Articles and Commentaries |
November 2, 2021

Non-State Actors and the Emerging Security Challenges – Islamic State of Khorasan in Perspective

Written By: Prof Amalendu Misra


With the return of the Taliban to power in Afghanistan the entire geo-strategic environment in greater South Asia has taken a turn for the worse. The Taliban’s ascent to power poses reconfiguration of the strategic dynamics in the region. Contrary to the general perception, it is not the Taliban that would be the net contributor to the security volatility in the Afghanistan-Pakistan region. Currently there are close to a dozen radical Islamic non-state outfits operating in Afghanistan. However, the most powerful and dreaded of them happen to be the Islamic State of Khorasan (IS-K). The radical intervention of the IS-K, in the region’s geopolitical affairs, can be deeply problematic.

This essay has four key objectives. First, it argues why failures in governance leads to that political entity becoming an attractive haven for non-state actors such as terrorist outfits. It does so by introducing the theory of state failure to explain this phenomenon. While staying on that theme, it suggests, how a collapsed state, such as Afghanistan under the Taliban, lacking recognition (both internal and external) has become the preferred destination for many non-state actors with ambitions of undermining regional stability.

Second, while staying on the topic of non-state actors it examines the ideological and strategic characters of the Islamic State in general and IS-K in particular. Third, it suggests why the Taliban and the IS-K having their origins in the same religion and a shared radical outlook find themselves in the opposite sides of the ring. Fourth, the essay maps out the future security challenges emanating from the IS-K beyond Afghanistan.

In the conclusion, this essay proposes, that given this all-encompassing threat, the states in the region will do well by shifting their focus from the traditional inter-state conflict dynamics and devote their energy and resource to tackling the growing menace of IS-K.

State Collapse

Afghanistan, prior to the Taliban takeover on 15 August 2021, was a failed state. However, given the manner of their ascent to power, the country’s subsequent isolation from the international community precipitated the state failure leading to a state collapse.

According to realist international relations theory, viable states are characterised by high degrees of socio-political cohesion. They also possess the ability to respond to the citizens’ everyday needs on a continual basis. These attributes allow them to withstand all manners of security challenges. A weak, failing and collapsed state, by contrast, is one that not only lacks internal socio-political cohesion but are incapable of addressing the multi-dimensional security needs of its citizenry. These weak, failing or collapsed states, as Barry Buzan puts it, exist in a “condition of effective civil war which mirrors all the worst and none of the best features of viable states (Buzan, 1991: 100-101).

Weak, failing or a collapsed states are plagued by several security deficiencies. They face fundamental existential challenges emanating from ethnic, tribal, cultural, religious contestations leading to social fragmentation along those lines. Such internal divisive dynamics severely undermine the effective functioning of the state and in turn create security and strategic nightmares for that country and those adjacent to it.

States are the fundamental units of the international system and are responsible for maintaining both order and justice within their defined borders and behave as responsible members of the global community (Misra, 2004: 11). A collapsed state, by contrast is one which not only lacks legitimacy within but is also shunned by the international community. Lacking respectability at home and abroad, it soon fails to live up to its fundamental role of addressing the question of internal order and international personality.

Compared to a ‘viable state’ a ‘collapsed state’ is often at a disadvantage when it comes to defending itself from corrupt and destabilising forces or ideas (Misra, 2004: 9). Stripped bare of resources to maintain the process of governance and existing on the margins of international society as pariahs, owing to the lack of legal recognition, collapsed states are vulnerable to invidious external influences and intervention by non-state actors. Owing to this existential vacuum for the regime, many competing and contending non-state actors flock to the borders of this collapsed state to act out their own religious and political vision.

Collapsed states are a calamitous challenge for their citizenry and neighbours. Without a legally recognised government, the citizens in a collapsed state are more likely to come under the influence of radical non-state actors and their spurious ideologies. Since the authority of the central government is contested, many anti-state actors can take advantage of the prevailing chaos and enlist supporters to undermine the authority of the regime and freely export their own spurious ideologies.

