As the Taliban continues to maintain that it doesn’t allow foreign fighters in Afghanistan, a Tajik national and commander for the Al Qaeda-linked Jamaat Ansarullah remains in control of several districts in a northern Afghan province.
During the Taliban’s swift offensive across Afghanistan last spring and summer, the Taliban placed five districts in the northern province of Badakhshan under the control of Mahdi Arsalon, a Tajik national and a commander in the Al Qaeda-linked Jamaat Ansarullah (JA). Arsalon was given control of the districts by Qari Fasihuddin, an ethnic Tajik Taliban commander who served as the shadow governor of Badakhshan at the time. Fasihuddin has since been appointed to serve as the Taliban’s chief of army staff.
The clear cooperation between the Taliban and Jamaat Ansarullah directly contradicts repeated Taliban claims that their regime does not provide safe haven to foreign fighters. In an interview with CNN this past week, the Taliban’s Minister of the Interior, and leader of the Haqqani Network, Siraj Haqqani doubled down on the assertion, declaring that the Taliban does not support foreign fighters and does not allow Afghanistan to serve as a breeding ground or launching pad for terrorism.
Numerous terror groups, including Al Qaeda, the Movement of the Taliban in Pakistan, Lashkar-e-Taiba, Harakat-ul-Mujahideen, Hizbul Mujahideen, Jaish-e-Mohammed, the Turkistan Isamic Party, Katibat Imam Bukhari, and a host of others are known to operate inside Afghanistan. These groups are closely allied with the Taliban and helped the group take control of the country in order to establish the Islamic Emirate of Afghanistan.
On his Facebook account, Arsalon recently posted videos of Jamaat Ansarullah fighters, or “Tajik Taliban” forces, operating along the Afghanistan-Tajikistan border in Badakhshan’s districts of Kuf Ab, Khwahan, Maimay, Nusay, and Shekay.
Arsalon, also known as Muhamma Sharifov, was born in the Rasht Valley in eastern Tajikistan. He joined Jamaat Ansarullah in 2014. Described as “dangerous and ruthless,” Arsalon followed the jihadist footsteps of his father and elder brother, both of whom were killed by Tajik security forces. He acted as a recruiter for the organization before climbing the ranks to a leadership role that allowed him to assume command in Badakhshan.
Jamaat Ansarullah: Operating in Afghanistan for two decades
Jamaat Ansarullah is an al Qaeda-linked terrorist organization that emerged in Tajikistan in 2006 as a Tajik-focused offshoot of the Islamic Movement of Uzbekistan (IMU). The group first rose to prominence with a sucide bombing in Khujand, the capital of Tajikistan’s Sughd region, in Sept. 2010.
That bombing, targeting the local police headquarters, killed 3 people and injured an additional 25. Local officials stated the bomber trained in al Qaeda’s camps in Pakistan’s tribal areas. In 2012, the group was banned from Tajikistan as an extremist organization that threatened the state.
The terrorist organization, which aims to replace the government in Dushanbe with an Islamic regime, has operated in northern Afghanistan since its inception, receiving support from the IMU and the Taliban. Even after its leader, Mullah Amriddin Tabarov, was killed by Afghan forces in 2015, JA maintained its presence in Afghanistan, including training facilities.
However, in Afghanistan, doubts emerged about JA’s manpower and capabilities, as reports indicated it had less than 100 fighters. Despite its size, the Tajik terrorist group continued recruiting in Afghanistan, Pakistan, Central Asia, and even Russia, with dozens of members arrested in Russia and Tajikistan.
On the ground, it previously highlighted conducting joint operations with other foreign jihadist groups, particularly the ethnic Uyghur Turkistan Islamic Party and the ethnic Uzbek Islamic Jihad Union, itself also a splinter from the IMU, in northern Afghanistan.
In its propaganda from Afghanistan, it routinely featured prominent al Qaeda commanders, in addition to using clips from other al Qaeda groups, such as Shabaab in Somalia, the former Al Nusrah Front in Syria (now Hay’at Tahrir al Sham), and the Turkistan Islamic Party.
In July 2021, as the Taliban gobbled up territory against the hapless ANDSF, it entrusted the protection of five districts in Badakhshan to JA under Mahdi Arsalon, a Tajik national. In 2021, Tajik authorities estimated that Arsalon commanded approximately 200 Tajik fighters in this section of Badakhshan, contradicting the Taliban’s claims that its ranks did not include foreign fighters, especially Tajiks.
In September 2021, Tajik security reports indicated that Arsalon was planning JA operations to infiltrate Tajikistan. After Kabul fell, Arsalon allegedly consulted Taliban leaders in the Afghan capital for operational guidance.
The only way Taliban can propagate its lie about the supposed lack of foreign fighters in Afghanistan is by integrating these forces within its hierarchy, as they are clearly attempting with Arsalan and his contingent from JA.