Islamic State fights the Taliban, Afghan government-backed locals in Tora Bora Mountains

The Islamic State’s Wilayah Khorasan (or Khorasan province) has released a new set of photos documenting its battles against the Taliban near the Tora Bora Mountains. The area garnered worldwide attention in late 2001, after Osama bin Laden and many of his men retreated to an al Qaeda base in the mountains. It could have been bin Laden’s last stand, but the al Qaeda founder escaped and continued to manage an international network of subordinates until early May 2011, when he was finally killed in Abbottabad, Pakistan.

In June, press reports indicated that Wilayah Khorasan had captured bin Laden’s cave complex in Tora Bora from the Taliban. It was supposedly a high-profile win for Baghdadi’s men at a time when they are losing ground in Afghanistan, Iraq and Syria. CBS News cited a broadcast in Pashto on the so-called caliphate’s local radio station, which trumpeted the territorial gain.

In mid-June, the Islamic State’s Naba magazine also carried an article on the campaign. Naba claimed that Wilayah Khorasan’s members sought to dispel any misgivings locals had about the self-declared caliphate’s intentions after the Taliban had previously warned them.

The Taliban denied that Abu Bakr al Baghdadi’s loyalists held the ground, according to press reports. However, Wilayah Khorasan’s offensive in early June forced the Afghan government to respond after locals forged a temporary alliance with the Taliban to fight the caliphate’s representatives.

The Taliban is battling the Afghan government and its Western allies on multiple fronts throughout Afghanistan. This allowed the Islamic State’s arm, which has far fewer fighters, to take advantage of a neglected front, as both of its enemies were preoccupied elsewhere.

At first, locals sided with the Taliban to push Wilayah Khorasan’s forces back in Tora Bora. The Taliban reportedly controls much of the area, but didn’t have enough men on hand to respond to the assault on its own.

Lacking a significant deployment of its own in the area, and realizing that villagers and tribesmen shouldn’t be forced to side with the Taliban to counter Wilayah Khorasan, the Afghan government eventually decided to provide more arms to the locals. Voice of America (VOA) reported on July 7 that the Afghan National Directorate of Security (NDS) “is arming dozens of local men in the Pachiragam district of Nangarhar province, which shares a border with Pakistan.”

“We have enlisted 300 local uprising members in the Pachiragam district who have been equipped and will soon start their activities,” Attaullah Khogyani, the Nangarhar governor’s spokesperson, told VOA earlier this month. “The National Directorate of Security will finance them and provide them weapons.” (A previous Afghan government-led effort had reportedly recruited several hundred locals to man checkpoints in Pachiragam.)

“We ask the government to support us, provide us with arms and equipment. We will fight IS [Wilayah Khorasan] more effectively,” VOA quoted a “tribal elder,” Malek Sherzai, as saying.

Meanwhile, the Islamic State continues to advertise its battles with the Taliban in Tora Bora and elsewhere. It makes for good propaganda, as the organization rejects the legitimacy of all jihadists who refuse to bend their knee to Baghdadi.

Yesterday, Wilayah Khorasan released a set of photos supposedly documenting an “assault” on “apostate Taliban positions…on the outskirts of Tora Bora.” Some of the images can be seen below.

Wilayah Khorasan has repeatedly highlighted its fighting against the Taliban, even as it has lost ground in Nangarhar to US soldiers and their Afghan allies. As of early 2016, the group’s safe haven in the province consisted of approximately nine districts. But this was reduced to just three districts by the end of the year, according to the US military.

Wilayah Khorasan has a much smallerfootprint than the Taliban, but it is still capable of launching large-scale attacks in Afghanistan’s cities. And as the fighting in Tora Bora shows, it has also been able to advantage of gaps in the complex, multi-sided Afghan war to suit its own purposes.

The Islamic State’s Wilayah Khorasan released the photos below purportedly documenting its battles with the Taliban near the Tora Bora Mountains. Some of the images show spoils recovered during its raids. Two photos of beheaded men are not reproduced, but were part of the original photo set.

Thomas Joscelyn is a Senior Fellow at the Foundation for Defense of Democracies and the Senior Editor for FDD's Long War Journal.

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