For Robert I. Rotberg, an early proponent of the theory of state collapse, a collapsed state is characterised by “tense, deeply conflicted, dangerous, and contested bitterly by warring factions. In most failed states, government troops battle armed revolts led by one or more rivals. Occasionally, the official authorities in a failed state face two or more insurgencies, varieties of civil unrest, different degrees of communal discontent, and a plethora of dissent directed at the state and at groups within the state (Rotberg, 2003: 5). The prevalent atmosphere in Afghanistan under the Taliban easily fits the definition of a collapsed state as spelt out by Rotberg’s study.

The Taliban are painfully conscious of the fact that they have inherited a dysfunctional economy, a fearful citizenry, a civil society in flight, a near-total absence of foreign reserves, a hostile international system, and ambiguous external supporters and partners. To make matters worse, Afghanistan, under the previous government, was dependent on external aid to cover 75 percent of its budget. The Afghan economy is already in a free fall with a tumbling national currency and a deep financial crisis. Under the circumstances, Afghanistan fast slid into a state collapse whereby the regime failed to address both the human security as well as material security needs of its citizenry.

A violent cartographic vision

The elephant in the room, of course, is IS-K. Before we consign Afghanistan and the region to its vortex of violence, it would be worth asking what the nature and character of this outfit is. What does it stand for? What makes it different from another terror organisation such as the Taliban?

IS-K was set up in January 2015 at the height of IS’s power in Iraq and Syria, before its self-declared caliphate was defeated and dismantled by a US-led coalition (Gardner, 2021). In IS geopolitics, the physical space of occupied Syria and Iraq is the heartland of the end of the world of Islam. Its eastward flank constitutes the Islamic State of Khorasan / IS-K (Giustozzi, 2018). The Islamic State announced its expansion to the Khorasan region in 2015, which historically encompasses parts of modern-day Iran, Central Asia, Afghanistan, and Pakistan. The eastern territorial flanks dominated by the Muslims came to be known as the Khorasan province that necessitated taking over by IS faithful and soldiers. With that objective in mind, the IS had announced its expansion into the Khorasan region way back in 2015. Historically, the region encompassed parts of modern-day Iran, Central Asia, Afghanistan and Pakistan.

While the original Islamic State (IS) was decimated through the armed campaigns by the U.S. and a host of international actors in 2019, it managed to permeate its cartographic and strategic vision among those who subscribed to its ideology long before its demise. According to the geopolitical vision prior to its decimation, the landmass of Iraq and Syria constituted the heartland of Islam (Misra, 2015). Once displaced, plenty of ISIL fighters escaped to the chaotic landscape of Pakistan and Afghanistan, the eastern arm of their prophetic land. Once in this terrain, they have been responsible for internecine turf war with other established militant groups in the region – including the Taliban – and have unleashed their terror on both non-combatant and military targets. While the coalition forces have come under their attack in over hundreds of occasions, it is the civilian populace that have borne the brunt of their violence. IS-K has been responsible for killing innocent civilians, nurses, doctors, pregnant women and children.

In the latest of its attacks, it killed nearly two hundred people near Kabul airport which included 13 U.S. servicemen. Ever since, they have been on a killing spree across Afghanistan – mostly targeting minority Shia community members and other Taliban interests. Ousted from Syria and Iraq, the IS is in desperate search for a homeland. The crises in Afghanistan with a Muslim populace suits its core objective of using it as its base. Since the IS-K has to establish a safe haven for itself in areas of Afghanistan that the Taliban have been controlling for some time, and the Taliban have not agreed to share space with this emerging competitor, there have been these sporadic clashes between the two (Guistozzi, 2001).

The core differences

According to some analysts, the global Islamic State movement is also now depicting Afghanistan as the epicentre of its ideological struggle. The group’s main propaganda organs have trumpeted the successes of its Afghan affiliate, describing the anti-Taliban campaign in an official statement as a “new stage in the blessed jihad” (George,Warrick & DeYoung, 2021). It is worth mentioning, that the Taliban have fought with the IS(K) since its emergence in 2015. During the U.S. and NATO mission in Afghanistan both the groups fought against the external forces as well as against each other. IS-K and the Taliban have been locked in bloody battles with one another for some time.

