Taking Aim: Islamic State Khorasan's Leadership Losses.

AuthorJadoon, Amira

The clandestine nature of terrorist organizations often means that it is difficult to assess the composition of their resource bases or the configuration and size of their leadership structures. While past studies have assessed Islamic State Khorasan's--the group's wilaya (province) in Afghanistan and Pakistan--organizational capacity by examining its network of operational alliances with local groups, and patterns of its tactics and target choices, (1) to the authors' knowledge, no systematic study has analyzed wide-ranging counterterrorism (CT) efforts against the group to gain insights about one of its most important elements--the group's leadership.

This article exploits publicly reported accounts of the group's leadership losses between 2015 and 2018, against the backdrop of its operational activity, to gain new insights about ISK's militant base, an important source of its demonstrated resiliency. The authors first provide a brief overview of extensive CT efforts against a seemingly resilient ISK to establish the case for examining ISK's leadership losses more closely. This is followed by a description of the methodology used, the data collected, and a discussion of key findings. While scholarly literature on the effectiveness of leadership decapitation remains mixed, this study finds considerable geographical variation in the effect of leadership losses on ISK's violent capacity, reflective of the importance of sub-national operational environments. While ISK's total leadership losses appear to have curtailed its attacks in some regions, they remain steady in others. Examining ISK's leadership losses in the aggregate by tiers, year, and geography highlights the difficulty facing Afghan and Pakistani security forces to penetrate the two hubs of ISK activity (Nangarhar and Baluchistan) and the critical role of experienced Pakistani militants in sustaining ISK's leadership.

ISK's Persistence in the Face of Losses

Since the official formation of its Afghanistan and Pakistan province in January 2015, the ISK's campaign of terror against state and civilian targets has garnered the attention of regional and global policymakers. More recently, the Islamic State's loss of its final territorial holding in Syria's Baghouz in March 2019 and its return to guerrilla tactics in the Syria/Iraq region have resulted in speculation about which of the organization's many wilayat might be the next big challenge to global CT efforts. Arguably, the Islamic State's wing in Afghanistan and Pakistan has the potential to become ISK's most dangerous provinces. This is not only because of ISK's demonstrated capacity thus far, but its potential to attract surplus resources from Islamic State 'Central,' which is estimated to currently have between $50 and $300 million in funds. (2) However, Islamic State Central's ability to liquidate and transfer funds to its branches around the world, much of which were generated during the caliphate era, (3) remains unclear. But ISK does not appear to be entirely dependent on the center for resources; the group has reportedly exploited local mineral, lumber, and talc black markets, in addition to extortion and kidnapping for ransom. (4) More generally, the existing security landscape in Afghanistan and Pakistan's weakly governed areas (with inadequate law enforcement and illegal smuggling routes) furnishes the Khorasan province with a permissive operating environment for terrorist groups. As such, ISK is not only considered to be a regional threat but--according to some analysts--one that is capable of facilitating attacks against Western countries. (5)

Recent organizational changes by the Islamic State, which saw the emergence of Islamic State-Pakistan as well as Islamic State-Hind (India) in May 2019, indicate the group's intention to continue its efforts across the region. (6) Although it is too early to understand fully the drivers or implications of these changes, the creation of Islamic State-Pakistan and Islamic State-Hind suggests an organizational restructuring of Islamic State's presence in the region. (3) While this is likely to create some organizational redundancy across the region, it can allow the Islamic State to better modulate and manage differences in strategy, tactics, and membership relevant to each specific country. (7) Establishing multiple Islamic State branches by country in South-Central Asia is likely to give more autonomy to the leadership in each country, an ability to exploit local developments and circumvent disputes amongst leaders.

ISK has retained its status as a politically relevant terrorist organization despite having repeatedly clashed with both state and non-state actors and having suffered significant militant losses. In both Afghanistan and Pakistan, ISK has endured extensive military operations tailored to undermine the group's militant base; (8) such CT efforts have resulted in the killing of ISK individuals in leadership roles at the provincial, district, and sub-district level. (9) This may be a reasonable strategy in some circumstances, given that leadership decapitation has been shown to increase mortality rates of terrorist groups. (b) In early 2016, the U.S. military gained broader authority to launch airstrikes against Islamic State operatives and loyalists within Afghanistan; (10) it subsequently deployed its most powerful non-nuclear bomb on an ISK camp in Nangarhar in April 2017. (11) U.S. airstrikes have killed numerous prominent ISK leaders based in Afghanistan. In August 2018, the U.S. military confirmed the death of Abu Saad Orakzai in Nangarhar, marking the fourth announcement of the killing of an ISK emir (head of the group). (12)

In Pakistan as well, targeted efforts against ISK have resulted in the arrests of several high-profile leaders. (13) One of the more prominent arrests involved the capture of the head of ISKs network in Sindh province, Ujmar Kathiwer (also spelled Umer Kathio), in January 2016. Prior to joining the Islamic State, Kathiwer, based out of Karachi, had been networking recruits on behalf of al-Qa'ida since 2011. (14) His defection to ISK marks one of several former AQIS militants who became prominent leaders within ISK's network in Pakistan, including the network of individuals responsible for carrying out the Safoora Goth Massacre in Karachi in May 2015, an attack on a bus carrying Shi'a Muslims that left over 40 dead. (15)

The above examples illustrate only a few of ISKs high-level losses. Despite the existence of numerous reports of ISKs militants being successfully targeted, there is currently alack of an overarching open-source assessment of the landscape of ISKs losses across the AfPak region since 2015. To the extent possible, answering the following questions can enhance understanding of the expanse of ISKs operational base and corresponding activity:

* What results have operations against ISK yielded in terms of leadership losses across Afghanistan and Pakistan over the span of four years?

* In what capacity and roles did these individuals operate?

* Which areas have emerged as the hotspots of ISKs leadership cadres?

* What do we know about the countries of origin and prior affiliations of ISKs leaders?

A detailed examination of the who, where, and how of ISKs leadership losses can shed light on the structure and nature of its leadership and the rate at which the group is able to replenish its leadership ranks.

Methodology and Coding of Leadership Tiers

To answer these questions, the authors compiled an original database by analyzing and coding open-source reports regarding deaths, captures, and surrenders of all ISK militants between January 2015 and December 2018. The database captures various characteristics pertaining to the individuals targeted in counterterrorism efforts by coalition forces and Afghan and Pakistani security forces. This article draws on a subset of this larger database to focus specifically on the loss of ISK members who were reported to be in some type of a leadership position. The leadership losses subset makes up approximately 4.1% of all ISK personnel losses recorded in the larger database (the latter captures all ISK operatives and loyalists reported killed, wounded, arrested/captured, and surrendered across the AfPak region). With regard to interpretation of the data presented in this study, an important limitation to consider is the authors' reliance on open-source resources in the English language, resulting in data that does not include information that may have only been reported in regional languages. Another limitation of this study is linked to the general nature of reporting about military operations in conflict regions; it is likely that some operations in Afghanistan-Pakistan were under-reported in areas that were inaccessible by local, national, or international reporters to confirm or deny outcomes. Collectively, these limitations are likely to make the authors' data more conservative approximations of ISKs losses. (c) Figure 1 shows the four-tiered approach employed to code the relative ranking of ISK leaders killed or captured primarily in CT operations. Operational tactics used against ISK included drone strikes, airstrikes, ground force operations, police/security forces arrests, and artillery shelling." (1)

Tier 1 consists solely of emirs of the entire ISK organization. (e) As of the...

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