The two explosions that killed scores of people on Thursday, including at least 13 American service members and dozens of Afghans, outside Kabul’s international airport were directed at the Taliban as much as at the foreign forces controlling the airport.
Thursday’s double suicide bombing threw the desperate race for the U.S. and other countries to remove tens of thousands of citizens and Afghan allies from Kabul into total chaos with less than four days before the scheduled end of the mission on the 31st of August.
The jihadist splinter group that claimed the attack calls itself as the Islamic State’s Khorasan Province (ISKP) and is commonly known in Afghanistan as Daesh. Khorshan is the name used in the Quran for a historical region encompassing parts of Afghanistan, Iran, Pakistan and Turkmenistan. The group is referred to internationally as ISIS-Khorasan or ISIS-K.
ISIS-K was founded by disgruntled members of the Pakistani Taliban, with money sent by the Islamic State after the group took over much of Iraq and Syria in 2015. In 2013, ISIS declared war on al Qaeda’s fighters in Iraq and Syria. The Taliban have maintained an official relationship with al Qaeda, and as a result, ISIS-K considers the Taliban to be its mortal enemy.
To highlight the rivalry, one of the first things the Taliban did after taking control of the main government prison in Kabul last week was to release their own prisoners and immediately execute a top ISIS-K leader being held there.
Initially, the nature of the relationship between ISIS-K and ISIS was unclear. “At first we could not tell if some group had just seen the news from Iraq and adopted the name, maybe as a way to fundraise or draw recruits off the success of the Mosul takeover,” said a Western security consultant who was in Afghanistan as ISIS-K emerged and recently fled Kabul as the Taliban advanced.
According to a 2018 report by the Center for Strategic and International Studies ISIS-K’s strategy includes “local and global objectives,” which include defeating the U.S. and Israel.
The group does not limit itself to a particular country. “Like the Islamic State’s core leadership in Iraq and Syria, ISIS-K seeks to establish a Caliphate beginning in South and Central Asia, governed by sharia law, which will expand as Muslims from across the region and world join,” the report says.
Based on this shared vision, the group’s links to the original ISIS soon became apparent. “Then it was clear they had some financial backing from the main group, this allowed them to recruit what we estimated to be about 3-4,000 fighters by 2016,” said the consultant. “Paid for with some money from Iraq but mostly paid for by taking over timber and trade routes in the East.” The Center for Strategic and International Studies says that by 2018 ISIS had invested “as much as several hundred thousand dollars” into its Khorshan province.
And their reach is extensive: ISIS-K first began seizing districts in the Eastern Afghanistan provinces of Kunar and Nangarhar throughout 2015 and 2016 from both the Afghan government and the much larger Taliban.
ISIS-K also portrays itself as a legitimate Muslim movement to rival the Taliban, whose austere and literal interpretation of Islamic Law is deemed not extreme enough by the new ISIS group, which demanded a pledge of loyalty to the caliphate ISIS declared in Iraq in 2014.
“It’s not about Islam, it’s about money and power,” said Abdullah, a former member of both a Taliban unit and the Afghan National Army who spoke with VICE World News. The differences, said Abdullah, whose name will not be shared for security reasons, are not really about religion. “If you want to take a Muslim’s money you say he is a bad Muslim. Daesh doesn’t really care how the Taliban prays, they just wanted to rule Afghanistan themselves.”
By 2016, ISIS-K was openly attacking the Afghan National Army, the U.S., and even the Taliban in the densely wooded eastern provinces of Kunar and Nangarhar, forcing the Taliban to organise a series of offensives that were ironically backed by American airpower and Afghan government artillery against their one-time allies.
In the Kunar and Nangarhar regions, the Taliban effectively served as the ground force against ISIS-K, while the US offered airstrikes that were requested via telephone, with Taliban commanders reaching out for air strike help and passing the coordinates to Afghan government agents, who would pass the request to the Americans.
“It worked well and broke their hold on much of the East,” said the Western security consultant. “But they can still send suicide bombs and this attack [on Kabul airport] was well known in advance.” Thursday’s attack came just hours after the US and allies warned of an imminent attack.
How much capability the group still has beyond occasional suicide bombing remains unclear.
“I suspect the Taliban will be able to hunt these guys down pretty easily even without anyone’s help,” said the security consultant. “It’s tough to be the group everyone hates and get anything done, and while the Taliban have so far reached out to the Shiite and to other minorities, ISIS-K will focus on attacking them. It’s the ISIS template: Start a civil war.”