Sparse reports in January that agents linked to the Islamic State in Iraq and Syria had begun to actively recruit inside Afghanistan were, while troubling, dismissed by many international observers.
“People who want to fight in Afghanistan just create new names – one day they are wearing white clothes (of the Taliban) and the next day they have black clothes and call themselves Daesh, but they are the same people,” one Afghan analyst told CBS News earlier this year.
ISIS was reportedly behind a series of gruesome beheadings in Afghanistan in the autumn of last year. Militants linked to the Sunni insurgency coupled this insult to human dignity with series of attacks on villages in Ghazni Province. Still, few believed that ISIS represented anything resembling the threat to regional stability posed by the Taliban.
That assessment is changing.
“New photos purport to show ISIS fighters training at a terrorist camp in Afghanistan, near the Pakistani border, in what may be yet another sign of the black-clad jihadist army’s expanding reach,” Fox News reported on Friday.
The pictures, obtained by a Pakistani journalist earlier this month and published by the military blog The Long War Journal, show apparent ISIS radicals training, marching in formation and brandishing heavy artillery.
Pakistani journalist Saleem Mehsud originally tweeted out the photos on his Twitter page on April 18, but would not divulge details about their origin. Two of the three images show more than a dozen ISIS fighters standing in formation with assault rifles in front of armored SUVs draped in the extremist group’s “black standard” flag. A third image shows a pickup truck with a heavy machine gun turret mounted in the bed.
The photos were allegedly taken in the “Ustad Yasir” camp in the Logar province in eastern Afghanistan. The camp is believed to be operated by the Sa’ad bin Abi Waqas Front — a group named for an Al Qaeda leader who was killed by a U.S. airstrike in 2011. The camp is named for a key Taliban ideologue and top recruiter who was one of more than two dozen senior and mid-level Taliban officials killed in a 2012 “purge.”
Moreover, it is increasingly apparent that those analysts who dismissed ISIS as a pale facsimile of the Taliban were misguided.
“Most of the fighters hail from Pakistan, Uzbekistan, Tajikistan and the Caucuses — and are even more brutal than the Afghan Taliban, according to local lawmakers, police and residents interviewed by NBC News,” an NBC dispatch revealed.
One local resident told NBC News that a foreign element introduced into Afghanistan has begun to an increasingly hostile campaign against locals. The Taliban, one source told NBC reporters, claimed that they rarely encountered Taliban save for when militants with that organization came to collect a 10 percent tax on crops.
“All that changed in the past year when foreign militants, especially Uzbeks, arrived in the area and pushed out the local police,” said Rasheed.
The new arrivals killed one person in the neighboring village, he said, dragged the man’s body behind a motorcycle before shooting two others and setting their bodies on fire.
“In some villages they have raised the black flag of Daesh,” Rasheed added, using another name for ISIS.
In addition to its campaign of terror in Iraq and Syria, ISIS’s media arm announced in January that the group had designated Pakistan and neighboring Afghanistan as the province of Khorasan — the name given to a historic area covering part of modern-day Iran, Afghanistan and India.
The fighting against Islamic militants in Faryab Province has grown so intense that government forces cannot hold the territory. This report suggests that a majority of that province has fallen to insurgents and is on the brink of “total collapse.”
The chaos in Afghanistan is drawing the residual American troop presence back into the fight. Despite Barack Obama’s pledge to end combat operations in Afghanistan before the end of his presidency, it seems that the forces of history won’t be as accommodating to his aspirations as might have liked.