Is Pakistan playing with fire by aligning clandestinely with the ISK?

The growing camaraderie between Pakistan’s military and the ISK  poses a threat to the entire South Asian region.

Aparna Rawal May 09, 2024
Representational Photo

On 29th April 2023, a gunman fired on six people at a Shia mosque in the district of Guzara in Herat province, Afghanistan. Islamic State-Khorasan (ISK) claimed responsibility for the attack by releasing a statement on its Telegram handle stating that one of its members attacked a “Shiite temple” in Herat province with a machine gun. According to various media sources, the mosque’s imam was among those killed.

Among the nations which condemned the attack were Iran and Pakistan. Since the breakdown of the negotiations with Tehreek e Taliban Pakistan (TTP), Pakistan has been the victim of several TTP attacks. The pipe dreams to have a strategic depth in Afghanistan dissipated with the Taliban reluctant to take any action against TTP while the cross-border skirmishes along the Durand Line between the Afghan and Pakistan forces have gone on. Pakistan continues to blame the Afghan Taliban for providing safe havens to anti-Pakistan terror outfits. 

ISK persecution of Shias

The ISK, like its parent ISIS Central, regards the Shias as a polytheistic religion and refuses to recognize them as a part of Islam. Since the conception of ISIS Central, the group has actively orchestrated attacks on Shiite mosques, schools, hospitals, historic sites and various other Shia establishments. With every attack claimed by both ISIS Central and its affiliate ISK, the outfits have stressed the deliberate intent behind attacking the Shias. This was evident after the bombing at the Bibi Fatima mosque in Kandahar (2021). Soon after, ISK released a statement saying it would target Shias in their homes and centers “in every way, from slaughtering their necks to scattering their limbs…in the temples of the [Shia] and their gatherings is not hidden from anyone, from Baghdad to Khorasan.”

ISK has orchestrated several mass casualty attacks, these include the suicide bombing at Kabul’s airport  (2021), an attack at Sayed Abad mosque in Kunduz (2021), a bombing in the Dasht-e-Barchi district in Kabul (2021), four bombings north of Mazar-e-Sharif (2022) at a Shia mosque, another bombing near the Shia shrine, Mazar-i-Sharif, a suicide bombing happened in Imam Zaman Mosque, Pul-i-Khumri (2023) and the recent attack on the mosque in Herat (2024).

 ISK has already carried out attacks in Kabul,  Jalalabad, Herat, and other cities. Some of their members have also targeted Hindus, Sikhs, Yazidis, Christians and various other non-Muslim religious minorities.

As the Taliban has taken charge of the administrative government in Kabul, its officials have been giving assurances to pacify the Shia community. However, it is important to mention that the same Taliban have been known to view the Shias as infidels in the past and have also orchestrated attacks on the community.

Taliban’s rivalry with ISK

Since the Taliban’s takeover of Afghanistan, the group to project itself as a functioning government body has vowed to protect all religious and ethnic groups. This has not only garnered criticism from several Sunni jihadist groups which are anti-Shias but the outfits have also reprimanded the Taliban for going soft and deviating from the “true jihad”. As a result, outfits like ISIS have been determined to not only discredit the Taliban in the jihadist circles but have tried to attract more patronage for their respective outfits by removing the Taliban from the competition for sponsorships and funding.

While the Taliban is determined to establish stable governance in Kabul, ISIS has tried to fill the vacuum by recruiting more cadres from the fallen Ghani government which included intelligence officers, law enforcement officers and soldiers who were absconding due to the Taliban’s witch hunt.

Before the Taliban’s rise to power in 2021, the ISK had expressed its desire to use Afghanistan as its springboard for spreading jihad. At the time of the Ghani government, there was rivalry between ISIS and the Taliban. Post the exit of the Talibs from the war theatre, ISK has found an opportunity to gain a monopoly on jihad in the region. This has also served as an advantage in recruiting cadres from the ranks of unemployed and radicalised youth. Several Talibs (students of radical seminaries) who were once retained by the Taliban for their jihad against foreign forces are also seen seeking recruitment with ISK or similar militant groups.

Several ISK safe havens were found in the Afghan region which not only provided sanctuaries to their top leadership but also to Tajiks, Uzbeks, Uighurs and some Chinese fighters from the ETIM region. By 2022, their cadre strength was reported to have reached 1500 to 4000 fighters.

Several members of the Islamic Movement of Uzbekistan (IMU) had pledged their allegiance to ISIS Central in 2015. Analysts say that outfits like ISK, tend to align, split, or realign with various groups to nurture their interests at any given point in time. ISK is indeed becoming a looming threat in the South Asian backyard and has reportedly been seen rubbing shoulders with Pakistan's ISI spy agency as well.

ISK-Pakistan axis

In a recent article published by the Sunday Guardian,  former TTP commander Ehsanullah Ehsaan spoke about the budding relationship between the ISI and the ISK (also referred to as Daesh Khorasan). He claimed that an agreement had been reached between ISK and Pakistani intelligence. This unpublicised agreement is called the Dabori agreement (named after the village in Khyber Pakhtunkhwa). Since then there hasn’t been a serious crackdown on ISK reported in Pakistan. Unlike most terror groups that launch attacks on security agencies, ISK has never attacked the Pakistani military.

The recent ISK attacks in Kabul and Herat are believed to have been carried out on the orders of and financial backing of the ISI. The Pakistani military's strategy to employ ISK as its strategic asset is to build pressure on Taliban-ruled Afghanistan and to re-establish its 'strategic depth' in Afghanistan. The Taliban government has charged the Pakistani military with trying to push ISK cadre across the Durand Line under the guise of cross-border retaliatory fire, a similar strategy that Pakistan has been employing to infiltrate India through Kashmir.  It is a known fact that ISI’s idea of counter-terrorism is not the elimination of terrorists but their utilization as 'assets', especially in cases where interests may align.

The growing camaraderie between Pakistan’s military and the ISK  poses a threat to the entire South Asian region. While ISK may have found strategic reasons to align with Pakistan, its larger objective remains the institution of Sharia law and the establishment of its caliphate in the region. In its act of desperation, Pakistan is playing with fire by compromising the lives of its citizens, especially those who are minorities or non-Muslims. 

Pakistan’s long-withstanding desire for Gazwa-i-Hind against India has also been employed by the ISK cadre. Several modules of ISK have been caught as India continues its crackdown on terrorism in Kashmir even while Pakistan persists with its deniability by blaming India for the deaths of its terror assets on its soil.

(The writer is an Indian research analyst specializing in AF/Pak region and counter-terrorism. Views are personal. She can be contacted at

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