Taliban and Daesh: Religious Creed and Militant Groups in Afghanistan


Niklaus Miszak, doctorant – Graduate Institute of International and Development Studies, Genève

Date de publication: 
Novembre 2017

In Western media, Afghanistan is frequently portrayed as a hotbed of radical Islamist movements. Prominent examples are the Taliban and Al Qaeda present in the country since the 1990s and which have become known throughout the globe as symbols of religiously inspired violent extremist groups. While these armed groups in opposition to the Western-backed Afghan government have monopolized the language of religion to legitimize their aspirations and claims, the appearance of Daesh in Afghanistan in the summer of 2014 has added a new and significant dimension to the dynamic. Daesh poses a serious threat to the Taliban not only militarily and as an emerging rival for state sovereignty but as a competitor in defining visions and methods for political change and organization as well as in defining the everyday practices and beliefs of Afghan Sunni Muslims1. Arguably, the main challenge which Daesh presents to the Taliban goes beyond the Islamic State’s organizational life cycle in Iraq and Syria, and lies in the growing number of Salafi jihadists among the Afghan youth. This development is the result of an ongoing transformation of the Afghan religious landscape, the fragmentation of the Sunni Muslim community and the growing importance of transnational networks, money and ideas in shaping local political economies in a globalizing world. 

Emergence of the Taliban and Daesh 

The Taliban emerged in 1994 around a core group of local religious figures – mullahs – in the southern Afghan province of Kandahar. The intention of this group was to restore a minimum of peace and security for ordinary people against the anarchic violence which plagued the country since the Soviet withdrawal from Afghanistan and the collapse of the Afghan communist regime in 1992. The initial backbone of the Taliban were young Afghans, primarily Pashtuns, who had received their religious education in madrassas, namely religious schools and seminaries, located in Pakistan and financed mostly from donors in Gulf Arab countries. The Taliban were successful and grew into a larger social movement and a military force. At the height of their power in 2001, they had conquered about 90 % of the Afghan territory and enforced an austere version of Islamic law and order in areas under its control. Following the events of 9/11 and the US-led attacks on the Taliban regime since October 2001, many Taliban fighters fled across the border into the Federally Administrated Tribal Areas (FATA) of Pakistan where they would later regroup. Since 2004, they have staged an impressive comeback as an insurgency and now retain a commanding presence in large parts of the Afghan countryside. 

 Considering the Taliban’s goal of restoring their Islamic Emirate and implement Sharia law while expelling all foreign military forces from Afghanistan, the appearance of Daesh in Afghanistan came as a surprise to many. The Taliban were long-time allies of Al Qaeda, the emerging Daesh’s major rival as the leading global jihadist force2, and there appeared to be little space for yet another religiously based military movement to emerge. Nonetheless, Daesh appeared in Afghanistan in the summer of 2014 as a stunning military force. By December 2014, they pushed the Taliban out of southern Nangarhar Province and in early 2015, Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi recognized Hafiz Saeed as the governor of the Islamic State’s so-called “Khorasan province”3. By late 2015, and a series of military victories against the Taliban, Daesh had established itself in the eastern Afghan province of Nangarhar and made ephemeral appearances in western, southern and northern Afghanistan as well. 

 Daesh’s message and social base of support 

 While its leadership was dominated by former members of the Pakistani Taliban, Daesh’s rank and file consisted to a significant extent of Salafi jihadists and religious students which had previously operated under the Taliban banner. This social base and the exploitation of rifts and rivalries over leadership within the Taliban leadership after the announcement of leader Mullah Omar’s death in 2015, provided entry points for Daesh as a political and military formation. For example, in January 2015, the late Abdul Rauf Khadim, a former leading Taliban commander in southern Afghanistan’s Helmand province who had turned to Salafism while being jailed in Guantanamo Bay was acknowledged by Daesh as its deputy governor in Khorasan province4

Support for Daesh was also driven by the news of the groups initial exploits in Iraq and Syria throughout 2014. Daesh’s propaganda material (video clips, songs, images circulating in social media) and symbolism (clothing style, black flag, head bands, images of men riding horses) proved to be highly popular among young Afghans who circulated video clips about the war in Syria and Iraq through their mobile phones and listened to online sermons and songs praising Daesh and its followers. In some cases, the Taliban took drastic countermeasures. In October 2015, when local Salafist religious authorities in the northern Afghan province of Kunduz began to openly challenge and criticize the Taliban, the latter shut down several large Salafist madrassas and banned video clips on mobile phones and speeches in mosques in support of Daesh. This in turn caused widespread discontent among Salafists many of which broke ranks with the Taliban and joined Daesh5.

