PESHAWAR – Heading IS, or the Islamic State of Iraq and Levant, in Afghanistan may be a coveted job for militants in the region. But going by the short tenure of its last occupant, the position should come with a job hazard disclaimer: sudden death. Just 18 months after being chosen by ISIL to start its ‘Khurasan chapter’ in Afghanistan, Hafiz Saeed Khan was killed in a drone strike on July 26, 2016, as confirmed by American and Afghan officials.
Hafiz Saeed (not to be confused with the Jamaat ud Dawa’s Hafiz Muhammad Saeed) had been nominated as wali or governor by IS on January 26, 2015 along with Abul Rauf Khadim, the former Gitmo detainee, as his deputy. Their position was not enviable. They were sandwiched between the Afghan and Pakistani Taliban as part of their turf wars on one hand and on the other they were targeted by the might of military forces apprehensive that another terrorist group with tentacles in the Middle East was emerging. Rauf was also killed with Hafiz Saeed in Nangarhar, Afghanistan.
Just three days before their deaths, however, on July 23, Hafiz Saeed’s group, IS, had carried out the deadliest suicide attack in Kabul in fifteen years. And on August 8, the group claimed credit for another major attack, at a hospital in Quetta. But this claim was not an isolated one. A faction of the Tehrik-e-Taliban (TTP), Jamatul Ahrar, also calimed to have killed the Quetta lawyers, leading to the belief that even if the TTP Jamatul Ahrar had not pledged allegiance to IS’s Abu Bakr Al-Baghdadi it at least had support from IS. Is there an alliance between IS and other militant groups functioning in Afghanistan? And what will be the impact of the death of IS’s head Hafiz Saeed? Some clues lie in the biographical details of his life.
The 39-year-old Hafiz Saeed Khan hailed from the Mamozai tribe of the upper sub-division of Orakzai Agency, the only quasi district of Pakistan’s Federally Administered Tribal Areas that does not share a border with Afghanistan. He was enrolled in a seminary in the nearby Hangu district and went to Afghanistan in the aftermath of 9/11, locals say. The Mamozai was the only tribe that sheltered Mehsud militants after TTP founder Baitullah Mehsud’s death in 2009 and the appointment of its new chief Hakimullah Mehsud.
Hakimullah Mehsud moved to Orakzai Agency in around 2008, a time when Hafiz Saeed was the agency’s local TTP commander. Hafiz Saeed became Hakimullah’s aide and rose in the ranks to be handed control of the upper part of the agency, which meant controlling important locations and financing. The lower and central parts of the agency were given to commanders Zia-ur Rahman and Mullah Toufan. Hafiz Saeed’s fortunes fumbled, however, when his boss, Hakimullah Mehsud was killed in a drone strike in North Waziristan. He struggled to hold on as a leader in the loosely connected TTP because the non-Mehsud like Fazlullah rose to lead the outfit and replaced Hakimullah. Further complicating Hafiz Saeed’s position was the military operation in Orakzai Agency. In the end he had no choice but to relocate across the border to Afghanistan’s Nangarhar. Local sources say his family along with more than a hundred other families have escaped to Afghanistan. He had married his second cousin and is said to have three children all under the age of 10.
It was not until April 2014, that Hafiz Saeed Khan resurfaced along with former TTP spokesperson Shahidullah Shahid in a video pledging allegiance to IS. The announcement of Hafiz Saeed Khan’s ascension to the top echelons of IS was made by its spokesman Abu Muhammad Al Adnani through its official channel, Al-Furqan media. In an interview in IS’s English language magazine, Dabiq, Hafiz Saeed put forward his antagonistic views of the Afghan Taliban who he kept referring to as the “nationalist Taliban” given their fight within Afghanistan as opposed to ISIL’s Khilfah. He dismissed his former group, the Pakistani Taliban, as people “who do what the people want”.
His ideology aside, Hafiz Saeed’s IS has held very limited territory in Afghanistan. Indeed, its brutal torture methods have been met with local revolt not welcome. They have also been under pressure. Recent rough estimates suggest that 300 of IS’s fighters have been killed in aerial bombardment alone in Afghanistan. Another reason to question the depth of IS in Afghanistan is sheer motivation. Little of the entire conflict on Afghan soil has been based on sectarian violence unlike in Iraq and Syria.
The outfit has perhaps not fared much better in Pakistan, where officials believe that IS has tried its best to recruit. “So far they have not been able to do it on a high level and in a free way,” says one senior official. “However, the attempt is very much there.” The threat is not taken lightly, however, as from the Pakistani perspective, “They are still dangerous because of their bases on the Pak-Afghan border,” cautions another official, who believes they are proxies to destabilize the region.
Thus, the killing of IS’s chief Hafiz Saeed in Afghanistan and the relative loss of whatever little territory the group had gained, might have dented its influence temporarily. Word of newer alliances for the survival of militant groups in Afghanistan is already abuzz. These outcomes, of who signs up with whom, will dictate the impact on regional peace in the long run. But if Hafiz Saeed’s story is anything to go by, observers can safely assume it is not difficult to jump ship or across the border for that matter.
Iftikhar Firdous is a senior correspondent for The Express Tribune in Peshawar @IftikharFirdous