A few months after the Islamic State (IS) announced the establishment of Wilayat Khorasan (Khorasan Province), the Taliban wrote to the IS chief, Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi, requesting that he stop recruiting jihadists. There is only one flag and one leadership in the fight to restore Islamic rule in Afghanistan, wrote the Taliban political committee chief Mullah Akhtar Mansour (who would take over the regime in a month and be killed by an airstrike in May 2016).
Nevertheless, the IS faction, which was later called the Islamic State of Khorasan Province (ISKP), continued to recruit discontented Taliban fighters. As a result, it continued to launch terror attacks throughout Afghanistan.
The presence of another radical Islamic organization, the Islamic State in Khorasan Province, has become a cause for concern around the world since the Taliban took control of Afghanistan. It was the ISKP who claimed responsibility for last month’s attack on Kabul airport. It has a vision of the region that has considerably broader implications for India than the Taliban, as it is ideologically opposed to them.
ISKP envisions creating a historical region that would go by the name of Khorasan. In the past, the region is referred to as Khorasan had varying borders depending on its political leaders. Scholars do agree, however, that the term is derived from the Sasanian Empire in what is today Iran, which means ‘rising sun’. The Sassanians ruled the part of Iran in the northeastern part of the country, known as Khorasan. Additionally, it was long held that an even greater Khorasan might exist that encompassed large regions south of the Aral Sea.
A border with the east of Khurasan, then, would theoretically extend as far as China, but in practice, it rarely extended beyond Balkh into the district known as Turkharistan (roughly analogous to ancient Bactria, according to Elton L. Daniel in his book The Political and Social History of Khurasan under Abbasid Rule (1979). In other words, Khorasan was rarely explored beyond what is today’s Afghanistan, despite the differing notions of it in the Islamic world.
The first time as recently as 1996 that the term ‘Khorasan’ was used by a radical Islamic group was by Osama Bin Laden of Al-Qaeda. Having driven the United States out of Saudi Arabia and destroyed Israel, Afghanistan was now the base of operations for the larger initiative of establishing an Islamic Caliphate.
As we mentioned previously, Bin Laden claimed to have found safer quarters in Khorasan from Afghanistan. Khorasan was subsequently adopted by the ISKP, which claimed it encompassed Afghanistan, Pakistan, Iran and Central Asian republics, and northwestern or sometimes all of India and Russia.
Neither Al-Qaeda nor ISKP has a presence in Khorasan. As far as we know, Khorasan has never gone south of the Hindu Kush. In contrast, the allies of Al-Qaeda and ISKP are Pakistani jihadi groups wishing to include Kashmir as a part of their operations. The United States does not want to deal with Arab world issues; they look east, says Dr Amin Tarzi, director of Middle Eastern studies at Marine Corps University, in an interview with IndianExpress.com.
This explains why these groups are turning to Islamic history to gain political currency from Khorasan’s significance. As the area of Khorasan plays a particularly important role in the political and cultural history of Islam and the development of Islamic theology, there was indeed much to appropriate here.
In Islamic State terms, ISKP refers to a wilayah (province) and Khorasan specifically refers to a historical region that included parts of Afghanistan, Pakistan, Turkmenistan, Tajikistan, Uzbekistan, and Iran. As a radical Islamist organization, the ISKP adheres to the larger Islamic State ideologies, which aim to establish a global, transnational caliphate that is governed by Islamic law. As part of its motto, “baqiya wa tatamaddad” (remaining and expanding), the Islamic State calls for other Muslims to join the movement’s fledgling caliphate.
Nevertheless, the caliphate must be a “pure Islamic State” whose members are strictly bound by sunna (the Prophet’s traditions). It was in 2016 that the Islamic State issued a list of terrorists called Aqidah wa Manhaj al-Dawlah al Islamiah fi al-Takfir(Islamic State Creed and Methodology of Takfir) states that anyone who rejects sharia law will be labelled a kafir (also known as an apostate) and can, therefore, be executed.
In the form that it took, the Islamic State grew out of Al-Qaeda, which diverged ideologically, including in its belief in killing Shia civilians. While both groups advocate a violent struggle against their “far enemy” (the West), the Islamic State also emphasizes dealing with “near enemies” (apostates in the region).
As part of international offensive jihad, Islamic State aims to rid its territory of both foreign infidels and apostates, while encouraging violence against the local community if it disagrees with the acceptance of Sharia law and does not conform to its dogma. ISKP has launched numerous attacks against Afghans belonging to the Hazara Shia minority, for example.
As the Islamic State and subsequently, the ISKP-swore to not negotiate with the West, former Taliban members outraged over the negotiations in Afghanistan flocked to the group initially. According to ISKP propaganda, the Taliban and [U.S.] “crusaders” are “allies.” In 2021, the ISKP specifically pledged retaliation against the Taliban for their peace deal with the United States.