In recent months, the Taliban has intercepted and killed several IS assassins across Afghanistan. But why this armed encounter between two radical Islamic militant outfits? One is, of course, perturbed by the fact that if both were fighting against the external occupation of Afghanistan, why were they not partners? Why do IS-K and the Taliban clash as militant organisations? To answer these questions, we need to examine the core ideological and political difference that exists between the two. As Frank Gardner, BBC’s long-term security correspondent argues, IS-K have major differences with the Taliban, accusing them of abandoning Jihad and the battlefield in favour of a negotiated peace settlement hammered out in “posh hotels” in Doha, Qatar. Similarly, IS-K considers Taliban militants “apostates,” making their killing lawful under their interpretation of Islamic law (Gardner, 2021).

In terms of its ideological and strategic rivalry, the IS-K hates the Taliban as much as the West (The Economist, 2021). According to a Deutsche Welle analysis, “an ideological gulf separates the two militant groups. While the IS belongs to the Salafist movement of Islam; the Taliban adhere to the Deobandi school (DW, 2021).

This is substantiated by several critics. According to a contemporary observer of IS, Afzal Ashraf.

While the Taliban seems content — at least for now — with an emirate for themselves within Afghanistan, the Islamic State group in Afghanistan and Pakistan strives to establish a caliphate throughout South and Central Asia and has also embraced the Islamic State’s call for a worldwide jihad against non-Muslims (Ashraf, DW, 2021).

With that objective in view, it has established parallel government structures and cells across Afghanistan. This strategy was revealed upon the Taliban’s killing of IS(K)’s shadow governor in the Nangarhar province in mid-October 2021. One might ask what objection the IS(K) should have when there is a fellow Islamic regime is in power in Afghanistan? IS-K views the Afghan Taliban both as its strategic rival in a saturated militant landscape, and as an ideological opponent (Jadoon, Mines & Sayed, 2021). Furthermore, IS-K smears the Taliban’s efforts to form an emirate based on national boundaries, which is directly opposed to the Islamic State’s vision of a global caliphate (Jadoon, Mines & Sayed, 2021).

Apart from the larger geopolitical objective of creating a larger Islamic umma across the Muslim world in the Middle East and South and Central Asia, IS also has its specific take on a rule-based Islamic legal governance. Its gripe with the Taliban stems from the fact that the latter is not interpreting and following an orthodox Sharia law. “For IS-K, the Taliban’s views are not strict enough. IS fighters have called the Taliban apostates and bad Muslims because of their willingness to negotiate a peace deal with the United States. By doing so, they betrayed the goals of the jihad, IS fighters said (DW, 2021).”

According to its original ideological precept, to rid the Islamic world of adversaries who do not follow “true” Islamic principles necessitates an epic military engagement. But to engage its foes in this grand war, IS needs to take the combat to them. It knows that attacking its foes on their own turf will force them to join its cause (Misra, 2015). This might explain the IS-K’s terror engagement with another terror outfit such as the Taliban. Furthermore, IS-K’s activism in the region is linked to the question of its very survival. After having been routed in Iraq and Syria, the group is in desperate need to find a host geography from where to operate. As Graeme Wood in his engaging essay on the Islamic State has very eloquently put it: “Caliphates cannot exist as underground movements, because territorial authority is a requirement: take away its command of territory, and all those oaths of allegiance are no longer binding” (Wood, 2015).

Given Af-Pak regions porous ethno-geographical borders and a relatively receptive audience, the group rightly believes the region offers the best striking chance to regroup, return to its activism and establish a new homeland for its ideology and governance. The IS-K’s moves in this regard is a strategic shift borne out of pure necessity. It rightly feels the Taliban and the Pakistani state cannot compete with it, either in terms of its specific brand of violence or building an oppositional consensus based on a specific borderless Islamic worldview. That being the objective, it is likely to up the ante.

