What we know about ISIS-K, the group behind the attack on Kabul

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Medical and hospital staff carry an injured man on a stretcher for treatment outside Kabul airport, Afghanistan, after explosions Thursday. US soldiers and Afghan civilians were among those killed and injured. // AFP via Getty Images, Wakil Kohsar

Updated August 27, 2021 at 1:18 p.m. ET

The group known as ISIS-K had long planned attacks on American personnel and others. This is one reason why President Biden said he wanted to limit the length of the US withdrawal from Afghanistan.

On Thursday, this regional branch of the Islamic State hit the heart of Kabul and caused an explosion in front of Hamid Karzai International Airport. The attack killed more than 150 Afghan civilians and at least 13 US soldiers.

The following is known about the group that reportedly assumed responsibility for Thursday’s bombing:

What is the Islamic State branch?

The Islamic State of Khorasan was founded in late 2014 and operates as an ISIS member in Afghanistan and Pakistan. Khorasan is a historical term for a region that encompasses present-day Afghanistan as well as parts of the Middle East and Central Asia. The group is also known as ISIS-K, ISK or ISKP.

Founding members included militants who left both the Afghan and Pakistani Taliban.

“ISIS had sent representatives to both Pakistan and Afghanistan. They were essentially able to co-opt some disaffected Pakistani Taliban and some Afghan Taliban.” [members] to join their cause, “Seth Jones, an Afghanistan specialist at the Center for Strategic and International Studies, told NPR’s Everything considered.

In a video from 2015, the then leader of the group, Hafiz Saeed Khan, and other top commanders Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi, the then leader of the Islamic State, swore their loyalty and declared themselves administrators of a new IS area in Afghanistan.

The regional subsidiary ruled with a strict interpretation of Islamic law and used violent enforcement tactics such as conducting public executions, killing tribal elders and closing schools, according to the Stanford University Center for International Security and Cooperation.

Khan was killed in a US drone attack in 2016. Baghdadi died in 2019 after triggering an explosive vest in a US armed forces raid.

How is the Islamic State connected to the Taliban?

The two are actually enemies, as Biden stated in his televised address on Thursday. Since its inception, the IS offshoot has been in conflict with the Taliban, who now control Afghanistan.

“Your goal is really an Islamic emirate, and you are a competitor to both al-Qaeda and the Taliban,” said Jones of the Center for Strategic and International Studies.

Many Taliban fighters have defected to join the Islamic State, and the two groups are fighting for resources and territory.

Their differences are also ideological, according to the Stanford Center.

“The hostility between the two groups arose both from ideological differences and from competition for resources. ISIS accused the Taliban of drawing legitimacy from a narrow ethnic and nationalist base and not from a universal Islamic creed,” the center said.

As The Associated Press reported, when the Taliban attempted to negotiate with the United States in recent years, many of the opponents switched to the more extremist Islamic State.

The Taliban condemned the explosions outside the airport on Thursday, saying the US controlled the area where the attacks occurred.

Biden turned back to the Taliban on Thursday and said: “It is in the interests of the Taliban that ISIS-K does not metastasize.”

How big is the threat from IS-K in Afghanistan?

By 2017, the U.S. military estimated it had killed 75% of Islamic State’s militants, including some of its top leaders.

The Center for Strategic and International Studies counted nearly 100 attacks by the group in Afghanistan and Pakistan and hundreds of clashes with US, Afghan or Pakistani forces by 2018.

Observers of the UN sanctions assume that the member organization has around 2,000 fighters in eastern and northern Afghanistan, but also noted that the group had to “decentralize” after having lost considerable territory.

However, according to the Congressional Research Service, the group has taken responsibility for a number of high-profile attacks, including the bombing of a girls’ school in Kabul in May.

In a Pentagon briefing after the attack outside Kabul airport, General Kenneth McKenzie, head of US Central Command, said “the threat from ISIS is extremely real” and that there are other active threats against Kabul airport.

The attack could also reveal gaps in the Taliban’s capabilities. “What this shows, by the way, is that the Taliban’s counter-terrorism capabilities are indeed somewhat limited,” Jones said Everything considered. “They were unable to identify or stop the attack.”

Copyright 2021 NPR. To see more, visit https://www.npr.org.


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