Afghan officials claim that some Iranian fighters have joined the ranks of Islamic State (IS) militants in Afghanistan.
A day after police paraded an alleged Iranian national before journalists in the eastern Afghan province of Nangarhar, a lawmaker from the region said at least 10 Iranian IS fighters are active there.
“The information I now have says 10 or 12 Iranians are operating in the region comprising the homeland of the Shinwari tribe such as Achin district,” Hazrat Ali, a member of the lower house of the Afghan Parliament, told Radio Free Afghanistan on May 30. “In the past, the number of Iranian fighters in Daesh (local name of IS) exceeded 100, but I am not sure about where they went or what happened to them.”
It was not possible to independently verify his claims, but there is some evidence of the first reported presence of Iranian fighters in the IS ranks.
A day earlier, Nangarhar Police Chief Abdul Rahman Rahimi allowed journalists in the regional capital, Jalalabad, to interview one Iranian and a few Pakistani fighters he said they recently captured in the province.
“They are in front of your cameras. The nation and the world can judge for themselves who these fighters really are,” he told Afghanistan’s Tolo TV.
Kamal, a bearded young fighter, said he had spent two weeks with IS in Nangarhar.
“I joined Daesh through the Telegram [messaging app],” he said, adding he had crossed into Afghanistan in southern Nimroz Province.
“After I arrived in Kabul, I spent two nights in a hotel and then went to Nangarhar’s Chaparhar district [to join Daesh],” Tolo TV quoted him as saying.
This is the first time Afghan officials have claimed Iranian nationals are fighting for a radical Sunni group, which counts Tehran’s Shi’ite clerical regime among its foremost foes. The two are fighting against each other in Syria and Iraq.
Recent Afghan and international media reports say Tehran is allegedly supporting the Taliban to counter IS in Afghanistan. During the past two years, the Taliban have systematically eliminated IS cells in southern and western Afghan provinces bordering Iran. While most Iranians are Shi’a, some 10 percent of the country’s 80 million people are Sunni Muslims.
In Kabul, the Afghan Interior Ministry is not saying much.
“We are investigating the arrested individual who claims to be an Iranian citizen,” Interior Ministry spokesman Najib Danish told Radio Free Afghanistan. “Whatever his country, terrorists are just terrorists.”
The Iranian Embassy in Kabul said it will comment on the issue once Afghan authorities have wrapped up their investigation.
Afghan and U.S. forces have been battling IS militants in Nangarhar for nearly two years. In early 2015, the group overran several remote mountainous districts in Nangarhar’s east, which abuts Pakistan. The group dubbed itself IS Khorasan Province and began to mimic extreme atrocities -- a hallmark of IS rule in Syria and Iraq, where it still controls some regions.
IS Khorasan Province has been mostly active in Nangarhar, but its founding leader, Hafiz Saeed Khan, and most of the group’s fighters come from Pakistan. Many were members of Tehrik-e Taliban Pakistan, an umbrella coalition of Pakistani Taliban factions that now appears to be in disarray following years of counterterrorism sweeps by the Pakistani military. While it is common for Pakistani fighters to be captured on the Afghan battlefield, Iranian militants are rare.
In recent months, Afghan and U.S. military officials have repeatedly claimed to have dealt severe blows to IS.
In a statement on May 19, Afghan and U.S. forces claimed to have killed more than a dozen IS leaders and over 750 of its fighters since March. Earlier in the month, the U.S. military confirmed Abdul Hasib, an IS leader in Afghanistan, was killed in a joint U.S.-Afghan operation in Nangarhar.
"These operations will continue until ISIS [IS] Khorasan is defeated in 2017," a statement by the U.S. forces in Afghanistan said while using the local name of IS’s Afghanistan-Pakistan affiliate.
Radio Free Afghanistan correspondent Nusrat Parsa contributed reporting from Kabul, Afghanistan.