Abstract: Since its official formation in Afghanistan and Pakistan in early 2015, the Islamic State Khorasan (ISK) has emerged as one of the Islamic State’s deadliest affiliates. While extensive counterterrorism operations have resulted in leadership decapitation, ISK retains its ability to orchestrate lethal attacks and continuously replenish key leadership positions. A closer examination of ISK’s leadership losses between 2015 and 2018 by leadership tier, year, and geography highlights the group’s tenacious presence in Nangarhar (Afghanistan) and Baluchistan (Pakistan), despite declines in overall number of attacks. An important factor contributing to ISK’s resiliency appears to be rooted in its steady recruitment of experienced Pakistani militants that sustain its leadership ranks.

The clandestine nature of terrorist organizations often means that it is difficult to assess the composition of their resource bases or the configuration and size of their leadership structures. While past studies have assessed Islamic State Khorasan’s—the group’s wilaya (province) in Afghanistan and Pakistan—organizational capacity by examining its network of operational alliances with local groups, and patterns of its tactics and target choices,1 to the authors’ knowledge, no systematic study has analyzed wide-ranging counterterrorism (CT) efforts against the group to gain insights about one of its most important elements—the group’s leadership.

This article exploits publicly reported accounts of the group’s leadership losses between 2015 and 2018, against the backdrop of its operational activity, to gain new insights about ISK’s militant base, an important source of its demonstrated resiliency. The authors first provide a brief overview of extensive CT efforts against a seemingly resilient ISK to establish the case for examining ISK’s leadership losses more closely. This is followed by a description of the methodology used, the data collected, and a discussion of key findings. While scholarly literature on the effectiveness of leadership decapitation remains mixed, this study finds considerable geographical variation in the effect of leadership losses on ISK’s violent capacity, reflective of the importance of sub-national operational environments. While ISK’s total leadership losses appear to have curtailed its attacks in some regions, they remain steady in others. Examining ISK’s leadership losses in the aggregate by tiers, year, and geography highlights the difficulty facing Afghan and Pakistani security forces to penetrate the two hubs of ISK activity (Nangarhar and Baluchistan) and the critical role of experienced Pakistani militants in sustaining ISK’s leadership.

ISK’s Persistence in the Face of Losses
Since the official formation of its Afghanistan and Pakistan province in January 2015, the ISK’s campaign of terror against state and civilian targets has garnered the attention of regional and global policymakers. More recently, the Islamic State’s loss of its final territorial holding in Syria’s Baghouz in March 2019 and its return to guerrilla tactics in the Syria/Iraq region have resulted in speculation about which of the organization’s many wilayat might be the next big challenge to global CT efforts. Arguably, the Islamic State’s wing in Afghanistan and Pakistan has the potential to become ISK’s most dangerous provinces. This is not only because of ISK’s demonstrated capacity thus far, but its potential to attract surplus resources from Islamic State ‘Central,’ which is estimated to currently have between $50 and $300 million in funds.2 However, Islamic State Central’s ability to liquidate and transfer funds to its branches around the world, much of which were generated during the caliphate era,3 remains unclear. But ISK does not appear to be entirely dependent on the center for resources; the group has reportedly exploited local mineral, lumber, and talc black markets, in addition to extortion and kidnapping for ransom.4 More generally, the existing security landscape in Afghanistan and Pakistan’s weakly governed areas (with inadequate law enforcement and illegal smuggling routes) furnishes the Khorasan province with a permissive operating environment for terrorist groups. As such, ISK is not only considered to be a regional threat but—according to some analysts—one that is capable of facilitating attacks against Western countries.5

Recent organizational changes by the Islamic State, which saw the emergence of Islamic State-Pakistan as well as Islamic State-Hind (India) in May 2019, indicate the group’s intention to continue its efforts across the region.6 Although it is too early to understand fully the drivers or implications of these changes, the creation of Islamic State-Pakistan and Islamic State-Hind suggests an organizational restructuring of Islamic State’s presence in the region.a While this is likely to create some organizational redundancy across the region, it can allow the Islamic State to better modulate and manage differences in strategy, tactics, and membership relevant to each specific country.7 Establishing multiple Islamic State branches by country in South-Central Asia is likely to give more autonomy to the leadership in each country, an ability to exploit local developments and circumvent disputes amongst leaders.

ISK has retained its status as a politically relevant terrorist organization despite having repeatedly clashed with both state and non-state actors and having suffered significant militant losses. In both Afghanistan and Pakistan, ISK has endured extensive military operations tailored to undermine the group’s militant base;8 such CT efforts have resulted in the killing of ISK individuals in leadership roles at the provincial, district, and sub-district level.9 This may be a reasonable strategy in some circumstances, given that leadership decapitation has been shown to increase mortality rates of terrorist groups.b In early 2016, the U.S. military gained broader authority to launch airstrikes against Islamic State operatives and loyalists within Afghanistan;10 it subsequently deployed its most powerful non-nuclear bomb on an ISK camp in Nangarhar in April 2017.11 U.S. airstrikes have killed numerous prominent ISK leaders based in Afghanistan. In August 2018, the U.S. military confirmed the death of Abu Saad Orakzai in Nangarhar, marking the fourth announcement of the killing of an ISK emir (head of the group).12

