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It was Aug. 15, 2021, and the last U.S. troops were still sheltering at Kabul airport, waiting for the war to end, when the purge began. For 20 years the Taliban had been waging an insurgency in the name of jihad against foreign occupation. But with success now assured and their greatest enemy in retreat, they were already switching focus to another, more insidious, threat: their fellow Muslims in the Islamic State group. This time they would do their killing in the shadows. The first stage of their plan centered on a prison in Kabul’s heavily fortified diplomatic zone and was scheduled to unfold the same day the Afghan capital fell. Officials in the crumbling U.S.-backed government referred to the jail as Directorate 40. Locals knew it only as another set of nondescript buildings hidden behind a high perimeter wall. Located close to the Ministry of Defense, the U.S. Embassy and NATO’s headquarters, near where the Taliban hung the butchered corpse of the former communist president Mohammad Najibullah when they first took power in 1996, it was a fitting location from which to start settling old scores. There was just one problem: The man at the top of their hit list knew they were coming for him.
As the leader of the Islamic State in South and Central Asia, Abu Omar Khorasani took a certain satisfaction from being the most feared and despised prisoner in Directorate 40. That morning it did not even cross his mind that the Taliban’s victory might bring an end to Afghanistan’s suffering. Nor did he think it was likely to bring him freedom. Instead, he regarded the Americans’ withdrawal as an opportunity to reignite his own armed struggle, either back on the battlefield himself or as a martyr whose death would inspire other Muslims to rise up in his name. Khorasani had been in Directorate 40 for 10 months and, though he had not been tortured like other prisoners held before him in the custody of the intelligence service, confinement had taken its toll. His naturally wiry build had given way to a slight paunch and a solid, muscular physique; his hair was heavily receded at the front and hung down at the back in long, lank curls that spilled toward his shoulders. He looked a decade older than his 37 years, but his mind was still sharp and his sense of purpose undimmed. In truth, there was something of the philosophical sadist about Khorasani, and he was able to cope better than most with life in prison. He loved to read and write and frequently lost himself in the labyrinth of his own thoughts. Although he saw himself as a soldier, he would be better described as an ideologue who liked to intellectualize the horrific violence he unleashed. It was this characteristic that made him a dead man walking.
Under Khorasani’s leadership, the Islamic State’s Afghanistan chapter had been locked in a brutal, low-level civil war against the Taliban for years, only to be defeated and pushed to the brink of irrelevance. Hundreds of his men had died or been forced into hiding, and in spring 2020, he had been arrested. Every day since then his feelings of anger and humiliation had steadily grown. Directorate 40 held the most senior insurgents left in Afghanistan’s prison system and, in many cases, their wives and children as well. Only a fraction of the 1,500 or so inmates were affiliated with the Islamic State, however. The vast majority of them were Taliban commanders who hated Khorasani and everything he espoused. Given the odds stacked against him, a less obdurate man might have spent those final few hours before the Taliban’s victory trying to save his own skin by asking for the other prisoners’ forgiveness. But that was not Khorasani’s style. He had been an outsider for much of his life and no amount of time in jail could smooth the chip on his shoulder.
Khorasani was born in the district of Sawkay, or Chawkay, in Kunar, eastern Afghanistan, on Dec. 24, 1983. The second son of a typically large family, he was actually named Zia-ul-Haq Zia. He underwent his primary education at a local madrassa, an Islamic religious school, until the sixth grade, before transferring to madrassas in Bajaur and Peshawar in Pakistan, where he went on to learn calligraphy and achieve a master’s degree in Islamic studies. He was fluent in Pashto, Dari, Arabic and Urdu, and proficient in English, and as a young man he had loved nothing more than learning. At one point while in Pakistan, he even enrolled in an online Islamic studies course run by an institute in Canada. Although it would be easy to depict him as evil given his later actions, no one who knew him well in his youth ever described him as such. Nor did anyone suggest he was insane. Those close to Khorasani back then regarded him as polite, erudite and confident in his own skin. But he was also an outsider. Unlike most Sunni Muslims in Afghanistan, Khorasani was brought up as a Salafi — a member of an austere branch of the faith that is prevalent in Saudi Arabia and looks only to the Prophet Muhammad and his immediate followers for guidance. His parents raised him that way, as part of a small but thriving community that had existed in Kunar for decades. In keeping with Salafi custom, Khorasani practiced his religion conservatively as a young man but didn’t try to impose his beliefs on others. In 2000, before his graduation in Pakistan, he married the uneducated granddaughter of one of his aunts. Female guests at the wedding ceremony in the Mohmand tribal agency played the “daf” — a tambourine made of goatskin. Khorasani regarded music as un-Islamic, but he was about 16 years old at the time and willing to bend the rules of his faith if it made other people happy. He and his wife would go on to have 10 children together — six sons and four daughters.
Khorasani returned to Kunar from Pakistan in 2004 and took a job as a teacher in Sawkay before going on to become the principal of the local madrassa he attended as a child. Later, he also found work with an international NGO that paid him $500 a month — a good salary by Afghan standards. Had life worked out slightly differently, then, Khorasani might have turned into exactly the kind of Muslim that America professed to want at the forefront of its quest to remake post-9/11 Afghanistan in its own democratic, progressive image: intelligent and hardworking; devout but not extreme; a partner of the West. No one is quite sure why, or when, he chose a different future for himself, but in 2015, Khorasani gave an inflammatory speech against the Afghan government to students at his local mosque. Soon afterward he left home to join the Islamic State of Khorasan Province (ISKP).
By the time the Taliban were preparing to hunt him down last summer he had helped ignite a wave of violence unlike anything his country had ever seen: ISKP fighters had blown up funerals and rampaged through Kabul University. They had denounced Shiite Muslims as apostates and targeted them with a methodical brutality that carried many of the hallmarks of genocide. In Directorate 40, however, Khorasani did not feel the need to justify this to the Taliban or anyone else; all he asked for was the chance to be allowed to continue his work.
Khorasani shared a cell with one of his sons, a son-in-law and another close relative, each of them fellow members of ISKP. They did their best to keep their spirits up, but it was not easy. All prison systems have their internal social hierarchies and Directorate 40 was no different. The Talib inmates regarded Khorasani as a direct challenge to their political and religious authority. Their animosity went far deeper than the fratricidal violence ISKP had managed to unleash across Afghanistan. For the most ideologically committed Talibs, Salafism was a distortion of Sunni Islam and an affront to the Hanafi school of jurisprudence that they, and millions of Afghans, followed. Khorasani and the other ISKP members believed the opposite was true, and it was impossible for either side to compromise, at a national level or within Directorate 40 itself. Throughout his confinement, Khorasani had lived with Talib inmates calling him and his family “Kharijites” — regressive and rebellious Muslims who had willingly defected from Islam’s true teachings. In turn, he viewed the Talibs as “munafiqun,” hypocrites who had sold out the jihad by negotiating with the Americans during the long withdrawal process leading up to last summer. Tension had often erupted at prayer times when the Talibs jeered and insulted the ISKP prisoners because of the distinct way they prayed. The fall of the Afghan government on Aug. 15 last year promised both sides the reckoning they had been waiting for.
About 3 p.m. that day, word spread through the prison that the guards and wardens had removed their uniforms and donned civilian clothes. Usually unarmed, they now carried guns as they began to open the cells without explaining anything. The first prisoners to be released were in the women’s block, where wives of many of the inmates lived with their children. Then it was the men’s turn. Khorasani was waiting for his cell door to be opened when he stood up and began to talk excitedly as if reciting the fragments of a litany to himself. He told anyone who would listen about two recent dreams that had stayed with him. “In one I saw the women and children of this prison being freed,” he said. “In the second I was martyred here. Now, praise be to God, I have just seen the first dream come true.” In a sort of ecstatic trance, Khorasani started to write on a wall inside his cell, determined to get the dreams down on record lest they be his last will and testament. He had just finished his frantic scribbling when the guards arrived and ushered him toward the exit.
The heat was stifling as the male prisoners shuffled through the yard in their dark green uniforms with orange trim. Khorasani joined them, accompanied by his son, son-in-law and another relative, but he did not stand out except through reputation. Like a lot of men from Kunar, he was tall. His eyes, as someone who knew him fondly recalled, were “the color of dates,” his beard the length of a clenched fist. Safely lost among the crowd of prisoners, he was almost away and free when a burst of gunfire split the air, the shots fired straight into the brilliant blue sky. Then another burst rang out, only this time tighter and deliberately directed. A man in front of Khorasani fell first, before he too crumpled, bleeding, to the ground. His son-in-law rushed to help, shouting for some inmates who were trained in first aid. They hauled him up and hurried him back inside to the medical room. Smashing the room’s locked cupboards open, they found enough painkillers to keep Khorasani conscious. Bleeding heavily in their arms, he was lucid and calm, and told them he had been shot in the abdomen. By now, though, they had found the entrance wound and knew he was wrong: A single bullet had hit him in the back and become lodged in his stomach. Khorasani told them not to worry, that he felt OK but that if he became a martyr, it would fulfill the second dream he had written about in his cell. Within 20 minutes he was dead.
