Even before the two bombs went off at Hamid Karzai International Airport on Thursday, ISIS-K had already made international headlines.
On May 12, 2020, less than 10 miles from where the twin suicide attacks killed at least 90 Afghan civilians trying desperately to escape Taliban rule, three shooters disguised as police officers entered the maternity ward at Kabul’s Dasht-e-Barchi State Hospital and opened fire, killing 24 women, children and babies.
A spate of other incidents followed. In August, gunmen attacked a prison in the eastern city of Jalalabad, killing at least 29 people and freeing more than 300 prisoners. In November, gunmen attacked Kabul University and killed 35 people, most of them students. And on December 12, 2020, a series of rockets were fired on Kabul – three of them landing near Hamid Karzai.
ISIS-K, otherwise known as the Islamic State Khorasan Province or ISK, claimed responsibility for all of these attacks. It is precisely because of the group’s track record that authorities were worried, days before Thursday’s suicide bombings, that such an event might occur. Coupled with the group’s sworn opposition to the Taliban, who now hold power in the newly-named Islamic Emirate of Afghanistan, it is also why experts and military leaders are expecting more bloodshed to follow.
“There’s going to be more terrorism attacks,” Lydia Khalil, a researcher at the Lowy Institute who specialises in Middle East politics, international terrorism and extremism, told VICE World News. “There’ll be more terrorism attacks targeting Afghan civilians, [and] there’ll be more terrorism attacks targeting the Taliban security forces as they attempt to consolidate control. This airport attack is just the latest in a string of attacks that the ISK have done over the past year.”
ISIS-K – which formed in 2014 and differs from the Taliban not so much in ideology as, in Khalil’s words, “their level of brutality and willingness to use terrorism against civilians” – have been carrying out acts of violence in Afghanistan for years. But in the lead-up to the U.S. withdrawal, there seems to have been a sharp uptick in the group’s activity.
During the first four months of 2021, the United Nations Assistance Mission in Afghanistan (UNAMA) recorded 77 attacks that were either claimed by or attributed to ISIS-K – a more than threefold increase over the same period in 2020, where the number of attacks was 21. This uptick corresponded to a similar increase in attacks by the Taliban during the same period. But whereas Taliban militants primarily focused their assaults on Western and coalition forces, ISIS-K – and the Islamic State more broadly – is notoriously ruthless about inflicting violence upon innocent civilians.
“With the Islamic State you see this propensity for mass casualty; indiscriminate terrorist attacks that are known for their brutality and no shame in terms of who they target,” Khalil explained. “If you’re going to target babies in a hospital, I don’t know how you go beyond that.”
The twin explosions near Hamid Karzai on Thursday marked a symbolic moment: the first large-scale terrorist attack to take place since the Taliban seized Kabul on August 15. It was also a fierce reminder to the new leaders of the country, as well as its citizens, that despite the collapse of the Afghan government and the imminent withdrawal of Western coalition forces, ISIS-K isn’t going anywhere.
In November 2019, following a relentless, years-long campaign of airstrikes in the northeastern province of Nangarhar, former Afghan President Ashraf Ghani triumphantly declared that the Islamic State had been “obliterated.” Others disagreed. Ahmad Ali Hazrat, the head of Nangarhar’s provincial council, cited intelligence reporting that hundreds of Islamic State fighters previously based in the area’s now “obliterated” villages were merely scattered by the airstrikes, moving into urban areas during the military offensive until things died down.
“They have not been eliminated,” said Hazrat at the time, according to The Washington Post. “They have suffered defeats. Now we wait and see.”
A report from the United Nations Security Council in June issued a similar warning, noting that “Despite territorial, leadership, manpower and financial losses during 2020 in Kunar and Nangarhar Provinces, [ISIS-K] continues to pose a threat to both the country [of Afghanistan] and the wider region.”
“[The group] is seeking to remain relevant and to rebuild its ranks,” the report said, “with a focus on recruitment and training of new supporters potentially drawn from the ranks of Taliban who reject the peace process.”