In Pakistan as well, targeted efforts against ISK have resulted in the arrests of several high-profile leaders.13 One of the more prominent arrests involved the capture of the head of ISK’s network in Sindh province, Ujmar Kathiwer (also spelled Umer Kathio), in January 2016. Prior to joining the Islamic State, Kathiwer, based out of Karachi, had been networking recruits on behalf of al-Qa`ida since 2011.14 His defection to ISK marks one of several former AQIS militants who became prominent leaders within ISK’s network in Pakistan, including the network of individuals responsible for carrying out the Safoora Goth Massacre in Karachi in May 2015, an attack on a bus carrying Shi`a Muslims that left over 40 dead.15

The above examples illustrate only a few of ISK’s high-level losses. Despite the existence of numerous reports of ISK’s militants being successfully targeted, there is currently a lack of an overarching open-source assessment of the landscape of ISK’s losses across the AfPak region since 2015. To the extent possible, answering the following questions can enhance understanding of the expanse of ISK’s operational base and corresponding activity:

  • What results have operations against ISK yielded in terms of leadership losses across Afghanistan and Pakistan over the span of four years?
  • In what capacity and roles did these individuals operate?
  • Which areas have emerged as the hotspots of ISK’s leadership cadres?
  • What do we know about the countries of origin and prior affiliations of ISK’s leaders?

A detailed examination of the who, where, and how of ISK’s leadership losses can shed light on the structure and nature of its leadership and the rate at which the group is able to replenish its leadership ranks.

Methodology and Coding of Leadership Tiers
To answer these questions, the authors compiled an original database by analyzing and coding open-source reports regarding deaths, captures, and surrenders of all ISK militants between January 2015 and December 2018. The database captures various characteristics pertaining to the individuals targeted in counterterrorism efforts by coalition forces and Afghan and Pakistani security forces. This article draws on a subset of this larger database to focus specifically on the loss of ISK members who were reported to be in some type of a leadership position. The leadership losses subset makes up approximately 4.1% of all ISK personnel losses recorded in the larger database (the latter captures all ISK operatives and loyalists reported killed, wounded, arrested/captured, and surrendered across the AfPak region). With regard to interpretation of the data presented in this study, an important limitation to consider is the authors’ reliance on open-source resources in the English language, resulting in data that does not include information that may have only been reported in regional languages. Another limitation of this study is linked to the general nature of reporting about military operations in conflict regions; it is likely that some operations in Afghanistan-Pakistan were under-reported in areas that were inaccessible by local, national, or international reporters to confirm or deny outcomes. Collectively, these limitations are likely to make the authors’ data more conservative approximations of ISK’s losses.c Figure 1 shows the four-tiered approach employed to code the relative ranking of ISK leaders killed or captured primarily in CT operations. Operational tactics used against ISK included drone strikes, airstrikes, ground force operations, police/security forces arrests, and artillery shelling.d

Tier 1 consists solely of emirs of the entire ISK organization.e As of the publication of this article, four emirs were confirmed killed in CT operations. Tier 2 consists of a mix of spokesmen, provincial-level commanders and their deputies, chiefs and deputy chiefs of ISK’s functional wings (e.g., intelligence, military operations, recruitment, etc.), and shura council members.f The Tier 2 leadership level included, for example, Sharafat Shafiq, a former spokesman for ISK who was killed in an airstrike by the Afghan Air Force in November 2018.16 Tier 3 consists of district-level commanders and their deputies, and critical mid-tier leaders (i.e., leaders identified as “senior,” “key,” “notorious,” or by other qualifiers). One Tier 3 leader was Mulla Hangul Pacha, a Pakistani national killed in a drone strike in Afghanistan in July 2016 who gained notoriety as a “senior” commander in Achin district of Nangarhar province for his role in gruesome executions of civilians.17 Finally, Tier 4 consists of local leaders or notable figures operating at the sub-district level. For example, an individual identified as “Muhajir,” killed in a ground assault in Behsud, Nangarhar, in July 2018, is coded as a Tier 4 leader for his role as a notable urban attack coordinator and an IED expert.18 For each leadership loss reported, the authors coded (where available) the date, location (down to the district/town level), targeting force, targeting tactic, name, age, gender, nationality, reported role(s), and prior affiliation(s).

Figure 1: Description of ISK’s Leadership Tiers

ISK Leaders Killed, Captured, and Surrendered between 2015-2018
By analyzing the leadership subset, the authors are able to derive the following initial insights about the characteristics of ISK leaders in four years of extensive CT campaigns by NATO, U.S., Afghan, and Pakistani forces: the scale of ISK’s leadership losses over time, the geographical locations of those losses, the structure of leadership tiers, the presence of foreigners in leadership roles, and prior affiliations of the various leaders.

Leadership Losses by Year
In Afghanistan, the authors recorded a total of 399 individuals across the four leadership tiers who were either killed, captured, or surrendered during the four-year time period. Of these, almost 71% percent were reportedly killed and 24% arrested in various operations. These losses peaked in Afghanistan in 2017, amounting to at least 157 reported dead, captured, or surrendered, and remained high in 2018. (See Table 1.) In Pakistan, the bulk of reported ISK leadership losses have been in the form of arrests; of the total leadership losses of 149 individuals that occurred in that country, about 93% were arrested. ISK leadership losses in Pakistan peaked in 2016 and saw substantial declines in 2017 and 2018.