Furthermore, ISKP subscribes to the concept of tawhid al-hakimiyyah (oneness of governance) and disapproves of a Muslim leader who does not adhere to the full extent of the Shariah. ISKP refuses to acknowledge the Taliban as a legitimate Islamic leader and accuses the Taliban of being filthy nationalists for appealing only to a narrow ethnic and nationalistic base rather than committing to a universal Islamic jihad.
As an organization, ISKP operates under a hierarchical structure, under a leader — presently Shahab al-Muhajir. Senior ISKP leadership includes a Shura Advisory Council, commanders at the provincial level, and leaders responsible for various aspects of the organization’s bureaucracy, such as intelligence and logistics.
While early leaders of ISKP originated from the original group of TTP commanders who founded the group, this has since diversified, and al-Muhajir is believed to be of Arab descent – the first time ISKP has been led by a commander outside the region. During one 2016 analysis of the group, a majority of mid-level ISKP leaders identified themselves as former Taliban fighters.
Moreover, recent examinations of the group’s leadership have revealed an even broader range of past affiliations, including former fighters of Al Qaeda on the Indian Subcontinent and Lashkar-e-Taiba. Fighters who are experts in insurgent warfare typically have extensive local knowledge, raising their tactical effectiveness.
In addition to financial incentives and promoting battlefield gains by ISKP’s core group in Iraq and Syria, the ISKP has seen success in recruiting new jihadists by exploiting factions between existing jihadist groups. ISKP has imported some foreign fighters, but this recruitment is supposed to be more of a trickle rather than a windfall, and the destruction of the Islamic State territorial caliphate in Iraq and Syria did not have much impact on recruiting.
The Islamic State’s Syrian and Iraqi provinces maintain close contact with the operatives of the Islamic State in Iraq and Syria and remain free to conduct their operations as they see fit. As an example, ISKP has rarely sent women fighters to battle, unlike other Islamic State affiliates in Asia.
Financed by a variety of revenue streams, ISKP conducts its business. ISKP raises funds primarily through local donations, extortion, and financial support from the core Islamic State leadership, according to the U.S. Department of the Treasury. In addition, the Treasury concludes that ISKP held modest financial reserves as of 2020, while it also relied on a large network of hawalas – informal money brokers – in cities such as Kabul and Jalalabad to transfer funds.
Tactics and Targets
Even though its strength in Afghanistan has declined since it reached its zenith in 2018, ISKP continues to plan and conduct attacks there. There are frequent remote explosive and suicide bomb attacks by ISKP fighters against civilian targets and security forces and militant groups. The ISKP, for example, claimed responsibility for an explosion that killed 12 civilians and injured at least 20 others on May 14, 2021, at a mosque outside Kabul during Eid al-Fitr.
Aside from the use of firearms in attacks on civilians, beheadings and abductions of children have also been employed. A group of ISKP gunmen shot and killed 10 Hazara deminers in Baghlan Province on June 8, 2021, as well as injuring 16 other people. In addition to clashes with security forces, the Taliban and other militant groups, the ISKP has also been battling armed forces and other groups in 2018, although most of these clashes turned into retreats following its losses of territory in 2018.
In the period from January 2020 to July 2021, ISKP carried out 83 attacks, which resulted in 309 fatalities. On the other hand, the attacks have primarily targeted civilians (35 attacks) and security forces (28 attacks), such as NATO personnel, the Afghan military, the police, and other security forces. Since January 2020, there have been 13 incidents, of which 13 were attacks or violent clashes against Taliban forces.
Why Khorasan is special to Islam
Scholars of Islamic history agree that between the 7th century CE when the Sasanians collapsed and the 13th century CE, Khorasan went from being on the margins of the empire to become the centre and then returning to the margins. The name actually means Khurasan the land of the rising sun and that suggests its marginal position which is also known as the centre of the Sasanian Empire, first in Fars, then in Iraq and according to David Durand Guedy in his article, Pre-Mongol Khurasan: A Historical Introduction (2015).
According to the Encyclopaedia Iranica, during the Arab Islamic invasion of Khorasan, it appeared that it had been merged into an abstract geographical entity. Arab armies did not limit their conquest to the boundaries of Sasanian Khorasan, but travelled rapidly over the Oxus River to traverse the Kara Kum desert and through Sogdiana to the northeast, eventually stopping at the Talas River in 750 BC.
Guedy explains in his article that the greatest legacy of the Arab conquest was the unification of the territories that were previously divided under common umbrella terms like ‘Khorasan’. Unlike other provinces, Khurasan also experienced massive Arab settlements, perhaps as many as 250,000, which reflects both its strategic importance and its potential wealth.” He concludes by saying that the conversion of the local population to Islam began there earlier.
