New Delhi: The terror attack on a gurdwara in Kabul, Afghanistan, last week has sent alarm bells ringing in the Indian security establishment as it has clearly indicated the rise of another powerful terror group — ISKP (Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant—Khorasan Province) — in the region.
The attack carried out on 25 March by a group of ISKP terrorists killed at least 25 people. It was one of the biggest attacks on Sikhs in Afghanistan in recent times.
According to sources in the Indian intelligence agencies, the ISKP is now on top of the radar despite being a relatively new terror group in the region.
A senior official in the Indian security establishment said that contrary to the common perception that the ISKP is an extended arm of the Islamic State, it is actually a front of the Pakistan-based Inter-Services Intelligence (ISI). But it has also developed contacts with the Islamic State.
According to the intelligence agencies, the ISKP remains under the complete control of the ISI and the attack on the Kabul gurdwara points to the involvement of the ISI as the attackers were talking to their handlers in Punjabi and Urdu, and not in the local languages of Pashto and Dari.
Counter-terrorism experts in India are now almost unanimous in concluding that the ISKP poses a formidable threat to India and Indians abroad, especially in Afghanistan and Central Asia.
According to a dossier prepared by Indian agencies on the ISKP, “Currently, it has around 3,000-4,000 terrorists and it has logistical bases along the Durand line. It also has presence in Nangarhar and Kunar provinces in eastern Afghanistan. It has carried out multiple attacks in Afghanistan, the attack on the gurdwara in Kabul being the latest. It has targeted Shia minorities, also causing significant casualties.”
The ISKP’s rise happened after the ISI, and certain Pakistan and Central Asia-based groups flushed it with funds, according to counter-terrorist experts in Indian intelligence agencies. This happened after 2015 when the Taliban was struggling for funds.
The ISKP has been raising more than $200 million dollars a year at least for the last couple of years and, hence, it was able to attract a large number of terrorists. It has sufficient funds to provide them with arms and other resources to carry out attacks at multiple locations not only in Afghanistan but also overseas, according to sources in the intelligence agencies.
“That is a cause of concern for India now especially when the involvement of a Kerala youth in the gurdwara attack came to our notice,” said the senior official quoted above.
Received help from both ISI & Haqqani network
The ISKP had come into existence around five years ago. At that time, it was not considered as a major threat by security establishments across the globe but within a few years it has emerged as one of the deadliest terror organisations.
According to intelligence agencies, one of the key reasons behind the meteoric rise and growing influence of the ISKP is the support it receives from Pakistan’s ISI as well as the Haqqani network in Afghanistan. The ISKP is known to be working closely with the Haqqani network, which is also backed by the ISI.
The ISI strengthened its grip on the organisation and ensured that it remained completely under its control when around two years ago it installed former Lashkar-e-Taiba (LeT) commander Aslam Farooqi as the head of the ISKP. Farooqi was hand-picked by the ISI for this new assignment. The LeT itself is widely known to be a creation of the ISI.
ISKP’s initial target was Indian embassy in Kabul
Although the ISI installed Farooqi, it led to factionalism within the ISKP with a number of Uzbek, Tajik and Baloch fighters moving away from the ISKP faction led by Farooqi.
The ISKP faction led by Farooqi initially had mainly Pashtuns from Pakistan and Afghans but then through the ISI it started recruiting terrorists from India and some other countries.
The Kabul gurdwara attack was carried out by the Farooqi faction of the ISKP, which is now the main faction.
“Initially, the target was the Indian High Commission in Kabul but due to tight security, the ISKP diverted its attack to gurdwara,” said a second official in the Indian security establishment.
A third senior security official, who is involved in closely monitoring the ISKP, said, “The ISKP has been recruiting Indian nationals from Kerala and also from some other states. The recruitment is initially done through online interactions. It is followed by personal meetings in the Gulf and then from there, the recruits are sent to Pakistan. All this is facilitated by the ISI.”
“There is credible information that many former SIMI activists linked to Azamgarh and Bhatkal modules have joined the ISKP,” he added.
This can have serious repercussions for India as the Farooqi group of the ISKP has complete access to money as well as training facilities in Pakistan. The ISKP is also getting substantial funds from middle-east. It has a number of sponsors there, which are helping it to expand further.
The writer is CEO of Indraprastha Vishwa Samvad Kendra, an RSS affiliate, and author of two books on the RSS.