Richard North, 27/08/2021  

Understandably, all eyes are on the tragedy of the multiple bombing outside Kabul airport, in which 12 US service personnel and over 60 civilians have died. Responsibility has been claimed by the Islamic State, more specifically the Islamic State Khorasan – usually known as Isis-K or sometimes ISIL-K, ISKP or Daesh-Khorasan.

The devastating suicide bombings, we are told, came as little surprise to analysts, and we were hearing warnings all yesterday that there was a "credible threat" of a terrorist outrage. The IS official Amaq news agency said on its Telegram channel that a member called Abdul Rahman al-Logari carried out "the martyrdom operation near Kabul Airport". The name suggests the killer of at least 12 US servicemen and more than 60 civilians was Afghan.

On Sunday, the Guardian tells us, US national security adviser, Jake Sullivan, said there was an "acute" and "persistent" threat to 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 attack by this fundamentalist, Sunni organisation, loosely affiliated to the Islamic State based in Syria and Iraq, represents a significant development in the ongoing drama of Afghanistan, the consequences of which could be profound and far-reaching.

The group is said to have been founded six years ago by Pakistani Hafiz Saeed Khan, who had pledged fealty to Islamic State head Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi in 2014. The original group was made up of mainly Pakistani Taliban defectors and members of other radical elements, so radical that they see the Taliban as "apostates".

Khan himself, born in the in the Federally Administered Tribal Areas of Pakistan near the Afghan border – formerly the Northwest frontier of the Raj - was originally a senior commander in the Pakistan-based Tehrik-i-Taliban, and was a member of the Afghan Taliban immediately after 9/11.

The most notorious operations of Isis-K, prior to the attack on Kabul airport, took place in May 2020, when it attacked a Médecins Sans Frontières maternity clinic in Kabul, killing 24 mothers and babies and a staff member, and in May this year, when a suicide truck bomber struck a girls’ school in Kabul, killing 68 and wounding 165.

The group also claimed responsibility for a suicide bombing that killed 63 and wounded nearly 200 people at a wedding in Kabul, in August last year, mounting a direct challenge to the US and Taliban peace negotiations.

Geographically, it is based in the eastern province of Nangarhar, close to drug and people-smuggling routes in and out of Pakistan. At its height, it is said to have numbered about 3,000 fighters - but is also said to have suffered significant casualties in clashes with both the US and Afghan security forces, and also with the Taliban.

The group is considered to be such a significant threat that, in 2017, the USAF dropped the "mother of all bombs" – the largest conventional bomb in the US armoury – on caves in Nangahar province where Isis-K fighters were hiding. It was the first time the United States had used this bomb in combat, taking out leaders of the group, including its founder, and killing 96 fighters.

Khan was succeeded by Abdul Hasib, who was in turn killed by Afghan and US Special Forces in Nangarhar on 27 April 2017. Now, so little is known about the current status of the group that the UN has estimated that it could have as many as 1,500-2,200 core fighters or as few as 500. However, there are potentially 8,000 and 10,000 insurgents who are part of Afghanistan's assorted militant organisations, outside the immediate remit of the Taliban.

Two years ago, António Guterres, UN secretary general, cautioned that, following the Islamic State losing its land in Syria and Iraq, Isis-K, as its Afghanistan "branch", had acquired access to hundreds of millions of dollars to fund terrorist activities. The UN has attributed 77 attacks to Isis-K between January and April of this year, many of them repeatedly targeting ethnic Shia Hazaras.

Currently, Isis-K is not only recruiting from the villages in rural Nangarhar and Kunar provinces – hotbeds of anti-coalition activity - but also the urban middle class. It has been specifically targeting the universities as there have been cases of lecturers in Islamic law as well as students at Kabul University pledging allegiance to the group.

A leading authority on Islamist insurgency, Antonio Giustozzi, argues that Isis-K has encountered more success in Pakistan, heavily recruiting from mosques and madrasas, with nine major madrasas linked to the group and around a hundred small ones, as well some 150 mosques.

Standing apart from the Taliban, the group is nonetheless linked to it via the Haqqani network, with which Isis-K is strongly affiliated. And the man now leading the security in Kabul, on behalf of the Taliban, is Khalil Haqqani, head of that very same network, a man who has had a $5 million bounty on his head.

Nevertheless, the Taliban sees the Isis-K as "an existential threat", especially as disillusioned Taliban fighters are said to have defected to it. In fact, many of the group's initial recruits formerly belonged to the Taliban. The great fear now is that this group is a loose cannon and, as a fundamentalist group, poses a counter to the Taliban if that group seeks to take a more moderate line in the governance of Afghanistan.

Any effects might manifest themselves in several ways. On the one hand, the direct pressure from Isis-K might act as a brake on the moderating influences within the Taliban, strengthening the hard-line factions seeking to impose a rigid interpretation of Sharia law in Afghanistan.

On the other hand, irreconcilable differences between the groups could feed violent conflict, multiplying instability and pushing the country into civil war. And that dynamic could be further strengthened as warlords and anti-Taliban groups exploit the instability for their own ends.

Conflict could then encourage many jihadists from throughout the Middle East to think about traveling to Afghanistan instead of Syria or Iraq, as well as Uyghur Muslims who are being shunned by the Taliban as this group cosies up to the Chinese.

With the heartland of the Isis-K abutting on Waziristan - Hafiz Saeed Khan having taken a second wife from the area before his death – we're back to the malign influence exerted by this lawless region, which has never been subdued either by the British under the Raj, or the Pakistan government as its successor.

Although the Taliban is basking in its unexpectedly rapid victory in Afghanistan, its reputed 75,000 fighters are spread extremely thin and the Isis-K outrage demonstrates that the group is not fully in control.

US president Biden has promised to "hunt down" the Isis-K terrorists responsible for the bombing, but history creates uncomfortable precedents. Originating amongst the warring tribes of the Northwest frontier, the group is probably beyond the capability of any known agency to subdue.

Also published on Turbulent Times.

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