- The Islamic State-Khorasan (ISIS-K) presents a major predicament for the US amid talks with the Taliban over the withdrawal of troops from Afghanistan.
- ISIS-K is fighting the Taliban for supremacy in Afghanistan, conducting deadly attacks on civilians and local security forces.
- ISIS-K is connected with the Islamic State’s central leadership, and there are concerns it will use Afghanistan as a launching pad for global terrorism – including in the West.
- “The US should be very concerned about ISIS using Afghanistan to stage attacks on the West,” an expert told Insider. “A withdrawal of US forces reduces our ability to disrupt ISIS’s operations in Afghanistan and thereby cedes greater opportunity for ISIS to pursue external operations.”
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The Islamic State-Khorasan (ISIS-K) is a growing threat in Afghanistan and parts of Pakistan, staging suicide attacks on civilians and local security forces, as well as battling the Taliban for supremacy in Afghanistan.
There is even concern among national security experts that ISIS-K could launch attacks against the West from its position in Afghanistan.
The US is negotiating with the Taliban to withdraw troops from Afghanistan after 18 years of war; it’s also trusting that the Taliban will be able to keep ISIS-K from growing and launching deadlier attacks in the region – or against the Western democracies – which experts say the Taliban is unlikely to be able to do without outside support.
After the US began to withdraw troops from Syria and diplomatic support from Iraq, ISIS began to regroup in those countries – changing tactics and fundraising sources to take advantage of its new landscape.
As troop withdrawal talks between the Taliban and the US drag on, ISIS-K is becoming a pressing threat.
Here’s what we know about the extremist group wreaking havoc on the lives of Afghans and complicating US troop withdrawal.
The Islamic State, or ISIS, has had a presence in Afghanistan for years and and now looks at it as a new hub from which to launch attacks.
The Islamic State’s affiliate in Afghanistan – the Islamic State in Khorasan Province or ISIS-Khorosan (ISIS-K) – first popped up in 2015.
ISIS-K has had support from the Islamic State’s core leadership since its inception. Since ISIS’s so-called caliphate has crumbled in Iraq and Syria, “it has increasingly turned to Afghanistan as a base for its global caliphate,” according to the Centre for Strategic and International Studies (CSIS).
Steve Killelea, the founder and executive chairman of the Institute for Economics and Peace, in June told Insider that as ISIS has disbanded in Iraq and Syria “their members have now gone to other places such as Afghanistan where there are a rising number of terrorist attacks being attributed to ISIS.”
Since its inception in 2015, ISIS-K has changed leadership several times; leaders have been taken out in targeted US airstrikes.
According to the Centre for Strategic International Studies (CSIS), the first emir of ISIS-K, Hafiz Saeed Khan, was killed on July 26, 2016 in Afghanistan. Following Khan’s death, leaders Abdul Hasib and Abu Sayed were killed in 2017, and Abu Saad Orakzai in 2018.
“In April 2019, ISK’s leader Mawlawi Zia ul-Haq, also known as Abu Omar al-Khorasani, was reportedly replaced by a new leader, Mawlawi Abdullah, also known as Mawlawi Aslam Farooqi,” according to Amira Jadoon, an expert on terrorism at the Combatting Terrorism Centre at West Point.
Jennifer Cafarella, the research director at the Institute for the Study of War, told Insider, “We do know the affiliate in Afghanistan remains connected to ISIS’s senior leaders. The UN reported that a representative from ISIS core visited ISIS’s wilayat (province or governate) in Afghanistan in April 2019 and instructed it to make a leadership change.”
ISIS-K wants to be the leader of the global jihadist movement.
ISIS-K has somewhere between 2,500 and 4,000 fighters, according to a recent estimate from the UN.
According to CSIS, ISIS-K “seeks to establish a Caliphate beginning in South and Central Asia, governed by sharia law, which will expand as Muslims from across the region and world join.”
ISIS-K is directly challenging both al-Qaeda and the Taliban to lead the global jihadist movement.
The group’s ideology is based off an extremist interpretation of Islamic scripture and anti-Shiite sectarian views. It identifies with Jihadi-Salafism, a distinct ideological movement in Sunni Islam, according to the Centre for International Security and Cooperation (CISAC) at Stanford University.
ISIS-K has been staging violent attacks that have garnered international attention.
ISIS-K has routinely conducted deadly attacks since its inception, including a suicide bombing at a Sufi shrine in Sehwan, Pakistan, in February 2017 that left 100 dead and 250 wounded.
Most recently, an ISIS-K claimed attack at a wedding in Kabul in mid-August killed 63 and wounded almost 200 more. According to the Associated Press, the attack was the deadliest in the Afghan capital this year. The wedding reportedly had over 1,200 invitees and the crowd was a mix of Shiites and Sunnis.
Even the Taliban, which continues to stage deadly attacks on Afghan security forces and civilians, condemned the attack as “forbidden and unjustifiable.”
But ISIS-K seemingly desired to provoke this type of reaction by intentionally targeting a wedding, and the mid-August attack is a sign of what’s to come from the group.
Fawaz Gerges, a professor of international relations at the London School of Economics, told The Washington Post: “Suicide attacks against weddings are force multipliers for ISIS, because it’s desperate to show its potency, its ability to strike near and far, especially after the beating it has taken in Iraq and Syria.”
