By Lucas Webber and Riccardo Valle
(Eurasianet) — Ever since the Taliban seized power in Kabul two years ago, the Islamic Emirate of Afghanistan has had a fractious relationship with its immediate neighbor to the north.
Tajikistan is the only one of the five Central Asian states not to pursue constructive diplomatic ties with the Taliban. Dushanbe was from the very outset critical of the regime in Kabul and remained persistently vocal about the perceived threat of a spillover of unrest.
The implication has been that the Taliban is incapable of securing its frontiers and, even worse, that it might be operating in league with the militant elements perpetrating occasional incursions. Sure enough, there has been a series of incidents along the southern Tajik border since August 2021, with perhaps the most notable being a rocket attack in May 2022 that was claimed by Islamic State Khorasan, or ISKP.
It is these perceptions that underpin the recent appearance of a Taliban-aligned propaganda network operating under the brand al-Mersaad. This outfit, which has explicitly set itself the goal of weaving the counter-narrative, positions itself as the “stronghold for ideological struggle against the seditionists (Khawarij)” – a reference to ISKP.
While al-Mersaad insists it is wholly independent of the government now running Afghanistan, the fact that it is based in Kabul implies some level of coordination.
Content on the agency’s website, meanwhile, hints at a potential affiliation with al-Qaida, which suggests in turn that al-Mersaad may have been conceived as a joint venture between the Afghan Taliban and al-Qaida.
Al-Mersaad was officially launched in February 2022. Since its inception, it has featured ample content directly attacking the Islamic State as a whole and ISKP in particular.
The outlet, which is, beyond its website, also present on several social media platforms, does not limit its animus to the Islamic State in its various incarnations. It has also turned its fire on Dushanbe and portrayed ISKP as a foreign Tajik organization for whose existence the state of Tajikistan, and President Emomali Rahmon specifically, bear direct and indirect responsibility.
There is a logic to all this. The ISKP has a notable Tajik contingent within its ranks. The organization has made a point of focusing its outreach strategy on Central Asians.
A drive to groom Tajik nationals has proven especially successful. Achievements include an official Tajik-language ISKP propaganda wing under its al-Azaim Foundation for Media Production, the development of targeted recruitment and fundraising efforts, the profiling of Tajik martyrs involved in many major attacks as models for other Central Asians to follow, and heightened criticism of and threats directed at President Rahmon.
Al-Mersaad saw an opportunity to leverage these trends for political gain and to try to pass off the blame for the Taliban’s lack of capacity to eliminate ISKP and prevent attacks inside Afghanistan and against its neighbors onto Tajikistan. In the second half of September, the group published a statement titled “Rahmonov [sic], the Motivator of ISIS”, branding him “a communist” and accusing him of creating domestic conditions wherein “Salafi-minded” and “deceived and empty-minded youth of Tajikistan” have “fallen prey to the propaganda of ISIS” and these foreign nationals have launched attacks inside Afghanistan, against its neighbors in Iran, and are abundant in the Taliban’s prisons. It concludes by encouraging Rahmon to cease being a “puppet of imperialism” and to stop sowing “seeds of discord between the brotherly nations of Afghanistan and Tajikistan.”
In late August, al-Mersaad published its most comprehensive video entirely focused on Tajikistan’s nationals who are members of ISKP and who have been either captured or have carried out operations in Afghanistan in the recent past. The video became a potent tool of propaganda devised by the Taliban with the aim of portraying ISKP as a movement which is not native of Afghanistan but rather exclusively driven by foreign intelligence agencies with the aim of undermining the Afghan interim government.
In the video, six ISKP prisoners are introduced while they describe the reasons behind their travel from Tajikistan to Afghanistan in order to pledge allegiance to ISKP and fight against the Taliban. While they mainly point out the impossibility for them to practice Islam in Tajikistan and seeing ISKP as the only jihadist platform in the region which could offer them a direct confrontation against Tajikistan, some of the prisoners also shed light on their relations with ISKP suicide attackers who carried out operations against the Taliban, including Abu Muhammad and Abu Ilyas, who carried out an unclaimed suicide attack in Kabul targeting a mosque where veteran anti-Soviet jihad leader Gulbuddin Hekmatyar was attending the prayers in December 2022. The list of other alleged accomplices features Abu Umar (Jawad) and Abdul Jabbar, who carried out the Longan Hotel attack and the subsequent Kabul International Airport attack between December and January 2023; Abdul Haq Khorasani, the suicide attacker responsible for the death of Taliban top commander Daud Muzammil in Mazar-i-Sharif, Balkh province, in March 2023; and Zakaria (Khyber Kandahari), who conducted the January 2023 attack on the Foreign Ministry.
While the video has been published by the anti-Daesh (ISIS) propaganda arm of the Taliban, the testimonies of the arrested ISKP members shed important light on the centrality of the Tajik constituency in ISKP’s organizational structure. This is testified by the past example of the ISKP prominent strategist and suicide attacker Abu Muhammad Tajiki, as well as by the plethora of Tajik-language affiliated media channels which populated online spaces and share official and unofficial ISKP propaganda.
As al-Mersaad also reports on the Taliban’s General Directorate of Intelligence (GDI) counter-terrorism operations against ISKP, it has frequently provided details on the composition of ISKP cells, pointing out the ethnicities and nationalities of their members. Hence, for instance, on August 14, al-Mersaad reported the killing of two prominent ISKP members in Kabul, of Uzbek and Tajik nationalities, who were responsible for the planning operations and managing provinces. Similarly, on the same day, al-Mersaad reported also the arrest of an ISKP cell in Balkh province, where a Tajik citizen was also held.
Given the bad blood between the Taliban and Dushanbe, al-Mersaad will likely continue to pre-empt or respond to its criticisms. Moreover, it is difficult to see relations improving anytime soon and the Tajik element of ISKP remains substantial and highly vocal.
About the authors:
- Lucas Webber is a researcher focused on geopolitics and violent non-state actors. He is cofounder and editor at militantwire.com.
- Riccardo Valle is director of the terrorism research department at the Italian think tank Analytica for Intelligence and Security Studies and a subject-matter expert at the University of Trieste.