War & Peace

Precarious Consolidation: Qari Hekmat’s IS-affiliated ‘island’ survives another Taleban onslaught


Darzab main bazaar, 2016. Photo: Darzabi social media activists

Qari Hekmat, a self-proclaimed IS commander in control of parts of Jawzjan, has survived another Taleban attempt to oust him from the area in January 2018. Following this, he attempted – without success – to take a district centre in the province from government control. AAN’s Obaid Ali has compiled additional information about how he has consolidated his still precarious grip over two districts of this northern province by reaching out or attracting local and outside commanders, recruiting more fighters and putting in place semi-government structures under the flag of the Islamic State Khorasan Province (ISKP). He looks at reports about foreign fighters in the area.

A new unsuccessful Taleban offensive

Qari Hekmat, a dissident Taleban commander, who has been sailing under the flag of the Islamic State Khorasan Province (ISKP; also known as Daesh in Afghanistan) since 2015, has survived another Taleban attempt to oust him from his area in the northern province of Jawzjan. This was less due to his strength, but rather more attributable to disunity amongst the Taleban forces attacking him.

Starting on 19 January 2018, the Taleban had gathered hundreds of fighters in an attempt to retake the two districts he controls, Darzab and Qush Tepa. Their offensive was carried out from three directions. Prominent local commanders in Faryab, Sar-e Pul and Jawzjan provinces led the Taleban fronts. Mawlawi Abdulbaqi, a Taleban commander in Belcheragh district of Faryab, to the south of Darzab, led the attack towards the north. Mullah Nader’s fighters, from Sayad district of Sar-e Pul, attacked Qush Tepa from the east. The Taleban front led by Qari Ghani, their shadow district governor for Qush Tepa, and Mullah Seraj, shadow district governor for Darzab came from Shirin Tagab and Dawlatabad districts of Faryab from the west. Both had retreated there in October 2017, when fighters loyal to Hekmat carried out their previous large-scale anti-Taleban offensive (read our previous analysis here).

The clashes continued for ten days causing serious casualties for both sides. According to local sources, 26 Daesh affiliated fighters and eight Taleban were killed. Hekmat’s fighters were forced to temporarily leave their positions near both district centres and toretreat to areas in northern Qush Tepa (Khanaqa and Beg Sar) and southern Darzab (Moghul and Sar Dara). The fight, however, unexpectedly ceased and the Taleban returned back to their original positions in Faryab and Sar-e Pul. According to local sources, the Taleban commanders participating in this operation lacked coordination in their command and control and their attack fell apart.

Following this episode, Qari Hekmat went on the offensive himself. On 26 February 2018, fighters loyal to him attacked two checkpoints of the Afghan Local Police (ALP) near the district centre, in Putaw and Qarayi villages. In Putaw, a few kilometres to the south of the district centre. ALP commander Sher Muhammad was aware that Hekmat would attack and was able to push him back. Also in Qarayi, just 500 metres to the northwest of the district governor office, another ALP unit was able to beat back the attack. According to local sources, eight of Hekmat fighters and two security forces – one ALP and one Public Order Police member – were killed.

The humanitarian fall-out of the fighting

Halima Karimi, a female Jawzjan provincial council member, told AAN in mid-January, before the latest round of fighting, that some 5,000 families fled last months’ fighting from Darzab alone. She said, “Around 2,800 IDP families [alone] live in critical conditions [around] Sheberghan“, Jawzjan’s provincial capital some 100 kilometres to the northeast.

However, these figures seem to be exaggerated. According to very recent UNOCHA data offered to AAN, 1,030 families (7,250 individuals) have been displaced from both districts over the course of 2016 and 2017 due to conflict. Since the January fighting, UNOCHA has not reported new displacements in Jawzjan in any of its weekly field reports. Local aid workers told AAN that, despite fighting, locals are less likely to flee under the current winter conditions.

But the figures between UN agencies also differ. The International Organization for Migration’s (IOM) weekly activity report of 15 November 2017 on humanitarian assistance said reportedly 1,707 families as being displaced from Darzab and Qush Tepa due to conflict. On 10 January 2018, still before the fighting, the organisation stated that reportedly 1,807 families had been displaced due to conflict in Qush Tepa district alone, to Sheberghan city and within the district. Since then, it also has reported no new conflict-related displacements in Jawzjan province.

