Mullah Ibrahim, a stocky white-bearded cleric, was leading two men in prayer at dusk earlier this month when three assailants approached his mosque in rural Zabul province’s pomegranate grove.
According to witnesses, one of them climbed over a low clay wall behind the two worshipers who were engrossed in prayer, approached the cleric, and shot him in the face. When the mullah collapsed, another person shot him four times in the chest.
The assailants have yet to be identified. Villagers in Afghanistan’s southern Zabul province’s Mizan district said the cleric was linked to the Taliban’s archenemy, the Islamic State Khorasan Province, or ISKP.
It was the latest in a string of assassinations of religious figures linked to the ISKP, the Islamic State’s regional affiliate, since the Taliban overthrew the Afghan republic and seized Kabul on August 15.
Western officials and Afghan residents in the affected areas believe the killings were carried out by the Taliban. The Taliban has publicly denied responsibility, but has privately admitted to killing a number of ISKP militants.
Both the Taliban and the ISKP want to impose strict Islamic rule in Afghanistan, but they have deep religious and political differences and have clashed on numerous occasions.
The Islamic State’s Afghan franchise, also known as ISIS-K, poses a threat to the country’s new rulers because it was formed by former Afghan and Pakistani Taliban members who believed the insurgency was not radical enough.
Now, the Islamic State may attract disgruntled Taliban foot soldiers who may disagree with potential compromises made by Taliban leaders as they seek diplomatic recognition and the resumption of foreign aid.
As they transition from guerrilla-style insurgency to government, the Taliban are working hard to suffocate any challenge to their rule.
“We make no distinction between the Islamic State and Americans. “Anywhere they rise up, we finish them,” Safiullah Haroun, a Taliban intelligence officer in Zabul, said in an interview.
Mr. Haroun stated that he recently attempted to arrest a local Islamic State cleric in a village near Makrak, but was unsuccessful and instead detained his son.
He downplayed the group’s current threat. “We killed all of them,” he said of Islamic State fighters, but he denied any involvement in Mullah Ibrahim’s death.
Hamidullah Fitrat, a Taliban spokesman for Zabul, stated that the Taliban did not kill the mullah and that the incident is being investigated.
The Islamic State has made no comment on Mullah Ibrahim’s death.
In recent weeks, a wave of ISKP attacks has sought to destabilize the Taliban’s hold on power, with several improvised explosive devices targeting Taliban Humvees and Ford Rangers in Jalalabad, one of the Islamic State’s strongholds. On August 26, an Islamic State suicide bomber targeted a Kabul airport gate, killing approximately 200 Afghan civilians attempting to flee the country as well as 13 US troops.
The Islamic State, which has been responsible for some of the most heinous attacks in recent years in Afghanistan, particularly against Shiite civilians in cities, rejects the concept of a nation state as well as peace with those it regards as infidels.
Following the withdrawal of the United States and its allies’ sophisticated surveillance and intelligence-gathering systems last month, the group is likely to intensify its attacks, with less fear of being detected and stopped, according to Western officials and analysts.
According to Michael Semple, an Afghanistan expert at Queen’s University Belfast, this poses a political problem for the Taliban. “When your [Ford] Rangers are blown up from under you, Taliban promises of everlasting peace look hollow,” he said, referring to the pickup trucks commonly used by the Taliban.
While offering amnesty to former Afghan republic security officers, the Taliban has shown no mercy to the Islamic State, killing one of the group’s main leaders in a Kabul prison hours after seizing the Afghan capital.
Abu Obaidullah Mutawakkil and Muhammad Nabi Muhammadi, two prominent clerics suspected of sympathizing with the Islamic State, were found dead in Kabul earlier this month. The Taliban also denied any involvement in the killings.
The bodies of four people were discovered in Jalalabad on Wednesday. Arafat Mahajir, the Taliban’s acting director of information and culture in the country, said in a WhatsApp group that they were killed because of their ties to the Islamic State.
In another WhatsApp message obtained by the Journal, Taliban intelligence in Zabul asked residents to provide information on people in their communities suspected of sympathizing with the Islamic State. In recent days, the Taliban arrested six clerics in three districts of Zabul, suspecting them of working for the Islamic State, according to a Taliban fighter in the province.
Zabul province, an inhospitable desert region with rugged scrubland, is one of the poorest in the country and has long been home to militant figures who have staged powerful insurgencies.
According to Taliban officials and American researchers, this is where the Taliban’s own founder, Mullah Omar, lived for more than a decade after the US invasion toppled the regime in 2001. Mullah Omar died in 2013 while living near an American base.
The Taliban leadership did not reveal Mullah Omar’s death until 2015. The admission sparked a schism between a senior commander, Mullah Dadullah, and the movement’s new leader, Mullah Akhtar Mansour. Both men were later killed.
Mullah Dadullah based himself in Zabul, where he hosted hundreds of Islamic State fighters and formed an alliance with militants from the Islamic Movement of Uzbekistan, another radical group that swore allegiance to the ISKP. Zabul became one of the Islamic State’s first strongholds in Afghanistan as a result of the alliance.
The Taliban assassinated Mullah Dadullah that year during a bloody offensive that uprooted the Islamic State’s base in Zabul. According to Zabul residents, Mullah Ibrahim was one of the few ISKP sympathizers who escaped.
Mullah Ibrahim returned to Zabul last year after joining another faction of the Islamic State in the northwestern city of Herat, eventually settling in the tiny hamlet of Makrak. Unaware of his previous allegiances, the village’s 20 residing families offered him a share of the village’s pomegranate profits in exchange for a year’s employment at the mosque.
“We required the services of a mullah. “We didn’t know he was with the Islamic State until after he died, “said Yamatullah, a villager who only goes by one name. “He was a well-informed scholar.”
Mullah Ibrahim had only been working there for a few months when his assassins tracked him down.
“He had to do something,” Sada Gul, one of the men who witnessed the murder, said. Mullah Ibrahim’s wife and children fled the village following his death.
“The Islamic State is attempting to regroup,” a resident of the neighboring district of Dey Chopan said. “That’s why the Taliban is attempting to assassinate them.”