Opinion | ISIS-K is ready to fight the Taliban. Here’s how the group became a major threat in Afghanistan.
Taliban special forces patrol a street in Kabul on Sunday, as suicide bomb threats hung over the final phase of the U.S. military’s airlift operation. (Aamir Qureshi/AFP)
As President Biden honors the U.S. troops killed in Thursday’s suicide bombing in Kabul and Afghan families prepare to bury and mourn their dead, threats of more horrific attacks by the terrorist group known as Islamic State-Khorasan, or ISIS-K, the Afghanistan and Pakistan arm of the Islamic State, hang over the U.S. evacuation.
The group claimed responsibility for the airport attack, striking a major blow against the departing U.S forces and Afghanistan’s new rulers, the Taliban. Until Thursday, ISIS-K hadn’t claimed credit for any American casualties in Afghanistan since the February 2020 U.S.-Taliban peace agreement. With their latest attack, the group undermined the Taliban’s claim of being able to provide security and stability once the United States is gone.
ISIS-K emerged in 2015 from disgruntled members of the Taliban in Afghanistan and Pakistan, as well as some of members of al-Qaeda. The group has grown while playing the sectarian card, proclaiming their quest for Salafist supremacy in Afghanistan against the dominance of the Hanafists Taliban. Between 2015 and 2016, it acquired control of larger territories in Afghanistan’s eastern Nangarhar and Kunar provinces, weakening the Afghan Taliban presence there. It’s estimated to have around 4,000–5,000 fighters — their ranks enlarged by the recent prison breaks that followed the collapse of the government.
From 2016 to 2020, American counterterrorism operations, including President Donald Trump’s use of the “the mother of all bombs,” hurt ISIS-K. Afghan forces and Taliban militia also punished the group in its strongholds in Nangarhar and Kunar from the ground. In recent years thousands of their members have been arrested, wounded or killed.
With this progress, U.S. and Afghan officials -as well as Taliban leaders- often celebrated the end of ISIS-K. But the group has adapted to the military pressures swiftly. For the past year, I’ve watched how the group has taken a new shape to become more dangerous. They have taken two notable steps to resurge.
First, after the Taliban reached the agreement with the United States, ISIS-K announced a long new war against them. The group’s emir, Shahab al-Muhajir, appointed in May 2020, affirmed the plan for the war by announcing a new urban terrorism campaign against the Taliban, the Afghan government and “their U.S. masters.”
Second, it started building an urban network by elevating leaders and recruiting operational fighters from cities such as Kabul, including battle-hardened, educated and highly radicalized adherents of Salafism and some Ikhwani militia members of former Afghan militant groups. The Kabul network also absorbed splinters and defectors from the Taliban’s radical Haqqani network.
These fighters have ample experience in urban tactics. They have carried out deadly and sophisticated attacks in Kabul and Jalalabad. In August, the group staged a 20-hour assault at a prison in Nangarhar, releasing around 1,000 prisoners, including hundreds of ISIS-K members. Other attacks in Kabul have targeted the Hazara community, Sikhs and educational institutions. They have also launched missile attacks against government buildings and the Bagram air base.
Many analysts argue that there is an alliance between ISIS-K and the Taliban’s Haqqani network. When Afghan counterterrorism agencies arrested former Haqqani terrorists who joined ISIS-K in Kabul, they assumed they were behind the violence to sabotage the Taliban’s Doha peace deal with the United States.
It’s a possibility, but ISIS-K literature and propaganda materials, which I have studied in detail, place a major emphasis on killing Taliban and Haqqani network leaders and members, proclaiming it to be a higher “religious duty” than the United States and other “apostates.” The Haqqani network and ISIS-K have also fought a brutal war with each other in eastern Kunar province.
The Taliban, as it transitions from insurgency to government, will try to contain ISIS-K, but to do that it may have to disavow some of its more radical positions to gain added legitimacy, which in turn could create another wave of defectors into the ranks of the Islamic State. ISIS-K has already attacked the Taliban for “deviating” from its original jihadist past.
For the West, ISIS-K doesn’t seem to present an imminent danger, at least not yet. Of course, if over-the-horizon attacks against them continue — such as the drone strikes carried out in recent days in retaliation-the group might start planning terrorist attacks beyond Afghanistan. There’s reason to fear this. According to a West Point report, an ISIS-K cell planned an attack with Syrian allies against U.S. and NATO military bases in Germany. The plot was thwarted by German police in April 2020, but it highlights the counterterrorism challenges posed by the group in the future.
For now, we can anticipate more violence from ISIS-K as the Taliban assumes control. The group’s horrific violence will continue to scar Afghanistan and its beleaguered civilian population. Afghanistan is entering another dangerous phase of violence.
An earlier version of this column misstated the date of ISIS-K’s assault on a prison in Nangarhar. It was in August. This version has been updated.
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