In terms of strategic parity, there is a lot of difference between the Taliban and the IS-K. While the Taliban is in possession of a state, the IS-K remains stateless. Similarly, while the Taliban is playing to assume the identity of a legitimate government, the IS-K will forever remain a terrorist front. Added to that is the issue of military equivalence between the two.  “The Islamic State has far fewer fighters in Afghanistan than the Taliban — roughly 2,000 according to the latest United Nations estimate, compared to Taliban ranks estimated at more than 70,000 — but many fear it could grow if the Taliban fractures or if disaffected Taliban members seeking a return to the battlefield peel off to join other groups” (George,Warrick & DeYoung, 2021).

This inherent strategic imbalance, however, is unlikely to deter IS-K from undertaking larger and bolder terror objectives.  The group and its sleeper cells are also emboldened by the fact that they represent a strand within Afghanistan-Pakistan region who are receptive to a radical Islamic politics but do not necessarily identify with the Taliban’s core ideology.

Terrorists against a terrorist regime

The linkage between state collapse and terrorism is conclusively established by several different academic and policy studies (Zartman, 1995; Rotberg, 2003; Misra, 2004; Fukuyama, 2006). In fact, one of the key indicators of state collapse is the growth of criminal violence in the country under review (Rotberg, 2003: 5).

Afghanistan under the Taliban is experiencing prolonged encounters with non-state terrorists, growing threat of radicalisation, violent sectarianism and cross-border terrorist infiltration. Paradoxical as it may seem, there are nearly half-a-dozen non-state terrorist outfits operating in the country whose key intention is to undermine the authority of the ruling regime and undermine the stability in the region. Prominent of these outfits with the most likely lethal power is the Islamic State of Khorasan (henceforth IS-K). The group has claimed responsibility for a spate of attacks on the Taliban interests and Afghan civilians killing hundreds in the process.

After orchestrating a swift control of Afghanistan in mid-August 2021, the Taliban were quick to declare their victory over their U.S. and NATO detractors. What they did not count on was the dissent and opposition within. “After taking over Afghanistan last month, the Taliban claimed that security “has been assured” and that the county was taken out of the “quagmire of war”. But a series of attacks carried out by an affiliate of the ISIL/ ISIS, the Islamic State of Khorasan (IS-K) group in recent weeks has shattered the claims of security (Haris & Latifi, 2021).

The Islamic State “has positioned Afghanistan as a foremost priority — both in terms of media and military activity — since the withdrawal of the U.S. and the Taliban’s subsequent takeover” (George,Warrick & DeYoung, 2021). Sworn rivals of the Taliban, the IS-K pose the biggest threat to Afghanistan and regional peace.

In Afghanistan, the IS-K has emerged as “the most significant threat to the Taliban’s dominion as well as to public safety. So far, the Taliban has failed to contain the terrorists, who have staged numerous attacks (Raghavan, 2021).” Although the Taliban have expressed in the past their commitment to an Afghanistan where the country’s territory cannot be used by other non-state actors for their own ideological cause (Misra, 2021), given their tenuous hold over the country they are unlikely to be in a position to thwart the IS-K threat. The entire IS-K initiative is of extreme concern to the ruling regime in Kabul. Whether the new regime is going to be primarily Pashtun-led, a government of national unity, an inclusive political formation or an extremely conservative one, irrespective of the nature and character this new government, the challenges it is likely to face from the IS-K can be debilitating.

Should the IS-K cells and operatives decide to rupture the Taliban’s authority, the latter cannot maintain its sovereignty effectively. There are two reasons why the new regime will find it hard to address the challenges coming from these operatives. First, the members belonging to this outfit in the country are not necessarily Arabs – to whom IS ideology is originally attributed to. Most of IS-K members are indigenous Afghans who may be outwardly sympathetic to the Taliban but could be maintaining a hard-line position in private. They are not necessarily bought over by the current regimes ideological disposition and outlook on governance.

