Who are ISIS-K? What to know about the Afghan terrorist group

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Who are ISIS-K? What to know about the Afghan terrorist group

Thursday’s deadly twin bomb blasts outside the airport in Kabul, Afghanistan, immediately focused attention on the local affiliate of the ISIS terror group, known as ISIS-K, which reportedly claimed responsibility for the carnage.

Just two days ago, President Biden warned that “every day we’re on the ground is another day we know that ISIS-K is seeking to target the airport and attack both US and allied forces and innocent civilians.”

Here are some facts about the Islamic extremists who Biden also called a “sworn enemy of the Taliban,” which regained control of Afghanistan amid the pullout of US troops nearly two decades after the Sept. 11 terror attacks:

What are ISIS-K’s origins?

ISIS-K is also known as the Islamic State Khorasan, which is named for a historical region in Central Asia that includes part of Afghanistan.

It was established in 2015 after the late ISIS leader Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi chose Pakistani national Hafiz Saeed Khan, a veteran commander of the Terik-e Taliban Pakistan, as the group’s first “emir,” or chief, according to a 2018 report by the Center for Strategic and International Studies.

Khan brought along many TTP members, including spokesman Sheikh Maqbool and several district chiefs, when he pledged allegiance to al-Baghdadi in October 2014 and many of them were part of its first leadership council, known as the Khorasan Shura.

Former ISIS leader Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi, who committed suicide during a raid by US special operation forces on his compound in Syria on October 26, 2019.
Former ISIS leader Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi, who committed suicide during a raid by US special operation forces on his compound in Syria on October 26, 2019.
Department of Defense/UPI

Former Taliban commander Abdul Rauf Kadim was appointed as Khan’s deputy and ISIS-K’s first fighters included a contingent of Pakistanis from the TTP and Lashkar-e Islam terror groups.

Other terrorists from Lashkar-e-Taiba, Jamaat-ud-Dawa, the Haqqani Network, and the Islamic Movement of Uzbekistan also defected to ISIS-K.

What kind of strength does the terrorist group have?

ISIS-K’s ranks swelled to an all-time high of between 3,000 and 4,000 in 2016, amid the widespread capture of terrorism in Syria and Iraq by ISIS and a rash of international attacks, including the killing of eight people who were mowed down by a truck — allegedly driven by an ISIS sympathizer — on Manhattan’s West Side bike path in October 2017.

But ISIS-K suffered “successive military setbacks that began in Jowzjan,” a province in northern Afghanistan, in the summer of 2018, according to a June report to the United Nations Security Council by its Analytical Support and Sanctions Monitoring Team.

ISIS sympathizer Sayfullo Saipov mowed down eight New Yorkers on Manhattan's West Side bike path on October 31, 2017.
ISIS sympathizer Sayfullo Saipov mowed down eight New Yorkers on Manhattan’s West Side bike path on October 31, 2017.
EPA/JASON SZENES

By October 2018, following the US-led campaign to dismantle the ISIS caliphate, ISIS-K’s fighting force had dwindled to between 1,500 and 2,000, according to the CSIS.

And despite suffering losses of territory, leadership, manpower and financing last year, ISIS-S still retains a core force of about 1,500 to 2,200 fighters based in small areas of the Kunar and Nangarhar provinces east of Kabul, according to the UN report.

Although the group has “been forced to decentralize and consists primarily of cells and small groups … acting in an autonomous manner,” it “continues to pose a threat to both the country and the wider region,” the report says.

Who’s part of ISIS-K leadership?

ISIS-K’s first leader, Khan, was killed, along with 30 other insurgents, by US drone strike in July 2015 while they were plotting at a meeting in Nangarhar Province’s southern Achin district, which borders Pakistan.

He was replaced by Abdul Hasib, who was taken out by US and Afghan special forces in April 2017 after ordering a series of high-profile attacks, including one on the main military hospital in Kabul.