We have been researching the Islamic State’s role in Afghanistan since it first emerged in the country in 2015. Our interest began as the natural extension of another project we were working on at the time, a book about the Afghan mujahedeen party Hizb-e-Islami and its leader, Gulbuddin Hekmatyar. Hizb was the most extreme insurgent group in the war against the Soviets in the 1980s and a pivotal but unsung influence on contemporary international jihadism. Even when its ideological relevance and military strength waned, it helped al Qaeda in practical ways that would have far-reaching consequences for Afghanistan and the West. Most notably, after the 2001 U.S.-led invasion, Hizb sheltered Osama bin Laden and his deputy leader Ayman al-Zawahiri in Khorasani’s home province of Kunar. At a safe house in Iran, meanwhile, it put up Abu Musan al-Zarqawi, the future godfather of the Islamic State central, which strategically coordinates the movement’s operations throughout the world. Khorasani was just an apolitical teenager in those days and had no direct ties to any of this, but a subtle link is worth noting in passing: The village in which he grew up during the 1980s and 1990s was in territory controlled by Hizb. We cannot say for certain whether that influenced his later activities, but it would be remiss to ignore the potential impact of childhood on any adult’s life.
Like any insurgent or, to use language some of our readers might prefer, terrorist, Khorasani was a product of his environment. He was a consequence of history and, though he lived and died by his own decisions, he did not act alone. His ideas and methods can be understood only in the context in which they were formed, a context in which the lines of responsibility were often blurred. This essay, then, is about more than just one man. It is the story of a war between ISKP and the Taliban that continues to rage almost a year after Khorasani’s death. It is also the story of what it means to fight in the name of jihad in the 21st century, when iPhones and Twitter posts are as important as AK-47s and roadside bombs. There are no angels and devils in the telling of this tragedy, only a tangled web of flawed individuals pushed to extremes by their own mistakes and the mistakes of their enemies. The terrible acts of violence they committed were made for the digital age, yet they were carried out for reasons as old as war itself: faith, idealism, power, vengeance, bloodlust and fame.
To piece together the ruins of Khorasani’s life and chart the rise, fall and potential resurrection of ISKP, we have drawn on original material that includes 15 years’ worth of interviews we carried out across several Afghan provinces. We have also taken information from ISKP propaganda, as well as news reports, and used studies from organizations including the Afghanistan Analysts Network, the Center for Middle East Policy at the Brookings Institution, the International Crisis Group, the Royal United Services Institute and the United States Institute of Peace. In many instances, our contacts agreed to talk to us on the condition of anonymity and we have respected their wishes. Although we cannot always reveal their identities, we can say that between us, we have interviewed senior commanders and foot soldiers from ISKP and the Taliban, as well as Afghan civilians and government officials. For our own security, we have chosen to refer to ourselves in the plural form throughout this essay rather than specify which of us met certain individuals. The multiple sources who told us about Khorasani’s early life and witnessed his last hours in Directorate 40 declined to be publicly identified. They even asked that we keep the name of their home village secret lest people there be subjected to violent reprisals. To understand their fear of speaking out and the Taliban’s determination to have Khorasani killed, it is necessary to go back to the immediate aftermath of 9/11 and the start of the war against the Americans, when Khorasani was just the second son of an ordinary Pashtun family and the seeds of ISKP were first sown.
On Nov. 15, 2001, soon after Kabul fell to the U.S.-backed coalition of warlords and former mujahedeen known as the Northern Alliance, the BBC’s Pashto service broadcast a radio interview with the Taliban’s supreme leader, Mullah Mohammad Omar. His forces were in disarray, and much of the country had already slipped from his grasp, yet his words betrayed no sign of panic. Instead, he spoke like a man confronted with an inconvenient obstacle he would simply have to overcome. The number of provinces the Taliban controlled and the type of weapons they possessed were irrelevant, he told his interviewer: “The real matter is the extinction of America. And, God willing, it will fall to the ground.” In time, what seemed like the delusions of a failed theocrat came to resemble something closer to prophecy.
Those Talibs lucky enough to survive the initial wave of U.S. airstrikes and evade arrest in that early phase of the war fled into the Afghan countryside or crossed the border into Pakistan. Around a year passed before several hundred of them regrouped and began to plot their fight back. Mawlawi Fazlullah Hanif, an ethnic Tajik from northern Afghanistan, was among them. Before the invasion, Hanif had lived and worked alongside Mullah Omar in Kandahar as a special representative for his home province of Badakhshan. After the invasion he made his way to Pakistan, where he was arrested by the army before being handed to the police and sent back to Afghanistan. Undeterred, Hanif told us, he returned to Pakistan. He spent time studying at a madrassa in Khyber Pakhtunkhwa before making his way to Balochistan, on the southwestern border with Kandahar. There, in an isolated area of woodland sometime around early 2003, he and a few hundred fighters came together at a makeshift Taliban training camp designed to drill them in the tactics of guerrilla warfare. Two of the most senior militants in attendance were Jalaluddin Haqqani, the patriarch of what the U.S. came to call the Haqqani Network, and Tahir Yuldash, the leader of the Islamic Movement of Uzbekistan (IMU). Both would play central roles in the eventual rise of ISKP and the Taliban’s purge against it.
Yuldash was from Namangan in eastern Uzbekistan and rose to prominence in the late 1990s after declaring jihad against his own government, the brutal dictatorship of Islam Karimov. While taking refuge in Afghanistan under the first Taliban regime, he became one of the foreign fighters closest to Mullah Omar. In contrast to many of his peers, Yuldash was a natural on the battlefield and in the pulpit. At the training camp in Pakistan in 2003 he enjoyed acting as imam for the fighters as he switched focus from waging war against Uzbekistan’s government to resisting the U.S. occupation of Afghanistan. Yuldash saw the world as a place inhabited only by Muslims and the enemies of Muslims. For the Taliban in 2003, that meant he was perfect for the task at hand.
The fighters in Balochistan trained for 50 days before dispersing, with many of them returning to their home provinces to kickstart the insurgency. As a mid-ranking commander, Hanif was tasked with raising support for the Taliban in Badakhshan. Haqqani had far more influence than most of the trainees, so he and his family focused their activities on multiple provinces in southeast Afghanistan, particularly Khost, Paktika and Paktia; the charismatic Yuldash, meanwhile, made it his job to strengthen ties among the IMU, the Taliban and al Qaeda in Pakistan’s tribal areas. On their return to Afghanistan, the Balochistan trainees awakened dormant networks and recruited new members. They were also bolstered by a growing number of madrassa students willing to join the Taliban’s cause as suicide bombers. The United Nations recorded 17 suicide attacks in Afghanistan in 2005, compared with just five throughout the previous four years. In 2006 the number rose to more than 120. The chief advocate of this tactic was Mullah Dadullah, a ruthless and courageous Taliban commander who would give his own brothers-in-arms a hard lesson in the dangers posed by groups like ISKP.
Dadullah was a man ahead of his time. During his brief reign as the most notorious insurgent in Afghanistan from 2005 to 2007, he preached, lived and fought in a way that Khorasani would surely have admired. Before 9/11, Dadullah had been heavily involved in the Taliban regime’s efforts to exert control over hostile parts of northern and central Afghanistan. Human Rights Watch accused him of committing war crimes in this role, overseeing the killing and displacement of civilians in predominantly Shiite communities. After the U.S. invasion and occupation, Dadullah was the first high-level Talib to embrace the idea of extreme violence as a kind of macabre theater that could be used to promote the insurgency to a national and international audience. According to some reports, in 2004 he even sent a team of his men to learn from Abu Musab al-Zarqawi, the al Qaeda leader in Iraq. The extent of the links is unclear even now, but the influence is obvious. By the time Zarqawi was killed in a U.S. airstrike in Iraq on June 7, 2006, Dadullah was determined to secure his own infamous legacy. As well as giving interviews to foreign TV networks like Al Jazeera while the rest of the Taliban leadership remained in hiding, Dadullah released propaganda videos that were a crude mix of sadistic violence and swaggering bravado.
The Taliban later came to frame their insurgency as a struggle for national liberation, but in those early years Dadullah was unashamed about embracing the idea of a transnational jihad. He called for U.S. forces to withdraw from Iraq and Afghanistan and stop supporting the oppression of Muslims in other countries as a precondition for any negotiations. He also threatened to organize suicide attacks in the West. The brutality of his actions and scope of his strategic vision came to cast a long shadow over the Taliban’s relationship with ISKP. If Zarqawi was the godfather of the Islamic State in Iraq and Syria, Dadullah was its spiritual founder in Afghanistan. According to our sources, he was based in Balochistan as the war intensified in 2006 and 2007, crossing the Pakistan border regularly to orchestrate operations against British and Afghan forces in Helmand province. He traveled on a motorbike, weaving along dirt trails and rat runs. Locals knew him by reputation and appearance: He had been gravely wounded in combat during the 1990s and walked with a prosthetic left leg.
Dadullah’s notoriety peaked in the spring of 2007, when he kidnapped an Italian journalist, Daniele Mastrogiacomo, together with an Afghan reporter, Ajmal Naqshbandi, and their driver, Sayed Agha, in Helmand after promising them an interview. On March 16, Agha was blindfolded and forced to lie in a patch of dirt while one of Dadullah’s men hacked off his head with a knife — a murder filmed on camera. Mastrogiacomo and Naqshbandi sat just a few yards away, also blindfolded, listening to their colleague die. Agha’s brutal killing led the Afghan government to release five Taliban prisoners, including Dadullah’s brother, Mansour, in exchange for Mastrogiacomo. But Dadullah continued to hold Naqshbandi and demanded the release of more Taliban prisoners. This time, his demands were not met and on April 8 he responded to the government’s intransigence by having Naqshbandi beheaded.
