JALALABAD, Afghanistan (AP) - The Islamic State has lost its caliphate in Syria and Iraq, but in the forbidding mountains of northeastern Afghanistan the group is expanding its footprint, according to U.S. and Afghan security officials.
The militants are reported to be recruiting new fighters and plotting attacks on the United States and other Western countries from Afghanistan.
Nearly two decades after the U.S.-led invasion of Afghanistan, the extremist group is seen as an even greater threat than the Taliban because of its sophisticated military capabilities and its strategy of targeting civilians, both in Afghanistan and abroad. Concerns run so deep that many have come to see the Taliban, which have also clashed with the Islamic State, as a potential partner of the West in containing it.
A U.S. intelligence official based in Afghanistan told the Associated Press that recent attacks in the capital, Kabul, are "practice runs" for even bigger attacks in Europe and the United States.
"This group is the most near term threat to our homelands from Afghanistan," the official said on condition of anonymity to preserve his operational security. "The IS core mandate is: You will conduct external attacks" in the U.S. and Europe.
"That is their goal. It's just a matter of time," he said. "It is very scary."
Bruce Hoffman, director of the Center for Security Studies at Georgetown University, sees Afghanistan as a possible new base for the Islamic State now that it has been driven from Iraq and Syria.
"ISIS has invested a disproportionate amount of attention and resources in Afghanistan," he said, pointing to "huge arms stockpiling" in the east.
PART OF THE CALIPHATE
The Islamic State affiliate appeared in Afghanistan shortly after the group's core fighters swept across Syria and Iraq in 2014, carving out a self-styled caliphate, or Islamic empire, in about a third of both countries. The Afghanistan affiliate refers to itself as the Khorasan Province, a name applied to parts of Afghanistan, Iran and central Asia during the Middle Ages.
The Islamic State affiliate initially numbered just a few dozen fighters, mainly Pakistani Taliban driven from their bases across the border and disgruntled Afghan Taliban attracted to the Islamic State's more extreme ideology.
While the Taliban have confined their struggle to Afghanistan, the Islamic State militants pledged allegiance to Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi, the reclusive leader of the group in the Middle East, and embraced his call for a worldwide jihad against non-Muslims. Within Afghanistan, the Islamic State launched largescale attacks on minority Shiites, whom it views as apostates deserving of death The group suffered some early stumbles as its leaders were picked off by U.S. airstrikes. But it received a major boost when the Islamic Movement of Uzbekistan joined its ranks in 2015. Today it counts thousands of fighters, many from central Asia but also from Arab countries, Chechnya, India and Bangladesh, as well as ethnic Uighurs from China.
U.S. TALKS WITH TALIBAN
It's been nearly 18 years since the U.S. invaded Afghanistan to topple the Taliban, which had harbored al-Qaida when Osama bin Laden and his lieutenants were planning the Sept. 11 attacks. Now military and intelligence officials see the Taliban as a potential ally against a similar threat.
In recent months the Taliban have said they have no ambitions to monopolize power in a postwar Afghanistan, while the Islamic State is committed to overthrowing the Kabul government on its path to establishing a global caliphate.
The Taliban and Islamic State are sharply divided over ideology and tactics, with the Taliban largely confining their attacks to government targets and Afghan and international security forces. The rivals have fought each other on a number of occasions, and the Taliban are still the larger and more imposing force.
U.S. envoy ZalmayKhalilzad has held several rounds of talks with the Taliban in recent months in a bid to end America's longest war. The two sides appear to be closing in on an agreement in which the U.S. would withdraw its forces in return for a pledge from the Taliban to keep the country from being used as a launch pad for global attacks.
"One of the hopes of a negotiated settlement is that it will bring the Taliban into the government and into the fight against IS," the U.S. intelligence official said. "They know the mountains, they know the terrain. It's their territory."
But a negotiated settlement could also prompt an exodus of more radical Taliban fighters to join the Islamic State. That process is already underway in parts of northern and eastern Afghanistan, where the Taliban have attacked the Islamic State only to lose territory and fighters to the rival extremist group.
Russia, which occupied Afghanistan in the 1980s before being driven out by U.S.-backed Islamic insurgents, has been sounding the alarm about the Islamic State for years and had reached out to the Taliban even before the U.S. talks. During a visit to Kyrgyzstan last month, Defense Minister Sergei Shoigu described Afghanistan as a "launch pad" for the Islamic State after the group was pushed out of Syria and Iraq.
Russia, like the United States, sees a peace agreement between the Taliban and the Afghan government as the best way of countering the threat posed by the Islamic State, and Moscow has held two rounds of informal talks involving the Taliban.
But as peace efforts have stumbled in recent months, Russia has turned to more lethal means of containing the threat. Shoigu said Russia has sent heavy equipment to Kyrgyz forces and has boosted combat readiness at its bases in the former Soviet republics of Kyrgyzstan and Tajikistan.
THREATENING THE WEST
Without an aggressive U.S. counterterrorism strategy, Afghanistan's Islamic State affiliate will be able to carry out a largescale attack in the U.S. or Europe within the next year, the U.S. intelligence official said, adding that Islamic State fighters captured in Afghanistan have been found to be in contact with fellow militants in other countries.
Authorities have also already made at least eight arrests in the United States linked to the Islamic State affiliate in Afghanistan.
Martin Azizi-Yarand, the 18-year-old Texan who plotted a 2018 attack on a mall, said he was inspired by the Islamic State and was preparing to join the affiliate in Afghanistan. He was sentenced in April to 20 years in prison.
Rakhmat Akilov, the 39-year-old Uzbek who plowed his truck into pedestrians in Stockholm in 2017, also had links with the Afghanistan affiliate, the intelligence official said.
Inside Afghanistan, the group is actively recruiting at universities, the official said.
The group's brutal tactics have been on vivid display inside Afghanistan for years. Suicide bombings have killed hundreds of Shiite civilians in Kabul and elsewhere, and residents who have fled areas captured by the group describe a reign of terror not unlike that seen in Syria and Iraq.
Farmanullah Shirzad fled his village in Nangarhar in late April as Islamic State fighters swept through the area.
"I was terrified to stay," he said. "When Daesh takes over a village, they kill the people, they don't care about the children and they come into the homes and they take the women."