ISIS in Afghanistan

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Najibullah Quraishi


NARRATOR: Journalist Najibullah Quraishi is heading into dangerous territory in Kunar province, eastern Afghanistan. For more than a decade, Najibullah has covered the war between the Taliban and the American-led coalition. Now he is investigating a new story.

NAJIBULLAH QURAISHI, Correspondent: I’ve been embedded with the Taliban many, many times. But when I first heard about ISIS in Afghanistan, I was shocked. I was thinking, “Why ISIS in Afghanistan? What they are doing in my country?”

They’re completely different than the Taliban. They are not after one country or one place or one district. Their aim is to have their groups, to have their networks all over the world.

NARRATOR: As ISIS has been fighting for control of territory in Iraq and Syria, it has announced branches and affiliates in at least nine other countries. For the past year, it’s been gaining ground in Afghanistan. But no journalist has been able to get inside ISIS territory here and film them in action. The group is notorious for its kidnappings and brutal executions.

NAJIBULLAH QURAISHI: I was waiting for over eight months to get access to ISIS. I was very excited as a journalist that I was going to meet this group, but I was remembering my wife, my sons. Then I was thinking, “Maybe you won’t come back again. They might kill you. They might kidnap you. They might do something wrong.”

NARRATOR: Najibullah arrives in the district of Shaigal. This was once al Qaeda and Taliban territory. ISIS gunmen seized control a year ago.

Abu Rashid, the most senior commander in the village, used to be a member of the Taliban, but in 2014, after ISIS declared an Islamic state or caliphate in Iraq and Syria, he defected.

NAJIBULLAH QURAISHI: [subtitles] Were you in the Taliban before?

ABU RASHID: [through interpreter] Yes, we were fighting holy war as Taliban. Our holy war was just because there was no caliphate then. But God says when there is a caliphate, you must join the caliphate. There is a caliphate now, so we’ve left the Taliban. We’re fighting holy war under caliph’s leadership.

NAJIBULLAH QURAISHI: [subtitles] What is your aim?

ABU RASHID: [through interpreter] We want the Islamic system all over the world, and we will fight for it.

NARRATOR: Though still small in number, ISIS now claims to control territory in several districts across eastern Afghanistan, especially in the provinces of Kunar and Nangarhar.

Many fighters have defected from other groups because ISIS pays more.

NAJIBULLAH QURAISHI: The commander told me ISIS offering them $700 per month. Once they join ISIS, they get a normal salary and they can feed their families. Afghanistan is a poor country, and you have to do something, you have to work something, and $700 is a lot in Afghanistan.

NARRATOR: Here, ISIS fighters live among the locals and seem to control every aspect of village life. They take local wives, collect taxes, and even run the village school. The fighters say that all local children are educated by the Islamic State from the age of 3.

TEACHER: Girls, you come and sit at the back. Sit behind the boys, quickly. Hassan, sit down. Turn your face this way. Look at me. You know that this is the school of Islamic State.

What is this word?

PUPILS: Jihad!

TEACHER: What is jihad? We must implement God’s religion over all people. God says do jihad until intrigue, idolatry and infidelity are gone from the world.

NARRATOR: The teacher, Abdullah, spends a few minutes explaining the theory of jihad, or holy war. Then he moves on to its practice.

TEACHER: Stand up, Daud. What is this called?

1st BOY: Kalashnikov.

TEACHER: What do we call it in Pashto?

1st BOY: Machine.

TEACHER: Why do we use this?

1st BOY: To defend the faith.

TEACHER: And whose heads will we hit with this?

1st BOY: Infidels.

TEACHER: This is called a Kalashnikov, and in Pashto, we call it “machine.” This is a hand grenade, meaning “hand bomb.”

NARRATOR: When the children struggle with his questions, the teacher whispers the answers.

TEACHER: Pull out the pin. Then what do you do?

2nd BOY: Throw it.

TEACHER: And then?

2nd BOY: Lie down.

TEACHER: Mansour, stand up. What is this called?

3rd BOY: TT gun.

TEACHER: Good. Where is it made?

3rd BOY: China.

TEACHER: How many shots can it fire?

3rd BOY: Six bullets.

TEACHER: How do you hold it to shoot?

4th BOY: Like this.

TEACHER: Fire it from a standing position, like this.

ISIS FIGHTER IN FIELD: [through interpreter] Sharia law tells us that children should be given all essential skills. So we teach them and give them military training to prepare them in mind and body so they are set on the right path. And each generation will learn and teach in turn.

NAJIBULLAH QURAISHI: [subtitles] Do you think it’s right for children to learn about weapons and fighting?