The Impact of Losses on Operational Capacity
How do these losses compare with ISK’s capacity to conduct lethal attacks in each country? A comparison of the total number of attacks linked to ISK in Afghanistan between the same time period shows that the number of attacks dropped by 43% between 2017 and 2018, from 101 attacks to 57, respectively.19 Similarly, data on ISK attacks conducted in Pakistan shows that attacks peaked in 2016 at 39 and fell to between 10-16 in both 2017 and 2018.20 While an organization’s core leadership is not the sole component of its ability to orchestrate violent attacks, it certainly contributes to its internal coherence and ability to persist. An examination of the aggregate number of people killedg in each country due to ISK attacks depicts a more uncertain picture. In Afghanistan, while ISK’s overall number of attacks fell in 2018 compared to 2017, the total number of individuals killed in 2018 (843) exceeded the total killed in 2017 (688), indicating a precipitous rise in lethality per attack. This high lethality rate was largely underpinned by a series of suicide attacks in Kabul and Nangarhar in the second half of 2018.21 However, the first seven months of 2019 indicate diminishing ISK lethality where 28 attacks resulted in 94 causalities in the firsts seven months of the year. A similar trend was observed in Pakistan with regard to ISK’s lethality; while the total number killed in 2018 increased by 51% compared to 2017, the first seven months of 2019 resulted in a comparatively low number of 29 deaths in four attacks. As such, it seems that while leader decapitation of ISK has helped contain the number of attacks conducted by the group, especially in the last two years, the effect on ISK’s lethality has oscillated.

ISK’s significant drop in lethality in 2019 may partially explain ISK’s recent change of leadership; in April 2019, ISK’s leader Mawlawi Zia ul-Haq, also known as Abu Omar al-Khorasani, was reportedly replaced by a new leader. The change was attributed to the Islamic State’s dissatisfaction with ISK’s performance in 2018.22 Yet, despite such important losses, ISK’s continued capacity for violence signals its ability to maintain a talent pipeline and replenish its leadership cadres.

Leadership Losses by Tier
Figure 2 shows a breakdown of these losses by leadership tier. As one might suspect, in both countries, the majority of losses took place in Tier 4 (59% in Afghanistan, 79% in Pakistan), which consists of local leaders or notable figures such as local recruiters, financiers, and explosives experts operating at the sub-district level. Next, Tier 3 accounted for the second-highest number of losses in each country, 26% and 15% in Afghanistan and Pakistan, respectively. Tier 2 accounted for 14% and 7% of leadership losses in Afghanistan and Pakistan, respectively, and, unsurprisingly, Tier 1 leadership losses, which only comprises ISK emirs, were recorded in the lowest numbers and only in Afghanistan.

Figure 2: ISK’s Total Leadership Losses by Tier in Afghanistan and Pakistan (2015-2018)

The proportion of leaders killed at the 2nd, 3rd, and 4th leadership tiers was generally similar between Afghanistan and Pakistan. However, the proportion of losses in Tier 1—the emirs—tells a slightly different story. Not a single Tier 1 leader was killed or arrested in Pakistan; all four emirs were killed in Afghanistan. Over a 24-month period, U.S. and Afghan forces killed four ISK emirs who were responsible for leading and directing the Islamic State’s presence in Afghanistan and Pakistan. In August 2016 in Nangarhar, a U.S. drone strike killed Pakistani national Hafiz Saeed Khan, a native of Orakzai Agency in Pakistan and former commander with the Tehrik-i-Taliban Pakistan (TTP).23 The death of Khan’s successor and former deputy, Abdul Haseeb Logari,24 an Afghan Taliban defector and native of Khyber Pakhtunkhwa, in April 2017 in Nangarhar was followed shortly by the killing of Abu Sayed Bajauri (also known as Abdul Rahman Ghaleb) in July 2017 in a U.S. drone strike in Kunar. Bajauri was a former TTP commander and native of Bajaur Agency.25 The group’s fourth emir, Abu Saad Orakzai (also known as Abu Saad Erhabi), originally from Orakzai Agency, was killed in August 2018 in a U.S. drone strike, also in Nangarhar.26 All four of ISK’s deceased emirs were Pakistani nationals, three of whom originated from areas that were once a part of the Federally Administered Tribal Areas (FATA). Three were killed in Nangarhar province within 50 kilometers of one another. The common characteristics amongst ISK’s emirs suggest that the future leadership of ISK is likely to draw heavily from militants of Pakistani origin with ties or prior leadership roles in TTP; the latter has proved to be an invaluable source of leaders with operational expertise, local connections, and knowledge of the local terrain.27 Given the increasingly hostile environment within Pakistan for TTP due to the Pakistani army’s aggressive efforts against the group and the group’s internal rifts,28 TTP leaders are likely to be eager to defect to ISK to assume leadership positions.

