Terror organization: ISIS-K. (Afghanistan and Central Asia);
Status: Leader (since 2020);
Roll: He is an experienced military leader and one of ISIS-K’s “urban lions” in Kabul who has been involved in guerrilla operations and the planning of suicide and complex attacks. He is responsible for approving all ISIS-K operations throughout Afghanistan and arranging funding to conduct operations;
Place of Birth: Afghanistan;
Sanaullah Ghafari, also known as Shahab al-Mujahir, is the current leader of the Islamic State Khorasan Province (ISKP) terrorist group.
Ghafari is responsible for approving all Islamic State Khorasan Province operation throughout Afghanistan and arranging funding to conduct operations.
According to multiple sources, the newly appointed head of ISKP is an Arab from the Middle East who was previously with al-Qaeda in the Afghanistan–Pakistan region.
Also, he is rumored to have been a former member of the Haqqani network, one of the most powerful and feared factions in the Taliban.
Ghafari’s promotion marks the first time that an individual from outside South Asia has been appointed as the top leader of the Islamic State’s franchise in the region, which could have significant implications for the group.
Muhajir’s appointment has been shrouded in mystery, and ISKP has done little to demystify it.
In May, the U.N. Security Council’s Sanction Monitoring Team reported that Syrian national Abu Muhammad Saeed Khurasani was most likely to become the new leader of ISKP.
Then, in June, Afghan journalist Bilal Sarwary reported that Muhajir had been named the new leader of ISKP.
Khurasani and Muhajir might well be the same person (as Asfandyar Ali Mir, an expert on jihadism in South Asia at Stanford University has noted), it is common for foreign jihadists to have multiple pseudonyms for security reasons.
The Islamic State’s department of far-away provinces and ISKP’s media outlet, al-Milat Media, confirmed that Ghafari was the new chief of ISKP in July but didn’t provide a photograph or any other biographical details.
Al-Milat media released a recorded audio message written by Ghafari and read in Pashto by ISKP’s spokesman, Sultan Aziz Azzam, addressing ISKP members in Afghanistan.
Muhajir’s message added to the mystery about his identity but also might contain some clues.
One possible explanation for having Azzam read his message is that Ghafari might not be fluent in the local languages of Afghanistan, such as Pashto and Dari, and requires a translator to communicate to the group’s base.
If so, that lends credence to the claims in the U.N. Security Council report and from Bilal Sarwary that the new head of ISKP is an Arab, possibly from Syria or Iraq.
The other possibility is that ISKP is hiding all details about its new leader in a bid to protect him, as he is likely to be targeted not only by the U.S. and Afghan governments but also by the Afghan Taliban.
The most significant question among analysts about Ghafari’s appointment has been about how his non-Afghan background will affect the organization and his ability to lead.
Ghafari can leverage his networks in Iraq and Syria to energize ISKP. He can attract foreign fighters to Khorasan in a way that an Afghan or Pakistani leader could not. There are some reports that this process is already under way.
He also can leverage his ties with al-Qaeda cadres to recruit from al-Qaeda’s organization in Afghanistan.
The State Department announced a $10 million reward each for intel on ISIS-K leader Sanaullah Ghafari and for information on anyone else involved in the bombing of the Kabul airport during the U.S. withdrawal from Afghanistan last year.
Ghafari, who was appointed to lead ISIS-Khorasan Province in June 2020, is responsible for approving all the group’s strategic decisions in Afghanistan, according to U.S. officials.
The State Department said that authority included Ghafari authorizing the Kabul airport bombing that killed more than a dozen U.S. troops and injured 58 on Aug. 26, 2021.
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