Dadullah reveled in the infamy of the executions and the embarrassment they caused the Afghan government, but he was becoming a problem for other senior Talibs, who still wanted to build the foundations of a popular insurgency. The Taliban had always been a more complex movement than their opponents made out, melding elements of Islamism, nationalism and tribalism. In prioritizing the life of an Italian non-Muslim over two Afghan Muslims, Dadullah had provoked uproar across the country and undermined the very cause for which he claimed to be fighting. His open admiration for al Qaeda was also at odds with the sentiment of the majority of Afghans, who had little interest in bin Laden’s global ambitions. Dadullah seemed to have forgotten that the most effective insurgents are not the figureheads of any movement but those who keep a low profile and work in the twilight. He had made too many enemies, too quickly.
On Friday, May 11, 2007, Dadullah arrived in the village of Asadullah Khan Akah Drop, in the area of Loy Darweshaan, in a remote part of Garmsir, in the south of Helmand. Nearby was a large bazaar that specialized in selling goods smuggled into Afghanistan from Iran and Pakistan, particularly gasoline. Dadullah settled in for the night in a house owned by a local business owner and drifted off to sleep. Then, sometime in the early hours — 1:30 or 2 a.m., according to a local witness we interviewed — the faint, thudding sound of helicopters grew louder. Soon, it was all anyone in the village could hear. Dadullah fled toward a nearby canal as a firefight erupted around him. At some point amid the chaos, he was shot and wounded. American voices shouted after him, but he pressed on regardless — confident that if he could just get across the canal, he would be able to escape into the darkness. But the water was several yards wide and too deep to wade through, and as Dadullah reached the edge of the canal, he either climbed in or fell in. Already reliant on a prosthetic leg to give him mobility and now nursing multiple gunshot wounds, he was still carrying his Krinkov rifle and a load of ammunition when he drowned. In a eulogy released soon afterward, Zawahiri compared Dadullah directly to Zarqawi. The Taliban commander’s death would only inspire more “martyrdom seekers” to “continue his march” and “break the back of the Crusaders,” Zawahiri said.
U.S., NATO and Afghan forces claimed joint credit for the Helmand raid. The Afghan government went so far as to put Dadullah’s body on display for journalists in Kandahar to photograph, laying him out semi-clothed on a stretcher, wrapped in a pink sheet. A NATO press release described his death as a “serious blow” to the insurgency. While the Taliban made sure that no field commander ever had such a notorious public profile again, other militants harnessed Dadullah’s wayward spirit, including his brother, Mansour. Released from an Afghan jail as part of the prisoner swap involving the Italian journalist, Mastrogiacomo, he soon sought his own place in the spotlight. In the summer of 2007, Mansour claimed that bin Laden had sent him a letter of condolence after Dadullah’s death. He vowed to keep his brother’s legacy alive but lacked the gravitas and track record to have anything like his influence. By early 2008, the Taliban leadership had dismissed Mansour as a commander for failing to obey orders. The Pakistan government then arrested him, only to release him later. He would eventually take up arms against the Taliban and find himself accused of joining ISKP.
Dadullah’s memory also lived on in another significant way. Even today, rumors persist that the foreign troops who hunted him down were acting on intelligence leaked by senior figures inside the Taliban who feared he was out of control and threatening the ideological purity of their jihad. A similar rationale drove the purge of ISKP that began in Directorate 40 some 14 years later.
Dadullah was from Uruzgan, a province of barren mountains, dry riverbeds, almond orchards and cannabis fields just north of Helmand and Kandahar. The Taliban fought hard there in the months after his death, ambushing Dutch troops from the NATO coalition and seizing territory in outlying districts. By the fall of 2007, however, NATO was trying to push back militarily and in the battle for public support. The underperforming and unpopular provincial governor had just been sacked when the U.S. ambassador to Afghanistan, William Wood, visited the provincial capital, Tirin Kot, and sat down for an interview with us on Oct. 22, 2007. Wood was determined to put a positive spin on the war and portrayed the Taliban’s increasing activity locally and nationally as a sign of their desperation. They had given up on winning hearts and minds, he insisted, and were now shifting toward tactics more readily associated with terrorist groups than insurgents. “They are weaker, but in their weakness they’re also more brutal and that is, I think, the reason why people have a sense that they might be stronger” was the way he put it. He also claimed there was “evidence of increased participation by non-Afghan fighters on the side of the Taliban,” without providing details.
Wood’s performance was typical of Western diplomats and military officials at the time — a frustrating mix of half-truths and misinformation. The Taliban had strong roots in Uruzgan and not just because of Dadullah; Mullah Omar had moved there from Kandahar at the age of 5 and spent his youth studying at a local madrassa run by his uncle. Although the war was becoming more brutal thanks to the marked increase in suicide attacks, the Taliban were gaining rather than losing momentum. The foreign fighters Wood referred to were predominantly ethnic Pashtuns from the tribal areas in Pakistan, where another front in the war was beginning to open up. In July 2007, security forces in Islamabad had stormed the Lal Masjid, a mosque taken over by armed extremists. The confrontation left more than 100 people dead and shattered a 10-month truce between the Pakistani state and pro-Taliban militants based on the Afghan frontier. A succession of suicide attacks followed in Swat, Dera Ismail Khan, Islamabad and Balochistan, with the promise of more violence to come. Wood stuck to his diplomatic brief and declined to comment on any of this during his visit to Uruzgan, but he must have sensed that the situation was about to get significantly worse for Afghanistan and the wider region. In December 2007, militants from disparate groups in Pakistan’s border areas formed a new coalition, the Tehrik-e-Taliban Pakistan (TTP). Its leader was Baitullah Mehsud, a Pashtun from Bannu who was mentored by Yuldash, the Uzbek jihadist who had previously played such an important role in igniting the Afghan insurgency. The majority of TTP fighters came from the frontier region, but militants from Central Asia and the Punjab swelled the ranks as unrest spread across Pakistan. Within the next two years the White House openly acknowledged what Wood couldn’t bring himself to admit: Pakistan was sliding into chaos and the war in Afghanistan was in danger of being lost.
In 2007, under the presidency of George W. Bush, the U.S. carried out four drone strikes in Pakistan. In 2009, under President Barack Obama, there were at least 52, with the TTP leader Mehsud and the Uzbek jihadist Yuldash among the militants killed that year. The strikes reached their peak in 2010, when more than 120 occurred. As many as 3,000 militants may have ultimately been killed in the drone campaign. No one would ever establish how many civilians were killed — the U.S. government claimed a few dozen at most; independent monitoring groups said hundreds. The true impact of any war, however, is measured not in the physical destruction at the center of the kill zone but in the aftershocks when the trauma kicks in and the desire for vengeance takes hold. In decimating the TTP, the drone strikes created a climate of paranoia and fear that pushed the insurgents to new extremes. ISKP would soon be born as a result.
The Pashtun areas of Pakistan were not always a natural fit for the TTP’s extreme interpretation of Islamic law and advocacy of global jihad, both of which were harsher than the Afghan Taliban’s subtler blend of nationalism and theocracy. Communities were conservative but parochial, militant yet wedded to a grassroots version of democracy more consensual than anything the West had tried to impose across the border in Afghanistan. Local “jirgas,” or councils, met routinely to discuss any issues deemed to be of social importance. Pashtunwali, an honor code dating back to pre-Islamic times, knitted the communities together, with power resting in the hands of khans and maliks — elders from well-connected families who had established their authority over the course of generations. The most radical Islamist parties in the war against the Soviets had tried to co-opt or violently upend the tribal system, with varying degrees of success. Now the TTP regarded the old patronage networks as a potential threat to their authority and their ideology.
In 2012, an elder from North Waziristan told us about Uzbek militants formerly linked to Yuldash who were carrying out drive-by shootings of khans and maliks. Two years earlier the TTP had beheaded one of his relatives — a man aged 18 or 19 — on suspicion of spying for Pakistan’s government. The teenager’s head had then been placed on his chest for everyone in the local community to see, accompanied by a letter detailing his alleged crime. However, the elder acknowledged that many people in North Waziristan supported the Afghan Taliban’s jihad against U.S. forces across the border. When a local Talib, Zar Ajam, was executed by the Afghan government for taking part in an attack on a bank in Jalalabad that killed dozens of people in 2011, the elder escorted his body home to a hero’s welcome. Hundreds of people crowded around the attacker’s corpse, praising him as a martyr. Sirajuddin Haqqani, the son of Jalaluddin Haqqani and the unofficial chief of the Haqqani Network, ensured the Talib’s family were rewarded financially for their sacrifice — a policy he would continue as minister of interior affairs when the Taliban retook power in Kabul a decade later.
During these same years a trickle of disaffected TTP fighters crossed into Afghanistan, confident they would be safe from the drone strikes and Pakistani military operations there. The fleeing insurgents were now able to exploit the very same tribal culture they had previously tried to undermine. Most of them drew on family ties and shared histories that spanned the border to settle in the province of Nangarhar, south of Kunar. In keeping with Pashtun traditions of hospitality and Islamic notions of brotherhood, villagers welcomed them as “muhajirun,” emigrants who had fled their homes in a time of strife and persecution.
Khorasani, the former teacher turned NGO worker who would go on to take charge of ISKP, was still living quietly in Kunar at this point, but his destiny was edging closer. By 2014 the war had ripped through Pakistan — the land in which he had studied and married — and spread across Afghanistan. In such circumstances it was only natural that a man in his early 30s would start to wonder what the future might hold for him and his children. As Khorasani mulled over that same question, he found himself looking for guidance from an Iraqi with a messiah complex and a thirst for medieval-style savagery.