Leadership Losses by Geography and Their Impact on ISK Activity
Overall, ISK’s leadership losses in Afghanistan at a provincial level have generally been in proportion to the group’s number of attacks—in other words, areas where ISK conducted the highest number of operations also experienced the highest numbers of leadership losses. Figure 3(a) shows a geographical map of ISK’s leadership losses in Afghanistan. However, the trends suggest that containing ISK in Nangarhar, ISK’s center of gravity in Afghanistan, has proven to be much more arduous than in Jowzjan. In Afghanistan, ISK suffered 251 of all 399 (63%) leadership losses in Nangarhar province, a majority of which occurred in districts hugging the Spin Ghar mountain range. This geographical concentration overlaps with the group’s overall activity; ISK’s attacks were largely concentrated in Nangarhar, where it conducted more than half of all attacks between 2015 and 2018.29 Despite heavy leadership losses in 2017 and 2018, ISK remained active in Nangarhar during 2018 and the first half of 2019.30

Figure 3a: Geographical Locations of ISK’s Leadership Losses in Afghanistan (2015-2018)
Figure 3b: Geographical Locations of ISK’s Leadership Losses in Pakistan (2015-2018). Note: The FATA region officially became a part of Khyber Pakhtunkhwa in mid-2018.

Why has Nangarhar—Achin and Deh Bala districts in particular—despite having emerged as a hotspot of leadership losses managed to sustain itself as an ISK stronghold? This largely appears to be due to the province’s geostrategic location and the existing local militant infrastructure, which facilitates ISK’s operations. Nangarhar province borders Pakistan at the four ISK emirs’ original homes of Bajaur and Orakzai agencies in FATA and Khyber Pakhtunkhwa province. The Spin Ghar (“White Mountain” in Pashto) mountain range serves as a natural geographic barrier between the two countries in this area and is traversable by the main access highway—the Khyber Pass—between Peshawar and Jalalabad. The Khyber Pass not only links Pakistan and Afghanistan, but is also known to be a critical hub for smuggling and accessing weapons black markets.31 TTP members escaping Pakistani military operations have long created safe havens in various districts of Nangarhar,32 and the region has hosted groups such as Lashkar-e-Islam and Jamaat-ul-Ahrar, which have cooperated with ISK operationally and logistically.33 Spin Ghar also carries significant historical weight for the jihadi movement in general; just over 150 kilometers west of the Khyber Pass along the mountain range lies the Tora Bora (“Black Cave” in Pashto) cave complex used by Usama bin Ladin and his al-Qa`ida and Taliban associates as a stronghold before U.S. airstrikes and ground operations cleared the area in late 2001.

Around 500 kilometers to the northwest of Nangarhar along the border with Turkmenistan lies Jowzjan province, where ISK suffered 34 of its 399 (8.5%) leadership losses. The proportion of leadership losses again corresponds with ISK’s proportion of attacks in Jowzjan over the same time period, which made up only about 9% of all attacks between 2015 and 2018.34 However, in contrast to Nangarhar, ISK activity in Jowzjan was observed primarily between 2015 and 2017, and was limited to a single attack in 2018, with no attacks observed in the first seven months of 2019.35 ISK’s inability to maintain territorial control in Jowzjan may be linked to a particular chain of losses amongst the group’s 34 leadership losses in the province; ISK lost four chiefs of recruitment (Tier 2), who were all captured or killed in the Darzab district of Jowzjan in the first four months of 2018. These four recruitment chiefs appeared to have had a major role in facilitating the inflow of fighters.36 The first chief, Khitab,h captured by Afghan forces in January 2018, was reported to have been recruiting both Islamic Movement of Uzbekistan (IMU) fighters and foreign fighters in Jowzjan province.37 His two co-chief successors, Omair and Abu Samaya, were killed by a joint U.S. drone strike-Afghan commando operation in Darzab in March 2018.38 Their successor, Qari Hekmat, killed by a U.S. drone strike in Darzab in April 2018, was previously a member of the IMU as well as the Taliban’s former shadow district governor for Darzab district.39 The loss of Hekmat struck a significant blow to ISK, since he also served as the group’s operational commander in Jowzjan in addition to his responsibilities as a recruitment chief. In the wake of Hekmat’s death, Mawlavi Habibur Rehman, another Uzbek national with intermittent ties to the Taliban, is believed to have been named as his successor in a move possibly intended to preserve ISK’s draw for foreign fighters from Uzbekistan.40 Yet, a lack of ISK attacks in the province in 2018 and 2019 suggests that decimating four chiefs with recruitment and operational responsibilities has stymied ISK’s growth on the northwestern front. This effect has likely been compounded by ISK’s clashes with the Taliban in Jowzjan and the general remoteness of the province from ISK’s stronghold in Nangarhar.