ISIS-K was founded by former members of the Pakistani Taliban, Afghan Taliban and the Islamic Movement of Uzbekistan, and has further bolstered its ranks over the years by poaching militants from various other groups. Its selling point, as far as a certain breed of hardline, dyed-in-the-wool jihadists is concerned, is that it is the most most extreme and violent of all the jihadist militant groups in Afghanistan.
Its resurgence poses a threat to the Taliban, who despite having already claimed leadership over Afghanistan are yet to effectively consolidate their power. At the same time, the group is having to navigate a delicate balancing act between its severe, Islamic fundamentalist roots and a less austere version that is less likely to draw the ire of the international community.
It is precisely this compromise, of extremist values in exchange for political power, that the Islamic State detests in the Taliban. And Khalil suggested that ISIS-K are going to aim to disrupt their claim to power as much as possible – specifically through acts of violence and terrorism.
“The Islamic State in Khorasan (ISK) is a serious rival to the Taliban,” she said. “People talk about how the Islamic State often poses a threat to the West and the U.S., but currently ISK is first and foremost a threat to civilians in Afghanistan and to the Taliban and the remaining Coalition forces before they depart.”
“Right now the Taliban says they are in control of Afghanistan, but gaining power is one thing; holding on to it and actually governing is another. They still need to consolidate their control.”
Khalil indicated that ISIS-K are likely to play a “spoiler role” for the Taliban as the latter group tries to cement its dominion over Afghanistan. Since they’re not currently powerful enough to challenge the Taliban, she said, their strategy will be to destabilise things as much as possible so that the new government is more likely to fail.
“ISIS-K can [then] take advantage of the instability in the country, so that they can grow their presence and so that they can become a stronger affiliate for the Islamic state and hold on to that state as a branch for a global caliphate along the lines of the Islamic State’s vision,” Khalil explained. “And the U.S. military presence being removed is another factor in this. So that is going to lead to a very risky and complicated period with more future violence. There is a high risk of civil conflict returning and that obviously is going to impact civilians.”
The United States is due to fully withdraw its presence from Afghanistan by August 31, pursuant to a deadline that was put in place by Biden last month. But he has vowed vengeance after ISIS-K’s attack on Kabul on Thursday, which also claimed the lives of at least 13 U.S. Service Members.
Speaking from the White House on Thursday evening, Biden said that he had asked the U.S. military for options to respond to the suicide blasts.
“Know this: We will not forgive. We will not forget. We will hunt you down and make you pay,” Biden said. “I've also told my commanders to attack ISIS-K assets. And we will respond with precision, at our time, at a place that we choose, and the moment of our choosing.”
“Here's what you need to know. These ISIS terrorists will not win.”
It is as yet unclear what form the U.S. retaliation might take. The Taliban have also condemned the attacks, saying they are “paying close attention to the security and protection of its people, and evil circles will be strictly stopped.” In any case, when the U.S. does finally withdraw from the country, Khalil believes the Taliban will be forced to crack down on the Islamic State insurgents on their own, in order to reinforce their status as competent leaders.
“It’s going to be imperative for them, if they want to consolidate control of the country, to get a handle on ISK,” she said. “They’re going to have to figure out how to expend their resources on this; there’s only limited resources, and they’re going to have to expend some of them going after Islamic State networks in the areas where they operate. But at the same time they have to use these forces in order to consolidate their control over the country and govern.”
In the short-term, there’s no good outcome for Afghan civilians, who stand to suffer the most.
If the Taliban are unable to consolidate control, then Khalil is certain that there will be more terrorist attacks targeting both civilians and Taliban forces. But retaliation also means further destabilisation, in a country where people fear seeing the few positive outcomes of the past 20 years – economic growth, gains in education, infrastructure, opportunities for women and girls – rapidly unravel. And as Khalil points out, anywhere where there’s contestation of control, civilians are sure to be caught in the crossfire.
“We’ve already seen an opposition to the Taliban from rival jihadists and other non-jihadist ethnic and political anti-Taliban forces, so that will continue,” she said. “And unfortunately those that pay the price are civilians.”
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