GHAJULON BOLO, NEJRAB, KAPISA / KUNAR / KABUL
Updated on November 10th*
In November 2019, Afghan President Ashraf Ghani declared that the self-proclaimed Islamic State had been ‘obliterated’ in the eastern Afghan province of Nangarhar. Later, in spring 2020, the mentioned group also lost its last remaining strongholds in the province of Kunar, which neighbours Nangarhar. This, however, did not mark the end of the self-declared Islamic State’s Afghan chapter, as small groups still operate covertly in several parts of the country and the self-styled Islamic State continues to claim attacks in Afghanistan. Exclusive Information gathered by the Swiss Institute for Global Affairs (SIGA) in Afghanistan suggest though that at least some alleged Islamic State groups in Afghanistan act autonomously and that their effective integration into the organisation of the self-proclaimed Islamic State is often doubtful. While this means that such groups are no relevant transnational threat, it also shows how difficult it is to root out the dangerous ideology of the self-styled Islamic State. A SIGA investigative report from the valleys of Afghanistan.
One of the few photos of a flag of the self-declared Islamic State in Afghanistan that does not derive from the group’s propaganda material. The flag, which sports a non-standard, localised design, was reportedly captured by Afghan government forces in Nurgal District in the eastern Afghan province of Kunar, in spring 2019. (Source: https://twitter.com/RisboLensky/status/1131134871055863809)
Surprising Reports on the Self-Declared Islamic State’s Afghan Chapter
“The Daeshis are just on the other side of the small ridge,” asserted Rahmat Khan to SIGA in early October 2020 in his house in Ghajulon Bolo, an area at the end of a secluded valley in Nejrab District of Kapisa Province, which lies, however, only an about 3.5 hours car ride away from the capital Kabul. By ‘Daeshis’, Rahmat Khan, who leads a small unit of a pro-government militia in Ghajulon Bolo, means members of the self-declared Islamic State, which is known by its Arabic acronym Daesh in Afghanistan. “Habib Rahman is the leader of the group of about 300 men and says openly that he is a Daeshi,” Rahmat Khan added, possibly exaggerating the strength of the group that was put at only 70 to 80 men by other sources.
Later, he led the SIGA fellow up a steep slope to an outpost sitting on the top of the ridge. From there, the view is free over Habib Rahman’s village. The men of the militia pointed out the house of Habib Rahman, only a few hundred meters away. “At the end of last winter, Habib Rahman hoisted a black banner [a Daesh flag] there, right on his roof,” one of them asserted. “He only took it down after government forces conducted a raid against some of his men, but he is still a Daeshi.”
View on the main village in Ghajulon Bolo; Habib Rahman’s house, where he once reportedly flew a black flag, is the first in the centre of the picture. (Franz J. Marty, 6th of October 2020)
These assertions are surprising for several reasons. For one, the Afghan chapter of Daesh, which emerged at the end of 2014 / beginning of 2015 in the eastern Afghan province of Nangarhar, never had any open presences outside of Nangarhar and the neighbouring province of Kunar. The only potential exception was an alleged Daesh exclave in the northern Afghan province of Jowzjan, which operated from approximately 2015 to summer 2018 but whose effective affiliation to the self-proclaimed Islamic State has always been doubtful.* Reports about alleged Daesh groups in other provinces were — apart from small, covertly operating cells in and around Kabul City and, to a considerably more unclear extent, the western city of Herat — either nothing more than highly questionable rumours or were disproved. From Kapisa, there have, as far as it could be determined, never been any reports on Daesh presences. One of the main reasons that Daesh has not been able to establish itself outside some areas of Nangarhar and Kunar was that the Taliban, who almost completely dominate the jihadi scene in Afghanistan, openly fight Daesh due to ideological and other differences.
Furthermore, the time of the reported hoisting of a black Daesh flag in Ghajulon Bolo in early 2020 would also be extraordinary, as it would have come at a point when the self-proclaimed Islamic State’s Afghan chapter, known as its Khorasan Province, was in rapid decline. Between late summer 2019 and spring 2020, U.S. and Afghan government forces as well as the Taliban had launched and intensified separate offensives targeting Daesh which eventually led to the end of Daesh’s open control of areas in their erstwhile strongholds in Nangarhar and Kunar.
