There's no shortage of battle-hardened militants in Afghanistan, writes Nick Paton-Walsh
Concerns are growing about how ISIS may expand into the country
A senior U.S. official fears disaffected Taliban might be attracted to the group
It is a strangely formal, yet troubling scene. A room in a far flung corner of Afghanistan where a serious lecture is happening, to an audience that seems part ideological, part curious; some are just impoverished, hoping for a quick job.
At the front of this room stands an Afghan freshly back from fighting in Syria, and intent on recruiting other Afghans to fight alongside him for ISIS.
“Brothers, I am here to tell you”, the recruiter begins, “about the mujahideen in Syria.”
All faces are hidden in the footage, yet the motivations are clear. This seems to be part of ISIS’s first moves into Afghanistan, a bid to bolster their ranks for the fight in Iraq and Syria by vacuuming up disgruntled former Taliban fighters – or even just students looking for a cause.
But it’s a troubling move nonetheless. There’s no shortage of battle-hardened militants here. And as NATO leaves, the Taliban looks strong if a little fractured – and the possibility of peace talks ahead with the Afghan government could alienate some of the group’s more radical elements.
The man is one of five recruiters, he says – some foreign, others Afghan like him, spread out across the country. His message is broadly ideological. “Jihad is now obligatory not only in Afghanistan, but also in many other places in the world,” the recruiter tells the room. “The Christians and Jews have not only attacked Afghanistan, but they have also attacked Muslims in Syria, Iraq and Palestine. So Jihad is obligatory on us in these places.”
His reception is mixed, but to one audience member the ideological appeal is clear. “My aim is to fight infidels,” the man says. “In Syria, or if they ask me to in Afghanistan, I will.”
Another man says he would prefer to stay home and go to university, but he is attracted by the recruiter’s offer of money. “I definitely need the money,” he says, “but will stay here and hope peace comes.”
Concerns are growing about how ISIS may expand into Afghanistan. When asked why ISIS might be on the rise here, Afghan President Ashraf Ghani told CNN’s Fareed Zakaria: “The reason it’s happening is because (the) collapse of Yemen, Syria, Iraq has created an environment where instead of one weak link in the interrelated system of states, now there are wider spaces.”
Ghani added: “They have – it’s one of the most well-endowed finance – well-financed organizations. And the techniques are spreading.”
The United Nations Special Representative to Afghanistan, Nicholas Haysom, told the Security Council that ISIS’s presence in Afghanistan was “of concern,” but was most troubling in its “potential to offer an alternative flagpole to which otherwise isolated insurgent splinter groups can rally.”
A senior U.S. official told CNN that “the terrain is there” for ISIS to grow in Afghanistan. This is “something everyone is keeping a very close eye on. Afghanistan government is concerned. Pakistan government is concerned,” he said, before adding that disaffected Taliban might also be attracted to the group.
The path to CNN’s filming with the recruiter was complex. An Afghan cameraman working for CNN was introduced at first to militants seeking to recruit fighters to assist an al Qaeda-linked group in Syria. Weeks later it emerged they were in fact working for ISIS.
The group the militants say they come from – Khorasan – is better known as a radical part of the al Qaeda faction of al-Nusra, in Syria, where many Afghans fight. Yet ISIS experts say some of Khorasan’s militants have defected to join ISIS, and those defectors in turn sent recruiters to Afghanistan to try to bolster their ranks.
At the meeting that our cameraman was permitted to film, the militants produced application forms that bear the logo of the Islamic State – the name the group prefers to be called – although they appeared to be using the group’s older nomenclature of ISIS on the documents.
While these recruiters seek to attract fighters to Syria, their presence in Afghanistan at this pivotal time will fuel fears that the country remains vulnerable to being used as a sanctuary for a new wave of extremists.