Personal disputes, shaky loyalties

This second failed Taleban attack against Hekmat within four months (read AAN’s earlier analysis here), was probably not fully serious from the beginning. It was originally the result of a personal dispute between local Taleban commanders and Hekmat and followed weeks of tension over the killing of a prominent Taleban commander’s brother by fighters affiliated with Hekmat. On 9 January 2018, Nurullah, a Hekmat ally (and nephew of Mawlawi Zikrullah, another prominent commander loyal to Hekmat), shot dead a brother of Mullah Nader, a former Taleban shadow governor of Sar-e Pul province, in the Kandah area of Sayad district, in neighbouring Sar-e Pul. (This seems to have been a personal dispute; there is no indication of fighters loyal to Hekmat operating in Sayad.) Nader intended to solve the issue peacefully and sent elders to Darzab asking Qari Hekmat to handover the killer. However, Hekmat rejected this request and instead insisted that he would punish Nurullah in Darzab himself.

It also seems that a power vacuum exists in both districts that facilitated the ground for Hekmat’s ability to hold the area. Over the past two years, the Taleban have shifted their strategy from fighting in rural areas to coming closer to more populated district centres (Khamab, Qarqen, Mangijik, Aqcha and Khaniqa) in the province’s northern and eastern parts, as well as around the provincial centre, Sheberghan. The Taleban also increased their presence along the highways leading from Sheberghanto the district centres in an attempt to prevent logistic supplies getting to security forces based there.

Therefore, neither the government, nor the Taleban, were interested in retaining a strong presence in remote and isolated districts, such as Darzab and Qush Tepa. This has put Qari Hekmat, who understood these dynamics, in a good position to establish his foothold.

Apart from the district centres, which are under government control, fighters loyal to Hekmat now control Darzab and Qush Tepa fully. Government offices in both districts are largely paralysed, with the officials sitting in the district governors’ compounds and few nearby military bases and district governors in the provincial centre. The Taleban have shadow structures for the two districts that operate from ‘exile’ in Faryab province.

According to Abdulhai Yashen, head of the provincial education department, 42 out of 45 schools, including high schools, secondary schools and registered religious schools, are shut down in Darzab. In Qush Tepa, he said, this number is 21 out of 28. He told AAN local elders had reached out to Qari Hekmat a number of times to negotiate their reopening. He said, “In the beginning of the [Afghan] year [starting in March 2017], Hekmat vowed to reopen the schools but later, when foreign fighters joined him, Hekmat rejected the mediation”.

The number of Hekmat’s fighters is unclear, and government officials’ estimates differ. Sher Muhammad, the head of the Afghan Local Police (ALP) in Darzab district, told AAN in February 2018that their total number in both Darzab and Qush Tepa could total 1,000. Locals, however, contradict this. They told AAN that Hekmat leads only around 400 fighters. In any case, Qari Hekmat has proven he has sufficient forces under his command to be able, not only to threaten the local government (which is mainly confined to the district centres), but also to stand against the local Taleban fronts. Alhaj Muhammad Akram, head of the Provincial High Peace Council, who is from Darzab district and well aware of the insurgency dynamics in the area, told AAN “there are different ethnic groups – Uzbek, Tajiks and Pashtuns – among the fighters.”

Attracting commanders, setting up a parallel administration

It has emerged from reports that AAN received from the isolated region, that Qari Hekmat immediately after he switched to Daesh, and as early as 2015, had reached out to local commanders and had attracted others from elsewhere. He now hosts limited numbers of outside fighters from Ghor, Kunduz, Sar-e Pul and Balkh provinces. According to local sources, they constituted “not more than a few dozen.”

His first step was to selectively target local commanders who led small groups of fighters. Previously, most of them had either dealt with the Taleban or the local government. Some served as local Taleban commanders and others operated under pro-government militia forces with shaky loyalty. Qari Hekmat managed to convince at least 20 of them operating in Darzab and Qush Tepa to put themselves under his command.

The most prominent was Haji Zainuddin, a local Uzbek and former Hezb-e Islami Gulbuddin (HIG) commander. He had some hundred fighters located in an area at the border between Darzab and Qush Tepa. There, his fighters mainly operated as a community protection forces dealing with local issues independently. He had struck a deal with the Taleban in 2009 that formally put him under their control, but left a degree of autonomy. The deal was mainly based on two conditions: that his villagers in his area would not join the government forces – in return the Taleban would give him full authority to control the area, including taxation – and the Taleban would not deploy his fighters to other parts of the district. In 2016, when Hekmat became stronger, he switched side to Hekmat.

