ISIS enslaving women, killing civilians after seizing new Afghanistan foothold through Taleban defections

Afghan National Army (ANA) troops keep watch at a check point in Aqcha district of Jawzjan province, Afghanistan, on Nov 27.
Afghan National Army (ANA) troops keep watch at a check point in Aqcha district of Jawzjan province, Afghanistan, on Nov 27. PHOTO: REUTERS

JAWZJAN/KABUL, AFGHANISTAN (REUTERS) - When a Taleban commander defected to Islamic State in Iraq and Syria (ISIS) in northern Afghanistan a few months ago, his men and the foreign fighters he invited in started to enslave local women and set up a bomb-making school for 300 children, officials and residents said.

The mini-caliphate established six months ago in two districts of Jawzjan province marks a new inroad in Afghanistan by ISIS, which is claiming more attacks even as its fighters suffer heavy losses in Iraq and Syria.

Qari Hekmat, a prominent Taleban leader in Jawzjan, switched allegiance around six months ago, according to local people who have since fled, raising the movement's black flag over the local mosque and forcing residents to swear fealty to ISIS' leader Abu Bakr Al-Baghdadi.

"They started killing a lot of people and warned others to cooperate," said Mr Baz Mohammad, who fled Darz Aab district after his 19-year-old son was recruited into ISIS at the local mosque.

ISIS in Jawzjan has now attracted the attention of US forces in Afghanistan, which will launch an offensive in the north in the next few days, US Army General John Nicholson said on Tuesday (Nov 28).

US air strikes and special forces have been pounding the main Afghan foothold of ISIS fighters in the eastern province of Nangarhar, but that has not prevented the movement from stepping up attacks.

ISIS has claimed at least 15 bombings and other attacks in Afghanistan this year, including two in Kabul last month, killing at least 188 people. The number of attacks is up from just a couple nationwide last year.

It is unclear whether the all the attacks claimed by ISIS were carried out by the group, or linked to its central leadership in the Middle East. Afghan intelligence officials say some of the attacks may in fact have been carried out by the Taleban or its allied Haqqani network and opportunistically claimed by ISIS.

Yet the sheer number of attacks, plus the targeting of Shi'ite mosques, an ISIS hallmark, indicates the movement is gaining some strength, though their links to the leadership in the Middle East remain murky.

Some analysts see ISIS as an umbrella term covering groups of fighters in Nangarhar's mountains, armed gangs in northern Afghanistan and suicide bombers in Kabul. Little is known about what ties them together.

"IS in Afghanistan never was such a solid, coherent organisation, even from the beginning," said Mr Borhan Osman, an International Crisis Group analyst, using an alternate acronym for ISIS.

In Jawzjan, ISIS gained its pocket of territory in much the same way it did in Nangarhar - through defection of an established militant commander.

Hekmat's Taleban fighters had long held sway in Darz Aab and Qushtepa districts, with the Afghan government having little control, residents who fled to Shiberghan, some 120km away, told Reuters.

But when Hekmat had a falling-out with the central Taleban leadership and switched allegiance, his men were joined by about 400 ISIS-affiliated fighters from China, Uzbekistan, Tajikistan, Pakistan, Chechnya and elsewhere, according to Darz Aab's district chief, Mr Baz Mohammad Dawar.

Foreign militants have long operated in the border areas of Afghanistan, and in Jawzjan, they had typically moved from place to place, occasionally cooperating with the Taleban.

But once they came to stay, life changed for the worse, according to three families and local officials who spoke to Reuters, even by the war-weary standards of Afghanistan.

"IS took our women as slaves, or forcefully made them marry a fighter. The Taleban never did that," said Mr Sayed Habibullah, a Darz Aab resident.

"The Taleban had mercy and we spoke the same language, but IS fighters are foreigners, much more brutal and barbaric."

The fighters also forced some 300 children into ISIS training.

"In the school, IS allocated two classes for the children to learn about guns and bombs," said Mr Ghawsuddin, a former headmaster in Darz Aab who, like many Afghans, goes by one name.

ISIS emerged in Afghanistan more than two years ago, when members of the Pakistani Taleban swore allegiance to the relatively new global Islamist movement that at the time had seized vast swathes of Iraq and Syria.

By June 2015, newly ISIS-aligned fighters had crossed into Afghanistan and seized around half a dozen districts in Nangarhar, scorching Taleban poppy fields and forcing them to flee.

Soon after, US forces began air strikes and dispatched special forces to assist Afghan troops in fighting ISIS - also known by the Arabic acronym Daesh.

Gen Nicholson, the commander of Nato-led forces in Afghanistan, said on Tuesday that some 1,400 operations had been conducted against ISIS since March, "removing over 1,600" from the battlefield and cutting off their outside finance and support.

"Daesh has been unable to establish a caliphate in Afghanistan," Gen Nicholson said, adding, "We see no evidence of fighters making their way from Iraq and Syria to Afghanistan, because they know if they come here, they will face death.".

Even if ISIS is not bringing in new fighters - though that remains a fear - it is another obstacle to Afghan security after 16 years of war against the Taleban.

"Whether it is Islamic State(in Iraq and Syria) or Taleban, they are our enemy," said Jawzjan police chief Faqir Mohammad Jawzjani. "And they have to be eliminated."