KABUL, Afghanistan — Foreign militants fighting under the black flag of ISIS are conquering territory in northern Afghanistan, terrorizing residents and outmatching the Taliban's brutality, villagers and local officials told NBC News.
The development suggests ISIS is expanding its sphere of influence beyond the Middle East and North Africa, and are moving into areas previously controlled by the Afghan Taliban.
Most of the fighters hail from Pakistan, Uzbekistan, Tajikistan and the Caucuses — and are even more brutal than the Afghan Taliban, according to local lawmakers, police and residents interviewed by NBC News.
Mullah Abdul Rasheed said his uncle, a village elder, was shot dead by foreign militants while he prayed in a mosque. Two of his cousins in the police force were also killed in a firefight with the militiamen, he said.
“That created an atmosphere of terror in the village and we had to flee our homes and leave everything behind,” the 37-year-old told NBC News on the telephone.
Rasheed, who lived in Mirshadi, in the northern Faryab Province, said the Taliban rarely used to bother villagers except to collect a 10 percent tax of their crops.
“All that changed in the past year when foreign militants, especially Uzbeks, arrived in the area and pushed out the local police,” said Rasheed.
The new arrivals killed one person in the neighboring village, he said, dragged the man's body behind a motorcycle before shooting two others and setting their bodies on fire.
“In some villages they have raised the black flag of Daesh,” Rasheed added, using another name for ISIS.
In addition to its campaign of terror in Iraq and Syria, ISIS's media arm announced in January that the group had designated Pakistan and neighboring Afghanistan as the province of Khorasan — the name given to a historic area covering part of modern-day Iran, Afghanistan and India.
ISIS also took responsibility for a suicide bomb blast last week that killed 36 people in the Afghan city of Jalalabad near the Pakistan border. Still, while Afghan President Ashraf Ghani blamed ISIS for the bombing, a NATO spokesman said it had not seen "evidence of ISIS direction or support of the attacks."
Some Afghan officials also stop short of saying openly that ISIS has taken root in their country.
"Whatever name they use, they are the enemies of Afghanistan," Afghan Defense Ministry spokesman Gen. Dawlat Waziri said.
He acknowledged that while foreign militants have fought alongside the Taliban, officials had seen "more of them in the battlefronts lately."
The reports on the growing presence of ISIS-linked foreign fighters come as Afghan forces are locked in heavy fighting against the Taliban near the northern city of Kunduz. The ongoing battles are a major test for the Afghan forces, who are fighting with little assistance from NATO troops.
There have been five Uzbeks among the dozens of militants killed in Kunduz fighting, defense officials told NBC News.
But Uzbek nationals have been making their presence known for months — well before the start of the recent offensive, according to Mohammad Ishan.
Ishan — who lives in Faryab Province's village of Said Jamali — said some 40 Uzbek nationals arrived in his area around seven months ago and accused his brother of spying. Then, he said, they shot his brother in front of other villagers.
“They then hung him from a tree and nobody could touch him for three days until they allowed us to bury him,” Ishan said, adding that the militants later burned his brother's house down.
Some 60 percent of Faryab Province was now “effectively outside control of the government” and on the brink of "total collapse" following the foreigners’ arrival, according to local lawmaker Mohammad Hashim.
He said that while some of the foreign fighters still operate under the Taliban’s banner, “many others” have openly flown the ISIS flag and recruited under its name.
These ISIS-supporting foreigners have ignored Taliban directives not to behead people — and been more brazen about driving out local police forces and residents from their homes, he added.
Like Hashim, Sar-e Pol Province lawmaker Mohammad Hassan Sharifi Balkhabi also was certain that ISIS was successfully recruiting in his region.
“These extremist groups are exploiting people’s poverty and lack of government services to recruit them in to their ranks,” he said. “They are overtly recruiting in the name of Daesh and Islamic Movement of Uzbekistan,” another militant Islamist group.
Balkhabi was unequivocal that “foreign militants have expanded their control in many parts of the north,” putting their number at more than 1,000 in his province.
Lieutenant General Baba Jan, police chief of Badakhshan province, said a recent example of the escalation in violence by the foreign militants was an attack on an Afghan National Army base in the Khostak Valley that left 30 soldiers brutally murdered.
“Several bodies of the killed soldiers were decapitated to create fear among security forces. The local Taliban did not used to do that,” he said.
Reuters contributed to this report.