World·CBC Explains

Why ISIS-K poses a significant security threat in Afghanistan as civilians, troops attempt to flee

As Afghans and others seek to escape Taliban-controlled Afghanistan, U.S. officials have expressed concerns about the potential for an attack by ISIS-K, a militant group known for staging suicide attacks on civilians. But the Taliban should also be worried.

Militant group, believed to have 2,000 members, is a sworn enemy of the Taliban

A security officer carries a baby after ISIS-K gunmen attacked a maternity hospital in Kabul, Afghanistan's capital, in May 2020. As Afghans and others seek to escape the Taliban-controlled country, the U.S. has significant security concerns about a potential attack by ISIS-K. (Rahmat Gul/The Associated Press)

As Afghans and others seek to escape Taliban-controlled Afghanistan, U.S. officials have expressed significant security concerns and the potential for an attack by ISIS-K.

"Every day we're on the ground is another day that we know ISIS-K is seeking to target the airport [in Kabul] and attack both us and allied forces and innocent civilians,"  U.S. President Joe Biden said this week.

CBC Explains looks at ISIS-K, a militant Afghan-based group known for staging suicide attacks on civilians, its relationship to the Taliban and any potential threat it poses.

When did ISIS-K begin operations in Afghanistan?

The group goes by a few names — ISIS-K, IS-K, ISKP, which stands for Islamic State Khorasan or Islamic State Khorasan Province.

It has presumably been in Afghanistan since at least November 2014, when jihadists in Afghanistan and Pakistan pledged allegiance to the core ISIS group, said Riza Kumar, a research analyst at the Counter Extremism Project, a New York-based organization that maintains an extensive research database on extremist groups. ISIS-K was officially accepted by the core ISIS group in January 2015.

ISIS-K took its name from a historical region that covered much of modern-day Afghanistan and parts of Central Asia. It appeared in late 2014 in the eastern province of Nangarhar, where it retains a stronghold, and it also has a presence in Kunar province, the Afghan capital Kabul and northern Afghanistan.

It was formed by the disgruntled commanders of the Pakistani Taliban, or Tehrik-e Taliban Pakistan (TTP), and joined by a few lower-ranked Afghan Taliban commanders and Afghan jihadist ideologues, said Abdul Sayed, an independent researcher on jihadism and the politics and security of the Afghanistan-Pakistan region.

What's ISIS-K's connection to the central leadership?

ISIS-K is an affiliate of ISIS-Core, the Islamic State of Iraq and Syria, which financially supports ISIS-K. While ISIS has expanded all over the world into such places as Libya, Egypt and Southeast Asia, Afghanistan has been one of the more successful franchise groups, says Colin Clarke, a senior research fellow at the Soufan Center in New York. It provides research and analysis on global security challenges, with a particular focus on counterterrorism.

Still, while ISIS-K essentially follows orders from the core group, the "time lag" means there's almost a national sense of autonomy, especially with tactical decisions, Clarke said.

"They're not running all these things up the flagpole," he said.

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What's the goal of ISIS-K?

Broadly speaking, ISIS-K seek to establish a caliphate beginning in South and Central Asia, governed by Shariah law, which will expand as Muslims from across the region and world join, according to the website for the Center for Strategic and International Studies, a think-tank in Washington, D.C.

However, Clarke says he believes, ideally, ISIS-K wants to carve out some territory where it can begin thinking about re-establishing a caliphate.

"And that's only going to be a small patch. It doesn't have to be as ambitious as what happened in Iraq and Syria," he said.

How big is its membership?

The number of fighters has fluctuated from as little as 600 to as many as 5,000 troops, but It is currently estimated that there are at least 2,000 fighters affiliated with ISIS-K, said Kumar of the Counter Extremism Project.

Clarke, however, said he believes those numbers will soon increase.

"I think now with the Taliban takeover of Afghanistan, you're going to start seeing foreign fighters flocking to the country. You could have Pakistanis, Bangladeshis, you know, Central Asians joining the mix, and it's going to make ISIS more dangerous."

How active has ISIS-K been in Afghanistan?

The group has steadily carried out attacks over the years. It primarily targets the Hazara — a minority Shia group that has been subjected to violence from both the Taliban and ISIS-K, Kumar said.

"ISIS-K is not averse to high-casualty attacks and attracts the most radical of jihadists," she said.

Those attacks include the deadly May 2020 strike on a maternity hospital in a majority Shia Muslim neighbourhood in Kabul that killed at least 24 people, including newborn babies and mothers. Months later, ISIS-K stormed a prison in eastern Afghanistan holding many of its fighters. The attack left at least 39 people dead, including the assailants, but freed nearly 400 of its fighters.

A woman sits next to newborn babies who lost their mothers following a suicide attack in a maternity hospital in Kabul in May 2020. The attack by the militant group ISIS-K in a majority Shia Muslim neighbourhood killed at least 24 people, including newborn babies and mothers. (AFP/Getty Images)

Just this year, ISIS-K has carried out dozens of attacks. United Nations counterterrorism officials said in June that ISIS-K had carried out 77 attacks in Afghanistan in the first four months of this year, the New York Times reported. The attacks last year included a strike against Kabul University in November and a rocket barrage against the airport in Kabul a month later.

"They want to kill Shiites," said the Soufan Center's Clarke. "And what that does is that helps them attract the most hardcore people that are really sociopaths who just want to kill civilians and don't care. So it's appealing to a lot of really hardcore Sunni jihadists."

What is the group's relationship with the Taliban?

ISIS-K is an enemy of both al-Qaeda and the Taliban. The Taliban follow the conservative Deobandi brand of Islam, as opposed to ISIS, which follows Salafism, Clarke said.

"So there's the ideological difference. And then really in every theatre — from Africa, Asia — al-Qaeda and ISIS are fighting, with al-Qaeda being aligned with the Taliban in Afghanistan. It's just another place where that's happening."

What current threat does ISIS-K pose?

Following the full military withdrawal of U.S. forces from Afghanistan on Aug. 31, it is likely that ISIS-K will exploit the security vacuum to regenerate and quickly re-establish itself throughout at least the eastern region of the country, Kumar said.

"ISIS-K is a sworn enemy of the Taliban, which could incentivize the jihadist group to carry out attacks in an attempt to topple the self-imposed Taliban regime," she said.

Afghan security personnel gather in front of a prison after it was stormed by ISIS-K in Jalalabad, Afghanistan, in August 2020. The attack on the prison, which was holding many of its fighters, left at least 39 people dead, including the assailants, but freed nearly 400 ISIS-K fighters. (Rahmat Gul/The Associated Press)

While most analysts see the Taliban as a much stronger force in Afghanistan, "ISIS can make some noise," Clarke said. "They can cause a lot of trouble for the Taliban and certainly to Afghan civilians."

While ISIS-K has been relatively silent following the Taliban takeover of Kabul, it may be assessing the situation, busy taking hundreds of members released from Kabul's prisons to safe shelters, Abdul Sayed said.

"The recent past propaganda materials of ISKP after the Taliban peace deal with the U.S. is all based on declaring the Taliban an apostate group working as the U.S., West, and Pakistani stooges."

Long before the takeover of Afghanistan by the Taliban, he said, ISIS-K had already decided "that its main target in the future is the Taliban, for which they are ready to start a new and long war in Afghanistan."

ABOUT THE AUTHOR

Mark Gollom

Reporter

Mark Gollom is a Toronto-based reporter with CBC News. He covers Canadian and U.S. politics and current affairs.

With files from The Associated Press and Reuters

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