JALALABAD, Afghanistan—Rahman Wali’s younger brother was one of 10 Afghan men forced by Islamic State (ISIS) extremists to kneel over bombs buried in the soil in a lush green valley in eastern Nangarhar Province. The extremists then detonated the bombs, turning the pastoral countryside into a scene of horror.
The August killings were recorded on camera and posted on social media like so many ISIS atrocities across the Mideast—reflecting how the ISIS is exporting its particular brand of cruelty as the group seeks to enlarge its footprint in Afghanistan.
It was through the macabre video that 44-year-old Wali learned the fate of his brother, Rahman Gul, an imam in their remote Shinwar district bordering Pakistan. Gul had been kidnapped weeks earlier, together with his wife and six children who were quickly set free.
After his brother’s death, Wali and his family fled to the provincial capital of Jalalabad, seeking refuge in a makeshift camp with thousands of others who left their homes in the valleys hugging the border to escape what is turning out to be an increasingly vicious war for control of the region between the Taliban and fighters of Afghanistan’s ISIS affiliate.
Reports of an ISIS presence in Afghanistan first emerged early this year in southern Helmand Province, where recruiters believed to have links to the ISIS leadership in Syria were killed by a U.S. drone strike in February.
In the summer, extremists pledging allegiance to ISIS also surfaced in Nangarhar, where they challenged the Taliban in border clashes. After see-sawing between the two groups, four districts—Achin, Nazyan, Bati Kot and Spin Gar—fell under ISIS control, according to Gen. John F. Campbell, the U.S. commander of American and NATO forces in Afghanistan.
Campbell told The Associated Press in an interview this week that ISIS loyalists in Afghanistan are now trying to consolidate links to the mothership—the so-called “caliphate” proclaimed on territory ISIS seized in Syria and Iraq after its blitz there in the summer of 2014.
For the present, ISIS ambitions for Afghanistan seem focused on setting up what it calls “Khorasan Province,” taking the name of an ancient province of the Persian Empire that included territories in today’s Afghanistan, Iran and some Central Asian states. It parallels names for affiliates elsewhere, such as the ISIS branch in Egypt’s Sinai Peninsula, which is known as “Sinai Province.”
“I think ISIL is really trying to establish a base in Nangarhar … and establish Jalalabad as the base of the Khorasan Province,” Campbell said, using an alternative acronym for ISIS.
Several residents who fled the four Nangarhar districts say ISIS’ “reign of terror” there includes extortions, evictions, arbitrary imprisonment and forced marriage for young women. Beheadings and killings with “buried bombs”—such as the gruesome slaying of Wali’s brother—are filmed and posted on social media to instill fear, they said. Some spoke on condition of anonymity, fearing reprisals for relatives back in the districts.
Mimicking ISIS’ media outreach in Syria and Iraq, the Afghan branch also set up a radio station in Nangarhar, “Radio Caliphate,” broadcasting at least one hour a day to attract young Afghan men disenchanted by dim job prospects in a war-torn country with an overall 24 percent unemployment rate. The joblessness is even higher among youths targeted in the ISIS recruitment drive.
Meanwhile, the Afghan government forces, busy fighting the Taliban elsewhere, left the two militant groups to battle it out.
And battle they did. Hundreds of Taliban fighters—disillusioned with the 14-year war to overthrow the Kabul government—switched allegiance to ISIS.
Though estimates say that ISIS fighters number a few thousand nationwide, they are still far outnumbered by the Taliban, who have anywhere between 20,000 to 30,000 in their ranks, according to Afghan political analyst Waheed Muzhdah, who worked in the Taliban foreign ministry during their 1996-2001 rule.
Still, many admit the ISIS Afghan branch could pose a serious threat to the unstable nation.
In a report released this week, the Pentagon referred to the “Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant – Khorasan Province” as an “emergent competitor to other violent extremist groups that have traditionally operated in Afghanistan.”
“This may result in increased violence among the various extremist groups in 2016,” the Dec. 16 report said.
Campbell said some foreign ISIS fighters have joined the Afghans from Iraq and Syria. Former residents said they spotted gunmen from Pakistan and Uzbekistan, as well as Arabic speakers flush with money and apparently better armed than the Taliban.
Nangarhar is attractive to ISIS for its mix of insurgent groups, some of which are based across the border in Pakistan, and criminal gangs involved in lucrative drugs and minerals smuggling.
Alarm bells rang when students at the prestigious Nangarhar University staged a pro-IS demonstration on campus in August, sparking arrests by the Afghan intelligence agency and a crackdown on universities nationwide.
Governor Salim Kunduzi put ISIS’ battleground strength in Nangarhar at around 400 fighters. The province’s mountainous terrain provides perfect ground for an insurgency, and militants can easily resupply from Pakistan, he said. The province can also serve as a staging ground for a push north, along the eastern border and eventually on to Kabul, just 125 kilometers (77.5 miles) to the west, he added.
Both Campbell and Kunduzi agree ISIS may see Jalalabad as its base for expansion in Afghanistan.
“I do not think Daesh will focus only on the east,” Kunduzi said, using the Arabic language acronym for the Islamic State.
Nangarhar’s chief refugee official, Ghulam Haidar Faqirzai, said that at least 25,200 families—or more than 170,000 people—have been displaced across the province, either directly by ISIS or by perceived threats from the group. As the winter sets in, needs of the displaced are intensifying, he warned.
In a camp on Jalalabad’s eastern outskirts, 70-year-old Yaqub, who like many Afghan men uses only one name, said he left his village in Maamand Valley in Achin district six months ago, after “fighters of the black flag”—the Islamic State’s banner—dragged him and his son into prison where they were beaten and tortured. He said he still does not know why.
“They covered my head with a black bag so I couldn’t breathe while they beat me for a whole day, and every day they said they were going to kill me,” he said.
Yaqub and his son were released after the family paid their captors 200,000 Pakistani rupees, or almost $2,000—a fortune in Afghanistan, where the average annual income is around $700.
“Anything is better than going back there,” said Yaqub.