IS-K has the capacity to easily blend into the mainstream and attack the interests of the Afghan state with relative ease. It is this inability to distinguish and differentiate them from the rest which would prove extremely challenging to the regime – should it decide to weed them out at some point. If it does try to confront IS-K in the home territory, then, the regime stands being exposed to violent surprise attacks in every possible context and scenario. Pursuing a live and let live policy is not going to be of any help to the Taliban either. Turning a blind eye to their militancy stands capsizing the very effectiveness of the Taliban’s core ideology, governance and ultimately regime survival.

If events on the ground are anything to go by, it amply proves that Afghanistan will remain the playground of various radical Islamic outfits. That its future is going to be mired by bouts of sectarian violence is proved by the indiscriminate suicide bomb attacks by IS-K and perhaps many other radical outfits. These gory events demonstrate the fact that the regime is incapable of addressing these threats. Present day Afghanistan is a country rife with suicide bombings and empty of liveable opportunities. With al Qaeda sleeper cells operating throughout the country, the IS-K intermittent bombings, and the neighbouring Uighur radical Islamic incursion, in all likelihood Afghanistan will slide back into a terrorist safe haven fairly soon.

Proliferation of IS-K radicalism

The Af-Pak areas have been plagued by the perennial problem of lack of credible government presence. The area has lacked enough government both visible and invisible to enforce law. As the state has remained weak in the periphery and at times non-existent, it has remained in the grip of non-state violence.

IS-K is “a complex and fluid amalgam of extremist ideologies and actors. Its reach is spilling over from its traditional stronghold in Nangarhar and risks inflaming sectarian fissures as far afield as Tajikistan, Uzbekistan, China, and India” (Muggah & Rohozinski, 2021). What is, at the moment, a small but highly active offensive against the Taliban-led government, the IS-K dynamics of insurgent violence is likely to spread to the rest of Afghanistan and the region. Unlike the Taliban, which has its focus on Afghanistan, IS-K exhibits regional and millenarian ambitions such as uniting Muslims across South Asia, Central Asia and beyond (Muggah & Rohozinski, 2021). Given that Pakistan is imploding with the rise of several hard-line radical religio-political movements, it is a matter of time before the IS-K finds a favourable condition to spread its mayhem into the neighbouring areas.

The gravity of IS-K threat is well appreciated in the upper echelons of military circles in Pakistan. Despite Pakistan having a history of hobnobbing with various terrorist outfits, for the better part of its career as a newly independent country, there is reckoning among the military as well as political leadership in the country, that they can ill afford the rise of a violent militant outfit such as IS-K which seeks to undermine the very basis of nation-state. In its bid to stem the rising tide of IS-K, the government in Islamabad has undertaken several concrete steps. Principal among these is relaying “raw information as well as helping the Taliban to monitor phone and Internet communication to identify IS-K members and operational hubs” (George,Warrick & DeYoung, 2021).

Although neither a failing state like its immediate neighbour Pakistan, or a collapsed state like Afghanistan under the Taliban, India is nonetheless a vulnerable state when it comes to countering the influence and expansionism of IS-K.  India’s challenging internal religious make up and territorial insurgencies would prove a fertile ground for IS-K’s permeation. An ongoing Islamic insurgency in the restive union territory of Jammu and Kashmir can facilitate establishment of alliances between indigenous and external militants. New Delhi is intimately conscious of the likely impact of a violent IS-K uprising in Afghanistan. Already, security and intelligence agencies in India are bracing for armed attacks by the group in India’s troubled territory of Jammu and Kashmir (Sharma, 2021).

