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Inside ISIS K

On Thursday the 26th of August, a suicide attack targeting the airport of Kabul shook the country and brought further confusion to an already complex situation. The assault, which led to the killing of almost 200 people, including two British nationals and 13 American soldiers, has been claimed by ISIS K, an affiliate of the Islamic State of Iraq and Syria which in 2015, at the height of its power, controlled large territories in Syria and Iraq. The disaster took place in a territory already impacted by numerous issues. The fall of Afghanistan’s capital and subsequently the whole country in the time span of a few days plunged the area into chaos leaving international forces scrambling for withdrawal and Afghan citizens racing to the airport to find a way to escape. Amidst this backdrop, a new player, ISIS K, made its entrance making it clear for everyone that security concerns will be at the forefront of Afghanistan’s – and the international community’s – agenda in the near future.


While global media’s and political leaderships’ attention was riveted towards the group that conquered Afghanistan - the Taliban - another Islamic militia decided to intervene: ISIS K. ISIS K, which stands for the Islamic State of Khorasan, is an off-shoot of ISIS. This sub-group first emerged in 2014-2015, when the Islamic State of Iraq and Syria was at the apogee of its rule. The senior fellow at the International Centre for Political Violence and Terrorism Research at the S. Rajaratnam School of International Studies in Singapore, Raffaello Pantucci, has suggested that ISIS K “has struggled in some ways to make a real presence for itself on the battlefield”. Nonetheless, the terrorist group is considered to be the most violent and radical in the country. In 2015 and 2016, the militia was able to seize power in the provinces of Nangarhar and Kunar in Eastern Afghanistan, which run along the Afghan-Pakistan border.

The armed group has become sadly well-known for its vicious attacks. According to the Centre for Strategic and International Studies, the off-shoot faction has been the perpetrator of nearly 100 offensives against citizens in Afghanistan and Pakistan and since 2017 has been responsible for almost 250 confrontations with the United States, Afghan, and Pakistani forces. Moreover, ISIS K has been accused of a series of attacks aimed at non-combatants targets such as hospitals, schools, and universities inasmuch as it has “a higher proclivity to target civilians they regard as infidels”.

According to the United Nations sanctions monitors, ISIS K is estimated to have approximately 2.000 members who are located mainly in the East of Afghanistan. The ranks of ISIS K fighters reflect the multi-ethnic nature of Afghanistan. Indeed, “(T)he core group in Kunar consists mainly of Afghan and Pakistani nationals, while smaller groups located in Badakhshan, Kunduz and Sar-e-Pol are predominantly made up of local ethnic Tajiks and Uzbeks”. ISIS K recruits both Afghan and Pakistani fighters, especially jihadists who have left the Taliban because they consider them to be too lenient. Indeed, as reported by Seth Jones, an Afghanistan expert at the Center for Strategic and International Studies, ISIS K was “essentially able to co-opt some disaffected Pakistani Taliban and a few Afghan Taliban [members] to join their cause”. Moreover, when the Taliban conquered the city of Kabul on the 15th of August they freed a large number of prisoners, including those affiliated with the Islamic State and al-Qaeda. Thus, analysts fear that the number of ISIS K supporters is underestimated. The head of United States Central Command General Kenneth McKenzie has said that many supporters of the off-shoot militia “come from the prisons that were opened a few days ago. So that number is up and is probably as high as it's ever been in quite a while”.


Kabul and more in general Afghanistan, has become the theatre of opposing militias that are fighting not only for the control of an area but also because of clashing Islamic visions and ideologies. Indeed, according to the Center for International Security and Cooperation, “(T)he hostility between the two groups arose both from ideological differences and competition for resources. IS accused the Taliban of drawing its legitimacy from a narrow ethnic and nationalistic base, rather than a universal Islamic creed”. Branded as “filthy nationalists”, the Taliban are accused by ISIS K of having forgotten jihad and armed fighting in exchange for peace settlements. Finally, the two terrorist groups are pursuing different goals. While ISIS K’s aim is to create a caliphate, seeking to expand the Islamic state globally, “the Taliban are primarily concerned about creating an Islamic state, as it were, an emirate, within Afghanistan. They're not interested in expanding outside of Afghanistan”.


As the days pass by, the situation in Afghanistan seems to settle down and lay the ground for the Taliban’s ascension to power. Nonetheless, the bombing at the airport of Kabul set the tone for the times to come. ISIS K’s attack was not only directed towards the United States’ military forces but also against the Taliban. Indeed, this suicide offensive was also directed at challenging the Afghan militia and undermining their future government's credibility and security. According to experts, “(T)his attack will look bad to the West, but it makes the Taliban look as if they are not in control of their own environment”