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Who is ISIS Khorasan?

Matthias von Hein
August 26, 2021

The bombings at Kabul airport show central Asia's Islamic State affiliate, IS-K, is a major security threat in Afghanistan and globally. The group has a record of lethal attacks and finds the Taliban too moderate.

People carrying an injured person to a hospital after an attack at Kabul airport
Explosions rocked Kabul's airport as evacuations continued Image: REUTERS

What many had feared happened on Thursday: Scores of people were killed in several explosions at Kabul's Hamid Karzai Airport. The blast came after Western intelligence agencies warned citizens not to travel to the airport because of a credible terror threat.

The Afghan offshoot of the terror organization "Islamic State," known as ISIS-Khorasan, IS-K or ISIS-K claimed responsibility for the attacks. The group takes its name from the Khorasan Province, an area that once included wide swaths of Afghanistan, Iran and central Asia in the Middle Ages.

Explosion outside Kabul Airport
Explosion outside Kabul Airport Image: Xinhua/imago images

US officials told The New York Times that the airport attacks were strategic strikes against both the US and the Taliban, whose leaders are trying to prove to the world that they control of the country.

When US President Joe Biden declared on Tuesday that evacuation efforts would be completed by August 31 — much to the dismay of some allies — he cited the Islamic State and not the Taliban as the reason for sticking to the timeline.

"Every day we stay there is a new day that we know ISIS-K is going to target the airport and attack Americans as well as allies and innocent civilians," Biden said while speaking at the White House, pointing out that the terror militia was a "declared enemy" of the Taliban.

Taliban fighters standing on the bed of a pickup truck in front of a Kabul hospital following Thursday's terror attacks
Taliban fighters watch people in front of a hospital as volunteers attend to the injured Image: Wakil Kohsar/AFP/Getty Images

Jihadis divided by ideology, goals

IS-K and the Taliban have been locked in bloody battles with one another for some time. Prior to Thursday's explosions, news agencies quoted military sources saying the Taliban had intercepted and killed several IS assassins at Taliban checkpoints around the airport. Additionally, several Taliban guards were also reported to have been killed in the bombings.

An ideological gulf separates the two militant groups. While the IS belongs to the Salafist movement of Islam; the Taliban adhere to the Deobandi school.

While the Taliban seems content — at least for now — with an emirate for themselves within Afghanistan, the Islamic State group in Afghanistan and Pakistan strives to establish a caliphate throughout South and Central Asia and has also embraced the Islamic State's call for a worldwide jihad against non-Muslims.

There is also the question of Sharia law and how it is interpreted. For IS-K, the Taliban's views are not strict enough. IS fighters have called the Taliban apostates and bad Muslims because of their willingness to negotiate a peace deal with the United States. By doing so, they betrayed the goals of the jihad, IS fighters said.

A Taliban fighter along the roadside in Harat, the country's third biggest city
A Taliban fighter along the roadside in Harat, the country's third biggest cityImage: AFP/Getty Images

That's also why a wide variety of jihadi groups congratulated the Taliban when they marched into Kabul two weeks ago but Islamic State groups did not. Instead, IS-K announced it would continue to fight against the Taliban. Taliban militants have joined with US and Afghan government forces to drive the Islamic State from parts of northeastern Afghanistan.

According to a July 15 UN report, IS-K has between 500 and 1,500 fighters in Afghanistan and has strengthened its positions in and around the capital, Kabul, where it carries out most of its attacks. The group hopes to broaden its ranks by recruiting disaffected Taliban fighters who reject the recent peace talks with the US.

IS is also counting on an influx of fighters from Syria, Iraq and other conflict zones. In a June UN report, the world body estimated that there are between 8,000 and 10,000 foreign fighters currently in Afghanistan.

The long trail of bloody attacks

IS-K has been busy on the terror front as of late. The United Nations Assistance Mission in Afghanistan (UNAMA) counted 77 attacks by IS fighters in the first four months of 2021 year alone. That's three times as many as during the same period last year. A May car bombing at a school attended primarily by Shiite girls in Kabul killed 85 people and injured 300 more. The United States blamed IS-K for the attack.

A month later, IS militants ambushed and killed 10 people working with an anti-landmine NGO in Baghlan province, in northern Afghanistan. The dead belonged to the HALO Trust, a British charity formed in 1988 to help countries recover from conflicts by ridding them of landmines. The NGO's CEO later told the BBC that local Taliban fighters drove off the attackers, which added to the tensions between the two groups.

The IS-K took arms against the Taliban in 2017 when they drove the Taliban out of the mountainous Tora-Bora region. Tora-Bora's deep tunnel system was where al-Qaeda chief Osama bin Laden had initially taken refuge from US retaliatory strikes following the September 11, 2001, attacks in the United States.

IS-K originally emerged in Pakistan as an armed student group belonging to the umbrella organization, Tehrik-i-Taliban Pakistan. Fearing persecution at home, they fled across the border to Afghanistan and pledged allegiance to the Islamic State and IS chief Baghdadi in 2014, who since has been killed. In the spring of 2015.

IS officially absorbed the terrorists into their own network and announced its expansion into Central Asia as IS-K. At the time, IS was at the height of its power in Iraq and Syria and was able to provide financial and personnel support to its offshoot in Afghanistan. That support has since largely dried up. But according to the UN, the IS leadership in Syria and Iraq, which has since gone underground, still maintains contact with IS-K.

This article was translated from German.