 A central element of Daesh’s ideological message in Afghanistan is the ‘purification’ of the country from corrupting influences. This purification strategy aimed at some religious practices strongly rooted in Afghan society but which Daesh’s religious authorities consider to be idol worship [shirk] or without basis in the Quran or the hadiths and thus as innovation [bidʿa]. These practices include certain modalities of prayer6, marriage, the payment of bride prices, or worshipping and seeking help from local healers at shrines for success in business or for fertility.7  In areas under Daesh control, shrines -  usually the graves of locally revered saints  - have been blown up or served as the sites for public executions of local elders or men charged of spying or of being apostates. 

Daesh’s strategy was also directed against foreign countries occupying (US, NATO) or meddling (Pakistan) in Afghanistan and other Muslim countries. Daesh’s messaging to local communities built on the assertion that they would root out the Taliban which they defamed as drug dealers and puppets of the Pakistani Inter-Service Intelligence (ISI).8 In addition, and in contrast to the Taliban whose publically expressed goals stop at current international borders, Daesh voiced a broader political ambition which goes beyond international borders and includes Afghanistan, Pakistan, Iran and Central Asian countries.

 Hence, the Taliban and Daesh have distinct political goals but they also differ in their adherence to religious creed and schools of Islamic jurisprudence (respectively Hanafi and Hanbali, more commonly referred to as Wahhabis or Salafis). While religious authorities linked to the Afghan Taliban follow the Hanafi school of jurisprudence, most, if not all, religious authorities as well as militants supporting Daesh are adherents of the Salafist creed.9 Having said this, the Hanafi school of thought is the oldest and the most widespread school of Islamic jurisprudence in Afghanistan. Salafism has few longstanding roots in the country with the exception of the eastern provinces of Kunar and Nuristan. Consequently, it may come as no surprise that the Daesh’s strongholds are limited to areas which have a significant Salafi jihadist social base. 

 Transnational networks, new religious practices and social conflict

Daesh’s success (albeit limited) expresses a transformation of the religious landscape in the Afghanistan-Pakistan border areas over the last 40 years and the increasing importance of transnational networks and flows of money in shaping access to religious education. The number of Salafists and Salafist jihadists among the Afghan youth has grown steadily since the 1980s and 1990s when many Salafist seminaries were set up in the Federally Administered Tribal Agencies or Khyber Pakhtunkhwa Province of Pakistan and accommodated thousands of Afghan refugees fleeing the violence of the Soviet Red Army. These transnationally operating religious institutions have, alongside networks of traders and armed actors,10 greatly contributed to the spread of Salafi jihadists alongside quietist and apolitical Salafists both in Pakistan and in Afghanistan. 

Somewhat ironically, Salafi jihadism in Afghanistan has thrived visibly since the US-led intervention in late 2001 toppled the Taliban regime and thus removed the main actor monopolizing religiously-based social and military mobilization. In this vacuum, many Salafi mosques and madrassas have been constructed in the Afghan countryside as well as urban centers through funding from non-governmental organizations, charities and private donors living in Gulf Arab countries. These secure sources of external funding allow for subsidizing the religious education of young Afghans, for example by exempting students from paying expenses related to food and housing, and are highly attractive for poorer families.

The construction of Salafist mosques and madrassas has facilitated the growth of a social base in support for Daesh and which has allowed it to challenge the Taliban since 2014. But the growing number of Salafist mosques and madrassas in Afghanistan and the subsequent modifications of religious and social practices also introduces many conflicts to local communities. In settlements located in rural areas of Afghanistan, situations abound where, after the construction of a Salafist mosque or madrassa, villagers confront each other in heated debate which can turn violent with threats expressed to destroy a new mosque. Locals observe ‘battles via loudspeakers’ where the supporters of different mullahs will try to defame each other by calling the other a bad Muslim. Adherents of traditional religious practices will accuse Salafist missionaries of introducing new religious practices, ironically turning the Salafist opposition to innovation [bidʿa] against Salafists themselves. 

