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When Islamic State showed up in a corner of Afghanistan, 'Nothing was safe, not even the cows'

When Islamic State showed up in a corner of Afghanistan, 'Nothing was safe, not even the cows'
A member of the Afghan security services escorts alleged members of Islamic State arrested during an operation in the Bati Kot district of Nangarhar province, Afghanistan, on May 9. (Ghulamullah Habibi / European Pressphoto Agency)

When the outsiders first arrived in the eastern Afghan district of Shinwar, they made no effort to hide their allegiances.

“We are part of Daesh,” they said, using the Arabic-language acronym by which the Iraq- and Syria-based Islamic State group is known.

At first, they tried to reassure residents. “Our fight is with the Taliban, not you,” local Afghans recall them saying. 

Before long, the outsiders had driven out the Taliban.

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"That's when they showed who they were," said Azmat Khan, a shepherd from Shinwar.

What ensued was a reign of terror of a sort that is becoming increasingly familiar in Afghanistan as Islamic State attempts to expand its presence. The government of President Ashraf Ghani insists that it is making inroads against the group, but many ordinary Afghans say much more needs to be done. And in places like Shinwar, some have found that their only resort is to flee.

"They have no shame," Khan said, recalling the group's takeover of Shinwar. "Whatever they liked -- goods in stores, our homes, our livestock, even our firewood -- they took. The schools they didn't close, they burned."

We had heard of Daesh, but we couldn't imagine just how little honor they had until they came to our mosque.


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Sher Agha, also from Shinwar, recalled the violence and threats.

"They killed people, especially those trying to flee, in plain sight," he said. "They held people for ransom. They began to ask everyone, even teachers, for payments. They would say: 'We are mujahids, it is our right.'

"Nothing was safe, not even the cows."

Even when hundreds of families began to flee last year, both men tried to persuade their families to wait it out. But as time passed, it became increasingly clear that the situation was getting only worse.

Three months ago, they joined 100 other families making a desperate nighttime escape.

"We knew they would kill us on sight, but we had no choice. I refused to have my family trapped by these men," said Khan.

Both men now work as day laborers helping to build a mosque in the Sorkh Rod district, about 45 miles from Shinwar. Their children beg and panhandle on the streets of Jalalabad, the provincial capital of Nangarhar province.

Their accounts, though horrific, are not rare. Residents speaking to The Times from several districts of Nangarhar recalled similar threats and abuses that forced them from their homes.

Mohammad Khan, a shepherd from Nangarhar's Bati Kot district, said his community of 300 families fled to the outskirts of Kabul, the Afghan capital, after a face-to-face meeting with newly arrived Islamic State fighters.

"We had heard of Daesh, but we couldn't imagine just how little honor they had until they came to our mosque," he said.

The fighters arrived on motorcycles 15 days before last year's Ramadan, and Khan said they made it clear what they wanted. "They told us to hand over our men to fight alongside them," he said.

If that was expected, it was the next demand that left the Bati Kot residents in shock.

"They said: 'We heard there are widows here. Give them to us, they will serve our mujahids,'" Khan said. "What Muslim, but especially an Afghan, would dare to ask for a community's women?"

The men of Bati Kot who gathered that summer night were shaken by what they saw as the fighters' disregard for Afghan morals. They tried to hide their fear. They asked for a few days to discuss the matter with their elders.

"We fled that night," Khan said.

More than a year after the national unity government first confirmed the group's presence in Afghanistan, even residents living in areas under their control say they understand little about Islamic State's motives, leadership or support base.

They describe the fighters as a mix of Afghans, Pakistanis, Chechens and Uzbeks. All carry the latest weapons and offer young men salaries in dollars -- up to $600 a month -- to fight alongside them.

"If they didn't have dollars, why would anyone join them?" said Sher Agha, the Shinwar resident.

Concerns over Islamic State come after Kabul and Washington made battling the group a cornerstone of their counter-terrorism policies.

In February, the U.S.-led international military coalition in Afghanistan announced that it would step up the use of airstrikes in the fight against Islamic State.

"We have significantly increased our pressure on Daesh in Afghanistan," said Army Brig. Gen. Wilson "Al" Shoffner, deputy chief of staff for communication for the mission.

Afghan officials in Kabul credit the airstrikes, and their own actions, for what they say is a greatly reduced Islamic State presence in the country.

Afghan President Ashraf Ghani during the Anti-Corruption Summit in London on May 12.
Afghan President Ashraf Ghani during the Anti-Corruption Summit in London on May 12. (Facundo Arrizabalaga / European Pressphoto Agency)

Ghani, the president, said in March that the government's actions have dealt a major blow to Islamic State. "I promised the people of Nangarhar that no quarter would be given to Daesh, and none has been given," he told reporters. "In Nangarhar, Daesh is on the run."

Nevertheless, lawmakers in Nangarhar say not enough has been done and Islamic State is expanding into new territory. They contrast the government's determination to defeat the Taliban with what they see as a lackluster approach to Islamic State.

"In other provinces, people fighting the Taliban are given every manner of support," said Haji Abdul Zaher Qadir, a lawmaker from Nangarhar.

Zaher said a "people's uprising" he led in Nangarhar isolated Islamic State and cut off its supply lines. However, a lack of government support for his efforts has allowed Islamic State forces to spread to several other areas, he said.

Both Zaher and a rival lawmaker, Hazrat Ali, said Islamic State fighters have now spread across the east and into  the provinces of Kunar, Nuristan, Khost and Paktia.

Addressing the Afghan Senate last week, Tayyib Ata, a senator from Kunar, said more than 3,000 Islamic State forces were present in six of Kunar's 15 districts. These forces -- mostly young men -- are now recruiting other young men within Kunar, Ata said.

And despite Ghani's assurances, one of his aides suggested that Islamic State's influence was, in fact, spreading. After touring several northern provinces this spring, the high-level aide, who asked not to be named because he is not authorized to speak publicly, said he saw evidence of small Islamic State-affiliated contingents as far as Kunduz and Badakhshan provinces, hundreds of miles to the north.

Atta Mohammad Noor, the powerful governor of the northern province of Balkh, said he had seen evidence that Islamic State was trying to make inroads in Balkh, hundreds of miles to the north.

The conflicting reports about the group have left many Afghans perplexed. How, they ask, has the group managed to gain a foothold despite opposition from Washington and Kabul?

"Before they couldn't control a 50-kilometer square area in Nangarhar," said Zaher. "Now they've managed to make it all the way to Badakhshan."

Special correspondent Mohmand reported from Sorkh Rod, Afghanistan, and Latifi from Kabul, Afghanistan.

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