Anatomy of Emerging Threat: The Implications of ISIS-K Drawing First Blood Against Americans in Afghanistan
- The Taliban are unlikely to allow the ISIS offshoot to thrive in Afghanistan. That is not much of a comfort to Americans as jihadi terrorists seeking to establish a global caliphate are active in several parts of the world.
Thursday’s bombing of Kabul’s airport introduced another dangerous player in Afghanistan: ISIS-K. Empowered by the Taliban victory, ISIS-K seeks to establish a caliphate in Afghanistan and target the West. Till Thursday’s attack very little was known about ISIS-K. But now, they are on everyone’s watchlist. We take a deep dive into this emerging threat.
Who is ISIS-K?
The Islamic State in Iraq and Syria (ISIS) gained notoriety between 2014 and 2017. Under the guise of Abu-Bakr Al Baghdadi, ISIS seized large amounts of territory in Iraq and Syria establishing a caliphate. From here, they launched jihadist attacks in Europe. By 2017, ISIS had lost most of its territory. Additionally, Baghdadi was killed by U.S. special forces in Syria. As ISIS lost territory, its ideology spread to Nigeria, Somalia, Afghanistan, and the Philippines.
Afghanistan was the perfect setting for a caliphate given its instability. ISIS-K or IS-K is an ISIS affiliate. The K stands for Khorasan, referring to a broad region including Afghanistan, Iran, and Pakistan. They seek to spread ISIS influence across the region. According to the Center for Strategic International Studies (CSIS), ISIS-K was founded in 2015 under the leadership of Hafiz Saeed Khan. Its soldiers are made up of ex-members from Pakistani jihadist groups such as the Haqqani network, Laskshar e Jhangvi as well as the Taliban. A study done by the Council of Foreign Relations estimates nearly 2,000 ISIS-K members in Afghanistan.
What Do They Want?
Put simply, ISIS-K wants a caliphate in Afghanistan. In a propaganda statement, they said “Know that the Islamic Caliphate is not limited to a particular country. These young men will fight against every disbeliever, whether in the west, east, south, or north.” They seek to remove “foreign crusaders who proselytize Muslims and apostates” from its territory in Afghanistan.
According to CSIS, IS-K has suicide attacks on, mosques, hospitals, and schools to expand their reach in Afghanistan. They gained notoriety for brutally attacking a girls’ school in Kabul and killing 20 in a Shiite maternity ward. CSIS estimates that ISIS-K has launched nearly 100 attacks in Afghanistan and Pakistan killing 819. While these numbers are grim, ISIS-K still has no caliphate.
A big roadblock to its goals is the Taliban. It is important to make a key distinction here. ISIS wants a global caliphate, whereas the Taliban want a caliphate in Afghanistan. ISIS despises the Taliban and criticized them for negotiating with the U.S. in a series of statements. The Taliban see ISIS as a threat and have successfully driven them out of Afghanistan. Since 2017, CSIS reported that the Taliban have attacked control of ISIS-K strongholds in Eastern. On top of that, the U.S. had launched a bombing campaign against ISIS caves in 2017 and many airstrikes have killed IS leaders. Just recently, the Taliban executed a high-ranking IS commander.
What Happens Next?
Thursday’s attacks have raised several questions about Afghanistan’s future. Will ISIS take over the country? Will other terrorist groups use Afghanistan to launch attacks on the West? In situations like these, it is important to look at the basic facts.
First of all, ISIS will not have a caliphate in Afghanistan. The Taliban are in a powerful position in Afghanistan. They control large swaths of territory making it difficult for IS to expand. However, IS will maintain a limited presence by operating through sleeper cells. These sleeper cells will launch suicide attacks against civilian targets such as mosques, markets, or schools. It is also likely that ISIS-K will continue to launch attacks against targets in Pakistan. IS will make their presence known in the country, but it won’t be enough to dethrone the Taliban.
Failure in Afghanistan does not mean the end of ISIS. Instead, ISIS will shift its focus towards Africa. The Sahel, consisting of Nigeria, Chad, and Mali, has become a hub for jihadist groups such as Boko Haram. These groups have pledged their allegiance to ISIS and have seized territory in the Lake Chad region. Additionally, local forces are unable to contain these groups. With such weak governments and empowered jihadist groups, the next ISIS caliphate will most likely be in Africa.
Now that we have understood the ISIS dynamic, we must also look at the Taliban and Al-Qaeda dynamic.
Many fear that the Taliban’s victory will allow Al-Qaeda to launch attacks from Afghanistan. In my opinion, this is unlikely to happen. Whether they like it or not, the Taliban need support. They need support running the country because they lack the knowledge and resources on how to run a country. Foreign partners such as China will be their best option. Even if one attack is launched from Afghanistan all foreign aid will end. China will not support a terrorist pariah state. Without foreign help, the Taliban will face a serious challenge to their rule. They will be unable to provide basic goods to their citizens, which will make it easier for ISIS to expand its campaign in Afghanistan. It is in the Taliban’s best interest to keep group Al-Qaeda at bay.
But, this doesn’t mean that jihadists won’t have a safe haven in South Asia. If the Taliban are unwilling to support Al-Qaeda, jihadists will shift to Pakistan. For years, Pakistan has been a safe haven for groups like Jaish-e-Muhammad. The Taliban victory has empowered TTP’s jihadist war against the Pakistani military. In recent times, the TTP has launched many attacks against army outposts in Waziristan. As the TTP pushes back against army outposts, they will allow groups like Al-Qaeda to operate from their territory. This will allow Al-Qaeda to create a base in Pakistan and launch attacks against international targets like the US and India.
With this in mind, the U.S. must not focus all its resources on Afghanistan. Instead, they should keep a wary eye on all jihadist hotspots around the world.
Rohan Kumar is a senior at UC Riverside studying International Affairs. His focus is on Russian foreign policy and South Asian security affairs. He aspires to join the U.S. State Department. In his free time, he watches European soccer (football) and reads the Economist.