KUNDUZ -- Militants loyal to the "Islamic State of Iraq and Syria" (ISIS) have raised the ISIS flag in Darzab district, Jawzjan province, for the third time in eight months, local officials say.
The trend has raised major concern among residents.
ISIS fighters have launched operations in Darzab, Khamyab, Aqcha and Mingajik districts over the past several months and are now focusing on establishing more bases in other parts of the province, Jawzjan residents say.
"Based on my sources, ISIS was able to raise its black flag on May 20 for a day in Darzab district and asked local people to declare their allegiance to the group," said Fazel Haq Jawzjani, a local civil society activist.
Darzab district was a stronghold of ISIS in 2018, 2019 and 2021, and ISIS elements are trying to regain control of territory, he said.
If the international community fails to support efforts to dismantle terrorist bases in Afghanistan, Afghan people will yet again confront a major catastrophe, he warned.
"ISIS militants urge locals to join the group despite knowing that locals have awful memories of ISIS's past activities in the province," he added.
"ISIS raised its flag twice on October 17 on a local fort and the headquarters of a local command, Aaq Mohammad, in Aqcha district," Jawzjani said.
ISIS's local Khorasan branch (ISIS-K) has claimed responsibility for several recent rocket attacks and bombings in Afghanistan, Tajikistan and Uzbekistan.
It has also bombed mosques, schools and mini-buses in Kabul and other parts of the country.
In the most recent claim, ISIS said on Telegram on May 7 that it had fired seven missiles at a Tajik military base across the border from Khwaja Ghar, Takhar province.
ISIS has carried out ruthless crimes in Darzab district, including killing former government employees, forcing young girls to marry its members and forcing teenage boys to join its ranks, local residents say.
"ISIS has committed the most brutal crimes over the past three years, may Allah punish them severely," said Shafiullah, 56, a resident of Darzab district.
ISIS has committed crimes in Sardara, Mughal and Alqani villages of Darzab district, he said.
"On May 1, 2018, four ISIS militants abducted a 19-year-old girl who was engaged from her house in Mughal village, Darzab district, and took her to their nearby headquarters, where she was raped by all members of the group and kept for sex slavery for almost four weeks," he said.
"The crimes committed by ISIS in this area are far more extensive and worse than what the group has done in Syria and Iraq," he said.
ISIS militants have burned down dozens of schools in Darzab district, depriving more than 20,000 girls and boys of education, Shafiullah said.
In 2019, ISIS fighters raised their flag in Aqcha and Mingajik districts and violently tortured local residents, said Allah Nazar Mohammadi, a resident of Jawzjan.
"In addition to killing children, ISIS militants have been involved in many criminal activities, including looting public properties, sexually assaulting and harassing residents, and setting fire to dozens of school buildings," he said.
"Their actions were definitely against the law and values of humanity. They forced the closure of local schools, demolished school buildings and dug trenches in civilian homes," he added.
"We, the people of Jawzjan, are extremely concerned about the return of ISIS," Mohammadi said.
Many Afghans have expressed grave concerns about the resurgence of ISIS and its mounting threats across the country.
Terrorist groups have always used religion as a tool in Afghanistan and have taken the lives of many innocent civilians under the false pretence of Islam, said Mohammad Amin Tawhidi, a second-year student at Balkh University.
"By launching terrorist attacks in mosques and other places of worship, ISIS aims to divide Muslims," he said. "In doing so, it wants to create fear and disbelief to stir up ethnic tensions among Afghans."
"ISIS has become an obvious enemy of the Afghan people and is openly challenging Afghanistan's national security," he said.
ISIS has shifted its focus from Iraq and Syria to Afghanistan because of the security vacuum in the country, Waisuddin Askar, a political analyst based in Mazar-e-Sharif, said.
ISIS threats are increasing at a time when Afghanistan does not have the intelligence and military capabilities needed to confront the challenge, he said.
"ISIS is very well trained tactically and operationally," he said. "Afghanistan must build a well-equipped and professional force to combat growing ISIS threats."
"The entire region will become unstable and insecure unless the group is eliminated at once," he said.
"The international community must pay attention to the situation in Afghanistan," he added. "The stronger ISIS gets in Afghanistan, the larger threats it can pose to challenge security around the world."