Islamic State-affiliated fighters have increased their territorial presence in the northern Jawzjan province over the past few months.
In late June, they overran several official checkpoints in the southern Darzab district. The group appears to have some links to IS-Khorasan (IS-K) – the official IS-affiliate based in southeastern Nangarhar province – although whether it is receiving financial or operational assistance is unclear. But the recent developments in Jawzjan suggest that although IS-K has lost territory in Nangarhar over the past year, it appears to be gaining ground in parts of northern Afghanistan.
There have been reports in the Afghan media of fighters sympathetic or affiliated to IS operating in Jawzjan since at least December. However, it was only in the middle of last month that these militants managed to successfully take territory on a large scale, when they attacked up to seven police checkpoints north of Darzab district centre. In June, they kidnapped and killed ten Taliban fighters as they were making their way through Darzab from neighbouring Faryab province. The Afghan press also reported last week that the fighters have destroyed several girls’ schools in the district.
The group in Darzab district appears to comprise former Taliban and local militia members. According to a researcher for the independent think tank, Afghanistan Analyst Network (AAN), it has around 100 members. The same researcher said on Twitter on 28 June that ‘pro-government figures armed [the group] at some point, but now, [it is] more complicated’. He did not say who these figures are, but both the Kabul government and provincial leaders have provided arms to local militias to fight the Taliban in the north over the past couple of years.
Although it seems that the IS-affiliated group consists mostly of disgruntled former local Taliban members, it does also appear to have links to IS-K in Nangarhar. IS-K officially released a statement on Telegram on 20 June to claim that its fighters had taken control of checkpoints in Darzab. Afghan press and AAN reports suggest that the group is led by an ethnic Uzbek, Qari Hekmat, who is the son of the co-founder of the Islamic Movement of Uzbekistan (IMU) and a prominent former Taliban commander in the north. The IMU was allied with the Taliban until it fragmented after its leader pledged allegiance to IS in 2015, and the same AAN researcher has shared an image on Twitter of Hekmat with IS-K leadership.
IS-affiliated fighters also appear to have some presence in the north beyond Darzab district in Jawzjan. The US-based media outlet Voice of America reported in February that Hekmat has been recruiting for IS in the Kohistanat district of neighbouring Sar-e-Pul province. The same report cited the governor of Sar-e-Pul as saying that although ‘IS does not have a large base yet…no doubt they are trying to establish [one] in the province’.
IS-K’s stronghold remains in southern Nangarhar. But Afghan and Taliban operations, as well as US airstrikes, have resulted in limiting IS-K’s presence to remote locations in just four districts along the border with Pakistan. As it loses further territory, we expect the group to try to establish operations elsewhere in the country. Given that Uzbek militant groups are present in Takhar, Baghlan and Kunduz – including one called Jundullah that publicly opposed the Taliban in 2015 – the number of IS-affiliates in the northern provinces will probably increase in the coming years. However, IS-K is unlikely to be able to compete with the Taliban in terms of resources or support, and will probably remain a marginal insurgent group for the time being.