ISIS FIGHTER IN FIELD: [through interpreter] Yes, of course, it’s right, as we see from the Prophet’s young companions. Those companions were vying with each other to take up arms. So this enthusiasm, spirit and desire is in our children, and in our women, too. Time will show what we can do for God’s religion. We are always ready to sacrifice for it.

NARRATOR: In the fields, the gunmen spread out to avoid attracting attention from American drones. They say that several hundred Afghan ISIS fighters have been killed in targeted strikes since July.

The commanders carefully choreograph their interviews with Najibullah. Their message is clear— the Taliban are puppets of Pakistan, whereas ISIS answers only to God.

COMMANDER: [through interpreter] The Taliban take their orders from Pakistani intelligence. Those people don’t accept the caliphate. But we are free, and our aim is only to seek God’s happiness. We want Islamic law on earth. We answer to no one. We welcome the caliphate.

NARRATOR: No one knows for sure how many fighters ISIS has in Afghanistan. Afghan officials estimate there are currently a thousand, and that the number is growing. According to Commander Abu Rashid, they are also attracting jihadists from around the world.

NAJIBULLAH QURAISHI: [subtitles] Are there any foreign fighters among you?

ABU RASHID: [through interpreter] Yes, thank God, there are foreign fighters across the region. Many have joined us from overseas. They’ve come from Saudi Arabia and Europe. But you can’t speak to them now.

NARRATOR: Suddenly, the commanders tell Najibullah he has to leave. They see his presence as a security threat.

The story of ISIS in Afghanistan begins with an execution. In June 2014, 12 Taliban commanders in the province of Nuristan were captured and killed by a group of masked men. At the time, nobody knew who the killers were.

NAJIBULLAH QURAISHI: That group was ISIS. They were no one else, they were ISIS. They were just showing their power. It was their first threat to show the Taliban, “We are much more powerful than you guys, and we are much worse than you guys.”

[to man in car, subtitles] Where are we going?

MAN IN CAR: [subtitles] We are going to meet our friends, the Taliban. We’ll see the local Taliban leaders. They’re my friends.

NAJIBULLAH QURAISHI: [subtitles] How many Taliban are there where we’re going?

MAN IN CAR: [subtitles] There are about 2,000 Taliban there, praise God!

NARRATOR: Najibullah has now crossed into Taliban-held territory. He’s arranged to meet a senior commander for Kunar province. A foot-soldier guides him to the Taliban hideout in a forest just 15 miles from the ISIS-controlled village.

For more than a decade, Mowlavi Samad has led the Taliban’s fight against the U.S. and its allies in this district. Now he’s fighting on another front, against ISIS.

MOWLAVI SAMAD, Taliban Commander: [through interpreter] We do not agree with those who want ISIS here in Afghanistan. We don’t agree because under the Taliban, we were already Islamic. There’s no power vacuum here, so why start using this name?

Some of our brother Taliban have become dissatisfied and raised their flags against us. But we pray that the faithful won’t take part in this war because it’s divisive. The Prophet Muhammad said “Wherever there is intrigue, don’t get involved!”

NARRATOR: These Taliban fighters face an uncertain future. In July 2015, the movement announced the death of its founder and leader, Mullah Omar. Off camera, some of the insurgents in this village tell Najibullah they are now thinking of defecting.

NAJIBULLAH QURAISHI: They’re saying in the coming future, there will be no Taliban anymore. They would be all joining ISIS.

NARRATOR: The Taliban remain by far the most powerful militant group in Afghanistan, but the ISIS campaign against them is brutal. Last summer, ISIS drove the Taliban out of Achin district in the eastern province of Nangarhar. Ten village elders, some of whom were Taliban, were then taken to a remote hillside and forced to kneel on explosives.

NAJIBULLAH QURAISHI: The first time when I saw that propaganda video, I was thinking, “What they are doing? Why they’re so harsh? Why they’re so crazy?” I never seen before something like this, not in the Taliban time, in the government or other insurgency in Afghanistan. Never. It was horrible to watch!

NARRATOR: Since ISIS began gaining ground in eastern Afghanistan, more than 17,000 families are thought to have fled their homes.

AGH JAN, Farmer: [through interpreter] This is our home now. We brought the animals with us.

NARRATOR: Until recently, Agh Jan and his family lived in the district of Achin near the hillside where ISIS killed the group of elders.

AGH JAN: [through interpreter] People’s lives used to be good in our district. It was very peaceful. Then all these fighters appeared. They made life bitter for local people.

LITTLE BOY: [subtitles] They would hit the girls just for going to the shops.

LITTLE GIRL: [subtitles] They’d shout, “What are you doing outside?” And then they’d hit us.