On July 4, 2014, the leader of the Islamic State central, Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi, stood at the minbar of the Great Mosque of al-Nuri in Mosul, northern Iraq, and declared himself the new caliph. He urged all Muslims to join his struggle. “If you want the promise of God to be fulfilled, then do jihad in the cause of God, incite the believers, and be patient in the face of this hardship,” he said. Born in 1971 in Samarra, central Iraq, Baghdadi was a descendant of the Prophet and possessed a doctorate degree from the Islamic University of Baghdad. Once a prisoner of U.S. forces in Iraq, he seemed to embody the curious combination of hubris and humility that would become such important features of the Islamic State’s murderous appeal. In his Mosul speech, Baghdadi pleaded with supporters to advise him when he went wrong even as he laid claim to be the leader of all Muslims on earth. His announcement could not have come at a more sensitive time for Afghanistan. Under the Obama administration, U.S. troop levels in the country had hit a peak of around 110,000 in 2011 — up from just 2,500 at the end of 2001, and 25,000 in late 2007, the year of Dadullah’s death. By mid-2014, most of the soldiers had already left or were on their way home, in keeping with a plan to hand over responsibility for security to the Afghan government by the end of that year. The Islamic State had the perfect opportunity to fill the power vacuum they left behind.
The first fighters in Afghanistan and Pakistan to heed Baghdadi’s call in significant numbers were the disaffected TTP militants who had fled the U.S. drone strikes in Pakistan and settled in Nangarhar. At around the same time as the so-called caliphate was established, they carried out a series of kidnappings in the provincial capital Jalalabad and surrounding areas, abducting civilians for ransom money. They did not claim responsibility for the attacks and most locals assumed that criminal gangs and corrupt government officials were to blame. In fact, the TTP fighters were laying the groundwork for the new group they intended to launch as an adjunct to the Islamic State central. The money and the climate of fear the kidnappings generated would prove equally useful to them in the months ahead. The first Afghan of any note to declare allegiance to the Islamic State, meanwhile, was Abdul Rahim Muslim Dost, a sometime poet and former detainee at Guantanamo Bay who was from Nangarhar and had been a member of Hizb-e-Islami during the war against the Soviets. “Muslim Dost” — meaning “friend of Muslims” — was a peripheral figure on Afghanistan’s Islamist scene, but his colorful background and his decision to openly swear allegiance to the Islamic State gave some important local publicity to Baghdadi’s cause.
ISKP formally launched in January 2015. Its leader was Hafiz Saeed Khan, an ex-TTP commander from the Orakzai Agency in Pakistan’s tribal areas unknown to most Afghans at the time. An accomplished fighter but unremarkable speaker, Saeed Khan quickly fell out with Muslim Dost, who was wary of any tactics likely to kill too many Afghan civilians. Nevertheless, Saeed Khan had the crucial endorsement of the Islamic State central in Iraq and Syria. He was kept in check by a special representative appointed directly by Baghdadi, who acted as an intermediary whenever disagreements arose within ISKP over strategy or tactics. Beneath Saeed Khan in the ISKP hierarchy, meanwhile, was a leadership council made up largely of fellow former TTP members.
Khorasani joined ISKP soon after its formation and rose quickly through the ranks. Despite his having no pedigree as an insurgent, it soon became apparent he had skills that some of the more battle-hardened fighters lacked. Khorasani was beguiling, intelligent and articulate, with the air of a lay preacher. As a teenager he had enjoyed writing poetry about Tawhid — the oneness of God — and would continue to write for the rest of his life, even as he was orchestrating the killing of hundreds of Afghan civilians. For ISKP to thrive, it needed ideologues as much as foot soldiers, and Khorasani had the magnetism to rally people to the cause. By the time he was killed by the Taliban on their first day back in power in August 2021, he had not only helped unleash a wave of suicide bombings, assassinations and executions across the country, he had written or translated 26 books. They included a scholarly commentary of the Quran up to the 15th surah (chapter), Al-Hijr, and “The Gift of Hajj,” a guide to the haj and umrah pilgrimages that he published under the pen name Abu Sohaib Zia. Two of his books, “Aqeedatul Tahawia” (“Imam Tahawi’s Creed of Islam”) and “Tareekh-ul-Tashree” (“The History of Islamic Law”), were taught to Afghan university students.
Relatives of Khorasani believe Taliban fighters in Kunar were the first to radicalize him. At least one family member is convinced the Islamic State then recruited him online, speculating that he must have been in touch with “big sheikhs” based outside Afghanistan. Whatever or whoever was responsible for Khorasani’s ideological transformation, something shifted within him as the war expanded during the Obama years. Previously an apolitical teacher willing to let music play at his wedding, he had taken the decision to join the Afghan branch of the group that had massacred, enslaved and crucified civilians across Iraq and Syria. Power and money certainly didn’t motivate him; for most men, pledging allegiance to ISKP was tantamount to signing up to self-imposed exile, penury and an early death. What drove him was something far harder for most people to understand: misplaced idealism.
On a Friday in 2015 — the exact date is unclear — Khorasani broke cover. Still ostensibly just a teacher living a quiet life in Sawkay, he shocked his family and many of his neighbors by delivering an inflammatory anti-government speech at a local mosque. A week later he fled Kunar to join ISKP at its de facto headquarters in Nangarhar’s Achin district. His escape proved simple enough, perhaps because his family was so well regarded in Sawkay. Khorasani’s older brother was a senior local government official who had often met with U.S. troops. On the night before Khorasani fled, the two of them sat down together at their home to talk. They had argued over the speech at the mosque the previous week, so Khorasani knew his brother would never support his decision to join ISKP and fabricated a story that his wife had hurt her leg and needed medical treatment. Out of deference to his brother’s seniority, he asked permission to take her to a clinic in Peshawar, Pakistan, where his mother-in-law lived. The brother was still worried about the mosque speech but hoped it had just been a rare flash of impetuousness. He said Khorasani could travel to the border crossing at Torkham in Nangarhar, where another relative could guide his wife into Pakistan. Khorasani now had the excuse he needed to leave home without arousing suspicion. Early the next day, around 3 a.m., he fled to ISKP’s headquarters in Achin. He took his wife and children with him.
It was not unusual for Afghan families to have members in the Taliban and the U.S.-backed government. Sometimes the reasons were principled and at other times they were pragmatic, born out of a desire to survive an increasingly fractious and violent war in any way possible. But the Islamic State’s ideology, which promoted the excommunication of Muslims who did not adhere to its cause, made this kind of arrangement far harder to maintain. Men like Khorasani had to take a leap into the unknown, wiping their pasts clean and creating new versions of themselves — a kind of psychological parricide before the actual killing began. After arriving in Achin, he severed all ties with his mother and father, worried that if he kept in touch, they would track him down and beg him to return home. He was immediately hired as ISKP’s head of education and tasked with developing a curriculum for schools in its territory. With a cellphone, access to the internet and all the zeal of a newborn convert to a messianic cause, he set to work.
The U.S. had invaded and occupied Afghanistan in the name of fighting the kind of militant Islamic extremism that led to the 9/11 attacks. Khorasani’s radicalization almost 14 years into the war highlighted the shortsighted nature of this rationale. Every time U.S. and NATO forces killed a civilian or raided a house in violation of Pashtun culture, they created more fertile ground for the insurgency to grow. The corrupt, predatory nature of the Afghan government, meanwhile, lent credence to the claims of ISKP and the Taliban that only an oppressive Islamic state could cure the nation of its ills. In April 2013, 11 children in Khorasani’s home province of Kunar were killed in a U.S. airstrike. In August 2014, 15 civilians were killed in a joint U.S.-Afghan mission in Logar province, near Kabul. None of us will ever know how many other incidents like these happened away from the media’s spotlight. But a new generation of jihadists was emerging from the bloodshed and the corruption, one that believed in ideas even more radical than al Qaeda’s.
By 2015 the war in Afghanistan had reached a critical phase and ISKP was well aware of that fact. U.S. and NATO forces had handed responsibility for security over to the Afghan government as scheduled. There were now just a few thousand foreign troops left in the country, and they were meant to be deployed in a training and advisory capacity, not for major combat. The Afghan government was also more divided than ever following a bitterly contested presidential election that needed intervention from the U.S. secretary of state, John Kerry, to be resolved. Even in Kabul, which had been spared the worst of the war, people were on edge. Initially, there was an assumption that ISKP was either a front for foreign intelligence agencies or the work of a few unprincipled Talibs who would switch sides again if someone paid them enough money. The consensus seemed to be that the government wanted to exaggerate the threat ISKP posed in order to keep the U.S. interested in Afghanistan. Coincidentally or not, that perception started to change around the time Khorasani joined the group.
