Revealed: life inside ‘global villages’ of Islamic State jihadis in Afghanistan

Show caption A wounded man being brought to hospital in the wake of the Kabul airport attack, carried out by a multinational IS cell. Photograph: Marcus Yam/Los Angeles Times/Rex Afghanistan Revealed: life inside ‘global villages’ of Islamic State jihadis in Afghanistan Women who joined Islamic State in Afghanistan give rare insight into international network that bombed airport Emma Graham-Harrison in Kabul, and Vera Mironova Sun 5 Sep 2021 10.15 BST Share on Facebook

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In 2017, a group of senior Arab fighters travelled from Syria to Afghanistan, to cement the links between Islamic State cells in the two areas.

They arrived in an international village, where the jihadi families included a blond German husband and wife and French, Russian, Chinese Uyghur and central Asian families, according to a rare testimony by an Uzbek woman who was a member the group.

She spent nearly eight years as a fighter’s wife in eastern Nangarhar province under a web of international jihadi groups that have taken root in eastern and northern Afghanistan, shifting names and allegiances, but currently known as Islamic State in Khorasan Province (ISKP), a reference to the historical name for a cross-border region.

They were the group behind the bombing at Kabul airport, during the final days of the western evacuation mission, that killed at least 182 people. The 13 US military casualties made it one of the deadliest attacks of the 20-year war for Americans.

Speaking from Uzbekistan after she was repatriated by her government under an anti-extremism programme in the summer of 2019, the woman asked not to be named because she had not got authorisation for a media interview. But she and others interviewed by the Observer, including an online recruiter who is still active seeking foreign brides for fighters, gave a rare insight into a secretive group, thousands strong, that has managed to draw a steady stream of international recruits.

It has also maintained links with terrorist groups abroad, with hardened fighters travelling in both directions, highlighting the dangerous ways that international terrorist groups can inspire and help train and shape other movements hundreds or even thousands of miles away.

Some of the Afghan veterans have decades of fighting experience in international jihadi groups. They have been there so long that one “child” repatriated with his parents to Tajikistan was 19, born and raised entirely among jihadis.

In the early years of the rise of IS in Syria and Iraq, Tajik and Uzbek fighters with experience from Afghanistan played a vital role in training, IS fighters and central Asian intelligence sources say.

Women and a child queue to receive aid packages at the al-Hol camp in Syria, which holds relatives of suspected Islamic State fighters. Some detainees have boasted of receiving sheep from ‘the women of Khorasan’. Photograph: Delil Souleiman/AFP/Getty Images

“Many guys in charge of suicide cars had Afghanistan experience,” said one member from a central Asian state who is now in hiding. A half-hour propaganda video put out in 2015 featured an Uzbek boasting of his years in Afghanistan before he travelled to Syria through Iran.

Their attack on the Kabul airport was a brutal reminder of what the group is capable of technically, and its ruthless targeting of civilians. And with the Taliban now controlling Afghanistan, they represent the greatest potential terrorist threat from inside the country’s borders.

The interviews with former wives from ISKP underline the international goals of the group, and the international network that links it to other jihadi groups for inspiration, recruits and technical assistance.

Years of brutal fighting with the Taliban, sometimes given air support by US forces acting on the basis that my enemy’s enemy can at least be a partner, has reduced the group below 2,000, according to senior sources in Pakistan that monitor cross-border networks. In messages seen by the Observer, the female recruiter, trying to convince a western woman to marry a fighter, admitted that the group had lost most of its strongholds several months ago.

“The situation is that now we don’t have an area where sharia is established here in Khorasan, so now we are living in darul kufr [the land of the infidels], hiding from kuffar,” she wrote, using a derogatory term for non-Muslims, although they are in fact among Afghan Muslims who follow a less extreme creed.

Recruitment continues despite the group’s diminished state, and other powers in the region are less confident than Pakistan is about how far IS numbers have diminished. And as western governments worry about Afghanistan becoming a crucible for a new international terrorist threat, Islamic State is the top concern.

In July, Tajikistan repatriated about 200 IS fighters and 80 IS women, who were being held in Afghan prisons after surrendering to Afghan government forces, but it still believes more than 1,300 Tajik men are fighting with non-Taliban groups in northern Afghanistan.

If the Taliban are distracted by attempts to rule Afghanistan, the group might find space to regroup, particularly if large attacks keep up an international profile, and help drive recruitment. IS has already issued a statement of intent, threatening the Taliban but also international targets.

It has a long track record of looking beyond Afghanistan’s borders, not just for recruits but for attacks. In 2016 the group set up a radio station on the border with Tajikistan to blast propaganda, only taken out by a Russian airstrike. Last year jihadis were considering plans to bomb a Christmas tree in the Tajikistan capital, Dushanbe. Tajik intelligence worry that IS could cut a deal with the Taliban allowing them free rein on the northern border and access to Tajikistan, said Rustan Azizi, deputy director of the centre of Islamic Studies under the president of Tajikistan.

They have already noted an increase in sleeper cells inside Tajikistan, with messages including “be prepared we are coming”, a Tajikistan intelligence source added.

A border checkpoint near the Uzbek-Afghan border, where a bridge crosses the Amu Darya river Photograph: Temur Ismailov/AFP/Getty Images

The women who escaped IS described a secretive, cash-strapped network that nonetheless managed to draw a steady stream of foreign recruits and is prepared for a long and difficult period of regrouping as it seeks a way to coexist with the new Taliban government. The constellation of international cells spreads across the country, including far from the eastern border, which is considered the group’s stronghold.

Another woman repatriated to Uzbekistan in 2019 lived in the northern province of Jawzjan, in a community with fighters and women from France, Saudi Arabia, Indonesia and Uyghurs from China, before spending six months in a Taliban prison.

At least one of the French recruits was high-profile enough to spark an armed mission to remove her. But her children were not part of the plan, so as she was taken out she was screaming “they are my kids”. The Afghan army soldiers ignored her and left them behind.

Europeans were treated as particularly prestigious new members, in a hierarchy with different living standards for different groups. “Many people raised questions about why, as we are doing the same, do we have different salaries. The authorities always shut them up,” she said.

And the connections with Syrian IS members have endured. For the most recent Eid holiday, IS women held in the sprawling Syrian camp of al-Hol boasted on social media of sheep bought for them by the “women of Khorasan”.

During the recruits’ time with IS they were given basic allowances by an Afghan man, just $40 a month with $20 extra for each child – though there was hardly anywhere to spend it, with no shops in the tiny village where they lived. Foreigners had largely displaced the local population, and for the women it was not a comfortable existence. Some of the Russian-speaking recruits were intellectuals, including a singer and doctors, who struggled with the harsh realities of village life and being poor and dirty. The only entertainment was going to each other’s houses and cooking.

It was easy for them to come in because so many rural Afghans don’t have documents, and there is a smuggler’s route via Iran. “You go there and say that you are Afghan, they record your name and you go on,” she said.

Leaving is much more complicated. At one point she and her husband considered escape, but their planning was overheard and they were warned punishment would be severe. “Two Tajik women were shot because they were talking about running away. In the middle of the village they did a public killing,” she said. “They shot them on the river and pushed them into the water. All women had to watch it.”