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Taliban fissures in Afghanistan are seen as an opening for Islamic State

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KANDAHAR, Afghanistan » Across a violent swath of southern Afghanistan, rumors are swirling about a band of former Taliban fighters who have claimed allegiance to the Islamic State and are said to be fighting their former comrades for dominance.

Reports of a firefight this month between the competing bands of jihadis in the remote district of Kajaki, in Helmand province, quickly created a stir. Some Afghan officials described a growing threat from the Islamic State, also known as ISIS, more than 1,000 miles from its home territory.

But interviews with Western and Afghan officials, along with accounts from local residents, the Taliban and a militant who described himself as a subcommander in the new Islamic State band, pointed less to a major expansion of the Islamic State than to another example of internal divisions within the Taliban.

After years of war against the U.S.-led military coalition and the new Afghan security forces, the Taliban’s cohesiveness has increasingly come into question. In particular, the long absence of the movement’s reclusive leader, Mullah Muhammad Omar, is said to be driving discontent within the Afghan Taliban ranks.

In that environment, the Islamic State’s rush of success on the battlefields of Syria and Iraq has created a new banner for disgruntled Taliban to adopt.

The militant commander at the center of the concerns in Helmand province is a prominent former Taliban leader, Mullah Abdul Rauf Khadim. He was detained at the Guantanamo Bay military prison for several years, then returned to the Taliban ranks after his release, serving as a provincial-level military commander.

He has since fallen out with his fellow insurgents, and he is said by some to be calling for recruits to support him in his new role as the local leader of the Islamic State. But descriptions of the extent of that schism vary.

Local Taliban figures and their neighbors are dismissive of claims that Khadim has established a significant new Islamic State cell in Helmand province.

"He has nothing to do with the Islamic State," Hajji Durani, a farmer with relatives in the Taliban, said. He lives near Khadim’s village in Kajaki and says he sees the former Talib daily, usually accompanied by a dozen or so longtime supporters.

The local Taliban commander, Mullah Mohammad Shah, also dismissed claims that the Islamic State was active in Kajaki, or elsewhere in Helmand.

"We have not seen any Islamic State militants on the move in Kajaki," he said by telephone. "We know Mullah Abdul Rauf Khadim. He was a member of the Taliban, but now he is sitting at home."

Others disagree. Hajji Mullah Sahib, a tribal elder in Kajaki, says Khadim is actively recruiting under the Islamic State banner and has had success. Two pickup trucks full of fighters and their families moved nearby recently.

"They are trying to find people, sending out letters to people to support them," the elder said.

Another tribal elder, Hajji Sharin, said Khadim was pressing his old Taliban comrades to join. "He has asked them to renege from the Taliban, and he is working to bring Islamic State to Kajaki," Sharin said.

In interviews, a man who called himself Hajji Mirwais said he had joined the Islamic State as a deputy under Khadim and claimed that their cell numbered 300 fighters. He said that Khadim had been alienated by Mullah Omar’s long silence and had doubts about the Taliban’s exiled leadership.

"Before, field commanders received direction and guidance from Mullah Omar, but we haven’t heard from Mullah Omar for several years," Mirwais said. "This is our big concern. We respect Mullah Omar. But if he is alive, why does he not appear and guide us?"

Local Taliban members later said that a man named Hajji Mirwais used to be a Taliban fighter under Khadim and had been seen with him recently.

Western officials say they are closely following reports about the Islamic State in Afghanistan and trying to discern whether the Islamic State is attracting a new generation of militants or mostly providing a rebranding opportunity for veteran Taliban fighters.

Gen. John F. Campbell, commander of the U.S.-led coalition in Afghanistan, said in an interview that his staff was investigating reports of Islamic State recruiting, including night letter drops at a university in Jalalabad and Khadim’s effort in Helmand.

So far, Campbell said, the results seem to be limited. But he added: "I don’t want to discount this. ISIS in Syria and Iraq went so quickly, and people don’t want that to happen here."

Campbell also said that the Islamic State’s message might prove attractive to disaffected Taliban members.

"They may be disgruntled and turn to Daesh, thinking they’ll get resources and a bigger name," he said, using the Arabic acronym for the Islamic State. "I think there will be people trying to get on the bandwagon."

Campbell included Khadim in that group, saying, "He’s looking for another way to be relevant."

This is not the first time that reports about the Islamic State have surfaced in Afghanistan. Last year, local Afghan officials in Ghazni claimed that the Islamic State was beheading people in Ajristan District. Later, one Afghan official admitted that he had made up the rumors to persuade Kabul to deploy more troops to his area, according to two Western officials who spoke on condition of anonymity to discuss intelligence matters.

But the Islamic State’s quick march through Syria and Iraq has clearly captured the attention of militants in Afghanistan, who despite significant gains in some areas this year have been unable to seize and hold any major district centers. One U.N. report noted that some Taliban splinter groups would "glorify" the Islamic State over the Internet.

A jihadi video online shows a group of militant commanders announcing that 10 insurgent leaders from Pakistan and eastern Afghanistan had sworn fealty to Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi, the leader of the Islamic State. In the video, which ends in a prisoner’s beheading, one insurgent leader claimed that Afghan adherents to the Islamic State included militant groups in Kunar, Logar and Nangarhar provinces.

But it is unclear whether the Islamic State would make much headway in Afghanistan, where a range of Sunni militants has long organized around the Taliban, whose ideology and goals are mostly locally focused and quite distinct from jihadi groups with international aims.

For other reasons, the Islamic State may find recruitment in Afghanistan more difficult than in Iraq and Syria, where much of the Sunni population welcomed the jihadis after years of marginalization and abuse by Shiite leaders. In Afghanistan, the Sunnis have long been dominant.

Campbell alluded to those differences when discussing the Islamic State’s prospects in Afghanistan.

"We think it’s going to be a hard message to sell to the Afghans," he said.

But he said he was curious about the political effects of Islamic State recruiting in Taliban territory, as appeared to be happening with Khadim’s group in Helmand.

"It will be interesting to see if the Taliban takes action against them," Campbell said.

Both Khadim’s camp and the Taliban said there had been one clash so far. Mirwais, the purported Islamic State deputy, spoke of a clash "one month ago, in which one of my men was killed by the Taliban." The local Taliban commander, Shah, confirmed that a firefight had occurred in Kajaki, saying it had been over control of a checkpoint, not an emerging Islamic State.

Residents of Kajaki say they are seeing signs of doctrinal differences between the militant camps. One of the first issues involved the decoration of graves, of which Khadim reportedly disapproves. Residents say he removed the flags and sticks that marked where his relatives were buried.

For his part, Shah said he was not yet certain how his group of Taliban, or the wider organization, would respond to fighters who claimed allegiance to the Islamic State.

"If the Islamic State shows their faces in Kajaki, or in Helmand," he said, "we will listen to the supreme leadership of the Taliban for how to respond or what to do against them."

The overall spokesman for the Afghan Taliban, Zabiullah Mujahid, seemed to suggest that some discussion of policy toward Islamic State upstarts had begun.

"After watching the recent Islamic State video, in which some people take an oath to follow them, we accordingly began an investigation to reach the bottom of the issue," Mujahid said in an interview. "Our investigation is underway."

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