In Pakistan, as shown in Figure 3(b), ISK suffered 72 of all 149 (48%) leadership losses in the FATA and Khyber Pakhtunkhwa regions along the border with Nangarhar, and a majority of these FATA and Khyber Pakhtunkhwa losses occurred in the Peshawar District. Again, ISK’s leadership losses in Pakistan correspond with the group’s focus on FATA and Khyber Pakhtunkhwa in terms of its attacks in the country. Between 2015 and mid-2018, these two regions accounted for 42% of all ISK attacks in Pakistan.41 For reasons discussed above, it is sensible that a majority of ISK’s leadership losses in Pakistan occurred on the other side of the Spin Ghar mountain range to their associates in Afghanistan. While the mountains provide ample opportunities for ISK to set up strategic bases, they also provided a zone of relief during the Pakistani army’s Zarb-e-Azb (“Sharp and Cutting Strike”) campaign against TTP and other militant groups in 2014-2015. As pressure mounted on these groups, survivors and defectors—particularly from TTP—pushed farther north and many joined ISK.42 ISK’s leadership losses in FATA and Khyber Pakhtunkhwa, however, appear to have curtailed its capacity in these regions, partially assisted by Pakistan’s effort to fence off its 1,600-mile border with Afghanistan to impede militant movement and cross-border operations.43 Between mid-2018 and mid-2019, only a single ISK-linked attack was reported in FATA, and none in Khyber Pakhtunkhwa.44

However, ISK’s leadership losses in the areas of Pakistan outside of FATA and Khyber Pakhtunkhwa do not overlap directly with ISK’s geographical activity in Pakistan, which is indicative of two characteristics of ISK Pakistan. First, ISK leaders and rank-and-file members are dispersed throughout the country, and second, ISK has a proclivity to operate through operational alliances with other militant groups in Pakistan.45 Around 300 kilometers southeast of the AfPak border areas, ISK’s leaders began cementing the group’s networks in northeastern Punjab province (cities of Lahore, Gujranwala, and Sialkot) where ISK suffered 25 of its 149 (17%) leadership losses. Substantially further south along the coast of the Arabian Sea, ISK leadership was busy forging new networks and coopting older ones in Karachi, Sindh, at the hands of leaders like Ujmer Kathiwer (the head of ISK’s network in Sindh province).46 By the end of 2018, 29 of ISK’s 149 leadership losses in Pakistan (19%) had occurred in Karachi. Although Punjab and Sindh recorded high levels of ISK leadership losses, they have certainly not been the hubs of ISK activity in the country. (Each accounted for only 10% of all ISK attacks in Pakistan between 2015-2018.) Rather, Baluchistan, where only 7% of all leadership losses occurred, accounted for about a third of all ISK attacks in Pakistan up till mid-2018; between mid-2018 and mid-2019, ISK attacks have been conducted almost exclusively in Baluchistan.47 Overall, while leadership losses in the other four regions are correlated with significant declines in ISK activity post-2016, ISK has managed to sustain its attacks within Baluchistan since 2015.48 Given the geographical expanse of Baluchistan and its political and economic fragility,49 which makes effective operations challenging, the province is likely to remain the future location of continued clashes between the Pakistani state and ISK militants.

The authors also collected data on the leaders’ nationalities, where they were reported. It is likely that nationalities were only reported in cases where the individual was not suspected to be a local— that is, non-Afghan nationalities by Afghan newspapers and non-Pakistani nationalities by Pakistani newspapers. In Afghanistan, foreign nationalities were reported in at least 48 cases and in 64 cases in Pakistan. As shown in Figure 4, in Afghanistan, the majority of ‘foreign’ nationals reported were from Pakistan, although Uzbeks, Tajiks, and Indians were also reported. Interestingly, and perhaps unsurprisingly, the only ‘foreigners’ reported in Pakistan were from Afghanistan.

A closer look at the roles occupied by these foreign nationals indicates that 11 of the 42 Pakistani nationals in Afghanistan had assumed Tier 1 and 2 roles, and that Tier 1 leadership targeted in Afghanistan was solely composed of Pakistani nationals. In contrast, in Pakistan, all Afghans were reported to be exclusively in Tier 4 roles and only a handful in Tier 2 and 3. This indicates that while the top two tiers of ISK leadership will continue to reside mostly in Afghanistan rather than in Pakistan, those positions (if past practice is a guide) are likely to be filled disproportionately by Pakistani nationals. This aligns with previous findings that ISK likely operates primarily through its operational alliances in Pakistan,50 whereas the core components of its top leadership operate from within Afghanistan. An important point to note here is that these nationalities only reflect ISK’s leadership cadres, and the breadth of nationalities found amongst its rank-and-file members has been reported to be much more diverse, to include Chinese, Chechens, Iranians, French, Algerian, Sudanese, Kazakhs, and Bangladeshis.51

Figure 4: Identified Nationalities of ISK Leaders Killed or Captured in Afghanistan and Pakistan

Prior Affiliations
The authors observed that a number of ISK leaders had prior affiliations spanning over a dozen different militant groups. These groups included Hezb-e-Islami Gulbuddin, IMU, the Afghan Taliban, TTP, al-Qa`ida in the Indian Subcontinent (AQIS), Sipah-e-Sahaba Pakistan (SSP), Tanzeem-e-Islami (TeI), Jama’at-ud-Da’wah (JuD)/Lashkar-e-Taiba (LeT), Jundullah, al-Badr, Jamaat-ul-Muslimeen (JuM), Lashkar-e-Jhangvi (LeJ), and the Haqqani Network. While the motivations for joining ISK vary from leader to leader, two cases presented briefly below illustrate how ISK has actively sought out and indoctrinated members of other groups as well as exploited individuals’ preexisting grievances with their former organizations.

