Afghan officials have confirmed that the Islamic State is operating in Afghanistan less than a month after the U.S.-led coalition formally ended its combat mission there.
Afghan sources, including a senior Afghan National Army (ANA) commander and a provincial governor, told The Associated Press that the brutal Islamic State (IS, ISIS, or ISIL) maintains a presence in Helmand province, located in southern Afghanistan along the Pakistan border.
“Islamic State group is active in the south, recruiting fighters, flying black flags and, according to some sources, even battling Taliban militants,” reported AP.
The sources said that Mullah Abdul Rauf is recruiting Afghan fighters for ISIS in Helmand.
Rauf is a former senior Taliban commander who spent six years in the U.S. military prison in Guantanamo Bay after being captured by American forces in 2001, BBC reports.
Helmand, one of the deadliest regions of the Afghanistan war for U.S. and Afghan forces, is located along the Afghanistan-Pakistan border next to the Afghan province of Kandahar, the birthplace of the Taliban.
U.S.-led coalition troops withdrew from Helmand province in October. The U.S.-led NATO forces formally ended their combat mission late last month. The AP noted that the Taliban is still active across Helmand and controls some districts in the province.
Afghanistan’s Khaama Press reported the Afghan Ministry of Interior (MoI) denies that ISIS is operating in Afghanistan, adding that there is no evidence that the jihadist group has infiltrated the country.
Nevertheless, Gen. Mahmood Khan, the deputy commander of the Afghan army in Helmand, revealed that representatives of Rauf are fanning out to recruit people for ISIS in Helmand.
“A number of tribal leaders, jihadi commanders and some ulema (religious council members) and other people have contacted me to tell me that Mullah Rauf had contacted them and invited them to join him,” Gen. Kahn told the AP.
However, he added that the Taliban have warned people not to contact ex-Taliban leader Rauf.
“People are saying that he has raised black flags and even has tried to bring down white Taliban flags in some areas,” Saifullah Sanginwal, a tribal leader in the Sangin district of Helmand told the AP.
According to Afghanistan’s Khaama Press, “Local residents of Sangin district in Helmand province said a group of insurgents in black uniforms have started movements in the district carrying black flags and vehicles.”
The local residents also confirmed that the militant group is being led by Rauf and are operating in Helmand.
The Sangin tribal leader told the AP that “there are reports that 19 or 20 people have been killed” in fighting between the Taliban and ISIS, showing rifts between the two groups.
Khorasan, an ancient name for Afghanistan, is important to jihadists.
ISIS reportedly flying black flags in Khorasan presents an apocalyptic scenario for some Muslims.
“The term ‘Khorasan’ refers to a region that encompasses large areas of Afghanistan, Pakistan, Uzbekistan, Tajikistan, and Iran,” reported The Long War Journal in May 2012, before ISIS’ rise to prominence. “Jihadists consider the Khorasan to be the area where they will inflict the first defeat against their enemies in the Muslim version of Armageddon. The final battle is to take place in the Levant – Israel, Syria, and Lebanon.”
“Khorasan is an old name for Afghanistan, and is a word that carried mythical overtones for some Muslims after an ancient prophecy that black flags would once again fly in Khorasan before the end of the world,” reported BBC yesterday.
The U.S. has launched airstrikes against the Khorasan Group in Syria, which officials identified as seasoned al-Qaeda jihadists from Afghanistan and Pakistan.
In the latest edition of its propaganda magazine Dabiq, ISIS shows support for members of the Tehreek-i-Taliban Pakistan (TTP) faction, while condemning decisions made by Mullah Omar, the leader of the Taliban who has not been seen alive for years.
A video surfaced online on Saturday showing members of the Pakistani Taliban pledging loyalty to ISIS.
Several militant leaders from Afghanistan and Pakistan say they back ISIS in the video.
The video also shows members of the Khorasan Shura, which primarily consists of low to mid-level former Pakistani Taliban jihadists, pledging allegiance to ISIS, The Long War Journal reported.
Obama’s State Department dismissed the support for ISIS emanating from Afghanistan as “rhetorical” messages.
“We continue to watch for signs that these statements could amount to something more than just rhetorical support,” said Marie Harf, a State Department spokeswoman. “That doesn’t mean it’s unimportant.”