Self-Identifying with Daesh…
In view of the aforementioned, the question arises whether reports about Daesh in Kapisa are, like previous claims about Daesh in other provinces than Nangarhar and Kunar, incorrect or whether Daesh has indeed a small presence only a few hours’ drive away from Kabul City.
That Habib Rahman and his followers are calling themselves Daeshis was confirmed to SIGA by several sources. One of the sources was a taxi driver who does not hail from Ghajulon Bolo and who is not affiliated with the pro-government militia, which makes it unlikely that he is biased. “When I brought a customer to Ghajulon Bolo in spring , I personally met Habib Rahman. He invited me to join his jihad and talked about the Caliphate [a common way for Daeshis to refer to their group]. I have also seen several black flags on houses in the village,” the taxi driver elaborated. Another taxi driver from Ghajulon Bolo, who regularly drives to Habib Rahman’s village, denied though to have ever seen black Daesh flags or insignia there. But also he confirmed that some people in the village would openly talk about their allegiance to the self-proclaimed Islamic State.
Be that as it may, SIGA obtained the clearest proof for the allegiance of Habib Rahman and his followers to Daesh in the form of the photo displayed below. According to Nur Habib, another of the only 20 members of the pro-government militia in Ghajulon Bolo, the photograph in question was taken in autumn 2019 and shows Habib Rahman’s nephews, one of whom wears a black headband sporting the logo of Daesh. The photo had, as far as it could be determined, not been posted online and Nur Habib assured that he had directly received it via Bluetooth from a smartphone of a resident of Habib Rahman’s village.
Picture of Habib Rahman’s nephews, one of whom wears a Daesh headband; reportedly taken in autumn 2019, exact location unknown, but presumably in Ghajulon Bolo. (Courtesy of Nur Habib, a member of the pro-government militia in Ghajulon Bolo)
Picture of Habib Rahman, date and location unknown. (Courtesy of Nur Habib, a member of the pro-government militia in Ghajulon Bolo)
…but Connexions to Other Daesh Groups Doubtful
However, the cited statements and the photo substantiate only that Habib Rahman and his men are apparently indeed calling themselves Daeshis, but they do not answer the question whether the group is in contact with other Daesh groups and integrated into a broader organisation. While it proved impossible to definitively resolve this question, there are doubts that this is the case.
One reason for this is that none of the locals in Ghajulon Bolo were able to reliably say how exactly Habib Rahman had become a Daeshi and whether and how he is connected to the wider Daesh outfit. The men of the local pro-government militia only vaguely stated that Habib Rahman had, on one hand, been radicalised during his religious studies in Pakistan and, on the other hand, that some Daeshis from outside the valley had visited Habib Rahman. These Daeshis allegedly brought black headbands and bandanas and Habib Rahman was said to have had pledged allegiance to them. However, as Habib Rahman’s studies in Pakistan date back a few years and possibly predate the emergence of the self-proclaimed Islamic State in Afghanistan, it seems likely that the men of the pro-government militia failed to clearly distinguish between Habib Rahman’s pledge of allegiance to Daesh and his possibly earlier conversion to Salafism, the puritan stream of Islam on which Daesh bases its ideology. This conclusion was corroborated by the fact that the militiamen apparently associated the Salafist style of praying to which Habib Rahman and his followers had switched and which they had apparently never seen before directly with Daesh – although by far not every Salafi is a Daeshi. The reports on visits from outside Daeshis were also highly doubtful as none of the men in Ghajulon Bolo could describe any reliable details. “The delegations [of outside Daeshis] came in secret and they left in secret,” Mohammad Bakhsh, another member of the pro-government militia, explained, echoing the statements of all other sources — which also implies though that such stories are at best based on unreliable hearsay.
