Last week, we reeled in horror as An attack on a crowd gathered outside Kabul’s airport on Aug. 26, 2021, left at least 100 people dead, including at least 13 U.S. troops and 3 UK nationals including a child. According the Reuters, ISIS-K claimed responsibility for the coordinated suicide bomb and gun assault, which came just days after President Joe Biden warned that the group – an affiliate of the Islamic State group operating in Afghanistan – was “seeking to target the airport and attack U.S. and allied forces and innocent civilians.”

The Islamic State in Khorasan Province, or ISIS-K, claimed responsibility. The organization is an offshoot of the original group in Iraq and Syria, and it emerged in 2015, not long after ISIS had consolidated territory in Iraq and Syria. In Afghanistan, ISIS is building toward its goal of establishing a global caliphate, (the rule or reign of a caliph or chief Muslim ruler.)

Ex-Taliban filled ISIS-K’s ranks early on, and the two groups have morphed into enemies, fighting each other and trying to sell their competing ideologies to recruits. The United States-led coalition in Afghanistan also battered ISIS-K in recent years — occasionally even ending up on the Taliban’s side of the battle against the ISIS offshoot. Those efforts weakened the group but never dismantled it.

Who are ISIS-K?

The Islamic State Khorasan Province, which is also known by the acronyms ISIS-K, ISKP and ISK, is the official affiliate of the Islamic State movement operating in Afghanistan, as recognized by Islamic State core leadership in Iraq and Syria.

ISIS-K was officially founded in January 2015. Within a short period of time, it managed to consolidate territorial control in several rural districts in the north and northeast Afghanistan and launched a lethal campaign across Afghanistan and Pakistan. Within its first three years, ISIS-K launched attacks against minority groups, public areas and institutions, and government targets in major cities across Afghanistan and Pakistan. By 2018, it had become one of the top four deadliest terrorist organizations in the world, according to the Institute for Economics and Peace’s Global Terrorism Index. But after suffering major territorial, leadership and rank-and-file losses to the U.S.-led coalition and its Afghan partners – which culminated in the surrender of over 1,400 of its fighters and their families to the Afghan government in late 2019 and early 2020 – the organization was declared, by some, to be defeated.

Members of the Islamic State (IS) group stand alongside their weapons, following they surrender to Afghanistan's government in Jalalabad,
Members of the Islamic State group stand alongside their weapons, following their surrender to Afghanistan’s government in Jalalabad in 2019 CREDIT: AFP/AFP

Background

ISIS-K was founded by former members of the Pakistani Taliban, Afghan Taliban and the Islamic Movement of Uzbekistan. Over time, though, the group has poached militants from various other groups.
One of the group’s greatest strengths is its ability to leverage the local expertise of these fighters and commanders. ISIS-K first started to consolidate territory in the southern districts of Nangarhar province, which sits on Afghanistan’s northeast border with Pakistan and is the site of al-Qaida’s former stronghold in the Tora Bora area.

ISIS-K used its position on the border to garner supplies and recruits from Pakistan’s tribal areas, as well as the expertise of other local groups with which it forged operational alliances.
Substantial evidence shows that the group has received moneyadvice, and training from the Islamic State group’s core organizational body in Iraq and Syria. Some experts have placed those figures in excess of US$100 million.

What are its aims and tactics?

ISIS-K’s general strategy is to establish a beachhead for the Islamic State movement to expand its so-called caliphate to Central and South Asia.

It aims to cement itself as the foremost jihadist organization in the region, in part by seizing the legacy of jihadist groups that came before it. This is evident in the group’s messaging, which appeals to veteran jihadist fighters as well as younger populations in urban areas.

Like the group’s namesake in Iraq and Syria, ISIS-K leverages the expertise of its personnel and operational alliances with other groups to carry out devastating attacks. These attacks target minorities like Afghanistan’s Hazara and Sikh populations, as well as journalistsaid workers, security personnel and government infrastructure.

ISIS-K’s goal is to create chaos and uncertainty in a bid to push disillusioned fighters from other groups into their ranks, and to cast doubt on any ruling government’s ability to provide security for the population.

What relationship does ISIS-K have with the Taliban?

ISIS-K sees the Afghan Taliban as its strategic rivals. It brands the Afghan Taliban as “filthy nationalists” with ambitions only to form a government confined to the boundaries of Afghanistan. This contradicts the Islamic State movement’s goal of establishing a global caliphate.

Since its inception, ISIS-K has tried to recruit Afghan Taliban members while also targeting Taliban positions throughout the country.

ISIS-K’s efforts have met with some success, but the Taliban have managed to stem the group’s challenges by pursuing attacks and operations against ISIS-K personnel and positions.

These clashes have often occurred in tandem with the U.S. and Afghan air power and ground operations against ISIS-K, although the full extent to which these operations were coordinated is still unclear.
What is clear is that the majority of ISIS-K’s manpower and leadership losses were the results of U.S. and Afghan-led operations, and American airstrikes in particular.

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Mike Omoniyi is the Founder and Editor In Chief of The Common Sense Network. He oversees and is responsible for the direction of the Network. Mike is an activist, singer/songwriter and keen athlete. With a degree in Politics Philosophy and Economics, MA in Political Science (Democracy and Elections) and an incoming PhD on a study of Cyber-Balkanisation, Mike is passionate about politics and the study of argumentation. He is also the Managing Director of a number of organisations including, Our God Given Mission, The BAM Project and The Apex Group.

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