Hasib’s successor, Abu Sayed, only lasted about two months before he and a bunch of cronies were killed in a strike on the group’s headquarters in Kunar province.

Since June 2020, ISIS-K has been led by Shahab al-Muhajir, also known as “Sanaullah,” who took over after Afghan special forces captured his predecessor, Aslam Farooqi, and other senior members, including former leader Zia ul-Haq, according to the UN report.

Al-Muhajir is suspected to have previously been a mid-level commander in the Haqqani Network and may still cooperate with that terror group, which provides “key expertise and access to [attack] networks,” the report said.

What other atrocities is it responsible for?

Recent attacks for which ISIS-K has claimed responsibility include the May 2020 slaughter of at least 16 people — including two newborns and nurses — in a maternity ward in Kabul run by the Doctors Without Borders charity.

In November, it also claimed responsibility for an hours-long rampage by two gunmen at Kabul University that killed at least 22 people, including students who were shot in their classrooms as hundreds of others fled in terror, scrambling over the school’s protective walls and fences.

Later that same month, ISIS-K launched a mortar attack in residential Kabul that killed eight people and which the group said had targeted the heavily fortified Green Zone, home to the Afghan presidential palace, military compounds and foreign embassies.

A security force member and a health worker carry babies following a terrorist attack led by ISIS on a maternity hospital in Kabul, Afghanistan on May 12, 2020.
A security force member and a health worker carry babies following a terrorist attack led by ISIS on a maternity hospital in Kabul, Afghanistan on May 12, 2020.
CHINE NOUVELLE/SIPA/Shutterstock

In December, ISIS-K fired rockets at the airport in Kabul, according to the UN report, which said the group was also blamed or took responsibility for 77 attacks during the first four months of this year — nearly four times as many as the 21 recorded during the same period in 2020.

This year’s carnage by ISIS-K is believed to include a car bomb attack outside a girls’ school in Kabul that was followed by two additional, coordinated blasts that targeted fleeing survivors.

Students accounted for most of the at least 68 killed, and another 165 people were wounded.

demonstrators chant pro-Islamic State group, slogans as they carry the ISIS' flags.
Dedemonstrators chant pro-Islamic State group, slogans as they carry the ISIS’ flags.
AP

And just last week, a report by the Defense Department’s Office of Inspector General also found that ISIS-K had “exploited the political instability and rise in violence during the [period from April 1 through June 30] by attacking minority sectarian targets and infrastructure to spread fear and highlight the Afghan government’s inability to provide adequate security.”

What is the relationship between ISIS-K and the Taliban?

ISIS-K reportedly considers the Taliban insufficiently devoted to fundamentalist Islamic, even though the latter group was notorious for its brutal enforcement of religious law — especially against Afghan women and girls, and the LGBTQ community — when it formerly controlled the country.

In an unconfirmed statement claiming responsibility for Thursday’s airport attack, ISIS-K reportedly accused the Taliban of being “in a partnership” with the US military to evacuate “spies” from Afghanistan.

It also reportedly claimed that a suicide bomber “managed to penetrate all the security measures imposed by the American forces and the Taliban militia in the capital Kabul,” according to a series of tweets by Evan Kohlmann, a co-founder of the Flashpoint intelligence consulting company.

ISIS-K has focused recent recruitment and training efforts on Taliban members opposed to the peace process initiated by former President Donald Trump, according to the UN report, which warned that extremists “who are not willing to be controlled by the Taliban” could seek to join ISIS-K.

The two groups have even launched deadly attacks on each other, with the Taliban viewing ISIS-K as a threat to both it and its ally, the Haqqani network, according to USA Today.

“They maintain these capabilities, and those are the reasons they and the Taliban are mortal enemies – because ISIS-K represents a competitor,” Douglas London, the CIA’s former top counterterrorism chief for the region, told the paper.

“They represent a competitor for resources, materials and power, even though they’re relatively small.”

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