ISIS-K and a resurgent terror threat in Afghanistan

Dr. Angelos Kaskanis

Project Manager - Tactics Institute

The Islamic State – also known as ISIS, ISIL, or Daesh – emerged from the remnants of al Qaeda in Iraq (AQI), a local offshoot of al Qaeda founded by Abu Musab al Zarqawi in 2004. By 2013, remnants of the Qaeda affiliate had rebranded themselves the Islamic State of Iraq and Syria, or ISIS, and had identified opportunities in Syria, which was in the third year of its civil war. The Assad regime aided the rise of ISIS by releasing thousands of prisoners who later went on to play senior roles in ISIS and Jabhat al Nusra. The group then swept over the border into northern Iraq. Several hundred members easily overran the city of Mosul taking advantage of the power vacuum that the US troop withdrawal left behind. Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi was proclaimed caliph and the “caliphate” was officially declared. At their apogee, the extremists controlled a territory the size of Britain. Provinces were then set up around the world, including in Libya, Egypt, Libya, Algeria, Yemen, Saudi Arabia, and Nigeria.

ISIS-K emerges in Afghanistan 

Today the focus turns from Syria and Iraq to Afghanistan. ISIS-K consisting of Afghan and Pakistani jihadists, including disaffected former members of the Pakistani Taliban (TTP) and al Qaeda, was founded in 2015. Within a short period of time, it managed to expand its control over several rural districts in north and northeast Afghanistan. Its ranks continued to swell with numbers reaching 3000 at its zenith. By 2018 it was ranked the world’s fourth deadliest terror group, claiming more than 1,000 lives, mostly in Afghanistan, according to the Institute for Economics and Peace, which monitors global terrorism annually.

It is believed that the group’s number has dwindled down to between 500 and 1,500, Since the collapse of IS in Iraq and Syria, ISIS-K has run independently with cell structures operated autonomously. The group has carried out some of the deadliest attacks on civilians in Afghanistan in recent years including an attack on a maternity ward in a majority Shiite Muslim neighbourhood in Kabul, in which 24 women and children were killed. The group’s most recent attack outside Kabul airport, which targeted a frantic Western evacuation operation, killed 13 US troops and more than 90 Afghans.

Currently, in Afghanistan, ISIS-K and the Haqqani network have tactically and strategically merged. The fighters are formed into several divisions, each one of them maintaining its own leadership, structure and control of Afghan territory. Dr Sajjan Gohel from the Asia Pacific Foundation told BBC News that “several major attacks between 2019 and 2021 involved collaboration between IS-K, the Taliban’s Haqqani Network and other terror groups based in Pakistan”.

Afghanistan, a new base for terrorism?

After the withdrawal of foreign troops from Afghanistan, following two decades of war, the US is concerned that Afghanistan is once more going to become a base for international terrorism. As such, the Biden administration is searching for ways to strengthen its capacity to monitor and respond to potential terrorist dangers in Afghanistan without a US troop presence on the ground. There has been talk of cooperation with Russia to allow US military units to use Russian bases. Fears of a resurgent terrorist threat may be justified with reports that an estimated 8,000 to 10,000 people have come from neighbouring regions, such as Central Asia, Russia’s North Caucasus region, Pakistan, and the Xinjiang region in western China into Afghanistan since the Taliban regained control of the country. Most are said to be associated with the Taliban or al Qaeda, but others are linked to ISIS-K.

The Afghan civil war of the 1990s brought the Taliban to power and also led to al Qaeda developing its main base in the country. While the Taliban was a locally focused outfit, al Qaeda was a transnational movement, using Afghanistan as a staging post from which to attack the West. While the threat from al Qaeda in Afghanistan diminished after the US-led invasion in 2001, the group continued to diversify and metastasise globally. According to a 2020 United Nations Security Council report, al Qaeda and the Taliban have not severed ties and, in fact, retain strong links. “Relations between the Taliban, especially the Haqqani Network [an Afghan militant group allied to the Taliban based in Pakistan], and al-Qaeda remain close, based on friendship, a history of shared struggle, ideological sympathy and intermarriage,” the report said.

Security analysts broadly agree that it would not be in the interests of the Taliban to allow Qaeda to regroup and launch attacks from the country. The Taliban has waited 20 years to regain power. If al Qaeda uses Afghanistan to launch transnational attacks, the West will almost certainly respond. The big question is if the Taliban can control al Qaeda.

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