Another example is Mufti Nemat, an Uzbek commander hosting around 80 fighters. Nemat had surrendered to General Abdulrashid Dostum in February 2015. He stayed almost two years in Sheberghan, but later left and joined Qari Hekmat (read AAN previous analysis here). Now he serves as a Daesh-affiliated commander in the Sar Dara area of Darzab, which served as Hekmat’s fall-back position during the latest Taleban offensive. Commander Qudrat Gul, with 40 to 50 fighters, and commander Hamza, with around 30 followers, also started to operate under the Daesh flag in mid-2016.

Around the same time, with Omar Muhajer, who led fighters from Ghor province, some commanders from outside southern Jawzjan started to join Hekmat. Mujaher is a Tajik from either Ghor or Farah and is said to be very young. His previous affiliation, if any, is unknown to AAN’s local sources. The second outsider group is said to be from as far away as Dasht-e Archi district in Kunduz. It also is a small group of some 10 to 15 fighters, who are most probably from Jundullah (the Army of God). They joined Hekmat in late 2016. Jundullah is a splinter group of the Islamic Movement of Uzbekistan. They are mostly active in Afghanistan’s northeast, but consist only of Afghans. In 2015, some Jundullah fighters had expressed interest in the Islamic State of Iraq and Levant (ISIL) by translating ISIL leader Abu Baker al-Baghdadi’s statements into the local language and dubbing and circulating ISIL video clips from Syria in social media. The Taleban then disarmed and detained a number of Jundullah fighters in Kunduz and Takhar provinces, making some of them to flee (read our previous analysis on Jundullah and Taleban dispute here). A third group, led by Mawlawi Habib Rahman from Balkh, joined Hekmat in 2016 with around ten fighters. He served as the head of the shadow judiciary under Hekmat for some months, but then was replaced for an unknown reason. Mawlawi Habib Rahman now serves as a Daesh-affiliated commander in the Sar Dara area of Darzab.

Over the border from Jawzjan, in Sayad district of Sar-e Pul province, another small group of fighters stretched out their hands to Qari Hekmat and visited his base in Darzab. Mullah Ghazanfar, an infamous Taleban commander, leads it. When he met Hekmat at the beginning of 2017, he sought assurance that he would be provided with shelter in Sayad, in case the Taleban pushed him out from Darzab. However, this friendship did not last for longer than a few months. In August 2017, Ghazanfar, along with Mullah Nader, the shadow Taleban district governor for Sayad, carried out a widely-reported assault against Afghan Local Police and public uprising forces in Mirza Olang village. This resulted in a number of civilians killed (read AAN previous report here).

Qari Hekmat has already set up a shadow structure in the area under his control to deal with people’s daily affairs. There were units for the judicial, military, police, finance and ‘virtue’ affairs, i.e. a religious ‘police’. He uses Arabic terms for them in a clear distinction from the Taleban’s shadow structure, for example, shortah (Arabic for police), al-maliyah (for finance unit), qazi’iyya (for judicial unit), and askariyah (for military unit).

According to sources close to him, the group has established a decision-making council of 14 members led by Hekmat to deal with different issues. “All members of the council are prominent commanders and heads of the units are also included. They discuss finance, military, public outreach and security issues every month.” Hekmat has distributed administrative positions among the commanders who joined him. Mufti Nemat serves as head of the military court, and Omar Muhajer as the head of the ‘virtues’ unit. Mullah Sohbatullah, another Uzbek from Darzab, heads the finance unit, while Mullah Qudratullah, a Tajik from either Herat or Badghis, operates the intelligence unit.

Hekmat also appointed two deputies: Mullah Zabihullah, for military affairs, and Haji, for civilian affairs. Local sources were unable to provide more detail; both deputies seem to come from outside the area.

Hekmat has proved that fighters loyal to him are able, not only to eliminate the Taleban from his area, but also practice Daesh-style brutalities. As AAN has already reported, his fighters publicly beheaded a local resident accusing him of distributing amulets in January 2016. In the same year Daesh-affiliated fighters set on fire two shrines in Bibi Maryan and Sufi Dost Muhammad villages in Darzab district. The shrines were popular locally, but Daesh suppresses all forms of religious activity that do not conform with its own interpretations. These activities also aimed to attract public attention and give further credibility tothe claim that the group is Daesh’s representative in the north. Qari Hekmat uses the Daesh logo in the statements and messages he delivers. In February 2018, for instance, the group distributed leaflets in Darzab and Qush Tepa with the Daesh logo calling on locals to obey the Daesh instructions.