On April 18, 2015, a suicide bomber hit the same bank in Jalalabad the Taliban had attacked in 2011. Dozens of people were killed and more than 100 wounded. Someone purporting to speak for ISKP claimed responsibility for the slaughter in a Facebook post — the first time the group had been linked to a major attack in an urban area. For days afterward, pieces of flesh and clothing were still hanging from a tree above a busy street nearby. That spring and summer, meanwhile, ISKP clashed regularly with the Afghan Taliban in Nangarhar, using the tribal links of the former TTP fugitives to gain footholds in new areas. From its headquarters in Achin, it swept north and west, into the districts of Bati Kot, Dih Bala, Pachir Wa Agam, Khogyani and Chaparhar. In June 2015, the Afghan Taliban leadership wrote a letter to the leader of the Islamic State central, Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi, calling on ISKP to cease all recruitment. The plea was rejected out of hand. Rather than agree to wage jihad only under the Taliban’s command, as the letter requested, ISKP was intent on further expansion in Afghanistan. Its ambitions were encapsulated in a new online propaganda campaign of audio and video messages. Delivered in a mixture of Pashto and Arabic, the propaganda was designed to attract recruits and generate funding. It was also designed to terrorize the population.
One ISKP film, released in July, was about a young man identified only by the name Sangar, who was accused of swearing allegiance to the “caliphate” while working as a spy for the U.S. The video showed a tracking device he was said to have planted to help drone pilots find their targets. As punishment, Sangar was beheaded on camera by a militant dressed in a balaclava and butcher’s gloves. His execution was carried out in Nangarhar in broad daylight, in front of a crowd of villagers that included several children. Soon after this video was released, ISKP issued a 24-minute audio message from its leader, Saeed Khan, which dwelled on similar themes of paranoia and vengeance. Saeed Khan said it did not matter if some scholars had failed to swear allegiance to the Islamic State, it was everyone’s duty to take it upon themselves to join regardless of the example set by others. The time for dialogue had passed, he stressed. “Stop talking with the enemy over military radios and on the telephone about stupid issues. You only need to pray and to fight them,” he said. In one passage that might have resonated with Khorasani in Directorate 40 six years later, Saeed Khan addressed prisoners who were in Afghan government jails, urging them to work for ISKP and promising to take revenge on their behalf. “Stay hopeful. … We will remember you,” he said.
The most effective piece of ISKP propaganda that summer, however, came in early August, with a four-and-a-half-minute film that made news across the world. It began with a long preamble explaining that a month earlier, on the 22nd day of Ramadan, three tribes in Nangarhar — the Eiderkhiel, Babarkhiel and Rendarkheil — had met with “the apostate Afghan government” and “ISI slaves, the Afghan Taliban.” At the meeting, the video claimed, the three tribes agreed to “start a war against the Islamic State” in the Mohmand area of Nangarhar. The tribes were accused of helping the U.S. carry out air strikes that killed several ISKP fighters. The film went on to show ISKP taking revenge against 10 members of the tribes its militants had captured. Blindfolded and with their hands bound, the prisoners were led across a grassy hillside shrouded in mist. They were then made to kneel in a line on top of explosives dug into the earth and blown to pieces. Just as the TTP had tried to destroy the social fabric of Pakistan’s tribal areas, so ISKP was now targeting the tribes of Nangarhar.
The release of this last video was perfectly timed. ISKP’s enemies were all in a state of flux or crisis. In the middle of 2015, the Taliban seemed more vulnerable than at any point since the fall of their government in 2001. In late July, just days before ISKP released footage of the tribal representatives being killed in Nangarhar, a Taliban statement confirmed that the movement’s leader, Mullah Omar, had died from natural causes. Soon afterward, the Taliban even provided a date for his death: April 23, 2013. For more than two years, senior members had been covering up the news from their own commanders and foot soldiers, going so far as to release false edicts in his name. The admission, which only came after the Afghan government publicly made the claim, threatened to split the Taliban’s ranks. It also risked undermining the Taliban’s standing within international jihadist circles — a reputation they had worked hard to quietly rebuild since 2001. After the formation of the Islamic State’s caliphate in Iraq and Syria, bin Laden’s replacement as al Qaeda leader, Zawahiri, had gone so far as to claim that Mullah Omar would be a better fit for the role of caliph than Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi. Now everyone knew he had been promoting the credentials of a dead man.
The Taliban have always viewed their social conservatism as a countervailing force against political radicalism. Understanding this is essential to understanding their war against ISKP. A little-known Afghan group named Khuddam ul-Furqan (Servants of the Quran) helped inform their outlook. Emerging in the 1950s and early 1960s from a madrassa in Ghazni province, Khuddam included a mix of religious students and scholars. Afghanistan was still a monarchy at the time, but radical social, political and economic changes were beginning to take hold as the U.S. and the Soviet Union used soft power to compete for strategic influence in the country. Khuddam members espoused a mixture of Islamic, scientific and philosophical learning while warning against the dangers of moral corruption: the consumption of alcohol, usury and sex outside marriage. Khuddam saw itself as an educational, reformist movement, and its patient approach toward the ills of society frustrated revolutionary Islamists, most of whom went on to establish Hizb-e-Islami. During the war against the Soviets in the late 1970s and 1980s, Khuddam had a second lease on life, with its former members at the core of the mujahedeen faction Harakat-e-Inqilab Islami, the Islamic Revolutionary Party — a relatively moderate armed group, despite its name. Harakat nurtured several future Taliban officials and commanders, including Mullah Omar.
When the Taliban started out in 1994, vowing to end the chaotic civil war that followed the Soviet withdrawal, their main enemies were the Islamists of Hizb-e-Islami. Once they seized power in 1996, they brought some of their early mentors from Khuddam into the government. This relationship continued until 9/11. After the U.S. invasion, the hardcore of Taliban around Mullah Omar opted to fight, while most of the Khuddam elders opted for either quiet retirement or tried to facilitate peace talks. These well-meaning yet ineffective negotiators included Arsalan Rahmani.
A thin, frail Pashtun who wore oversized tinted spectacles and dyed his beard a smudgy black with its natural gray still visible around the edges, Rahmani was a senator in the upper house of Parliament during the government of Hamid Karzai. He lived openly in Kabul, and we found him to be a gracious host during multiple interviews we carried out with him over several years. In our last meeting, he spoke of how he read Aristotle and Socrates as a young scholar. “When a man was reading those books, his mind was broadened,” he said. “Today, computers and the internet are important, but at that time these things were on a similar level.” On May 13, 2012, Rahmani was shot dead in his car during the morning rush hour by a shooter using a silencer. One bullet was fired and it hit him in the heart. He was well into his 70s by then and had never bothered with much of a security detail. In the context of a war that had already cost tens of thousands of lives, the death of one old man seemed relatively inconsequential. But it was another indication of the way in which the violence would take on a colder, sharper edge with the rise of ISKP.
A previously unknown group calling itself the Mullah Dadullah Fedayeen Mahaz (Mullah Dadullah Sacrificing Front) claimed responsibility for Rahmani’s assassination. The front was a new insurgent faction led by Dadullah’s brother, Mansour, who had been released as part of the prisoner swap that resulted from the kidnapping of the journalists in 2007. Many of its members went on to join ISKP, and by 2015, the Taliban were convinced that Mansour himself had switched to the Islamic State’s Afghan chapter, though he never confirmed this. Fearing mass defections in the wake of announcing Mullah Omar’s death, the Taliban responded to the threat of the Front and other splinter groups by forming the Red Unit, an elite force of insurgent commandos tasked with hunting down rivals. While the Red Unit was not meant to focus on ISKP initially, the differences between rogue Talibs and the Islamic State fighters were not always easy to discern, and the unit soon found itself confronting both. Equipped with camouflage uniforms, night vision, 82 mm rockets and M4 U.S. assault rifles seized on the battlefield or bought on the black market, it was divided into several battalion-sized teams of 300-350 men. One of its first targets was Mansour, who issued a videotaped message in September 2015 claiming the Taliban had been taken over by “lecherous” and “malicious” people. A man in his brother’s image, he knew it would provoke a reaction and welcomed the prospect.
Mansour and his small band of rogue Talibs had established a stronghold in Khak-e-Afghan, a district in the southern province of Zabul. From there, they were able to raid the main highway connecting Kabul to Kandahar and kidnap dozens of civilians, including women and children. Most of the victims were Shiite Muslims from Afghanistan’s Hazara community — traditional supporters of the post-9/11 order who the government could not afford to alienate. As anger over the abductions grew in Kabul and the administration of Ashraf Ghani failed to act, the Taliban sensed an opportunity to improve their own public image while also eliminating the old problem of Mansour and the Dadullah family once and for all. First, they sent a delegation of muftis and clerics to Khak-e-Afghan in an attempt to persuade Mansour’s group to surrender. When the talks broke down, the Red Unit moved in. It was November 2015, and scores of Mansour’s fighters were killed by the Taliban’s commandos. The Red Unit also captured nine militants from Uzbekistan, put them on trial in a makeshift court and hanged them. Mansour escaped the initial fighting, but the Red Unit commandos tracked him down by monitoring radio traffic between his men. They arrested him, took him to an isolated valley and shot him dead — a coldblooded execution that foreshadowed Khorasani’s killing in Directorate 40. A Red Unit commando, Qazi Malik, later told us he was sure that Mansour had joined ISKP. He claimed Mansour’s fighters even gang raped one of their female hostages, before pouring petrol over her and burning her to death when she tried to escape.
The real problem for the Taliban, however, lay in the east of Afghanistan, where the hardcore of ISKP was still centered. In the late summer and early fall of 2015, a rope ran across the entrance to the Mohmand Valley in Achin, marking the start of ISKP territory. Afghans from the area told us that the ISKP fighters included men from Khorasani’s home province of Kunar, as well as ethnic Tajiks from the northern provinces of Badakhshan and Takhar, and possibly Uzbek and Chinese militants. They were equipped with mortars and DshK heavy machine guns. As well as destroying local Sufi shrines, the ISKP fighters had banned opium poppy cultivation and closed all schools. They mockingly asked teachers how they felt about government ministers in Kabul and expected them to reply that they were “murtad,” apostates. The head of each family in Achin was required to pay for an ISKP residency permit that listed the holder’s name, village and number of family members. All men were ordered to grow beards.