AGH JAN: [through interpreter] At first, they were all together, but then they split. Some went to Islamic State and others to the Taliban. They became enemies. Their fighting hurt lots of ordinary people. Now the situation is terrible. Neither the Taliban nor the Islamic State care about ordinary Afghans. Whichever group is in control, they beat us. We really don’t know one from another.

You can’t stand up to them. If you try, they come in the night and kill you with your children. Your children will be made to watch as you are beheaded.

NARRATOR: After ISIS took control of his village, Agh Jan and his family decided to flee to the city of Jalalabad. Other parents begged him to take their children with him.

AGH JAN: [through interpreter] We got a truck at night and put all the children in. These are all little kids. We accept all the hardship for their sake. Our lives are wrecked, but at least these children might have a future.

DRIVER: [subtitles] No government official can come near this place. It’s a no-go area.

NAJIBULLAH QURAISHI: [subtitles] So it’s risky from here on in, or—

DRIVER: [subtitles] Yes. All of these districts of Nangarhar are dangerous.

NARRATOR: Najibullah is on the road again. He’s traveling through Nangarhar province, just a few miles from the Pakistan border. The Taliban and ISIS may be fighting each other here, but they have a common enemy, the Afghan government.

Since the US began withdrawing troops in 2011, Afghan forces have struggled to contain the Taliban, who are now in control of several key districts across the country. And this fall, ISIS fighters began to launch direct attacks on government outposts here.

Najibullah has arranged to accompany a local police unit on the front lines.

MALI MOHAMMAD ALAM, Afghan Local Police: [through interpreter] This area is called Khir-abaad. We are here to search and destroy. The enemy is over there.

NARRATOR: Mali Mohammad Alam leads a 25-man police militia. Resources and equipment are scarce. Enemy lines are just a few hundred yards away.

MALI MOHAMMAD ALAM: [through interpreter] The government pays our salary, but they don’t supply us. We bought the rocket ourselves, in cash. We buy the bullets and everything. We aren’t given a budget for it. We buy them from the boys’ wages— the rockets, bullets, everything.

NARRATOR: The chief says he is willing to use brutal tactics against the Taliban and ISIS.

MALI MOHAMMAD ALAM: [through interpreter] We captured two people yesterday. They were spies. We tortured them a bit. The human rights people tell us not to, but if we don’t torture or beat them, how can we get anything out of them? The human rights people should let us torture them or finish them off. Otherwise our job is impossible.

NARRATOR: The locals tell Najibullah they see little difference between the police and the insurgents.

VILLAGER: [through interpreter] We’re fed up. The children are fed up, the women are fed up.

NAJIBULLAH QURAISHI: [subtitles] Which is better, government forces or Taliban or ISIS?

VILLAGER: [through interpreter] To be honest, none of them. If we say anything about any of them, they’ll come and get us. I swear to God we’re fed up with all of them, you know? They just drag you outside and beat you until blood comes out of your nose.

NARRATOR: Suddenly, the visit comes to a halt.

MALI MOHAMMED ALAM: I can’t take you any further. The enemy is nearby, and you are unarmed. We could run into the enemy at any time. You never know. That is enemy territory. We’ll take you back to your car.

NAJIBULLAH QURAISHI: [on camera] Are you saying it’s too dangerous for us from here on?

MALI MOHAMMED ALAM: [through interpreter] Yes. It’s dangerous to take you any further. We might not get you back alive.

NARRATOR: Najibullah has made contact with another ISIS cell.

NAJIBULLAH QURAISHI: They did call us 5, 10 minutes ago, and they told us to come over. So it’s late night here in Afghanistan, so we have to drive for about 4 or 5 hours.

NARRATOR: Chapa Dara District used to be home to the Taliban and al Qaeda fighters loyal to Osama bin Laden. Now it is home to ISIS. The commander here is named Mawlawi. A few weeks ago, he declared this district part of the global Islamic State.

MAWLAWI: [through interpreter] Now ISIS is here, and by God’s will, it’s spreading. Since we started doing jihad, no American has come to this area. No heretics come here. This area is under our control. We aim to bring the Islamic system to Kunar, across Afghanistan, and even the world.

NARRATOR: Commander Mawlawi tells Najibullah he must come with him deeper into ISIS territory.

NAJIBULLAH QURAISHI: I didn’t know where we were going. If they decided to hurt me or kidnap me, there was nothing I could do. I honestly didn’t know if I was going to get back.

NARRATOR: After an hour of walking, the commander introduces Najibullah to two teenagers, Bashrullah, who is 13, and Naimatullah, who is 17. He says they are training to be ISIS suicide bombers.

NAJIBULLAH QURAISHI: [subtitles] When did you decide that you were willing to be martyrs?

