The East Turkistan Islamic Movement and the ‘Afghan Factor’.
On October 20, 2020, U.S. State Department chief Michael Pampoe removed the East Turkistan Islamic Movement (ETIM) from the list of terrorist organizations in a directive citing the group’s complete cessation of any activity in Afghanistan.
Nevertheless, at the beginning of 2022, when Zhang Jun, China’s permanent representative to the UN Security Council, urged the members of the international community to pay close attention to the threats of the East Turkistan Islamic Movement and the Islamic Party of Turkistan, given their links to the Islamic State in Syria and Afghanistan.
A number of experts have noted that as a result of the Taliban coming to power in Afghanistan in 2021, under an informal arrangement with the PRC, ETIM fighters were relocated from Badakhshan province to Nanganhar and Kunar, near the Pakistani border, after which information about their activity or activities decreased.
The capability of the ETIM is difficult to assess at this time, but the threat of this organisation to both the PRC and Central Asian countries should not be completely ruled out at this time. There is reason to believe that ETIM has been able to maintain its organisational structure and capacity, which could be put to use in the future.
According to open source information for 2022, the strength of ETIM does not exceed 500 fighters, with small groups based in localities in Nangarhar province — Kasarkalai, Alikoh, Zaisar and others near the Pakistani border, and in Kunar province — Karkot, Dere and Gozan.
Organizationally, the ETIM is divided into small groups of 15-30 men, all of whom report to the leader of the organization, Abdulhak Turkestani (Hasan Mahmood). Each group is led by a commander, of whom Kori Zahir, Bobo Nurab, Rahmon Shahid, Abdulfani, Mohammad Naei, all PRC citizens who have fled to Afghanistan since the late 1990s, are known under different aliases.
Armed with small arms and rocket-propelled grenades for the most part, since during the NATO and US occupation the Taliban played the role of sabotage squads — ambushes, planting improvised explosive devices, killing people loyal to the Kabul regime, reconnaissance etc.
Due to the high level of training of ETIM fighters, they are often used by the Taliban for internal resistance suppression or in conflicts along the Pakistani border. In particular, in 2022, some five ETIM fighters were killed in clashes with the Afghan National Resistance Front (ANRF) in Andarab district of Baghlan province. At the same time, a small group of ETIM was involved in clashes at the Spinboldak border crossing between Afghanistan and Pakistan by the Taliban and the Pakistani army in November this year. This indicates that the Taliban are either trying to make effective use of ETIM’s combat capabilities or are trying to eliminate their presence by downsizing their membership.
However, it is known that the Taliban have guaranteed the security of ETIM members on Afghan territory by powerful Haqqani network leader Sirajuddin Haqqani, who is the head of the Afghan Interior Ministry. Despite promises, the Taliban leadership is against any concessions on the issue of ETIM, although he is in contact with Chinese special services through his men.
However, a probable threat on the part of ETIM is the possibility of transfer of some fighters to ISIS — Khorasan, who on December 12, 2022 organized an attack on Kabul «Kabul Longan Hotel» in Kabul, which was actually the place of permanent residence of Chinese citizens — businessmen, employees of Chinese companies and the headquarters of Chinese intelligence. As a result, according to official figures, three people were killed and about 18 injured, including Chinese citizens, although on December 11 Chinese Ambassador to Afghanistan Wang Yu met with Taliban Deputy Foreign Minister Sher Mohammadl Abbas Stanikzai and demanded to strengthen security measures at the Chinese Embassy.
In addition to this it is interesting to know that one of the participants in the attack on the Kabul Longan Hotel in Kabul was a former member of the ETIM, a Uighur named Abdul Jabbar.
Moreover, the involvement of an ethnic Uyghur in the Kabul Longan Hotel attack, even though Taliban authorities deny that there are former members of both the ETIM and other fighters from Central Asia among the terrorists of the Islamic State-Khorasan, indicates a potential threat. First and foremost, the possibility that an active part of those Central Asian members of terrorist organisations who are still under Taliban patronage could defect to the Islamic State-Khorasan.
This factor is a focus of propaganda machine of Islamic State-Khorasan which in its latest releases in Uzbek, Tajik and Kazakh languages reported about organization’s intention to conduct sabotage against economic projects of PRC in Afghanistan — trans-Afghan pipeline TAPI, railroad and transport communications.
Related to this is the speech made by China’s permanent representative, Zhang Jun, at the UN Security Council because of fears of an outflow of fighters from ETIM or other terrorist groups to the Islamic State-Khorasan, which is a more effective organisation in terms of terrorist acts against China.
There are precedents for this, for example the Tajik branch of the Islamic State-Khorasan, which issued an appeal in December to influence jihad in both Afghanistan and Syria and Iraq, includes former members of the Tajik Jamaat Ansarullah, which is part of the Taliban.
However, it should be noted that in terms of resources and capabilities the Islamic State — Khorasan in Afghanistan is no match for the Taliban, which controls the country, except for parts of the northern territories where the Afghan National Resistance Front (ANRF), led by Ahmad Masood, operates.
However, the catalyst for the strengthening and revival of the Islamic State-Khorasan could be infighting within the Taliban in the competition for power and influence in Afghanistan. General Sami Sadat, the former commander of the Afghan special forces, declared in December this year that the Taliban could split into groups — Haibatullah Akhunzada supporting the Pashtuns in Kandahar, Defence Minister Mullah Mohammad Yaqub with Taliban units loyal to him and Interior Minister Sirajuddin Haqqani.
Although it is virtually impossible to verify this information, the very existence of three power and influence groups within the Taliban points to the unpredictability factor that is playing out in Afghanistan. The deterrent to the further slide of Afghanistan into the centre of various jihadist projects, with threats to the whole region, is the extent to which the Haibatullah Akhunzad, Mullah Muhammad Yaqub and Sirajuddin Haqqani groups are able to negotiate, compromise and concede.
On the other hand, there is a growing US presence in Afghanistan after the withdrawal of US and NATO forces in 2021. In Kabul, for example, as of the end of 2022, there were around 30-50 US citizens in the Ariana Hotel disguised as scientists, journalists or employees of Evergeen International Airlines `Evergeen Humanitarian and Relief Services Ins’ and Mercy Corps charitable organisations. Some of them are operatives of the CIA’s Directorate of Operations (CIA), carrying out information-gathering and agency reconstruction tasks in Afghanistan. At the same time it is not known, who from influential group inside Taliban has authorized presence of CIA agents in Kabul, some sources approve supporters of Haibatullah Akhunzadeh from Kandahar, others — Muhammad Yaqub group, but there is similarity in information about CIA objectives in Afghanistan, namely intelligence gathering and reconnaissance of Islamic State — Khorasan.
In any case, U.S. activity in Afghanistan is only in its infancy, and it is unlikely that U.S. intelligence agencies will limit themselves to Islamic State-Khorasan. Of interest to the CIA could be the ETIM, Qatibat Imam Bukhari, Jamaat Ansarullah and others, which in the future could be used as an instrument of pressure and destabilization in the zone of Chinese and Russian interests in Central Asia. Moreover, after the US and NATO withdrawal from Afghanistan in 2021, all these terrorist groups are in a passive state (practically not engaged in jihad), which greatly affects their morale, ability to replenish their ranks, funding, etc., which significantly affects the popularity of their ideology in Central Asia. Nevertheless, the fate of terrorist groups, both in the medium and long term, will be affected by two factors in Afghanistan — the Taliban’s ability to prevent internal feuds and the US’s desire to create additional hotbeds of tension near the borders of China, Russia and Iran.
N. Mambetov, Deputy Director, Prudent Solutions Centre