The prime suspect for the suicide bombing at Kabul airport is the Isis affiliate in Afghanistan known asKhorasan Province, ISKP or Isis-K.
Jake Sullivan, President Joe Biden’s national security adviser, said on Sunday there wasto the continuing evacuations from the Afghan capital from Isis-K – which takes its name Khorasan from that used by a series of Muslim imperial rulers for a swath of land stretching from Iran to the western Himalayas.
The warning, which focused attention on a group that has hitherto had a very low international profile, was echoed this week by British and western European officials.
Many have been worried by an intensification of attacks linked to Isis-K in recent months.
“The trajectory of ISKP has been one of resurgence after a tough time in 2019 and the first half of 2020 … but they went silent suddenly since the Taliban takeover and a possible reason for that was the group were gearing up for a new campaign,” said, a senior research fellow at London University’s International Centre for the Study of Radicalisation (ICSR).
The crowds, planes and infrastructure at the airport provide an obvious venue for the kind of mass-casualty attack that Isis has become known for. Winter said the situation was also a “perfect meeting of diverse targets” in Afghanistan: the US military, Afghans who have helped the western effort and are therefore seen as collaborators, and the Taliban, which Isis-K sees as “apostates”.
Isis-K is likely to see an attack against the airport as a “great victory”, said Tore Hamming, an expert on Isis also at the ICSR.
“They achieve several things: they hit legitimate targets (from their perspective), they send a signal of still being a force to be reckoned with and they challenge the Taliban’s state project by highlighting that the group can’t secure Kabul.”
Isis-K was founded just under six years ago after representatives of Isis made their way to south-western Pakistan for a meeting with a small group of disaffected Taliban commanders and other extremists who felt marginalised within the jihadist movement in the region.
The main Isis parent organisation was then approaching its zenith – seizing swaths of Syria and Iraq after a lightning campaign and was plotting its global expansion through establishing affiliates all over the Islamic world.
Existing local Islamist movements often fought back against such efforts. In Afghanistan. So, too, did al-Qaida, the Afghan government’s forces and the US. A series of offensives resulted in heavy casualties and the death of a series of leaders.
“Like in Iraq and Syria, IS in Khorasan made the mistake of being too exclusivist … It failed to engage and cooperate with like-minded actors. In the end this approach resulted in the group facing too many enemies”, said Hamming.
In recent months Isis-K appears to have got a second wind, carrying out a series of lethal operations with its trademark brutality. During the first four months of 2021, the United Nations Assistance Mission in Afghanistan (UNAMA). These have targeted a wider range of targets than previously: Shia Muslims, journalists and foreigners, as well as civilian infrastructure and military personnel.
Others, however, say the group remains seriously degraded and that the number of attacks is not necessarily the best metric to judge its strength.
Antonio Giustozzi, an expert and author at the Royal United Services Institute in London, said Isis-K was proving more pragmatic than some expected, despite its extreme ideology.
“The group is navigating regional politics. Between Afghanistan and Pakistan there are a lot of actors jockeying for leverage and Isis-K has been quite effective at positioning itself.”
There is circumstantial evidence that Isis-K has some kind of relationship with military intelligence services in Pakistan, Giustozzi said.
In a report compiled from intelligence supplied by member nations, the UN said Isis-K territorial losses meant that, though it retain a core group of approximately 1,500 to 2,200 fighters in small areas of Kunar and Nangarhar provinces in eastern Afghanistan, “it has been forced to decentralise and consists primarily of cells … across the country, acting in an autonomous manner while sharing the same ideology.”
One Isis-K strategy has been “positioning itself as the sole pure rejectionist group in Afghanistan, to recruit disaffected Taliban and other militants to swell its ranks”.
Many fighters come from outside Afghanistan, with a high proportion drawn from Pakistan, Tajikistan and Uzbekistan. This has led to internal divisions over strategies, with some factions favouring efforts to win over rather than simply coerce local communities.
Since June 2020, the group has had an ambitious new leader, and a significant sum of money sent by the Islamic State’s leadership in the Middle East earlier this year may have enabled its new campaign.
“The options for expansion available to IS around the world are limited now so Afghanistan looks more attractive and there’s been renewed interest,” Giustozzi said.
The relationship is complex however, as with affiliates in Syria, Nigeria and elsewhere. Isis-K appears to run its own media operations in contravention of official IS policy, which demands that the central leadership of Isis have control over all outlets, but may have received direct orders to conduct Thursday’s attack, as has happened with other attacks by Isis groups around the world.
but will be unable to watch every corner of the sprawling, rugged country.
The new rulers of Afghanistan have so far been unable to force Isis-K fighters out of two valleys in Kunar province, despite repeated offensives earlier this year.
“How much do the Taliban actually control? There is a lot of terrain in Afghanistan that Isis could take advantage of. In the immediate future they may be going for terrorist attacks to get into the news,” said Aaron Zelin, a senior fellow at the Washington institute for Near East Policy.