ISIS-K embarks on its transnational agenda

The Islamic State – Khorasan (ISIS-K), is a branch of the Islamic State terrorist group which promises to be active in South and Central Asia.
Keywords: ISIS-K, State, South Asia, Central Asia, Terrorist, Conflict, War, Ideology
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What is ISIS-K

The Islamic State – Khorasan (ISIS-K), is a branch of the Islamic State terrorist group which promises to be active in South and Central Asia. Afghanistan is their priority target. This region is mostly inhabited by the people of Aryan race who converted to Islam when the Arabs conquered Iran, Central Asia and India around CE 632 onwards.

The etymology of the word Khorasan is to be found in the Avestic vocabulary in which  khor = the sun, aas = coming,  aan = suffix. It means the land where from the sun rises. Khorasan has been the eastern province of pre-Islamic Iran then encompassing the present Iranian province of Khorasan, Afghanistan (ancient Aryana) and the Trans-Caspian region of Turan, now called Tajikistan. Central Asia falls in Trans-Oxonian region and farther east is Hindustan. This entire region is not only inhabited by the people of Aryan stock but was also the birthplace of Zoroaster (Zardusht = Zarada-ushtara) – to be precise Balkh or Bhakri of Rig Ved.

After Osama bin Laden’s liquidation in his hideout near Abbottabad in Pakistan, the fugitive remnants of Al-Qaeda moved to Syria and Iraq region classically known to Greek historians as Mesopotamia. It is this group that conceived the idea of Islamic Caliphate under sharia law extending from the Dardanelles to the Strait of Malacca.

Khorasan branch

ISIS-K is one of its branches which have the agenda of bringing the Islamic Caliphate ideology to the vast Khorasan region, to be called the Islamic Caliphate of Iraq and Syria (ISIS). After spending some time in Syria, the former Al Qaeda activists from Afghanistan and Pakistan returned to Afghanistan with instructions about their agenda in Khorasan region and also funds for the adventure. They conducted numerous high-profile attacks in Afghanistan and Pakistan meant to announce that they were going to be active in the region. Their attacks included a  suicide bombing in August 2021 that took the lives of 13 American military personnel and at least 169 Afghan civilians during the withdrawal of the US forces. They were also responsible for twin suicide bombings in 2018 that killed at least 131 at election rallies in Pakistan. The killing of 97 Hazara protestors in downtown Kabul in July 2016 was also claimed by the ISIS-K.

The Khorasan group has also been entrusted with the task of fresh recruitment of fighters from the local population. Most of the new recruits are the former dissatisfied fighters and disgruntled Taliban. They have chosen eastern Afghanistan along the border with Pakistan as their base from where they execute their plans for attacks. The group claims to have fired rockets into the neighbouring countries of eastern Afghanistan, namely Tajikistan and Uzbekistan in January last.

One of the major attacks claimed by the ISIS-K recently was the twin suicide attack in Kerman, the south- eastern city of Iran, on January 3 in which 88 persons were killed and more than 240 wounded. Although a large crowd had assembled in Kerman for the fourth memorial service of late Qassim Soleimani, the Iranian al-Qods commander killed by a US guided missile somewhere in Iraq.

As of now, the ISIS-K seeks to internationalize its operational and recruitment campaign. It has launched a sweeping propaganda campaign to appeal to the audience across South and Central and South Asia. It wants to position itself as the dominant regional challenge to regimes which according to its thinking are regressive and anti-Islamic ideology. The Kerman blast was allegedly carried out by two Tajik ISIS-K members.  The Kerman bomb blast was followed by two attacks on the Shahcheragh shrine in Shiraz in October 2022 and August 2023. Tajik suicide bombers are reported to be involved in both of the two attacks.

Tajik factor

Garm area in Gorno Badakhshan and Kolab are the two prominent areas where the Tajik fundamentalists had established their base during the civil war of 1990 – 1996. The Tajiks based in Garm are reported to be the progeny of the Arab settlers who have been responsible for propagating Sunni ideology of Islam. Though the jihadist movement of Garm was suppressed at the end of the day and normalcy restored, but the diehard elements have been hobnobbing with outside elements. The ISIS-K has picked up Tajik suicide volunteers because they speak Farsi and would work as good operatives in a country where people speak a language of the Tajik activists. Iran is an important target of the ISIS-K on two counts. One is that the regime of Ayatollahs is not supporting the ideology of Islamic Caliphate because it follows its own ideology of Velayaat-e-Faqih meaning the Jurist’s Supremacy. The second is the Shia factor towards which ISIS has no sympathy at all as was the case with the Yazidis. While claiming responsibility for Kerman carnage, the ISIS-K said that the attack was to take revenge against Soleimani, who spearheaded Iran’s fight against the Islamic State group and its affiliates prior to his death. 

Cementing force

ISIS-K fighters are reported to be receiving training in Afghanistan in Sheikh Jalaluddin training camp. The News 18 reports, “In parallel, the group’s multilingual propaganda campaign interwove a tapestry of local, regional and global grievances to recruit and mobilize supporters from a vast demographic spectrum, and potentially inspire supporters from afar.” This has appeared in the terror grouping partnership; with anti-government and sectarian militant networks in both Afghanistan and Pakistan, collaborating with groups such as the Lashkar-e-Jhangvi and the Islamic Movement of Uzbekistan.


In the background of the situation analysed as above, ISIS-K is now attempting to capture the South and Central Asian militant market. It is utilizing the services of fighters representing regional religious and ethnic populations and publicizing their attacks, ISIS- K, in the words of News-18 analyst, “is signalling its commitment to a comprehensive jihadist agenda.” The ISIS-K has India also on its agenda but perhaps, it has a different planning for India where the Pakistan-based terrorists are inching forward with their agenda of indoctrinating the local and regional Islamic youth. Indian security forces are trying to identify the activists who carry out their Caliphate programme under various names to avoid arrest and prosecution. Nevertheless, be it whatever the name, the ISIS-K is steadily spreading its tentacle in the Indian polity.

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K N Pandita

K N Pandita has a PhD in Iranian Studies from the University of Teheran. He is the former Director of the Centre of Central Asian Studies, Kashmir University.

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