Content released by ISKP indicates fewer and smaller cells
Analysis also reveals an absence of larger weaponry that was prominent in previous images released by the group.
On August 3, 2023, the Islamic State (IS) media outlet al-Furqān announced the passing of the previous Caliph*, Abu al-Hussein al-Husseini al-Qurashi, and the appointment of the new Caliph, Abu Hafs al-Hashimi al-Qurashi. This announcement was made through an audio statement from the new IS spokesperson, Abu Huthayfa Al-Ansari. In the statement, it was disclosed that Abu al-Hussein al-Husseini al-Qurashi was killed, and Abu Omar Al-Muhajir, the former spokesperson, was captured during a clash with Hay'at Tahrir al-Sham (HTS) near Idlib, Syria.
The statement also denied that Turkish forces killed Abu al-Hussein al-Husseini al-Qurashi in Syria in April 2023. IS claimed that he was killed by HTS, and his body was handed over to the Turkish Government.
Following the announcement, supporters took to Telegram to proclaim bay'ah* to the new Caliph. Soon after, IS Telegram channels released images of different Wilayat* pledging allegiance, including Islamic State – Khorasan Province (ISKP).
Image analysis: fewer and smaller cells
ISKP was the eleventh Wilayat to release pledges, posting 15 images of ISKP fighters pledging allegiance to the new Caliph. Analysis by Afghan Witness (AW) shows the images portrayed eight different cells, which range in size from two to nine men, with a total of 36 fighters. Most cells were composed of three men, who were shown carrying a range of small arms. All cell members have their faces fully covered and eyes blurred, making identification difficult.
Several notable observations can be made when comparing the latest batch of images to previous content released by ISKP following the deaths of the then-Caliphs.
On March 11, 2022, and December 1, 2022, IS Telegram channels released images of their bay'ah to the [at that time] new IS Caliph Abu al-Hassan al-Hashemi al-Quraishi (following the reported death of Abu Ibrahim al-Hashimi al-Qurashi in February 2022) and Abu al-Hussein al-Husseini al-Quraishi (following the death of Abu al-Hassan al-Hashemi al-Quraishi, who was allegedly killed in Daraa province, Syria, in mid-October during clashes with local rebels).
In March 2022, ISKP released a series of 29 images showcasing 15 cells. AW's analysis indicated that the total count of fighters was 84, distributed among cells ranging from three to thirteen members, with the majority showing four or five individuals. By December 2022, ISKP released 27 images depicting 16 distinct cells with varying sizes of two to ten members, totalling 67 fighters [including one child]. Previous releases contained larger cells with a higher number of members, as well as images that could be geolocated and showed identifiable faces, as demonstrated below.
Figure: March 11, 2022 - Several ISKP cells pledging allegiance to the [at that time] new Caliph, showing likely identifiable [top left] and locatable [bottom left] cells. December 1, 2022 - Images [right column] showing several ISKP cells pledging allegiance to the new IS Caliph at that time, showing larger cells.
When comparing the three pledges, AW noted a continued decrease in ISKP fighter numbers and a decrease in the number of cells. However, the latest images show two cells in an outdoor environment which was not observed in the March 2022 pledge. The vegetation of the two outdoor cells indicates a presence in northern/eastern Afghanistan or Pakistan.
Figure: August 3, 2023 - Latest released images showing two ISKP cells pledging allegiance to Abu Hafs al-Hashimi al-Qurashi, the new IS Caliph, in an outdoor environment.
AW investigators also observed this new trend following the June 8, 2023 suicide bombing at a mosque during a commemoration ceremony for Nisar Ahmad Ahmadi, Badakhshan’s acting governor, killed by ISKP on June 6. Following the explosion, ISKP channels released several images of the perpetrator in outdoor environments.
None of the cells had larger weaponry – which was observed in the previous pledges, in the form of machine guns and rocket launchers – while four cells had no weapons at all. Furthermore, some cells had improvised (right column) IS flags or no flag at all (left column).
Figure: August 3, 2023 - Latest released images showing several ISKP cells pledging allegiance to Abu Hafs al-Hashimi al-Qurashi, the new ISIS Caliph. Several cells did not include an IS flag (left) or used an improvised flag (right).
Details in the newly released images suggest that ISKP are being more cautious and are trying to avoid the identification of cell members and geolocation of their area of operation. Furthermore, the ISKP cells depicted are smaller than those shown in previous pledges, possibly a result of Taliban operations against alleged ISKP cells in several areas and the need for cells to disperse to avoid detection.
Analysis of cell structure
The pledges of allegiance provide rare insight into some of ISKP’s structure. Previously AW observed a cell – consisting of four men – which attacked the Chinese-owned Longan Hotel and Kabul Airport with two suicide attacks on December 12, 2022, and January 1, 2023. AW analysed details of the flags from the Kabul Airport suicide claim and the December 2022 pledge of allegiance and found indications that the same flag was used. All flags used by ISKP are unique, with different fonts, sizes, and other details. While the two men who attacked the Longan Hotel and Kabul Airport were killed, analysis shows the cell consisted of at least two more members. The status of these two is unknown.
Figure: Comparison of the claim of the Kabul airport attack (left) on January 1, 2023, and the pledge of allegiance on December 1, 2022 (right). The same flag is used, indicating the cell consists of four men.
Similarly, the cell which claimed the April 18, 2022 rocket attack on Uzbekistan was verified by AW to consist of at least five members. By comparing the flags used in the claim of the rocket attack to the March 2022 images showing pledges of allegiance, AW identified the cell.
Figure: Comparison of the claim of the April 18, 2022, rocket attack on Uzbekistan (inserted images) and the pledge of allegiance on March 11, 2022. The same flag is used, indicating the cell consisted of five men.
The flags used in the most recent pledge had not been observed by AW investigators in previous pledges or claims, indicating the cells are possibly recently formed or activated. AW investigators will continue to monitor.
Caliph - The ruler of the Muslim community according to the Islamic State
Bay'ah - Oath of allegiance to a leader
Wilayat - Provinces of the Islamic State