Islamic State militants are promising $500 monthly salaries, housing and weapons training to lure Muslim Russians to join their cause in eastern Afghanistan and the tribal belt in Pakistan, say witnesses.
The new Russian recruits joined militants from Tajikistan, Afghanistan, Uzbekistan, the Chechen Republic and the Middle East, said the witnesses, who have seen Russians enter the training centers.
The Soufan Group, a New York security firm, released a report on Dec. 6 suggesting that more than 2,400 Russians have joined Islamic State, also known as ISIS or Daesh. That would make Russia the third largest nation with foreign fighters joining the terrorist group. Tunisia is first, followed by Saudi Arabia.
Witnesses spotted the new recruits in the Achin District of Nangarhar Province, Afghanistan, bordering Pakistan. The recruits began entering the district several months ago, but more are joining now even as U.S.- led coalition airstrikes proceed against IS targets in that region.
Achin District Gov. Haji Ghaleeb, told American Media Institute that “Daesh is trying to capture the district but our Afghan forces still have control over the city.”
U.S. military airstrikes and Afghan forces killed more than 200 Islamic State militants in the area in recent months and operations are expected to continue throughout the winter, the governor said.
Islamic State militants also have established training facilities and camps in Nazyan, Shinwari and Kot districts in eastern Afghanistan, Western and Afghan intelligence officials said.
At least 600 recruits participated in December in military exercises at a training center in the village of Bandar, near the Pakistan and Afghanistan border, Western and Pakistani intelligence officials said. Of those 600, it’s not clear how many were Russian but most were speaking the language.
The recruits in the mountainous border region train to fire assault weapons, build bombs, and ride motorcycles in tactical operations, as well as receive strict religious indoctrination, according to videos obtained by American Media Institute.
The Islamic State militants show videos in Afghan villages as a recruitment tool. Some videos show young students in Iraq who have been recruited to schools labeled by Islamic State “sharia science” schools, where they are taught to become terrorists. Other videos show beheadings, fighting, amputations and torture.
Islamic State militants recruit by offering a “$500 monthly salary for poor villagers to join them in their fight,” said Theodore Karasik, a senior advisor for Gulf State Analytics. That is far more than the $100 to $120 U.S. dollars a month villagers typically earn. But the lure of Jihad, or holy war, is an even greater incentive for foreign fighters, counter-terrorism officials added.
Many Afghan villagers and former supporters of the Taliban have become disheartened after the belated announcement last year of the death of the Taliban leader Mullah Omar. “Many believe the Taliban kept Omar’s death a secret to keep the organization under their control,” said a western official who spoke under the condition of anonymity due for security reasons. Omar reportedly died in 2013.
Retired Pakistan Army Brigadier Saad Khan said Islamic State is targeting a younger generation to replace al-Qaeda, which means recruiting children 10 or even younger.
Islamic State militants have established various sanctuaries in Nangarhar, Kunar and Noristan provinces of Afghanistan, Khan added. They have been recruiting militants from the Taliban’s most dangerous group, Terek-e Taliban, also known as TTP.
Last year, members of Pakistan’s TTP scaled the walls of a school in Peshawar, Pakistan, and killed more than 145 people, of which 132 were young students — many
children of army personnel living in the area.
The Pakistani and Afghan Taliban factions are fractured and portions of their fighters have broken away to join Islamic State commanders in the region, who are also using the territory for foreign fighter training.
Freelance Pakistani journalist Ishaq Shinwari said he saw hundreds of militants training at a facility in Bandar.
"I saw many Russians; most of them were young and spoke to each other in their language,” he said.
Pakistan’s Ambassador to the United States, Jalil Abbas Jilani, told American Media Institute that some of the Taliban militants fled the border of Pakistan and Afghanistan to join Islamic State.
He said they joined Islamic State after Pakistan’s military disrupted the militants’ border operation on June 15, 2014.
He said “our forces have have adopted a policy of zero tolerance against any elements of the Islamic State.”
You can follow Sara A. Carter on Twitter @SaraCarterDC
Sajid Khan contributed to this story from Afghanistan, you can follow him on Twitter @iusajid1