It is impossible to know how many fighters ISKP had in Afghanistan at this time. The Afghan government guessed there were around 4,000 in late 2015, the majority of them in Nangarhar. In February 2016, the Pentagon said there were 1,000 to 3,000. Whatever the correct figure, ISKP continued to attract new members even as it made more enemies. Communities in Nangarhar began to rise up against the group and the Taliban also counterattacked, forcing ISKP into a strategic retreat from some districts. Both groups began to regard each other with a hatred more visceral than anything they felt for the Americans. The U.S. occupation was political; this was personal. Each side accused the other of misusing and abusing Islam.
On July 26, 2016, the ISKP governor, Saeed Khan, was killed in a U.S. drone strike in Achin. He was replaced by Abdul Hasib Logari, a former member of the Afghan Taliban born in the Kurram Agency of Pakistan. Khorasani became his deputy. Now an obvious target for the Americans, Khorasani adopted new security precautions — cutting himself from the internet and no longer communicating via cellphone. ISKP was under growing pressure in Nangarhar from U.S. and Afghan forces, as well as the Taliban. In response, it began to launch high-profile, mass casualty attacks in Kabul. On July 23, 2016, members of the predominantly Shiite Hazara community were protesting on the streets of the capital against a government infrastructure project, when two suicide bombers struck. At least 80 people were killed and more than 200 injured. ISKP again targeted Shiites on Nov. 21, 2016, when a suicide bomber attacked the Baqir ul-Uloom mosque in west Kabul, killing more than 30 people and wounding dozens. Then, on March 8, 2017, ISKP gunmen attacked a military hospital in the capital, leaving at least 38 people dead. The U.S. hit back the following month, killing Logari in a special operations forces raid in Nangarhar. Khorasani stepped in to replace him as head of ISKP at the behest of the Islamic State central.
With Donald Trump now in the White House, the U.S. dropped the most powerful non-nuclear bomb in its arsenal on an ISKP cave complex in Achin on April 13. Dozens of militants were reported killed, and the blast was heard as far away as Jalalabad. ISKP fighters knew they could no longer expect to hold swathes of territory, but that did not mean they had given up. In the summer of 2017, the Taliban’s Red Unit pushed into Achin, tasked with guiding local Talibs on a clear and hold operation. Malik, who had been with the unit when it fought Mansour in Zabul, was among those deployed to the area. “If the Prophet Muhammad was alive, he would pledge allegiance to us,” ISKP fighters taunted him over a military radio. Malik was impressed with their willpower. Sifting through the dead bodies on the battlefield, he noticed that some of the ISKP fighters had tied themselves to each other so that anyone who felt frightened in the heat of battle would be unable to run away. Khorasani, meanwhile, had moved deeper into the mountains — reconfiguring his security detail and communicating with his surviving troops through the occasional handwritten note. That fall he heard that the Islamic State central had lost control of Raqqa in Syria, the de facto capital of its caliphate. Khorasani, however, was determined to fight on. Cornered but still with his wife and children by his side, he survived on a makeshift diet of freshly slaughtered lamb and — when no other food was available — grass. On July 31, 2017, ISKP fighters stormed the Iraqi Embassy in Kabul, triggering a gun battle with Afghan security forces that lasted several hours.
It seemed only right that ISKP should be led by a man from Kunar, a province that excels in extremes — from the beauty of the landscape to the violence of combat and the loyalty of the people. For a relatively small corner of Afghanistan, Kunar had already dealt a disproportionately significant blow to NATO’s hopes of winning the war by the time Khorasani took charge of ISKP. Around 180 foreign troops had been killed there, the fourth-highest total of any province in the country. It was ideal territory for guerrilla warfare: snow-capped mountains, corn fields and persimmon trees overlooked dirt roads and stonewalled houses. Deeper into the province, pine forests shielded rat runs and smuggling trails that led across the border into Pakistan. The topography bred a defiant insularity in the people and a religious ecosystem that seemed to thrive on adversity. Salafism had truly begun to flourish in Kunar during and after the Soviet occupation. In 1990, a small mujahedeen party, Jama’at al Da’wa ila al-Qur’an wal-Sunnah, led by a former Hizb-e-Islami member, Mawlawi Jamil-ur-Rahman, established a short-lived Islamic emirate in the province. Run according to Salafi doctrine, the emirate attracted funding from Saudi Arabia but lacked the military strength to survive for long and ultimately imploded in a violent power struggle with Hizb. Given this history, as well as the post-9/11 influence of al Qaeda locally and the porous border with Pakistan, Kunar was always likely to be somewhere that ISKP could count on for support. And so it proved.
One of the early testing grounds for ISKP in Kunar was the district of Shaygal, where a growing number of fighters were starting to gravitate toward the group as early as 2016. Many of them were drawn in through personal ties they had with the old mujahedeen party Hizb-e-Islami; some had been in the party themselves; others had family members who had once fought for it against the Soviets. For them, ISKP was a new and improved version of Hizb: militarily and politically ambitious, international in outlook, uninterested in the Taliban’s parochial nationalism, prepared to kill anyone who got in the way of its vision for an Islamic state. In early 2002, bin Laden had found protection in Shaygal under the Hizb commander Kashmir Khan — a fact we document in detail in our book, “Night Letters.” Since then, many Hizbis elsewhere in the country had either joined the U.S.-backed government in Kabul or opted to lay down their guns and live quiet lives. There was never much chance of that among the hardcore jihadists of Shaygal.
When we visited Shaygal to interview Kashmir Khan in the summer of 2016, one of the guides who walked us through the mountains in the dead of night was a tall, thin man who wore old sandals and wrapped himself in a thick scarf. Friendly and inquisitive, he liked to pass the time talking about politics and international jihadist movements. After our first meeting with him, we learned he was the nephew of a prominent local Hizb commander who was close to Kashmir Khan. He was also a key member of ISKP, responsible for running the group’s prison system throughout Afghanistan. When we met him again soon afterward, he was open about his affiliation, pulling out his smart phone to show us propaganda videos from the Islamic State central in Syria and Iraq.
On Jan. 24, 2018, ISKP attacked the offices of the British NGO Save the Children in Jalalabad, killing at least six people. Jalalabad was, of course, just a short drive from Kunar. ISKP was adapting to its new reality, holding territory where it still could but also showing an increasing willingness to hit urban areas with big attacks. On another visit to Shaygal a short time later, we met the ISKP official who served as the group’s shadow governor for Kunar, Shirullah Inqilab. He was the brother of another Hizb commander who was also contemplating joining the group. Inqilab was killed in a drone strike that April. Although these were only snapshots of ISKP, they offered us a vastly different picture to the images of heavily armed fighters driving around in expensive SUVs that we had once been used to seeing coming out of Syria. For its funding, ISKP had been reliant on payments from the Islamic State central, taxation in areas under its control and donations from wealthy supporters abroad, but much of that money was now drying up, and we found no evidence that its fighters were ever well paid. The men we met were poor and at times seemed to have barely enough to eat. They waged their jihad viciously but quietly and had little interest in the kind of theatrical, egotistical shows of strength that had become such a feature of the Islamic State group’s modus operandi internationally.
ISKP was better equipped and better organized in other parts of Kunar. In 2017 it made inroads into Khorasani’s district of Sawkay. Fighters were initially sent to the Taliban-held Dawagal Valley in secret and told to live as ordinary citizens while they developed a local network of supporters. They then launched a coordinated attack on the Taliban, forcing them out in a matter of days. Once they were operating in the open, ISKP’s men wore military uniforms and covered their faces until residents said they would only cooperate with them if they dressed in civilian clothes. The militants agreed and a semblance of peace settled over the area. Schools and medical clinics were kept open, and ISKP was still in charge in Dawagal in 2019. Referring to the group’s militants as “the fighters of the caliphate,” one resident — a 48-year-old father of five — told us they would stop teenage boys and run their fingers through their hair, looking for any cellphone SIM cards they might be trying to hide as spies. They also searched them for the lesser offense of carrying cigarettes and chewing tobacco, even looking to see if their teeth were stained. Anyone deemed guilty of smoking received 10 lashes with a leather whip. One man caught using tobacco was ordered to fill up the water tank of the local mosque by collecting water from a river dozens of yards away with a Pepsi can. People, however, seemed happier with ISKP in Dawagal than they had been in the group’s headquarters of Achin. At least the system of government was clear, the 48-year-old told us. “The caliphate is more powerful than the Taliban in Kunar,” he said. “It is smaller in number but stronger.”
ISKP had also taken control of the Baddyal Valley in the district of Narang from the Taliban, seizing it without much of a fight. We visited the area in May 2019 and managed to interview residents away from the presence of any ISKP militants. A 33-year-old man told us he was happy with their rule, comparing it favorably to life under the Taliban. “The Taliban’s courts implemented their decisions slowly — they took tribal issues [as well as Islam] into account. But the caliphate isn’t like that. They say there are no tribes in Islam,” he said. The ISKP members in Baddyal were drawn from the local community and surrounding districts. In another sign that ISKP had become more pragmatic and moderate after the brutality of its early years in Nangarhar, soldiers, police and intelligence agents for the Afghan government were forbidden from entering Baddyal, but relatives of theirs who lived in the area were left alone. “If an election was held here between the Taliban and the caliphate, support would be divided,” the 33-year-old said. “Neither side would win a majority.”
