Sanaullah Ghafari, the young architect of the rise of the Afghan branch of the Islamic State

Born as a Central Asian affiliate of Daesh as a result of a split from Al Qaeda, the Taliban and the Islamic Movement of Uzbekistan, since 2015 the Islamic State of Greater Khorasan (ISIS-K) – the old demarcation covers the territories of current Afghanistan, Turkmenistan, Tajikistan, Uzbekistan and Iran, where the organization intends to establish a caliphate – has been characterized by greater radicalism and brutality. His methods have seduced thousands of Pakistani and Afghan Taliban in recent years.

After the caliphate was defeated in March 2019, the branch of Daesh based in the Afghan and Pakistani mountains not only has not seen its capacity diminish, but since then it has been able to carry out increasing activity inside and outside Afghanistan. Due to its relevance and symbolism, the double suicide attack recorded in January in the Kerman cemetery during the ceremony in memory of Qassem Suleimani four years after his assassination – which left 85 dead – and the massacre at the Moscow leisure center Crocus City Hall last week, a crime that cIt took the lives of at least 173 people.

An important part of the success of the two attacks, registered in the heart of two regional powers such as Iran and Russia, as well as, in general, the consolidation of the Asian branch of the terrorist organization, is due to its leader Sanaullah Ghafari (also known as Shabab al Muhajir). An Afghan of Tajik ethnicity, 29 years old and a university student, he was named leader of ISIS-K in 2020. The organization defined him as an “experienced military leader and one of the 'urban lions' of ISIS-K in Kabul” for his ability guerrilla warfare and when preparing suicide attacks in Afghanistan. According to Taliban sources, Ghafari was a soldier in the Afghan Army before joining the Central Asian branch of Daesh.

In February 2022, the US State Department announced a reward of up to 10 million dollars for information that could lead to Ghafari after being identified as the mastermind of the attack at the Kabul airport during the withdrawal of NATO forces on August 26 of the previous year. 13 American soldiers died in it. He was presumed dead in a Taliban ambush in a border area with Pakistan in June last year, but he miraculously saved his life and fled Afghan territory to take refuge in the remote – and lawless – Pakistani province of Balochistan.

A 2023 United Nations report noted that ISIS-K adopts a more horizontal modus operandi than a hierarchical and vertical one, which provides its militants with greater flexibility. The truth is that after the departure of the United States forces from Afghanistan and the advent of the second Taliban emirate, the Daesh affiliate has significantly increased its operational capacity outside the region coinciding with the leadership of Sanaullah Ghafari. Clashes between the two groups are frequent, but the Taliban enjoy extensive refuge in the mountains of the north and east of the country. There is a kind of implication.

A success that cannot be separated from Ghafari's recruiting capacity in the countries that formed the former USSR. In addition to Afghans, Pakistanis, Turks or Iranians, the ISIS-K militancy is increasingly made up of fighters from southern republics of the Russian Federation – there is evidence since 2017 of militants with Russian passports – and, above all, nationals of the former Soviet republics of Central Asia – led by Tajikistan and Uzbekistan – are moved by a marked resentment towards Putin.

Taking into account that Ghafari is an Afghan Tajik, the increase in the number of terrorists from this ethnic group – both citizens of current Tajikistan and other countries in the region, including the Russian Federation – in the ISIS-K structure is no coincidence. Not in vain, according to the Russian authorities, the four main suspects of having committed the massacre at Moscow's Crocus City Hall were Tajik nationals.

The attack in Moscow had a double symbolic value: not only was Vladimir Putin punished for his role in the defeat of the caliphate and his support for the regime of Bashar al Assad in Syria circumventing Russian security, but, from remote Afghanistan, it strikes on European soil. In this sense, ISIS-K claimed responsibility for a deadly attack – there was one death – against a Catholic church in Istanbul at the end of last January (not in vain, the two alleged attackers were of Russian and Tajik nationality). And the organization is linked to the recent attempt to attack the Swedish Parliament.

For the terrorist affiliate led by Ghafari, the most fearsome of Daesh, the enemy is, in short, both the West and countries labeled as “anti-Islamic” such as Russia. Also the Taliban, from whom they were nourished in their origins and who condemned the massacre in Moscow “with the greatest harshness.” And the Shiite minorities of Afghanistan, who, like Iran itself, practice the same Islam considered “heretical” and “polytheistic” for Sunni jihadist groups such as Daesh or the Islamic State.