In June 2017, Mawlawi Zikrullah, Hekmat’s fellow Darzabi commander, reportedly led a delegation with ten other fighters in Hekmat’s name to Nangarhar province to visit the ISKP leadership that is the recognised branch of IS in Afghanistan. According to sources close to Hekmat, Zikrullah stayed in Nangarhar for a couple of weeks. However, the nature of Hekmat’s connection with ISKP base in eastern Afghanistan still remains unclear. It seems it is more on the communication level, rather than operational or involving financial support being exchanged between Hekmat and ISKP. (1)

The issue of foreign fighters

Both the ALP commander for Darzab district, Sher Muhammad, and locals from the district, mention that foreign fighters had joined Hekmat. Baz Muhammad Dawar, Darzab’s district governor, told media outlets in December 2017, that Uzbeks, Chechen and even French and Algerian nationals had been seen in Darzab district. Asked by AAN how they identified them, locals said, because of their facial features and “the way they wear their cloths” and also because they did not talk to people. The spokesman of the Afghan Ministry of Defence (MoD), Dawlat Waziri, in December 2017, also picked up on the alleged presence of French and Algerians.

The French news agency AFP even quoted “European and Afghan security sources in Kabul “ confirming this, without giving more detail, though.

AAN has been tracking the militant groups active in Jawzjan over the past years. Reliable Afghan sources familiar with the insurgency dynamics in Darzab and Qush Tepa districts have reported that there were a dozen foreign fighters among Hekmat’s men, most of these being Central Asian. Locals told AAN that there might be a small number of Uzbek fighters, but that it was “hard to identify their nationalities or to figure out how many foreigners are there. ”According to Alhaj Muhammad Akram, head of the provincial peace council, some foreigners had joined Hekmat in mid-2016. Their identity was unclear, although most of them spoke Uzbeki and, therefore, locals associated them with Uzbekistan.

The sources denied the presence of any French fighters. According to Alhaj Muhammad Akram, “There is no evidence to claim the presence of French fighters”.

Conclusion

The Taleban have failed one more time to retake control of Darzab and Qush Tepa; mainly as a result of their own disunity. This has boosted the non-Taleban militant group’s morale and consolidated their power in the two isolated districts. However, if the Taleban were to become more serious in a future attack, the outcome would be unclear. The government, for the moment, does not seem to be in a position – or willing – to tackle this problem in this remote region. There are even indications that it might be happy that the Taleban – its much stronger enemy countrywide – has come under pressure there.

The Taleban’s unsuccessful counter-offensives indicate that the movement suffers from fragmentation and lacks a strong leadership at the provincial level in Jawzjan. This has yielded negative results affecting their local fighters’ ability to take on Hekmat. The Taleban also seem to face the same problem government troops face after so-called cleaning operations – the enemy withdraws, and returns when the troops retreat again.

Hekmat has taken advantage of this situation and dramatically expanded his territory in both districts. Some government forces hold out in the district centres, but the Taleban were wiped from parts of Darzab and Qush Tepa; territory they still held in October 2017.Public services and schools remain shut and locals face serious challenges in their efforts to continue their day-to-day lives.

Qari Hekmat’s group has emerged as the strongest single group in this part of Jawzjan. It might have come as a surprise, even to himself, that his capability to survive militarily (so far) has enabled him to set up his own shadow administrative structures in these two isolated districts. This facilitates disgruntled Taleban commanders and more radical groups to join him as an alternative to the Taleban. It has also turned the area into a refuge for such groups from elsewhere. But so far he has proven too weak to defeat the remaining pro-government forces holed up in the centre of his home district.

It is unclear to date whether he has any intention to expand his grip beyond Darzab and Qush Tepa. The appearance of the Central Asian fighters in Jawzjan and of Daesh style atrocities might be an indication that he intends to build relations with foreign fighters.

The size of the outside groups remains limited to a dozen fighters. This indicates that southern Jawzjan is still far from being a northern Afghan ‘Nangrahar’. Also, the danger emanating from this region is minimal in respect of the overall strategic balance in Afghanistan, as it is neighbouring countries where there is a fear of a spread of Daesh.

 

Editing by Sari Kouvo and Thomas Ruttig

 

(1) ISKP in Nangarhar faces major challenges to keep its fighters unified and to maintain access to sustainable financial channels. The long ongoing dispute between Central Asian and Pakistani fighters over leading the ISKP (after its previous leader Sheikh Abu Hasib’s death in a drone attack in May 2017) has created fissures in the group (although, this has not led to a formal split). The Central Asian fighters rejected to accept a Pakistani leader to lead the group. They accused the ISKP’s Pakistani fighters of maintaining connections with the Pakistani Inter-Services Intelligence.

 

 

 

 

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Thematic Category: War & Peace