulawi Abu Bakr slit the man’s throat, then cut off his head.
“He had a special knife to do it, about two feet long,” the farmer told me, “with a fork in the blade at one end which he used to sever the vertebrae. Each of the Islamic State had their job designation. Some guarded, some tortured. Maulawi Abu Bakr was chief executioner, and we were terrified of him.”
The Taliban fighters were equally terrified.
“I fought the Russians, I have fought the communists, I have fought the foreigners but believe me, the Daesh are the worst enemy of all,” said Mira Khan, a Taliban commander in a village below Tora Bora. “At least the Taliban just shoot their enemies. The Daesh chopped some of my men and family into quarters.”
He claimed to have seen an Isis sniper with two prosthetic legs who had been carried to his position on a mule. “He fought and died using just his hands and eyes, with no thought of escape,” he said. “We have never seen such savagery.”
Yet by the summer of 2015 the Taliban collected themselves and began a series of successful counterattacks across Afghanistan, driving Isis-K out of Zabul. A year later the Taliban routed Isis-K in eastern Afghanistan too, though fighting continued between the two groups across the next three years. However, by 2019 Isis-K appeared to be a defeated force, and US intelligence assessments noted it probably had less than 1,000 fighters left alive in Afghanistan.
In 2020, however, as US forces began their withdrawal from Afghanistan following the Doha agreement with the Taliban, western intelligence officers noted that Isis-K was reconstituting in Afghanistan, hoping to capitalise from a new draft of recruits from Taliban units who were disillusioned with their leadership and espoused a more radical form of Islam.
Other intelligence services warned of a suspected link between Isis-K cells and the Haqqani network which maintains ties with the Taliban and al-Qaeda, and since the fall of Kabul has taken swathes of the city under control. Though not natural allies, the alleged relationship allowed the Haqqani group to strike at US and Afghan targets using suicide bombers, while denying any direct involvement in the attacks.
Whether or not the Haqqani network is involved with Isis-K, Thursday’s atrocity at Kabul airport, which killed more than 170 Afghans, signifies the resurgence of a terror group whose violence will persist in Afghanistan long after the last American soldier leaves.