The first involves former Afghan Taliban leader Mullah Abdul Rauf Khadim. Khadim was arrested in 2001 and was incarcerated for six years at Guantanamo Bay for his involvement with terrorist organizations.52 After his release, he returned to Afghanistan and was appointed as the Taliban’s shadow governor of Uruzgan province in 2011, but was later demoted out of the Taliban’s leadership council to the rank of commander and reassigned to Helmand province after a reported falling out with Mullah Omar.53 Not long after his demotion, Khadim defected to ISK and was named its deputy provincial commander in Helmand under then-emir Hafiz Saeed Khan.54 Khadim was killed in a U.S. drone strike in Kajaki, Helmand, in February 2015.55

In the second case, a group of nine former members of Lashkar-e-Taiba’s charity arm, Jama’at-ud-Da’wah, were flipped by two ISK recruiters. Brothers Babar (also known as Abu Akasha) and Nadeem Butt reportedly recruited, indoctrinated, and groomed these nine individuals over a 15-month period to join ISK. After pledging allegiance in June 2015, the group started recruiting for ISK in Sialkot, Pakistan. As part of the process, Babar Butt reportedly facilitated contact between these nine individuals and Abu Muavia Salfi, a Pakistani commander in charge of a contingent of Pakistani militants fighting for the Islamic State in Syria. Though these nine Pakistan-based recruiters did not intend to join Islamic State Central in Syria and Iraq, the network used these channels to Islamic State Central to build up a base in Sialkot, Pakistan, and to expand their recruitment efforts in nearby districts.56

The Evolution of ISK
Overall, this study indicates that CT efforts against ISK have resulted in significant ISK leadership losses that have, amongst other factors, likely contributed to suppressing the overall number of attacks conducted by ISK in Afghanistan-Pakistan. However, although leadership decapitation appears to have diminished ISK’s number of attacks in recent years, it has been less efficacious in moderating ISK’s lethality—until 2019. As reflected by the data presented in this article, CT efforts in Afghanistan and Pakistan collectively resulted in the killing or capture of 548 ISK leaders between 2015 and 2018, including four emirs in Afghanistan. While such losses have not completely undercut ISK’s ability to conduct lethal attacks, they seem to be have slowed down its upward trajectory. A common trend observed in both countries was that the sharpest declines in the number of ISK attacks took place in the year following the year in which ISK suffered its highest number of leadership losses. An associated negative externality of this drop in attacks, however, was the concurrent rise in ISK’s lethality per attack in the same year. For example, in Afghanistan, ISK experienced its highest number of leadership losses in 2017, at 157 losses (including two emirs), which was followed by a significant fall in its number of attacks in 2018.57 In parallel, though, 2018 was also the year in which the total number of casualties due to ISK attacks exceeded all previous years.

The decline in ISK’s lethality in the first seven months of 2019 in Afghanistan-Pakistan is noteworthy and encouraging, but it remains unclear whether such gains against the group will be sustained. ISK’s ability to orchestrate highly lethal attacks, despite heavy leadership losses, suggests that broader and consistent efforts are required to quell the group’s ability to persist. A closer examination of these trends at the province-level highlights the geographical variation in the effectiveness of leader decapitation, which can guide future counterterrorism efforts. CT efforts across AfPak have contained ISK activity in regions such as Jowzjan and FATA, but Nangarhar in Afghanistan and Baluchistan in Pakistan remain the locus of ISK’s operational activity. An important factor contributing to ISK’s resiliency is rooted in its ability to recruit from a whole host of existing militant groups, such as the TTP58 and LeT.59 The interweaving of Pakistani and Afghan militants in ISK’s leadership cadres necessitates coordinated efforts across the region to halt ISK’s capability to continually replenish its ranks.

The May 2019 announcement of the reorganization of Islamic State’s presence in South Asia, into Wilayat Pakistan, Wilayat Hind, and Wilayat Khorasan (Afghanistan), suggests that the differing operational environments likely spurred the creation of three distinct groups. Interestingly, these changes arrive on the heels of ISK experiencing significant leadership losses in both Afghanistan and Pakistan, declines in its number of attacks, and a change in ISK’s leadership, reportedly due to Islamic State Central’s dissatisfaction.60 The creation of Wilayat Pakistan and Hind as separate entities could be a concerted effort to delegate greater autonomy to leaders in each country who can respond quickly to local dynamics and localize their recruitment efforts. Overall, these developments coupled with the findings of this study illustrate both the usefulness and limitations of leadership decapitation of ISK. While the goals of restricting recruitment and undermining ISK’s militant bases in key operational areas are critical, additional coordinated efforts amongst targeting forces on both sides of the Durand Line are warranted given ISK’s potential to conduct a protracted terror campaign. Additionally, the findings of this study demonstrate a need for a more holistic regional approach to keep ISK at bay, one which goes beyond targeting ISK’s leadership cadres, and includes efforts to dismantle its strongholds through kinetic and intelligence operations, and disrupt its financial resources and links with resourceful regional militant groups.     CTC

Dr. Amira Jadoon is an assistant professor at the Combating Terrorism Center and the Department of Social Sciences at the U.S. Military Academy at West Point. She specializes in international security, economic statecraft, political violence, and terrorism. Follow @AmiraJadoon

Andrew Mines is a research fellow at the Program on Extremism at George Washington University. Mines researches terrorist financing, foreign fighters, and counterterrorism efforts against Islamic State affiliates. Follow @mines_andrew

Substantive Notes
[a] While the Islamic State announced the creation of its Pakistan and India chapters, it has not publicly provided any information on how these chapters are organizationally linked to the original Khorasan chapter. Given that recent attacks in Pakistan have been claimed by Islamic State-Pakistan and attacks in India-controlled Kashmir by Islamic State-Hind (while ISK continues to claim attacks in Afghanistan), the Pakistani and Indian chapters appear to be independent rather than sub-chapters of ISK. For example, see Robert Postings, “ISIS announces new India and Pakistan provinces, casually breaking up Khorasan,” Defense Post, May 15, 2019.

