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Q&A: How strong is the Islamic State group in Afghanistan

Q&A: How strong is the Islamic State group in Afghanistan
The Associated Press

ISLAMABAD (AP) — An upstart Islamic State affiliate that first appeared in Afghanistan in 2014 is becoming increasingly deadly and their attacks on the country’s minority Shiites have grown bolder. In Sunday’s devastating bombing, a suicide bomber walked up to a crowd outside a voter registration office and blew himself up killing 57 people.

Most of the dead were ethnic Hazaras, who are Shiites Muslims. Another 119 people were wounded, many of them seriously.

It was the latest in a series of attacks by IS against the country’s minority Shiites. Following last year’s attack on the Iraq Embassy in Kabul, the extremist group issued a warning to Shiites that they were coming for them. Since then, they have carried out a number of horrific assaults targeting their places of worship in Kabul and Herat in western Afghanistan.

Like their counterparts in Syria and Iraq, insurgents belonging to Afghanistan’s Islamic State group are radical Sunni Muslims who revile Shiites as apostates and believe that the entire Muslim world should be ruled by a single caliphate. In Afghanistan, it is known as the Islamic State in Khorazan province, the ancient name of an area that included parts of Iran, Afghanistan and Central Asia.

HOW STRONG IS THE ISLAMIC STATE IN AFGHANISTAN, AND WHO IS ACTIVE IN IT?

When the Islamic State group first appeared in Afghanistan its ranks were mostly culled from among the most ferocious of Pakistani Taliban from Pakistan’s Bajaur tribal region, driven out by a military offensive, as well as from among disgruntled Taliban, who were frustrated with a leadership reigning in its violence and considering negotiations to end fighting.

At its outset, the Islamic State was mostly confined to eastern Afghanistan’s Nangarhar province, but in recent years it has gained ground in the north and northeast of Afghanistan. Their ranks quickly swelled with Uzbek fighters, mostly from Central Asia’s Islamic Movement of Uzbekistan, many of whom were driven out of Pakistan’s South Waziristan tribal region by a military offensive. Analysts say the movement brutality’s was unmatched and, as outsiders to Afghanistan, the Uzbek fighters show no compunction about carrying out mass killings. IS, with the aid of Uzbeks, has made inroads into northern Afghanistan where Afghan Uzbeks mostly live. There have been several reports of open recruitment by IMU members. The size of IS in Afghanistan is unknown, but estimates generally run between 3,000 and 5,000 fighters.

WHAT DO THEY WANT?

The IS in Khorazan province shares the Syrian and Iraqi IS goal of establishing a caliphate that governs the entire Muslim world. Their only stated goal for Afghanistan, however, is to rid it of Shiite Muslims, who make up roughly 15 per cent of the country’s 35 million people. The overwhelming majority are Sunni Muslims, who historically have lived in peace with their Shiite brethren. Shiites have stepped up security around their places of worship but Afghanistan’s security forces seem confounded on how to prevent the relentless attacks.

DO THEY HAVE SIGNIFICANT SUPPORT IN THE POPULATION?

There is little support among Afghans for a movement whose sole goal is killing Shiite Muslims. While Afghanistan is a conservative Muslim country that has been alternately ruled by radical religious groups __ first anti-Soviet mujahedeen groups and later the Taliban __ there is practically no support for rule by caliphate. Afghanistan’s rulers, even the radical religious ones, have been nationalists, ready to go to war to protect their sovereignty.

WHAT IS THEIR RELATIONSHIP TO THE TALIBAN?

IS and Taliban are battlefield adversaries which has prompted countries like Russia to confer with the Taliban, who they see as a bulwark against a formidable IS on its southern border. While loosely constructed, the Taliban since the death of its supreme leader Mullah Mohammed Omar several years ago are mostly comprised of ethnic Pashtuns and Arab-speaking nationals with ties to al-Qaida. They have condemned IS and the two groups have fought each other in eastern Nangarhar province where both seek full control, and where U.S. and Afghan security forces have been carrying out offensives against IS hideouts.

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