 The growing influence of ‘new’ religious ideas and practices in Afghanistan inspired by Salafism is significant, particularly because they amplify a growing generational conflict. It is mostly young people who are drawn to Salafism and to Daesh, since they are exposed to these ideas in new (and subsidized) madrassas and have access to means of modern means of communication through which Daesh’s messages circulate. But the cloak of Salafism also allows the younger members of local communities to challenge the elders who may want to maintain their authority. The emergence of Daesh in Afghanistan reflects a development which also festers elsewhere throughout the southern countries and increasingly in the northern countries. Beyond the life cycle of Daesh in Iraq and Syria as an organizational entity, a major challenge lies in the growing number of Salafist jihadists among the Afghan youth. The transformation of the Afghan religious landscape through transnational networks, money and ideas continues to fragment the Sunni Muslim community in a globalizing world. As such it is a concern not just for Afghanistan but the wider political dynamics in the region.

  • 1. Meijer, Roel. 2007. “Yusuf Al-’Uyairi and the Making of a Revolutionary Salafi Praxis.” Die Welt des Islams 3–4: 422–460. Elmaz, Orhan. 2012. “Jihadi Salafist Creed: Abu Muhammad Al-Maqdisi’s Imperatives of Faith.” In New Approaches to the Analysis of Jihadism. Online and Offline, edited by Rüdiger Lohlker. Göttingen: Vienna University Press.
  • 2. Warrick, Joby. 2015. Black Flags. The Rise of ISIS. London: Transworld Publisher.
  • 3. Panda, A. (2015, 29 January). Meet the “Khorasan Shura”: The Islamic State’s leaders for South Asia. The Diplomat. Retrieved from http://thediplomat.com/2015/01/meet-the-khorasan-shura-the-islamic-state... the discourse of Daesh, “Khorasan province” refers to the restoration to Muslim land of all lands between the Caspian Sea and India with Bukhara, Balkh, Samarkand, Nishapur and Merv as its major cities and which were under Muslim rule at one point in the past. However, Khorasan at no point constituted a clear administrative or territorial unit (see Miquel, A., and Laurens, H. 2004. Der Islam – Eine Kulturgeschichte: Religion, Gesellschaft und Politik. Heidelberg: Palmyra). 
  • 4. Johnson, C. G. (2016). The rise and stall of the Islamic State in Afghanistan (Special Report No. 395). Washington, DC: United States Institute of Peace; [URL: http://www.longwarjournal.org/archives/2015/01/islamic_state_appoin.php]
  • 5. Mielke, Katka and Nick Miszak. 2017. “Making Sense of Daesh in Afghanistan: A Social Movement Perspective.” Working Paper 6. Bonn: BICC.
  • 6. This includes, for example, shouting the word “Amen” with a loud voice or different number of prayers during the Holy Month of Ramadan, the number of wives a man can marry and the recipient of marriage payments.
  • 7. Some religious authorities consider that such practices as the result of the traditional influence of Sufism in local culture or even to Hindu conspiracies to distort, spoil and weaken Islam Gul, Imtiaz. 2009. The Most Dangerous Place. Pakistan’s Lawless Frontier. New York: Penguin Group.
  • 8. Mielke, Katka and Nick Miszak. 2017. “Making Sense of Daesh in Afghanistan: A Social Movement Perspective.” Working Paper 6. Bonn: BICC.
  • 9. One of their major differences between concerns the texts which can be used as legitimate sources for legal rulings in disputes and as the basis of prescriptions for social practices.
  • 10. Monsutti, Alessandro. 2014. “The Transnational Political Economy of Civil War in Afghanistan.” In Civil War in South Asia. State, Sovereignty, and Development, edited by Aparna Sundar and Nandini Sundar, 96–117. New Dehli: SAGE.
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