[b] Many scholars argue that decapitation tactics can be an effective counterterrorism. See, for example, Bryan C. Price, “Targeting Top Terrorists: How Leadership Decapitation Contributes to Counterterrorism,” International Security 36:4 (2012): pp. 9-46. However, other researchers have argued that leader decapitation is not always effective and may even be counterproductive for certain types of groups. For example, see Jenna Jordan, “When Heads Roll: Assessing the Effectiveness of Leadership Decapitation,” Security Studies 18:4 (2009): pp. 719-755.

[c] The data presented here excludes ISK’s rank-and-file militants, or ISK sympathizers not indicated to be in any notable leadership position. The authors relied on English-language materials obtained via open sources including but not limited to Lexis-Nexis, local and national news stories, think-tank reports, and official documents released by governments. The authors were able to substantiate the majority of all reports by at least one additional source. While it is possible that the authors missed a handful of events due to a lack of access to some local media sources, it is less likely that these events included leadership-level militants beyond ISK’s rank-and-file. Even low-level leadership losses were widely covered between these local and national media sources.

[d] The authors also included limited instances of ISK losses via uprisings by local militias to ensure completeness of data.

[e] Emir is the Arabic word for commander and is not specific to the head commander of ISK or of any other militant group. The term is used by operatives and subordinates to refer to their superiors in general. To avoid confusion regarding the widespread use of the Arabic word emir by Islamic State operatives and other jihadis, the authors refer only to the head commander of ISK as emir, and all other commanders simply in the English equivalent—commander.

[f] The Shura Council is generally a small group of individuals close to the emir who both provide advice and counsel to the emir and also select his successor in the event of death.

[g] The total number of people killed in an attack includes the total number of civilians and security personnel reported to have died in an attack claimed by or linked to ISK.

[h] His full name has not been reported.

[1] Amira Jadoon, Allied and Lethal: Islamic State Khorasan’s Network and Organizational Capacity in Afghanistan and Pakistan (West Point, NY: Combating Terrorism Center, 2018); Abdul Basit, “IS Penetration in Afghanistan-Pakistan: Assessment, Impact and Implications,” Perspectives on Terrorism 11:3 (2017).

[2] “Twenty-Fourth Report of the Analytical Support and Sanctions Monitoring Team submitted pursuant to Resolution 2368 concerning ISIL, Al-Qaida and associated individuals and entities,” United Nations Security Council, June 27, 2019.

[3] Ibid. See also David Kenner, “All ISIS has Left is Money and Lots of it,” Atlantic, March 24, 2019.

[4] “Twenty-Fourth Report of the Analytical Support and Sanctions Monitoring Team submitted pursuant to Resolution 2368.”

[5] Thomas Gibbons-Neff and Julian E. Barnes, “U.S. Military Calls ISIS in Afghanistan a Threat to the West. Intelligence Officials Disagree,” New York Times, August 2, 2019.

[6] Ayaz Gul, “Islamic State Announces ‘Pakistan Province,’” VOA, May 15, 2019.

[7] For a more detailed discussion on the topic, see Colin P. Clarke, “What does the Islamic State’s restructuring tell us?” International Centre for Counter- The Hague (ICCT) Publications, June 3, 2019.

[8] Charsly Panzino, “Official: U.S. ‘aggressively’ targeting ISIS, al-Qaida in Afghanistan,” Army Times, February 4, 2017.

[9] Based on the authors’ data. See also “Department of Defense Press Briefing by General Nicholson in the Pentagon Briefing Room,” U.S. Department of Defense, December 2, 2016.

[10] Idrees Ali, “Air strikes hit Islamic State in Afghanistan under new rules: U.S.,” Reuters, April 14, 2016.

[11] “MOAB strike: 90 IS fighters killed in Afghanistan,” BBC, April 15, 2017.

[12] Bill Roggio, “US confirms death of emir of Islamic State Khorasan,” FDD’s Long War Journal, September 3, 2018.

[13] “Pakistan Launches Offensive Against IS Near Afghan Border,” BBC, July 16, 2017.

[14] “Daesh Sindh Head Ujmar Kathiwer arrested,” Pakistan Today, January 3, 2016.

[15] Imtiaz Ali, “43 killed in attack on bus carrying Ismailis in Karachi,” Dawn, May 13, 2015.

[16] “‘Daesh-Khorasan spokesman’ killed in Nangarhar raid,” Pajhwok Afghan News, November 25, 2018.

[17] “Notorious Daesh commanders among 46 dead in airstrikes,” Pajhwok Afghan News, July 23, 2016.

[18] “ISIS Khurasan’s IED expert, in charge of urban attacks, killed in Jalalabad city,” Khaama Press, July 1, 2018.

