SURKH DEWAL, AFGHANISTAN – Fighters loyal to the Islamic State have seized substantial swaths of territory in Afghanistan for the first time, witnesses and officials said, wresting areas in the east from rival Taliban insurgents in a new threat to stability.
Witnesses who fled fighting in Nangarhar province said that hundreds of insurgents pledging allegiance to the Islamic State pushed out the Taliban, scorching opium poppy fields that help to fund the Taliban’s campaign to overthrow the Afghan government.
They also distributed directives purportedly from the Islamic State’s Middle East-based chief, Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi, although it was not clear whether he issued them for the Afghan theater or if previous edicts may have been translated.
“They (Islamic State loyalists) came in on many white pickup trucks mounted with big machine guns and fought the Taliban. The Taliban could not resist and fled,” said Haji Abdul Jan, a tribal elder from Achin district.
Jan, who saw the early June clashes before fleeing to the provincial capital of Jalalabad, said some villagers welcomed the new arrivals.
“Unlike the Taliban, they (Islamic State fighters) don’t force villagers to feed and house them. Instead, they have lots of cash in their pockets and spend it on food and luring young villagers to join them.”
Their accounts are the clearest sign yet that, beyond a few defections by low-level Taliban leaders and sporadic attacks, Islamic State sympathizers pose a more persistent threat.
Islamic State loyalists, mostly former Taliban disillusioned by the movement’s unsuccessful bid to return to power in Kabul, are accompanied by dozens of foreign fighters, witnesses said.
The black Islamic State flag has been hoisted in some areas, and foreign fighters preach in mosques through translators.
The identity of the non-Afghan insurgents is not known. Hundreds of militants from around the world already hide out along the Afghan-Pakistan border.
Local officials said fighters following Islamic State have seized some territory from the Taliban in at least six of 21 Nangarhar districts.
They are Kot, Achin, Deh Bala, Naziyan, Rodat and Chaparhar, according to provincial council chief Ahmad Ali Hazrat and Nangarhar member of parliament Haji Hazrat Ali. Local army spokesman Noman Atefi said the Islamic State has established a presence in “seven or eight” districts.
Battles between the rival militants are ongoing in Khog-yani and Pachir Agam districts, they said.
While the central government controls the vast majority of Afghanistan, events in Nangarhar are ominous for security forces struggling to contain the Taliban insurgency after most NATO forces withdrew six months ago.
Islamic State supporters have proved ruthless, reportedly beheading several Taliban commanders, and the group’s success in taking over swaths of Iraq and Syria underlines the risks to Afghanistan.
Government officials and the U.S.-led training force question whether Islamic State can gain a significant foothold in Afghanistan, given that direct links with the Middle East have not been proven and the Taliban remains dominant.
However, Islamic State loyalists in Nangarhar are described as organized and well funded.
Under the shade of a mud wall in a makeshift refugee camp in Surkh Dewal, outside the city of Jalalabad, about 30 men recalled encounters with Islamic State fighters. The areas they come from are considered too dangerous for journalists to visit.
Abdul Wali, a green-eyed refugee from Achin in his 20s, said he listened to foreign fighters preaching in Arabic in local mosques through translators.
“They tell them about Islam and what people should do and should not do,” Wali said.
Islamic State fighters also distribute pamphlets “to warn the people against many crimes,” said tribal elder Haji Abdul Hakim, from Kot district.
One letter smuggled from Pachir Agam district was purportedly from al-Baghdadi.
“All mujahedeen fighters are invited to carry out this holy war under one flag, which is the Islamic State,” it said.
The Taliban, which issued its own warning to the Islamic State not to interfere in Afghanistan, acknowledged losing ground in Nangarhar, but said their rivals are not Islamic State.
“They are thieves and thugs. . . . We will soon clear those areas and free the villagers,” said Taliban spokesman Zabihullah Mujahid. The movement ruled Afghanistan from the mid-1990s until 2001, when a U.S.-led campaign helped oust it from power.
Witnesses said Islamic State fighters have established a stricter regime in Nangarhar than the Taliban, who, while still harsh, softened their rule to gain popular support, said Malek Jan, a tribal elder who fled Spinghar, another affected area.
“They (Islamic State fighters) burned poppy fields in Shadal village and banned shops from selling cigarettes,” Jan said.
Opium smuggling and taxing poppy production are key sources of Taliban revenue.
Islamic State loyalists in Nangarhar appeared to have other sources of money.
Several people said they have plenty of cash, and some heard militants are selling gold, unusual for the area.
It is unclear where the money is coming from.
While there is little evidence of direct links between Islamic State forces in the Middle East and militants fighting under its banner in Afghanistan, officials in Kabul worry that money and personnel may begin to flow, taking the war to a new level.
The NATO-led military assistance force said it viewed reports of more money flowing to Islamic State offshoots as “exaggerated,” spokesman Col. Brian Tribus said.
He added NATO had “not seen any indication” that IS had completely driven out the Taliban from parts of Nangarhar, and said any foreign fighters were likely to be global jihadis established in the region, and not newcomers.
Government forces in Nangarhar confirmed clashes between the Taliban and Islamic State offshoots, but army spokesman Atefi said they were not targeting Islamic State militants.
Achin’s district chief, Malek Islam, also said Afghan forces are not confronting Islamic State fighters, who he said are “almost everywhere in the district,” but are targeting the Taliban.
“They (Islamic State) haven’t attacked us, and we haven’t engaged them either,” he said.
Islam spoke by phone from Achin’s district center, which the government holds despite having limited control beyond, as is the case in several districts in Afghanistan’s east and south.
Interior Minister Noor ul-Haq Olomi, however, said police have engaged the militants.
“We have launched a couple of clearance operations in some districts of Nangarhar and we will continue to do so to deny any terrorist group territory,” Olomi said in a statement.
Michael Kugelman, a South Asia scholar at the Woodrow Wilson International Center in Washington, said while most Afghan militants remain loyal to the Taliban, the Islamic State “brand” of more brutal tactics appeals to some younger fighters.
Adding money into the mix could add to the attraction.
“For some hardened and impressionable radicals, bling could be as appealing as barbarity,” he said.