But while ISKP gained territory in Kunar, it continued to lose ground elsewhere. Internal discord grew as fighters reeled from the lethal combination of Red Unit operations and U.S. drone strikes. One of the biggest blows to ISKP came in the northern province of Jowzjan, where it lost control of a remote mountainous district, Darzab. One senior insurgent commander in northern Afghanistan at the time was an Uzbek national, Aziz Yuldash, son of the former IMU leader Tahir Yuldash, who helped the Afghan Taliban reorganize after the 2001 U.S.-led invasion. According to our sources, Aziz found himself caught in the middle of the power struggle between the Taliban and ISKP, with the IMU split over whom to support. Today, some militants claim Aziz was loyal to ISKP, while others insist he was loyal to the Taliban and al Qaeda. But it hardly matters now. In the end, fate took its course. Aziz was killed by Afghan government forces in the northern province of Faryab in November 2020.
How long Khorasani served as the governor of Khorasan is still a well-kept secret. The U.N. has claimed he was dismissed from the role in April 2019, while other sources suggest he held the job only for a few months or possibly even just a matter of weeks. It is our understanding that rather than being demoted from the position, he was promoted to a job more in keeping with his talents. Khorasani was not a natural military general; he also lacked the experience to placate the rival factions that were starting to emerge within ISKP’s ranks as the group’s Afghan and foreign fighters blamed each other for the recent setbacks in Achin and the south. But he was an ideological purist and a survivor. Although some senior members of ISKP had grown to doubt the utility of their colleagues’ brutal methods, Khorasani had no regrets about the carnage he helped sow. The Islamic State central in Iraq and Syria hired him as head of their movement for 18 countries in south and central Asia — a kind of grand regional master for the transnational jihad.
Sometime around late summer 2019, the ISKP leadership team agreed to abandon their headquarters in Achin and disperse to Afghanistan’s cities. A number of fighters were informed of the retreat after gathering in the early morning darkness for dawn prayers at a local mosque. A sadness filled the air, together with a sense of disbelief over how what had once seemed permanent and inevitable — the triumph of the Islamic state — had become ephemeral. One mid-ranking emir from Kunar was on the brink of tears as he addressed the congregation. “It is time to change the actual state into a hidden one,” he said. By the time he finished speaking, the sun had begun to rise. Many of the fighters left without even saying goodbye to each other. Others lingered, reluctant to accept that all the killing and suffering had been for nothing. One, a man named Hamza who had settled in Achin with his wife and two children, wandered aimlessly through the wilderness, checking on the empty houses, listening to the buzzing sound of drones that still seemed to haunt his every waking moment. “That day was hard to pass for me,” he told us later. “It killed me in a way; it passed slowly and I was bored, scared and sad. The area I walked through seemed silent or dead. I found that all the sheikhs and emirs who had been staying with us in Achin had left. Only the mujahedeen [fighters] had stayed.” A few days later another meeting was convened, this time by ISKP’s most senior military commander. He was unsure whether he was meant to stay and make one last stand with his men or order a full evacuation. Three options were proposed at the meeting: seek permission to leave from the ISKP leadership, surrender to the Afghan government, or take a chance and flee without talking to anyone. The commander and his men agreed on the third option.
Khorasani was already long gone by then. He had narrowly survived a number of drone strikes and his nerves were frayed. Convinced he was surrounded by traitors, he had ordered the arrests of several men he accused of spying before vanishing from Achin. He made his way to a safe house in Jalalabad, where he stayed for two months to rest and recuperate. Worried he would be caught if he stayed in the east for too long, he made a fateful decision to move to Kabul, where he reasoned he would be able to hide in plain sight. He moved to the Afghan capital in November 2019 and lived in Ahmad Shah Baba Mina, a Pashtun neighborhood on the city’s eastern outskirts, about 12 miles from the presidential palace. His wife and children also moved to Kabul and stayed nearby in another property, Khorasani having judged that they would be safer isolated from him. The plan was not just to hide but to regroup and embark on a new strategy of urban, guerrilla war. In the words of Abu Osman, another fighter from Kunar who described this period to us some months later, ISKP intended “to hide inside the enemy’s territory and hit them from there.”
Khorasani had not been in Kabul long when, on Feb. 29, 2020, the Trump administration and the Taliban signed a peace deal in Qatar. Under the terms of the agreement, all foreign military forces were to be withdrawn from Afghanistan within 14 months. In exchange, the Taliban — deferentially referred to in the text as the Islamic Emirate of Afghanistan — pledged not to cooperate with any groups threatening the security of the U.S. and its allies. After almost 19 years of intractable conflict, the deal was a significant diplomatic breakthrough. Yet it was also an act of willful negligence, a way for the Americans to cut and run without seeming to do so. The Taliban now knew that they only had to wait and final U.S. troops would soon be gone. So did ISKP and the Islamic State central. One set of insurgents expected to achieve a decisive military and political victory as a result, the other sensed a chance to regain control of the jihadist narrative and send Afghanistan plunging into full-blown civil war.
Khorasani now had more than just his unwavering faith to cling to; he had a timeline. In just over a year the Americans would be gone and maybe he would be able to breathe more easily. The paranoia that had been such a feature of ISKP since the group’s inception had become his constant companion, whispering to him as he tried to sleep, distracting him as he read. Even in Kabul, he was convinced drones were watching him. He stayed clean shaven in an effort to conceal his identity, but his doubts persisted. He switched safe houses twice, but still felt sure he was being tracked. Unable to think clearly and tired of being cut off from his family, after four months he decided that he, his wife and children should all live together. The next few weeks were the happiest they had been for years. As Khorasani and his children played volleyball in the yard in the spring evenings, he almost felt normal again. But no matter how hard he tried, he couldn’t stop himself from looking up into the sky, searching for drones. When food was brought to the compound, he became convinced that whoever was delivering it had been followed.
Khorasani was right to be paranoid. That April, the Afghan intelligence service arrested the latest ISKP governor, Aslam Faruqi, who was a former commander in the Pakistani Taliban, in Kandahar. An ISKP source told us Faruqi had been intending to cross into Pakistan via Spin Boldak. Several of Khorasani’s relatives — including a brother who had also joined ISKP — were detained in raids across the country. In the end, Khorasani almost felt relieved at his own arrest — the months of waiting for his own demise finally came to an end. Midway through Ramadan, in the second week of May 2020, Khorasani had just sent out one of his children to a local store to buy some ice cream for iftar when there was a loud knock on the front gate. Sensing the worst, he took an unusual step for an Afghan man and sent his wife to see who was there. She opened the gate to be greeted by a group of armed Americans in uniform and members of the Afghan intelligence service. In keeping with Afghan custom, they asked her to summon a man from the house who could let them enter and she did as she was told. Khorasani was arrested without a shot being fired.
When U.S. forces hunted down the leader of the Islamic State central, Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi, in northwestern Syria in October 2019, he chose to blow himself up with two of his children rather than surrender. In contrast, Khorasani went quietly into U.S. custody. Asked to stand against a wall in the safe house compound, he did as instructed and let himself be photographed. He was then transferred to a prison at Bagram Air Base, north of Kabul, where a number of his relatives were already being held. The relatives were shown his photograph and asked to confirm his identity. They struggled to recognize him at first as they had not seen him without a beard since he was a child. Eventually, however, his eyes gave him away. They were still his most striking feature; sharper and wearier-looking than they remembered, but still the color of dates. Most of the relatives were soon freed, but Khorasani’s son, Sohaib, and son-in-law were held with him, so was another close relative whose identity we have agreed to conceal. All we know about the son-in-law is that he was from the Pech Valley in Kunar and was the second husband of one of Khorasani’s daughters, her first husband having been killed earlier in the war.
Back at the safe house, Khorasani’s wife and his youngest children were briefly questioned. Someone from the Afghan intelligence service asked for a phone number of a relative in Kunar who could be asked to pick them up, but they had severed most of their family ties and had no one’s contact details. They also didn’t have any money. In the end, they were allowed to sell a few personal items to raise enough cash for part of the taxi fare to Kunar. After making a down payment of $65, they hired a Mercedes minibus and a driver and began the long journey home. Back safely in Kunar, they asked some of the family members they had abandoned five years earlier, when Khorasani joined ISKP, for the rest of the fare — about $80.
The Afghan intelligence service claimed Khorasani was arrested after tip-offs from four disgruntled ISKP members it had detained earlier. In a joint statement with the Ministry of Interior Affairs, it vowed to continue hunting down “senior leaders of regional terrorist groups.” But as with the death of Dadullah in 2007, the arrest of Khorasani did little to stem the violence. On Aug. 2, 2020, ISKP launched an audacious attack on Jalalabad prison, freeing more than 1,000 inmates. That November, its gunmen rampaged through Kabul University, shooting students as they tried to flee. Two days later, Joe Biden was elected to the White House, making him the fourth U.S. president of the Afghanistan war — the longest conflict in American history. He would finally bring the occupation to an end, but everyone knew the killing would go on.