[19] Jadoon.

[20] Ibid.

[21] For example, a suicide attack in September 2018 in Nangarhar killed at least 68 people. See “Afghanistan attack: Nangarhar suicide blast toll soars,” BBC, September 12, 2018.

[22] Thomas Joscelyn, “UN: Islamic State replaced leader in Afghanistan after visit from central leadership,” FDD’s Long War Journal, July 30, 2019.

[23] “ISIS Khurasan Chief Hafiz Saeed Khan killed in Afghanistan: Pentagon,” Khaama Press, August 13, 2016.

[24] “ISIS dealt series of serious blows in Afghan stronghold,” CBS News, May 8, 2017.

[25] Borhan Osman, “Another ISKP leader “dead”: Where is the group headed after losing so many amirs?” Afghanistan Analysts Network, July 23, 2017.

[26] Yousuf Zarifi, “Daesh leader for Afghanistan killed in airstrike,” Pajhwok Afghan News, August 26, 2018.

[27] “Department of Defense Press Briefing by General Nicholson via Teleconference from Afghanistan,” U.S. Department of Defense, July 28, 2016.

[28] “Operation Zarb-e-Azb: Two Years of Success,” Nation, September 6, 2016. See also Amira Jadoon and Sara Mahmood, “Fixing the Cracks in the Pakistani Taliban’s Foundation: TTP’s Leadership Returns to the Mehsud Tribe,” CTC Sentinel 11:11 (2018).

[29] Jadoon.

[30] Amira Jadoon, ISK Attacks Database, 2019. The authors’ ISK attacks database includes 26 attacks in 2018 and 14 in 2019 in Nangarhar.

[31] Syed Manzar Abbas Zaidi, “The Role of Lashkar-i-Islam in Pakistan’s Khyber Agency,” CTC Sentinel 3:10 (2010).

[32] Lalit K. Jha, “Most TTP Fighters Join ISK in Nangarhar: Gen. Nicholson,” Pajhwok Afghan News, September 24, 2016.

[33] Sarah Ashraf, “ISIS Khorasan: Presence and Potential in the Afghanistan-Pakistan Region,” Henry Jackson Society, October 18, 2017.

[34] Jadoon.

[35] This information is derived from the authors’ database of ISK attacks in Afghanistan and Pakistan, updated to July 2019.

[36] Merhat Sharipzhan, “IMU Declares It Is Now Part Of The Islamic State,” Radio Free Europe, August 6, 2015; Damon Mehl, “The Islamic Movement of Uzbekistan Opens a Door to the Islamic State,” CTC Sentinel 8:6 (2015).

[37] “Daesh capacity to use foreign fighters in the north disrupted: NATO,” Pajhwok Afghan News, March 23, 2018.

[38] “Top ISIS leaders Omair and Abu Samaya killed in North of Afghanistan,” Khaama Press, March 19, 2018.

[39] Obaid Ali, “Still under the IS’s Black Flag: Qari Hekmat’s ISKP island in Jawzjan after his death by drone,” Afghan Analysts Network,” May 15, 2018.

[40] “ISIS Khurasan leader Qari Hekmat killed in Jawzjan airstrike,” Khaama Press, April 7, 2018.

[41] Jadoon.

[42] See, for example, Ismail Khan, “Military Operation in Khyber Ends Successfully,” Dawn, July 3, 2015.

[43] “Pakistan Military Says 10 Soldiers Killed in Attacks by Extremists,” Radio Free Europe Radio Liberty, July 28, 2019.

[44] Amira Jadoon, ISK Attacks Database, 2019.

[45] Jadoon.

[46] “Daesh Sindh Head Ujmar Kathiwer arrested.”

[47] Amira Jadoon, ISK Attacks Database, 2019.

[48] Ibid.

[49] Ali Dayan Hasan, “Balochistan: Caught in the Fragility Trap,” United States Institute of Peace, June 27, 2016.

[50] Jadoon.

[51] Ahmad Shah Erfanyar, “Afghan, US forces destroy Daesh stronghold in Nangarhar,” Pajhwok Afghan News, July 8, 2018; “French ISIS fighters move to Afghanistan after facing defeat in Syria,” Khaama Press, December 10, 2017; Tamkin, “Daesh foreign mentors recruiting Jawzjan youth,” Pajhwok Afghan News, November 12, 2017; “Arrested IS suspected in Bangladesh claim training in Pakistan,” Dawn, January 19, 2015.

[52] “Drone Strike Killed IS Commander in Afghanistan,” Bakhtar News Agency, February 10, 2015.

[53] “Islamic State – Khorasan Province (ISKP),” Islamic Theology of CounterTerrorism, n.d.

[54] Ibid.

[55] Javed Hamim Kakar, “IS commander among 10 eliminated in Helmand raid,” Pajwhok Afghan News, May 15, 2015.

[56] Asif Chaudhry, “IS cell busted in Sialkot, claim officials,” Dawn, December 29, 2015.

[57] Amira Jadoon, ISK Attacks Database, 2019.

[58] For example, see Tahir Khan, “Senior TTP commander Daud Khan Switches loyalty to Daesh,” Daily Times, July 31, 2017.

[59] Chaudhry.

[60] Joscelyn.

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