The Kabul attacks claimed by an Afghan affiliate of Isis have brought to the fore western fears that Afghanistan could become a haven for extremist groups exploiting the chaos left by the country’s collapsed government and departing American troops.
The group known by the acronym Isis-K claimed responsibility for Thursday’s attacks, which killed at least 79 Afghans and 13 American soldiers and dealt a devastating blow to the US withdrawal from Afghanistan. It came despite multiple intelligence warnings.
Isis-K first became active there in 2015, a year after Isis — originally an offshoot of al-Qaeda that grew into a rival — seized swaths of territory across Iraq and Syria and declared a caliphate or Islamic state.
The country has long been a base for radical Islamist movements from the Taliban to al-Qaeda. While those groups were the focal point of US and Afghan security operations, Isis-K was formed by former members of al-Qaeda’s Pakistan branch as well as defectors from the Taliban and the Haqqani network, a criminal group linked to the Taliban. The K refers to Khorasan, an area encompassing Pakistan, Afghanistan, central Asia, Iran and parts of India and Russia that the group sees as a future caliphate.
Links to the Haqqani network
Despite both groups sharing a radical Islamist agenda, the Taliban leadership has a hostile relationship with Isis-K, which wants to establish a global caliphate rather than focus on governing Afghanistan. Isis-K has also criticised the Taliban for engaging with the US.
When the Taliban was negotiating with the Trump administration to secure the deal that led to the US withdrawal, it committed to preventing al-Qaeda and other extremist groups from using Afghanistan as a hub to attack America or its allies.
The Taliban’s ability and willingness to take on Isis-K will be a critical test of that undertaking and a key determinant of whether it succeeds in securing the international recognition it craves.
But while analysts say the Taliban has previously launched operations against the jihadis, Isis-K has suspected links to the Haqqani network, an affiliate of the Taliban, which includes multiple factions that are often at odds with each other.
A UN report released in June last year cited comments from member states that most attacks claimed by Isis-K demonstrated some degree of “involvement, facilitation, or the provision of technical assistance” by the Haqqani network. Since the Taliban seized power a week ago, it has put the Haqqani network in charge of Kabul’s security.
It is not surprising that the Haqqanis have links to both Isis-K and the Taliban as the group “are not aligned to any ideology, they are an organised crime group”, said an Indian official, who closely tracks Afghanistan. “The active members of Isis-K are all sophisticated fighters who are erstwhile Haqqani network fighters,” the official said.
Attracting funding and recruits
Raffaello Pantucci, a terrorism expert at the S Rajaratnam School of International Studies in Singapore, believes that Isis-K could use the Taliban’s rise to power to increase its profile and strengthen its ability to attract funding and recruits.
“At the end of the day, terrorism is about being anti-establishment, and the Taliban are now the establishment,” Pantucci said. “So the problem is that all the ingredients are there for Isis-K to be in a very propitious environment to grow and develop, and that’s probably what we’re going to see happening.”
Last year’s UN report estimated that Isis-K had just 2,200 fighters in Afghanistan after the group suffered defeats at the hands of US and Afghan forces in Nangarhar, a north-eastern province where it had consolidated its position in the country.
But it remained a potent threat and was suspected of carrying out two deadly attacks in Kabul in May, including a car bomb and mortar assault on a school that killed at least 80 people, mostly female students.
The UN report also warned that Isis-K could capitalise on the Taliban’s deal with Washington by championing itself as the only credible jihadi movement. “The main risk of [an Isis-K] resurgence in the context of the Afghan peace process may lie in its ability to present itself as the only defiant terror group in the country and attract new recruits and funding accordingly,” it said.
The group has recruited fighters through coercion, the threat of violence and by the promise of high wages that never materialised, the report said, while raising funds through extortion, taxation and “likely timber and mineral exploitation”.
No eyes on the ground
US president Joe Biden has vowed to avenge the attacks, saying he has instructed military commanders to develop plans to strike Isis-K’s “assets, leadership and facilities”. But his challenge will be tracking down a shadowy group with no American assets on the ground, US intelligence impeded and with the Taliban in power.
There were co-ordinated intelligence warnings from the US and its allies hours before Thursday’s attacks. But a concern for western officials will be that the gunmen and suicide bomber who carried out the attacks near the airport must have passed through Taliban checkpoints.
Major General Chip Chapman, former head of counter-terrorism at the UK defence ministry, said this was not unexpected. Despite Taliban agreements to counter extremist groups, he said, “there’s always potential that insiders will make a dodgy deal”.
Colin Clarke, a counter-terrorism analyst at the New York-based Soufan Center, said conducting “over the horizon” missions would be complicated by the fact that the US might have “ears” on the ground, in the form of signals intelligence, but no “eyes” after its troop pullout.
“Afghanistan collapsed in a weekend and no one saw it coming,” he said. “So if intelligence didn’t predict that, I have little confidence they’ll be able to identify the resurgence of a group like Isis-K.”