NAIMATULLAH: [through interpreter] I told the elders a year ago that I wanted to do it, and I’m ready whenever they give the order. I’m ready now, God willing.

NARRATOR: The fighters here say they are focused on attacking the Afghan government, not the Taliban. The commander says he wants to use the two teens to kill a pro-government warlord named Jandad.

NAIMATULLAH: [through interpreter] I’ll kill Jandad in Kunar and avenge the blood of our fighters.

NAJIBULLAH QURAISHI: [subtitles] Why? What has Jandad done.?

NAIMATULLAH: [through interpreter] He is a heretic and a slave of infidels. He serves them. He killed our fighters. He jailed my friends and killed prisoners.

NAJIBULLAH QURAISHI: [subtitles] Have you ever put on a suicide vest?

NAIMATULLAH: [through interpreter] Yes, I have.

NAJIBULLAH QURAISHI: [subtitles] Have you practiced how to detonate it?

NAIMATULLAH: [through interpreter] Yes, I have practiced that. My commanders showed me how.

NAJIBULLAH QURAISHI: [subtitles] Where did they train you for the suicide attack?

NAIMATULLAH: [through interpreter] Here in Afghanistan.

NAJIBULLAH QURAISHI: [subtitles] Are they locals or foreigners?

NAIMATULLAH: [through interpreter] They’re foreigners.

NARRATOR: Najibullah presses the boys about their foreign trainers.

NAJIBULLAH QURAISHI: [subtitles] You mentioned foreigners are training you.

NARRATOR: But it seems to be a sensitive subject.

NAJIBULLAH QURAISHI: [subtitles] Can you hear me? You said that foreigners are training you.

NAIMATULLAH: [through interpreter] What can I tell you?

NARRATOR: The boys tell Najibullah they are ready to carry out their suicide mission as soon as the order comes.

NAIMATULLAH: [through interpreter] I want to do this for Allah, and to avenge our fighters against the unbelievers. Our commanders get their orders from ISIS. If they prepare a car bomb, wherever they say do it, I will do it.

NAJIBULLAH QURAISHI: [subtitles] Do you even know how to drive?

NAIMATULLAH: [through interpreter] Yes.

NAJIBULLAH QURAISHI: [subtitles] Have you ever been to a school?

BOY: [through interpreter] No. We here in Afghanistan, we see all the fighters. We learn from them. God willing, we want to be like them.

NARRATOR: In the ISIS-held district of Shaigal, the group is using many techniques to groom young children to fight and die for the Islamic State.

MAN: This is the latest Islamic State video. You’ll see 17 or 18 being killed.


MAN: Sham.


MAN: Yes, a camp in Iraq.

NARRATOR: The fighters tell Najibullah they receive propaganda videos directly from ISIS in Syria and Iraq. They say they show the videos to the village children every day.


MAN: The video is saying they’re all infidels and special forces soldiers.

NAJIBULLAH QURAISHI: What are they going to do with them now?

MAN: They’re taking them to the kill zone for execution. They’re wiping them off the face of the earth.

NAJIBULLAH QURAISHI: I was asking them why they are watching in front of these young children. They said they should learn, they should know from now. And it’s normal for them.

NARRATOR: The videos don’t just show attacks and atrocities. This is an ISIS military school for children, somewhere in the Middle East.

NAJIBULLAH QURAISHI: All these videos, they’re just telling them how to kill people, how to behead and how to become suicide bombers. And their main thing is to kill infidels. This is their aim. And they are clearly telling this is in Quran. So what the child believe? What he think? He thinks, “Yes, I am Muslim, and he’s telling me the truth.”

NARRATOR: Najibullah films the Afghan children copying what they’ve just watched.

INSTRUCTOR: [subtitles] Bend your knees a little, feet apart. Keep your arms straight. Fire!

CHILD: [subtitles] God is great.

INSTRUCTOR: [subtitles] You stand with the Kalashnikov like this, OK?

NAJIBULLAH QURAISHI: When I saw these young children, I was really, really upset, really sad. I was thinking about Afghanistan’s future, Afghanistan’s next generation, what we have next. These children who learn how to kill people, how to do jihad, how to behead, how to fire, this would be Afghanistan?

I was thinking maybe the war will never end. Never. And the people will keep suffering from war.

NARRATOR: ISIS in Afghanistan may still be in its infancy, but the movement has already shown how quickly it can grow. And its commanders here have grand ambitions for the next generation of ISIS soldiers,

ABU RASHID, Taliban Defector: [through interpreter] The garden of the caliphate wants a river of blood from us. Faith and belief demand blood. You must sacrifice to gain eternal life. God will expand this beautiful caliphate everywhere.

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