In view of this, it is questionable that the group of Habib Rahman had or has connexions to other Daesh groups or that it is integrated into a broader Daesh organisation. To the contrary, it is much more likely that Habib Rahman and his men simply self-affiliate with Daesh due to their personal religious convictions. This is all the more the case as Habib Rahman’s group is apparently on good terms with the local Taliban in Ghajulon Bolo, in spite of the fact that the Taliban and Daesh Khorasan are in general bitter enemies.
Other Alleged Daesh Groups with Chequered History
Habib Rahman’s group would also not be the first alleged Daesh group in Afghanistan, whose effective ties to the self-declared Islamic State are doubtful. Another example was the already mentioned purported Daesh exclave in Jowzjan that was in summer 2018 eventually overrun by the Taliban. Akin to the group in Ghajulon Bolo, the respective militants in Jowzjan were apparently rather only self-declared Daeshis, using Daesh insignia but likely not having any significant connexion to other Daesh groups (for more details see this Afghanistan Analysts Network report and its references).*
Furthermore, and despite Kunar having been a Daesh stronghold since the early days of the group’s Afghan chapter, the ties of at least some Daesh groups in Kunar to the wider organisation of the self-styled Islamic State was and is less clear than often portrayed. There is, in fact, anecdotal evidence that at least some alleged Daeshis in Kunar have only adopted a vague, locally-coloured version of the Islamic State’s ideology.
Such indications exist, for example, for the Daeshis in Korengal, a valley tucked away in Kunar’s Manogai District where about a decade ago U.S. forces had suffered some of the heaviest losses of the recent U.S. military involvement in Afghanistan. Due to the secludedness of the valley as well as other reasons, Korengalis, who are ethnically different from other Kunaris and speak their own language, have always been peculiar and resisted outside influence in their affairs. That said, during the past years the current SIGA fellow in Afghanistan has come across indications that Korengali militants who, at some point no later than January 2019, reportedly switched from the Taliban to Daesh and then, albeit under force, back to the Taliban, have always been operating more or less autonomously. However, out of convenience Korengali militants seem to fly the flag of whatever larger group suits them at any given moment, nominally subordinating themselves to such a group while not effectively integrating into it. In the years before the emergence of Daesh Khorasan, the only viable option had been the Taliban, but then Daesh Khorasan became an alternative, which, given that Korengalis have since long been Salafists, had also the allure of ideological similarities. Several attempts of SIGA to visit the Korengal or get reliable information from there failed; hence, the above mentioned could not be definitively confirmed and remains, to some extent, speculative.
Entrance to the Korengal valley. (Franz J. Marty, 23rd of April 2019)
Be that as it may, in late September 2020 an officer of Kunar’s department of the National Directorate of Security, Afghanistan’s secret police, insisted that more or less all Korengalis, who had joined Daesh and afterwards surrendered to the Taliban, had, at some point during summer 2020, again joined Daesh. He added that they would have done this secretly and officially still use the white flag of the Taliban and not the black banner of the self-declared caliphate; he did not elaborate on what exact information this conclusion was based and this could not be verified by SIGA either. However, it is yet another reminder how opaque the situation surrounding alleged local Daesh groups in Afghanistan often is.
Even if groups like the ones in the Korengal valley or Ghajulon Bolo should be proper Daeshis there are indications that such groups had little, if any interaction with each other or Daesh groups outside Afghanistan. This derives from interviews that SIGA has conducted with several former Daeshi foot soldiers, most of them from Kunar, over the course of the past summer. In this regard, it has to be mentioned that the lack of interaction between local Daesh groups might have been by design in order to prevent that the arrest of members of one group could compromise other Daeshis. However, such strict operational security would also have resulted in at best limited coordination between such groups.
Still Some Connexions Between Daesh Global and Daesh Khorasan
There is, however, proof that at least some Daesh cells in Afghanistan have some kind of contact and coordination with the core group of the self-proclaimed caliphate in the Middle East. This stems first and foremost from the fact that Daesh Khorasan has, also months after the loss of virtually all its territory in Afghanistan, continued to claim attacks in Afghanistan. These claims have all been released over established central Daesh propaganda channels on messaging apps such as Hoop Messenger and Telegram which cover all the provinces of the self-declared caliphate from West Africa to the Philippines.