In February 2021, ISKP released a new propaganda video titled “We Returned Again.” It began with a message from the grave: old footage of Dadullah wearing a camouflage jacket and loosely wound turban, talking calmly into the camera about the plight of Muslim prisoners held in American jails. Negotiations could never happen, he said, “so long as they strip the clothes off our prisoners, insult our messenger, peace be upon him, mock the book of our Lord, and ridicule our religion and scholars.” As Dadullah spoke, footage of the former U.S. Secretary of State Mike Pompeo and the U.S. special representative for Afghanistan, Zalmay Khalilzad, flashed up on the screen. Of those who dared to negotiate with the Americans, Dadullah said, “We will behead them.”
For Khorasani, there was still a sliver of hope. He was held in Bagram for several months before being transferred to Directorate 40, where he shared a cell with his son, son-in-law and another close relative. The four of them kept their morale high as best they could, finding solace in the small pleasures available to them. They talked religion and politics and loved to buy dried fruit that was brought into the prison and sold to inmates. Sitting cross-legged on the floor of their cell, they shared the produce out on pieces of paper because they had no plates or bowls. But it was hard for Khorasani to forget the reality of his surroundings for long. Although he was not physically abused by any of the guards, the psychological pressure of confinement took a toll. Sometimes he was made to sit in front of a computer and questioned via video link by Westerners he assumed were American military or intelligence officials. His personal interactions with the outside world, meanwhile, were carefully controlled. Unlike Taliban prisoners held in Afghan jails over the years, who always seemed able to get messages out to fighters in the field, Khorasani was cut off from his men. The wardens and guards let him continue with his religious writings, however. Khorasani had lost none of his self-confidence. On one occasion he wrote a 22-page essay about his ideology and the legitimacy of ISKP’s cause and asked officials in the jail if they could send it to the Afghan president, Ashraf Ghani, and another prominent Afghan politician, Abdul Rab Rasul Sayyaf.
Days before his death last August, he gave an interview to the Wall Street Journal from inside Directorate 40. In typical fashion, he managed to sound strident and accusatory even as he held out the slim hope of reconciliation. The Taliban “will let me free if they are good Muslims,” he declared. Privately, he still regarded them as anything but good Muslims; they were too moderate and too parochial, focused only on Afghanistan rather than the world. The Islamic State group’s agenda, he reminded the journal, was global.
Precisely who ordered Khorasani’s assassination and who shot him on Aug. 15 last year may always remain a mystery, but it appears to have been the work of an elite group within the Taliban that has ties to the Haqqani Network and the movement’s intelligence apparatus, not the Red Unit. Soon afterward, media reports incorrectly claimed he had been killed in Pul-e-Charkhi, a jail on Kabul’s outskirts. Multiple sources with ties to ISKP confirmed to us that he was in fact shot dead in Directorate 40. A well-connected Talib who was sent to Directorate 40 to help organize the evacuation of inmates on the same day Khorasani was killed also confirmed this detail on background but declined to talk on the record about the exact circumstances of the assassination.
After Khorasani died, the family members held in Directorate 40 with him wrapped his body in a blanket and, using it as a makeshift hammock, tried to carry him out of the prison, but carrying him that way was too awkward. There were only three of them and they couldn’t find anyone willing to hold the fourth corner of the blanket. In the end, they found a stretcher and took the body out onto the street, where they hoped to catch a taxi. By now, armed Taliban fighters were clearly visible in the center of Kabul. A few of them saw Khorasani’s blood-soaked corpse and asked what had happened to him but didn’t offer to help. Eventually, the family members flagged down a passing Toyota Corolla. The driver took pity on them and drove them to the safe house of one of their ISKP contacts. They paid him 1,000 Afghanis — less than $20 — for his trouble. At the safe house, they phoned Khorasani’s relatives in Kunar to say they were all free and would soon be coming home. They did not mention that Khorasani was dead. At 10:30 p.m. they began to move back to Kunar with the body, careful to avoid Taliban checkpoints on the road. It was a long, emotional journey, the road east lit only by their car’s headlights and the moon. But they made it back to Sawkay safely, bringing Khorasani home six years after he had left to join ISKP. His Janazah funeral prayer was held at 2 p.m. the following day, with a few thousand people at the ceremony. He was buried in a simple grave in his home village near the Kunar River.
The U.S.-led war in Afghanistan had proved to be an endless cycle of violence as predictable as it was tragic. Every time one insurgent died, another rose up in his place. In the fragile peace that followed, a traumatized country struggled to break this pattern of vengeance. Some of the Taliban wanted to move on and foster a spirit of reconciliation, while others refused to leave the past behind. Then there were those who wanted to forgive their enemies but found themselves unable to for reasons that might be familiar to any soldier in the wake of any conflict. Everyone knew the struggle against ISKP was not over. Khorasani’s assassination made him a martyr, just as he predicted it would, and his ideas lived on.
At 5:50 p.m. on Aug. 26, 2021, an ISKP suicide bomber blew himself up outside Kabul airport, killing at least 170 Afghan civilians who were among the crowds trying to escape the Taliban takeover. Thirteen U.S. service members, including 11 Marines, were also killed — the last American casualties of the war. Three days later, on Aug. 29, the U.S. launched its final drone strike of the war on what it initially claimed was an ISKP cell planning another suicide attack. It later admitted the strike had killed 10 civilians, including seven children. The day-to-day running of ISKP was now in the hands of a new governor, Shahab al-Muhajir, an experienced militant who previously served the Islamic State central in Iraq and Syria. Other biographical details about him, including exactly where he is from, are contested. The U.S. State Department would soon offer a $10 million reward for information on his whereabouts. Another high-profile ISKP attack occurred on Nov. 2, when militants stormed the same hospital that the group hit in 2017. Those killed included a senior Taliban commander, Mawlawi Hamdullah Mukhlis.
A pattern of escalation was quickly developing. The Taliban were hunting down ISKP members, and ISKP was trying to hit back even harder. Both groups portrayed the bloodletting as another kind of jihad, but their civil war had become a typical struggle for power. The purge that began with the killing of Khorasani continued under the auspices of the General Directorate of Intelligence (GDI), the intelligence service of the Taliban administration. The GDI is led by a former Guantanamo detainee, Abdul-Haq Wassiq, who is part of the older generation of Taliban who came of age pre-9/11, but it draws much of its power and strategic acumen from Talibs with ties to the Haqqani Network. Drilled for years in urban and rural combat and well accustomed to secrecy and discipline, the Haqqanis proved ready and willing to take the fight to ISKP.
A Taliban commander whose work involves occasional coordination with the GDI gave us an insight into how the intelligence service liked to operate. Stationed in the Bagrami district of eastern Kabul, he had been tasked with setting up security checks in the area soon after the Taliban’s victory last summer. It seemed like a routine task until members of the GDI summoned him to a briefing. “One of them gave us full details about the threat posed by Daesh [ISKP], warned us that Daesh fighters were in the Taliban’s ranks and told us about possible attacks by them,” he recalled. A few days later, the GDI contacted the commander’s team leader and passed on information about an ISKP safe house where fighters who had managed to escape from Afghan jails were hiding out. The commander and his team went to the house — a single-story, mud-brick structure — and were greeted by a young man who claimed to be living there with his family. The Taliban searched the house and found no firm evidence of ISKP activity. But there were no women at all in the compound and that was unusual for a family home. They ended up arresting four middle-aged men from eastern Afghanistan and three other males the commander described as “very young boys.” The prisoners were blindfolded and handed over to the GDI that same day without even being questioned.
In Kabul, Kunar and Nangarhar, innocent members of Afghanistan’s Salafi community began to complain of being sucked into the war between the Taliban and ISKP, targeted by the new government for no reason other than their faith. Rumors of summary executions were rife and reported in some detail by Human Rights Watch. In September 2021, a Salafi cleric, Sheikh Abu Obaidullah Mutawakil, was found dead in Kabul after disappearing. The Taliban denied responsibility for his murder and any other disappearances. That December, the Taliban’s GDI released a slick propaganda video bragging of its operations “against the Kharijites.” A voiceover said ISKP members were “letting the infidels rest but fighting against Muslims.” They were deviants who misinterpreted the Quran and sowed “fitna” (sedition), the video said. Fighting and killing them was therefore not only permissible, according to the Hadith, but also encouraged. Any Muslim who did so would find themselves closer to God in the afterlife.
Almost a year has passed since the Taliban retook power. Across the country, ISKP safe houses continue to be raided, and ISKP continues to respond with suicide bombings designed to sow sectarianism, targeting Shiites, Sufis and Sikhs. In northern Afghanistan, ISKP has also fired rockets toward Tajikistan and Uzbekistan. The Taliban have struggled with the mundane challenges of government and are divided over key policy issues, yet they still have far more support from the public than ISKP is ever likely to enjoy. Afghanistan is a multiethnic, multicultural country with a long history that cannot be erased by the grandiose aims of the invaders and ideologues who have sought to shape it in their image over recent decades. But it is also a troubled, fractious place full of people still trying to come to terms with the horrors they have lived through. Those cracks offer ISKP a glimmer of hope.
Khorasani never gave up on his goal of establishing a radical Islamic state, and the men who survive him will not either. ISKP fighters complain that the Taliban are now operating like the Americans, encircling villages and raiding homes at night. But they also brag that the next war for Afghanistan’s future will happen not in rural areas like in the past, but in towns and cities. That’s where ISKP has sleeper cells waiting to hit soft targets with attacks that grab the media’s attention and offer a sense of purpose to a new generation of angry, principled young Muslims whose identities have been forged over generations of warfare. There is only one certainty in Afghanistan: The jihad never ends.