By Rajeshwari Krishnamurthy*
On April 4, Afghanistan’s National Directorate of Security (NDS) announced that Aslam Farooqui, the chief of the Islamic State ‘Khorasan Province’ (ISKP) had been arrested in Kandahar, Afghanistan, along with 19 others, including two key commanders. Given Farooqui’s background, i.e. his connection to the ISKP, Lashkar-e-Taiba (LeT), Tehreek-e-Taliban Pakistan (TTP), etc, the context and timing of his arrest (and its announcement) are significant.
Although further details are awaited and several theories have begun to float, basic facts vis-à-vis the arrest are: ISKP Chief Farooqui, a Pakistani national, was arrested in Kandahar, and his arrest was announced on 4 April. The precise date of arrest is unclear. The NDS stated that he had been arrested in a ‘targeted’ and ‘complex’ operation, and that he had, during initial interrogations, “confessed of strong relationship between Islamic State-Khurasan and regional intelligence agencies.” This is essentially a hint at Pakistan’s Inter-services Intelligence (ISI), whose links with various regional terror groups is well documented.
Timing and Relevance
Developments relevant to the announcement suggest that Farooqui was probably arrested sometime before April 4.
The ISKP had cited ‘revenge for the Muslims of Kashmir’ as their rationale while claiming responsibility for the March 25 Kabul Gurdwara attack in which several Afghans and one Indian national were killed. Perpetrators of the attack equated Afghan nationals as their Indian target in Afghanistan. A suicide bomber involved in this attack was an Indian national who, along with some others, had been involved with the Islamic State’s Kasargod module and relocated to Afghanistan to join the ISKP some years ago.
On April 2, Afghanistan’s President, Dr Ashraf Ghani, and Pakistan’s Army Chief, Gen Qamar Javed Bajwa, held a phone conversation. The same day, Pakistan’s Sindh High Court commuted Omar Sheikh’s death sentence and acquitted three others who were serving time for the 2002 kidnap and murder of the Wall Street Journal reporter, Daniel Pearl, in Pakistan. Although they were re-arrested and detained pending appeal on 3 April (conceivably due to US backlash), the judgement itself holds relevance for both India and Afghanistan. He was one of the three terrorists New Delhi had released in exchange for safe passage of around 149 Indian hostages during the 1999 Harkat-ul-Mujahideen (HuM) hijacking of Indian Airlines Flight IC-814. The other two were Jaish-e-Muhammad’s (JeM) Masood Azhar and Jammu and Kashmir Liberation Front’s (JKLF) Mushtaq Zargar. The hostages were kept captive in Kandahar in the then Taliban-run Afghanistan, with the Taliban assisting the hijackers till the exchange concluded. In 2002, in the aftermath of the Daniel Pearl killing, Sheikh had ‘surrendered’ to former ISI officer, Ijaz Shah, who is Pakistan’s incumbent interior minister.
On 2 April, the Taliban’s Doha-based spokesperson, Suhail Shaheen, gave an interview to an Indian media outlet. Some of his remarks, such as “[t]here is no externally sponsored terrorism…” (an assertion which was probably intended to project compliance with the US-Taliban agreement), and those on minority rights, such as “We are committed to minorities’ rights and have strongly condemned the recent attack by Daesh (IS) on a Sikh minority temple. We also urge India to protect the rights of its Muslim minority. They are Indian citizens and your people”—seem to have additional undertones.
While the Taliban has denied involvement in the Kabul Gurudwara attack, a Haqqani Network (HN) role in the attack cannot be ruled out. The relevance of a HN role lies in the nature of the Taliban-HN relationship, the HN’s complex equation with the ISKP, and the history of HN attacks targeting Indian personnel and projects, etc, in Afghanistan.
Furthermore, around two hours after Farooqui’s arrest was announced, Ehsanullah Ehsan, a former TTP spokesperson associated with several jihadi groups (and whose 2017 ‘voluntary surrender’ and 2020 ‘escape’ from Pakistani custody is another curious case) claimed that Farooqui had been deposed some time ago, and that a man from Afghanistan’s Kunar province was now the ISKP chief. However, this does not explain how such a major claim emerged only after Farooqui’s arrest was announced.
On 1 April, India’s National Investigative Agency (NIA) filed a case to investigate the 25 March attack on a Kabul Gurudwara—making it the first case pertaining to a terror attack on foreign soil the NIA would investigate since the National Investigation Agency (Amendment) Act, 2019 was passed last July. An unnamed Indian official was quoted as saying “[w]e will first seek all the documents from Afghanistan authorities through official channels to see what kind of evidence they have collected so far. A team will later visit Kabul.”
Would Afghanistan grant India access to interrogate Farooqui? Was the judgement on Sheikh’s case in Pakistan precipitated by the prospect of Kabul granting New Delhi access to Farooqui? What explains Farooqui’s arrest in Kandahar, traditionally a Taliban stronghold?
Farooqui’s arrest and answers to the above questions would undoubtedly shed more light on the ISKP’s current structures, linkages, and strategies. As such, the arrest itself could have some bearing on the Kabul-Taliban talks. Additionally, deeper examination is needed on the potential ways in which this arrest might influence the ISKP’s organisational dynamics and operational agendas in Afghanistan and India.
*Rajeshwari Krishnamurthy is Deputy Director, IPCS, and the coordinator of its Centre for Internal and Regional Security.