During a frantic troop withdrawal, an attack on Kabul airport in August that killed at least 190 Afghan civilians and 13 US service personnel – the deadliest day for the US military in a decade, was claimed by the Islamic State Khorasan (ISIS-K). Western governments had issued repeated warnings beforehand that an attack by the group was likely.
ISIS-K has been blamed for some of the country’s worst atrocities in recent years, including an attack on a girls school that killed 68, alongside an attack on a maternity ward, where pregnant mothers and newborns were among those targeted.
So, who is ISIS-K?
Tactics spoke to Amira Jadoon – a terrorism expert who is co-authoring a book on the Islamic State Khorasan with Andrew Milnes – about the group’s origins, the likelihood of a civil war with the Taliban and its capacity to target the West.
How did the group originate?
The groundwork for establishing an IS presence in the region began in late 2014 when multiple TTP commanders publically defected and pledged allegiance or bayah to Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi along with members of other groups. The official announcement of ISK came in 2015, soon after which ISK managed to gather recruits and resources and launched a range of attacks against civilian and state targets. In 2018, the Islamic State Khorasan (ISK) made its mark as one of the top four most lethal groups in the world. Central to the Islamic State’s vision of a caliphate is gaining control of physical territories including the Afpak region – the ‘Khorasan’ province. As such, ISK’s pursuit of a caliphate seeks to eliminate national boundaries, threaten multiple regional state actors and target Shiites and other minorities
Does ISIS-K’s modus operandi differ from long-established groups such as al Qaeda?
Besides differences in their immediate and long-term goals, one of the key differences in how ISK operates compared to al-Qaeda is that ISK instigates sectarian violence, attacking religious minorities. It has also positioned itself as a rival to some of the dominant groups in the region.
Do you foresee the US coordinating with the Taliban to fight ISIS-K?
I think this is an unlikely option for now since there is limited political appetite for this type of coordination on both sides.
Do you foresee Afghanistan descending further into chaos and instability, possibly bringing about a civil war between the Taliban and its associated networks and ISIS-K?
It is not impossible that there may be increased instability in Afghanistan in the future, which ISK can benefit from. However, Afghanistan’s future depends on a lot of factors that are “unknowns” for now. For example, we don’t know the extent to which regional countries like Pakistan, China, Russian and Iran will step forward to help the Taliban secure the country, or the extent to which the international community will stay involved, and finally the US policy towards Afghanistan. What we do know is that that ISK’s rivalry with the Afghan Taliban and al-Qaeda will persist in Afghanistan, and it will contribute to violence within the country and the region more broadly.
Should ISIS-K be considered a threat to the West?
For now, ISK, as a weakened organization, is focused on replenishing its ranks and undermining the legitimacy of the Afghan Taliban and domestic state actors. However, in the future, if ISK is able to reconsolidate its position and regain territorial control, it is possible that it might threaten Western interests and allies in the region in order to raise its profile.
What does the future hold for the organisation in South Asia and other regions around the globe?
At the moment, I believe that ISK is focused on reconsolidating its base in Afghanistan because they experienced significant losses due to counterterrorism operations between 2016-2018; however, there are a few concerns here going forward: IS has smaller branches/cells across South Asia. For example, they attempted to expand into Kashmir in 2016, and also created separate entities IS-India and IS-Pakistan in 2019, and they also have a presence in Bangladesh and Sri Lanka. There is a possibility in the future that these individual branches may begin to cooperate and result in a deeper fusion of local militant groups and Islamic State – this can escalate violence and also result in more extreme tactics.