According to Rocco Rante, an archaeologist at the Department of Islamic Art in the Louvre Museum, aerial surveys have demonstrated similarities between cultures and technologies that illustrate the unified state of Greater Khorasan from Herat to Balkh. It is sometimes possible to recover similar objects from the other side of the Oxus River as well.
Khorasan was crucial to the Islamic Caliphate because it acted as the military frontier for Islamic expansion eastwards, and it had the most significant tax revenue to the Caliphate, Daniel says. A great deal of trade took place in this region. From a military, financial, and commercial standpoint, this area has been crucial for Islamic civilization,” says Daniel, who is director of the Ehsan Yarshater Center For Iranian Studies at Columbia University.
Another reason for the central importance of this area is that it was the site of the Abbasid Revolution, a key juncture in Islamic history. Till the Umayyad Empire ruled the Islamic world, it was controlled by Arab dynasties. People who had converted to Islam and were non-Arabs in the region were particularly distressed by the discriminatory treatment they received under the Umayyads. Against them stood the Abbasid dynasty, who claimed descent from al-Abbas, an uncle of the Prophet Muhammed. As a result of the leadership of Abu Muslim, the Abbasids ended the rule of the Umayyads.
Historically, it was a significant event since it was the moment when the idea that one must also be Arab to be a Muslim was invalidated. Daniel says these events led to the conception of Islam as a religion of minority ethnicities and nationalities.
As a result of this development, leaders of the Caliphate were no longer Arabs. Central Asians and Iranians from Eastern Europe were amongst them. Khorasan region became the linchpin of the rising Muslim Empire after Baghdad became the centre of the Muslim world.
In the Abbasid period, this area gained an entirely new significance in terms of its culture. In a sidebar, Rante explains that it would be incorrect to presume that the material cultural productions at Khorasan were superior to those in other regions of the Muslim world. After the Abbasid revolution, however, Khorasan took on a much more important political role than it had previously had.
It is from this province’s association with the Abbasids that such traditions like the one the Prophet attributed to him began to circulate: “Khorasan is God’s quiver; when He becomes angry, he launches a Khorasani at them.”
Therefore, Khorasan became a hub of intellectual production as well, with the city of Nishapur as the centre. One of the main reasons for the region’s prolific philosophy, science, and literature can be attributed to the multi-ethnic nature of Islam here.
The lively intellectual climate in Nishapur was not the only result of arguments over legal and theological matters, nor was it the result of civil strife. S.Frederick Starr who is an expert on Eurasian and Russian affairs in his book, ‘Lost Enlightenment: Central Asia’s Golden Age from the Arab Conquest to Tamerlane’ which was released in the year 2013 writes that The presence there of articulate Zoroastrians and Christians also played a role, as did, the submerged traditions of Buddhism and the ongoing intellectual contacts with India.
Polymath Abul-Abbas Iranshahri was one of the first philosophers to emerge here; he combined his knowledge of Christianity and Zoroastrianism in his philosophy. The Greek philosopher is also known to have written on astronomy and to have firmly believed that human intelligence can be used to answer questions of existence.
In his book, Starr refers to one of Iranshahri’s students as the “greatest medical clinician.” Mohammed ibn Zakariya al-Razi is noted as being the “greatest medical clinician of all time.” In addition, there was Jabir Ibn Hayyan, a scholar who wrote an immense amount of works dealing with chemistry, alchemy, magic and religion in the ninth century.
Despite its radical, sceptical nature, the Khurasan region produces a large number of freethinkers. It was no surprise because people in this region have been reading, editing, and translating religious texts for a long time. The attacks of several of these secular thinkers focused predominantly on Islam.
A good example would be Abu Hasan Ahmad Ibn Al-Rawandi, born in Lesser Merv (now northern Afghanistan) around 820 CE. As S.Frederick Starr writes, Rawandi used “logic and reason to plumb the nature of religion” and is supposed to have mastered the art of “using the Bible against the Bible and the Quran against the Quran to show ‘The Futility of Divine Wisdom’, the title of one of his diatribes against all revealed religions.” He wrote close to 114 books and treatises on philosophy, politics, music, grammar, but none of them survives today, nor does any of his poetry.
Firdawsi, a Persian poet dating from the 10th century CE, wrote an epic, the Shahnameh, which can only be included in any discussion of intellectual productions in Khorasan. A mythological and historical account of the Persian Empire is contained in the Shahnameh. According to its authors, this is one of the longest epic poems in history, and it boasts the title of a global cultural heritage object.
With the defeat of the Abbasids by the Mongols in the 13th century, the Khorasan region lost its central role and became a peripheral region. When the Timurid Empire comes into power, this region will become more significant. The name ‘Khorasan’ has long since been dropped from usage.
