Charismatic young recruiter training hundreds of ISIS fighters in Afghanistan as possible sleeper agents

A popular young ISIS recruiter from Tajikistan is leading hundreds of fighters in Afghanistan as part of an effort to draw more foreigners to the terrorist group’s banner.

Sayvaly Shafiev, also known as Mauaviya, and his group of about 200 fighters operate out of Nangarhar, a province in eastern Afghanistan located along the Pakistani border. At only 31 years old, he has become a key figure in ISIS-Khorasan Province, the jihadist group’s affiliate in Afghanistan and Pakistan.

“He seeks to recruit Tajik fighters and to raise funds using online propaganda in the Tajik language,” according to a United Nations report on ISIS activities.

Tajik authorities believe Shafiev is training his recruits in Afghanistan to become sleeper agents in Tajikistan. He is also part of ISIS-K’s Shura Council, a select group of leaders responsible for governing the province.

Shafiev has been known to Tajik authorities for some time. He hails from a small town outside the capital of Dushanbe, which he left in 2011 or 2012 to “study religion in Pakistan.” Several jihadist figures have gone to Pakistan to study in Islamic religious schools only to end up fighting for terrorist groups such al Qaeda and the Haqqani network.

The rise of ISIS in 2014 inspired Shafiev, who is believed to have traveled to Turkey to work on behalf of the group. He made his way back to Afghanistan sometime later and began recruiting. He has had some success: Six of eight Tajik nationals arrested by Afghan authorities in January reported Shafiev had recruited them to join ISIS.

Tajikistan, located just north of Afghanistan, has served as a source of ISIS recruits since the rise of its land caliphate in Syria and Iraq. Now that the land caliphate is gone, there are concerns Tajik and other central Asian fighters see Afghanistan as an alternative battleground. The U.N. warned last year that up to 1,000 fighters were making their way to Afghanistan to join terrorist groups after the U.S.-backed coalition began retaking territory in the Middle East. The pipeline into ISIS-K has been made easier for Tajik nationals after it merged with a Tajik terrorist group known as Jamaat Ansarullah in 2017.

While Shafiev has been the most recently successful Tajik recruiter, he is not the only notable ISIS figure to come out of the country. An operative named Abu Usama Noraki was an early ISIS member who joined in 2014 and rose quickly through the ranks. He has served as a spokesman for ISIS over Zello, a popular push-to-talk app also used by Shafiev. Noraki was so successful that he was once described as the “Islamic State’s most dangerous recruiter among Tajiks.”

Noraki has also organized attacks on behalf of ISIS. He helped coordinate a series of failed plots to attack targets in Russia in 2016, including one targeting the headquarters of Russia’s GRU intelligence service. Noraki oversaw an ISIS attack involving two operatives who drove a stolen beer truck into shoppers in Stockholm on April 7, 2017, killing five and injuring 15.

While both Shafiev and Noraki have been successful, neither has achieved the popularity of Gulmurod Khalimov. A former member of OMON, Tajikistan’s U.S.-trained counter-terrorism special police force, Khalimov disappeared and defected to ISIS sometime in 2015. He surfaced in May that year in a now-infamous ISIS propaganda video in which he threatened the United States and encouraged Tajiks to overthrow their government.

Khalimov rose to the rank of war minister, which led the United States to put a $3 million bounty on his head. He was killed in an anti-ISIS coalition airstrike in April 2017.

ISIS’s numbers in Afghanistan are a fraction of what they were in Iraq and Syria, but Shafiev’s group alone makes up a sizable chunk of the 600 to 2,000 ISIS fighters the United States says are in Afghanistan. Some officials are concerned that these terrorists are using Afghan attacks as training for future operations against the United States.