Between 1st of August and 28th of October 2020 such Daesh propaganda channels have claimed at least 26 attacks in Afghanistan. Sixteen of these attacks took place in Nangarhar, almost always in or near the provincial capital Jalalabad; four in Kabul City; four against or near Bagram Air Field, the largest U.S. military base in Afghanistan, located just north of Kabul; and two in Herat. Apart from a coordinated raid against the provincial prison of Nangarhar in Jalalabad that started in the evening of 2nd of August 2020 and lasted for almost 24 hours and a suicide bombing against an educational centre in Kabul City on 24th of October 2020, none of the other attacks had a major impact and almost all remained small IED detonations, mostly unsuccessful rocket attacks, or shootings.
Daesh claim of responsibility for the suicide bombing against an educational centre in a predominantly Shiite part of Kabul City on 24th of October 2020.
The latter indicates that the capabilities of still active Daesh cells to stage attacks are limited and that larger operations such as the one against the prison in Jalalabad will likely remain stark exceptions. However, and as the bombing against the educational centre in Kabul shows, simple attacks against soft civilian targets, which are comparatively easy to organise, can still lead to devastating casualty tolls.
While the concentration of claims in and around cities could be due to the availability of not only more, but also more attractive targets in cities, the higher number of claims in cities might also be explained by differences between Daesh cells operating covertly in and around urban centres and their more openly acting alleged brethren in rural areas. Specifically, the former are apparently willing and able to feed their activities in Daesh’s central propaganda stream while the latter, as shown above, likely lack the connexions to do so. Given that there is almost no reliable information on Daesh cells operating in and around cities, this could not be definitively confirmed. However, it would be compatible with findings of the virtually only study of Daesh’s Kabul cells, according to which members of such cells often come from middle-class families and are educated — which places them in a better position to link up with other Daesh members online. In this context, it is also important to note that the study mentions that Daeshis staging attacks in Kabul had, at least in the past, been in contact with, and received orders from, Daesh Khorasan’s core leadership in Nangarhar — which suggests that this core in Nangarhar also had some connexions to Daesh outside of Afghanistan and differed from the alleged Daeshis in other places in Afghanistan. Given that the mentioned study was focused on the reasons for which people join Daesh Khorasan and did not analyse the organisation of the group in detail, this can, however, not be definitively said. The fact that Daesh has, in the meantime, lost its open strongholds in Nangarhar and that the Daesh Khorasan leadership has become opaquer than ever has likely also degraded the leadership’s alleged ability to coordinate operations.
Be that as it may, in view of all the above, in particular the often localised nature of Daesh groups in Afghanistan, it is unlikely that such groups — be it in urban or rural areas — pose a threat beyond the immediate area of their operations, not to speak of a transnational threat. This does, however, also mean that such groups are hard to eradicate as they are apparently driven by their very own ideological conviction and are immune to the losses of other Daesh groups or leaders elsewhere. And that they will likely continue to conduct bloody attacks inside Afghanistan.
Franz J. Marty
 For an example from the northern province of Badakhshan, see “The phantom menace of ISIS in Northern Afghanistan”; and for another example from the western province of Ghor, see “Carnage in Ghor: Was Islamic State the perpetrator or was it falsely accused?”.
 For the sake of completeness, it has to be noted that a detailed study published in June 2020 showed that numerous of the Daeshis who are active in and around Kabul City hail from Kapisa; however, said study does not mention any open Daesh presence in Kapisa itself.
 An in-depth study on Daesh’s Kabul cells suggests that, at least for the cells operating in and around Kabul which had been in contact with Daesh groups in Nangarhar, there had indeed been a strict compartmentalisation for operational security. As will be explained below, there are indications though that urban cells and the core of Daesh Khorasan in Nangarhar differ from other alleged Daesh groups like in Kunar or the portrayed group in Kapisa.
* Corrigendum: Shortly after the initial publication of this article, a well-placed source informed SIGA that not publicly available documents of the self-declared Islamic State would show that there had been a significant connexion between the mentioned Daesh exclave in Jowzjan and the core of the self-proclaimed Islamic State in the Middle East.