When a Taliban commander defected to Islamic State in northern Afghanistan a few months ago, his men and the foreign fighters he invited in started to enslave local women and set up a bomb-making school for 300 children, officials and residents said.
The mini-caliphate established six months ago in two districts of Jawzjan province marks a new inroad in Afghanistan by Islamic State (IS), which is claiming more attacks even as its fighters suffer heavy losses in Iraq and Syria.
Qari Hekmat, a prominent Taliban leader in Jawzjan, switched allegiance around six months ago, according to local people who have since fled, raising the movement’s black flag over the local mosque and forcing residents to swear fealty to IS’s leader Abu Bakr Al-Baghdadi.
“They started killing a lot of people and warned others to cooperate,” said Baz Mohammad, who fled Darz Aab district after his 19-year-old son was recruited into IS at the local mosque.
IS in Jawzjan has now attracted the attention of U.S. forces in Afghanistan, which will launch an offensive in the north in the next few days, US Army General John Nicholson said on Tuesday.
U.S. air strikes and Special Forces have been pounding the main Afghan foothold of IS fighters in the eastern province of Nangarhar, but that has not prevented the movement from stepping up attacks.
IS has claimed at least 15 bombings and other attacks in Afghanistan this year, including two in Kabul last month, killing at least 188 people. The number of attacks is up from just a couple nationwide last year.
It is unclear whether the all the attacks claimed by IS were carried out by the group, or linked to its central leadership in the Middle East. Afghan intelligence officials say some of the attacks may in fact have been carried out by the Taliban or its allied Haqqani network and opportunistically claimed by IS.
Yet the sheer number of attacks plus the targeting of Shi’ite mosques, an IS hallmark, indicates the movement is gaining some strength, though their links to the leadership in the Middle East remain murky.
Some analysts see IS as an umbrella term covering groups of fighters in Nangarhar’s mountains, armed gangs in northern Afghanistan and suicide bombers in Kabul. Little is known about what ties them together.
“IS in Afghanistan never was such a solid, coherent organization, even from the beginning,” said Borhan Osman, an International Crisis Group analyst.