The empire’s centre of power moved to Bukhara (in present-day Uzbekistan) and Balkh (in present-day Afghanistan), and Khorasan was no longer as important politically as it once was,” says Tarzi. He even said that it had to do with geopolitics and the changing of empires.
Khorasan is important to Islamic extremists for several reasons
After Islamic conquests, the term ‘Khorasan’ reappeared in mass consciousness in 1932 when the prominent Afghan historian and politician Mir Ghulam Muhammad Ghobar called Afghanistan Aryana (the land of the Aryans) before the Islamic invasion. ‘Soon after Afghani history comes into being, Afghani people proclaim Abu Muslim, the Abbasid general, as their hero. Tarzi said that it was not done out of religious reasons; it was done for a nationalistic cause, standing up against the Arabs.
As a result, the Afghans changed Abu Moslem’s birthplace to a village in Afghanistan called Sar-e-Pol instead of the conventional location near Isfahan in Iran. The writer states that several Afghan books and historians regularly referred to their country as Khorasan in the mid-20th century, even though many of those references were based on very thin historical evidence.
There was a resurgence of this term in the 1980s and 1990s, although the symbolism was replaced by that of Islamic extremism. In an article published in 2020, Tarzi explains that As the Afghan Mujahideen fought the Soviets (1979-89) and the Taliban (1994-2001), Khorasan became a term of reference that propagated the idea that their struggle went beyond liberating their country from foreign rule and communism or the Taliban.. According to them, the time before modern-day Afghanistan emerged as a political unit ruled by Durrani was the optimal period for returning to a country’s pre-1747 political makeup.
The focus of Al-Qaeda, which existed in the 1980s before the Soviets left Afghanistan, shifted to a global jihadist agenda after the Soviets left Afghanistan. ‘Khorasan’ was Bin Laden’s safe haven in Afghanistan, and it was from here that he announced his safe haven in the country.
Al-Qaeda members’ use of the Khorasan symbolism is associated with some hadiths (traditions or sayings of the Prophet) that explain the region’s significance for future events. Several renditions of the most mentioned hadith say there would appear from Khorasan an army with black banners that no one could oppose until it raised the banner of Ilia (The name used by early Muslim sources for Jerusalem), writes Tarzi.
Considering these factors, perhaps it is not surprising that Al-Qaeda has chosen to represent itself with a black flag. They even published a magazine called Taji i Khorasan (Vanguard of Khorasan) detailing Khorasan’s virtues and importance in Islamic thought.
Jihadist organisations such as al-Qaeda, many of whom were in the ranks of the US-led invasion of Iraq in 2003, began to shift their focus westwards. There was a new organization, the Islamic State of Iraq and Syria (ISIS), which looked no longer to the east while fulfilling its destiny, and the idea of ‘Khorasan’ once again slowly faded. A similar phenomenon occurred in 2015 with the emergence of the ISKP.
The region of Khorasan was seen by them as comprising the fluid borders between Afghanistan and Pakistan and included Iran, other Central Asian states, parts of Russia, and parts of India. According to Tarzi, the group was composed of disgruntled jihadists in Afghanistan who opposed Pashtun nationalism and Pakistanis who worked against India in attempting to occupy Kashmir.
Despite the ISKP’s claims of being an offshoot of ISIS, and regardless of their mutual desire to create a Muslim world, their goals and visions are profoundly different. There are clear signs that the ISKP is looking towards India. In their Khorasan map, they feature large portions of north India where the Mughals once ruled. However, Tarzi claims that they do not include the majority of southern India. During the Islamic rule of India, India was not called Khorasan. The country was called Hend.
When discussing the implications of the ISKP’s vision for India, Tarzi explains that, first and foremost, it is necessary to understand the degree to which their ideology resonates with radical Islamic groups within India. Second, the seeds would need to be planted in another country for further development. Depending on the state of international relations between countries in the region is crucial. Consequently, if India’s relations with one of its neighbouring nations deteriorate, they may be able to find support there,” says Tarzi.
In the wake of the Taliban taking control of Afghanistan, the strength of the ISKP has steadily decreased. One of the reasons why the Taliban have found favour with the Chinese and the Russians is because of this and even though the Taliban’s extremist ideology is seemed to be worrying, it is recognised as being restricted to Afghanistan, while the ISKP is seen as a much greater regional threat.
There is something quite intriguing about the symbol of Khorasan that the radical Islamic groups use, as it refers to enlightenment and cultural productions during a time and place of intellectual enlightenment and innovation. According to Tarzi, Islam has made so many significant contributions to the history and development of this region. This kind of vision is absent from these extremist organizations. The only thing they have in mind is to create fear and work for whoever pays them.