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Since its formation in early 2015, the Islamic State’s affiliate in Central and South Asia, Islamic State Khorasan Province (ISKP) (also referred to as Wilayat Khorasan) has prioritised developing its online presence alongside its physical operations. This includes building and sustaining a sophisticated digital communications apparatus that encompasses and spans various social media platforms and messaging applications. In the aftermath of several developments that have impacted ISKP’s traditional sources of recruitment and the Taliban seizing control of Afghanistan in August 2021, the importance of these online operations for sustaining the group’s activities and membership has significantly increased.
Forced to abandon the territory it held in northern and eastern Afghanistan in 2019, ISKP has resorted to a campaign of urban warfare and terror attacks to demonstrate the Taliban’s inability to deliver security and erode their legitimacy with the local population. As a result, the group’s internal structure is now highly decentralised, comprising hundreds of covert cells based across different Afghan cites - something that necessitates a dependable flow of reliable and committed recruits to sustain operations. The establishment of a new Islamic State province, Wilayat Pakistan, has also only added to ISKP’s recruitment pressures, with the two affiliates effectively now competing to attract new members in the region.
For these reasons, ISKP’s need to recruit within Afghanistan is now more pressing than ever. Though Salafi madrasas once represented a source of ideologically committed recruits, the Taliban was quick to crack down on these institutions after taking power, closing any suspected of providing manpower to ISKP. Instead, two overlapping populations have emerged as the primary recruitment pools for ISKP. The first is Afghanistan’s Salafist community, who have long endured a fractured relationship with the Taliban. ISKP has tried to exploit this mistrust and has called on, primarily young, Salafis to join with them to take revenge on the Taliban, who have imposed further restrictions on Salafis in the aftermath of their takeover. The success of ISKP’s recruitment of this population is hard to assess. Nevertheless, some have suggested that the Taliban’s perception that ISKP is successfully recruiting within this group may have motivated its own attempts to repair relations with the Salafist community since 2022.
ISKP’s need to recruit within Afghanistan is now more pressing than ever.
University students have proven a second key target for ISKP’s recruitment efforts. The group’s attempts to enlist those studying at Afghan universities is well known and predates the fall of Kabul to the Taliban. These efforts have continued in the period since – the Taliban’s intelligence service confirming that ISKP continues to devote considerable attention to recruiting within Kabul University, in particular, the Sharia department. Nangarhar University and Badakhshan University are similarly known as ISKP recruitment hotspots. Students represent attractive potential recruits for several reasons. ISKP commanders have explicitly stated the value they place on enlisting educated, ideologically motivated individuals, who often end up occupying central positions within the group’s hierarchy. In turn, individuals with such ideological knowledge are also prized for their ability to bring others to the group.
In response to the Taliban’s efforts to shut down ISKP’s recruitment networks on Afghanistan’s university campuses, ISKP has been forced to shift many of its efforts online, and in particular, to social media. From its inception, ISKP has looked to establish a diverse and sophisticated propaganda ecosystem designed to reach a range of transnational audiences online. The group’s de facto mouthpiece, the Al-Azaim Media Foundation, creates and publishes original content including books and occasionally videos in Pashto, Persian, Tajik, Uzbek, and English. Official ISKP propaganda is also shared by outlets formally recognised by IS and ISKP, such as Al-Fursan Media Foundations, as well as IS-aligned War and Media, Sarh Al-Khilfah, and Al-Naba magazines. Additionally, this material is shared and disseminated through ISKP-affiliated local media organisations on social media and messaging applications, such as Rocket.Chat and Telegram, as well as archive websites, such as archive.org or those controlled by these sympathisers. These networks are also awash with unofficial pro-ISKP content created by its supporters and sympathisers that promotes positive perceptions of the group and/or its ideology.
A central purpose of ISKP’s propaganda outreach and use of social media platforms is recruitment. ISKP is known to gauge the interest and continue the recruitment of prospective candidates already identified in Afghan universities on private, invitation-only messaging platforms. In the online recruitment sphere, closed Telegram channels represent an important stage in the process of deepening engagement with prospective candidates. Little is known, however, about how ISKP identifies and attempts to direct Afghan students active on social media towards these private spaces. This paper directly addresses this question by exploring the narratives, tactics, and techniques that ISKP uses in the initial stages of its online recruitment efforts. The findings then represent part of a wider effort to gather data on and analyse ISKP’s activities in Afghanistan.
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