“ISIS-K has been remained pretty consistent in their targeting of both state and civilian targets,” Jadoon told Insider via email. “They are highly reliant on the use of suicide attacks to claim high lethality, which has only increased since the group’s initial arrival in 2015. This trend is likely to remain steady.”
National security experts warn ISIS wants to use Afghanistan as a staging point for attacks worldwide, including in the West.
“There is currently disagreement on whether [ISIS-K] is a regional threat, or if it potentially poses a threat to the West,” Jadoon told Insider.
Military and intelligence officials differ in their assessment of ISIS-K.
But national security experts warn the threat of ISIS-Khorasan should not be downplayed.
“The US should be very concerned about ISIS using Afghanistan to stage attacks on the West. The conduct of external attacks is core to the very nature of the ISIS organisation, and the provinces ISIS creates abroad do adopt this goal,” Cafarella told Insider.
Cafarella said ISIS-K has been linked to two known attack terror attacks abroad, “including a thwarted attack in Times Square and a successful attack in Stockholm, Sweden.”
“US forces have been actively disrupting ISIS’s capability in Afghanistan for years, which is why ISIS has not been more successful,” Cafarella added. “A withdrawal of US forces reduces our ability to disrupt ISIS’s operations in Afghanistan and thereby cedes greater opportunity for ISIS to pursue external operations.”
“The important point to note currently is that ISIS-K remains a potent threat, with the potential to grow especially if counterterrorism operations against the group slowdown in the future,” Jadoon said.
ISIS-K complicating US departure.
The rising threat of ISIS-K has sparked widespread concern among national security experts, politicians, and people directly involved in the talks between the US and the Taliban.
The US envoy in negotiations with the Taliban, Zalmay Khalilzad, recently emphasised that the peace process needs to be sped-up to put Afghanistan in a “much stronger position to defeat” ISIS-K, the Associated Press reported.
The US negotiations with the Taliban are centered around assurances that Afghanistan will not be used as the staging ground for terror attacks across the world. But there are no guarantees that the Taliban can prevent ISIS-K from such activities – or from deadly attacks on civilians.
“ISIS in Afghanistan is certainly a serious threat. After a withdrawal, the US could likely still conduct some limited counterterrorism operations but not at the scale that would be necessary to prevent ISIS from generating new cells,” Cafarella said.
She added, “If we focus only on responding to the attack cells, once formed, we are at risk of overstretch. The risk is that, sooner or later, attack cells will start to slip through due to sheer volume.”
“The Taliban will definitely be interested in containing ISIS-K in the future, as they view ISIS-K as an entity which threatens their sphere of influence and also attempts to poach their members,” Jadoon said. “Whether Taliban have the capacity to combat ISIS-K is a different question; the Taliban are unlikely to crush ISK single-handedly and will require additional support in order to do so.”
ISIS-K maintains relationships with a variety of extremist groups in the region, strengthening its ability to carry out attacks.
ISIS-K “has a universe of relationships with other militant organisations across Afghanistan and Pakistan which provide it with ideological, logistical and operational support,” Jadoon told Insider, as well as with international ISIS leadership.
“For example, whole factions of the Tehrik-e-Taliban have defected to ISK as well as other groups like the Islamic Movement of Uzbekistan,” Jadoon added. “But in addition to these, lethal groups like Lashkar-e-Jhangvi, which have not publicly pledged allegiance to ISIS-K, have significantly boosted ISIS-K’s operational capacity.”
At least six regional extremist groups have pledged allegiance to ISIS-Khorasan, providing ideological support. Other groups provide ISIS-Khorasan with logistical support like supplies, funds, or fighters; some groups also help ISIS-Khorasan stage attacks in both Afghanistan and Pakistan, Jadoon outlines in her report, Allied & Lethal: Islamic State Khorasan’s network and organizational capacity in Afghanistan and Pakistan.
ISIS-K is trying to battle the Taliban for supremacy in Afghanistan.
ISIS is deliberately challenging the Taliban for supremacy in Afghanistan.
“ISIS is positioning itself as the most hardline faction in Afghanistan, which threatens to attract defections from the Taliban if it pursues a genuine political settlement with the Afghan government,” Cafarella said.”
“ISIS will also likely conduct attacks against Afghans willing to meet with and potentially reconcile with the Taliban in order to spoil such efforts,” Cafarella added. “We saw similar ISIS attacks during Eid celebrations last year, where some low level Taliban fighters participated in celebrations with Afghan government forces.”
The two groups have fundamentally different worldviews and ideological purposes, Jadoon points out.
“The two groups are inherently incompatible, in terms of their goals and ideology. ISK’s claims on the Afghanistan-Pakistan region as a fundamental part of its transnational caliphate delegitimize the existence and purpose of the Taliban whose primary focus is liberating Afghanistan from Western ‘occupation,'” she told Insider.
“The Taliban holds limited nationalist goals,'” hence why it refuses to see the Afghan government as legitimate and is taking the position of negotiating with the US government.
But according to one driver in Kabul, the two groups wreak the same kind of havoc in the daily lives of ordinary Afghans.”There’s no difference between Taliban and ISIS,” he told Insider. “All of them are looking for terror and hostility.”
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- US negotiators trying to end the Afghanistan war are frustrated that Trump keeps giving the Taliban a stronger hand
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