Added to that are the fears of IS-K inspired radicalisation in various pockets throughout India with known history of Islamic insurgency. Indian recruits have featured prominently in several recent IS terror undertakings. In the year 2020, while claiming responsibility for the Nangarhar jailbreak in eastern Afghanistan, the Islamic State Khorasan Province (ISKP)’s propaganda wing released photographs of 11 attackers, including three Indian recruits from the south-eastern province of Kerala (Basit & Sinan Siyech, 2020). This attack came in the back of 25 March 2020 attack on a Sikh Gurudwara in Kabul by the IS-K which killed some 25 innocent civilians. According to the IS press release, following the incidence, one of four-member team that was behind this attack was an Indian (Dixit, 2020). Mohammed Mushin aka Abu Khalid al-Hindi who was a member of this team came from Kerala’s Kasargod district who had earlier joined the Islamic State.

That the IS and its eastern wing IS-K, is serious about promoting large-scale religious violence in India is proven by the fact that since February 2020, it is bringing out a monthly propaganda magazine called Voice of Hind, with exclusive coverage of events in India. Despite this outreach, critics have repeatedly argued that IS finding a sympathetic audience in India will be marginal. According to this view, “at its peak, IS successfully recruited over 40,000 supporters and sympathisers using the internet and social media platforms from 120 countries around the world. Yet Indians did not amount to more than 200 according to the most liberal figures (Basit & Sinan Siyech, 2020).

True, while IS recruiting drive among Indian Muslims may have been a lacklustre affair in the past, it is unlikely to remain so in the future. Indian radical Islamist’s participation in any future IS-K undertaking is likely to grow and consolidate. This is due to three key factors. First, the previous IS Caliphate undertaking was geographically in a faraway part of the world. This had limited resonance on the Indian sympathisers to the cause. A full-blown IS-K insurgency in Af-Pak region would prompt a sizeable number of participants from India to engage in its ideological and militant cause.

Second, as Raffaello Pantucci, Britain’s Royal United Services Institute (RUSI) puts it, “India was the birthplace of the Deobandi movement, a sect that was a source of ideas for the Taliban, and the conflict in Kashmir has for years been a rallying cry for extremist groups” (Pantucci, 2020). Third, worryingly, Islamic State-Khorasan’s modest territorial footprint in Afghanistan and Pakistan is bolstered by a widening digital presence across Central and South Asia (Muggah, and Rohozinski, 2021). Simply put, despite having a robust governing structure, India is likely to fall prey to the IS-K terror cells owing to the above two reasons. Given various degrees of dissent among some Indian Muslims towards the state, the IS-K would reach out to this constituency, not only to stay relevant among a melee of various terror outfits operating in the region but also to rebuild its ranks.


The US and NATO troop withdrawal from the country has provided a “god-sent” opportunity to a whole host of violent jihadi groups whose primary objective is to ferment chaos and perpetuate anarchy. The battle between rival powers to gain strategic depth in the chaotic Afghanistan-Pakistan region is not a turf war between various state and non-state actors as many observers and analysts would like to point. It is a battle for the very political survival of many actors who have a stake in the larger geopolitical future in the region.

While the Taliban will be busy maintaining its control over the restive population of Afghanistan, there will be one or more key non-Taliban radical forces who would seek to undermine the security in the Af-Pak region and the greater South Asia. For the key actors in the region each will be driven by their own realpolitik concerns. Their respective conduct will be based more on practical rather than principled, moral, or even ideological considerations. Contrary to general strategic scripts, the Taliban has as much an interest in undermining the IS-K as other polities such as Pakistan and India. For the Taliban, reigning in the IS-K will be the very basis to its own political survival in the deeply divided fractious politics of Afghanistan.

It is bad news for everyone. The hardliner, the liberal the secular and the autocratic states are all going to face the heat when it comes to the rise and expansion of the IS-K. As for the regional actors, perhaps it is too early to send out torches and pitch forks to deal with the growing menace of IS-K. But it does not hurt to be prudent and follow a pragmatic policy of greater vigilance to address the likely security threat of this groups sympathisers and affiliates across the greater South Asian region.

Author Brief Bio : Prof Amalendu Misra, PhD, is a Professor of International Politics, Department of Politics, Philosophy & Religion at Lancaster University, United Kingdom. 


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