Afghanistan’s Islamic State affiliate, ISIS-K, is ramping up its attacks on the Taliban in Afghanistan, undermining the group’s pledge to end suicide bombings in the country.
The Afghan branch of the Islamic State group has claimed responsibility for a string of high-profile suicide attacks over the last couple of weeks, including one on the Russian embassy in Kabul on Monday, which killed eight people, including two embassy staff, and injured many more.
The attack on the Russian embassy, one of the very few foreign missions still operating in the country, was a bad look for the Taliban. The group has already struggled to convince countries to keep their representatives in Afghanistan.
The attack on Monday appeared to surprise the Taliban. Lucas Webber, an expert and the co-founder and editor of Militant Wire, a research outlet tracking extremist groups, said it was “a culmination of years of hostile rhetoric directed at Moscow by ISKP [another abbreviation for the group] and months of markedly intensified threats. ISKP had been promising to attack Russian interests and had also been encouraging its followers to do the same.”
ISIS-K has accused the Taliban of not being “Islamic enough” and has killed hundreds of civilians as well as targeting prominent Taliban leaders.
Several attacks were claimed by ISIS-K last month, including a suicide blast in the capital Kabul that killed prominent pro-Taliban religious leader Sheikh Rahimullah Haqqani, and one last week in Herat that targeted Mujib Rahman Ansari, another cleric. Before the Taliban’s takeover, ISIS-K mainly targeted Shia mosques and other public places, but they have now trained their sights on much more high-value targets.
But despite the massive pressure Taliban leaders now find themselves under, the Taliban has failed to contain ISIS-K. Despite claiming to have everything under control, the group's counter-terrorism efforts have been hampered by the intensity of the ISIS-K attacks.
The rise in numbers of the attacks carried out by ISIS-K has been attributed to the group's shift to just hitting Taliban targets following the collapse of the Western-backed government last August.
Since the Taliban took power a year ago, the overall number of car bombings and suicide attacks across Afghanistan has gone down significantly. But a reduction in violence was an easy thing for the Taliban to promise and achieve because for over two decades, most suicide bombings were being carried out by the Taliban themselves against people they deemed allied with the Western-backed government.
ISIS-K, named after the historical Khorasan province between western and central Asia, is based in the east of the country, close to narcotic and people-trafficking routes in and out of Pakistan.
It announced itself in 2014 and pledged allegiance to Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi, then the ISIS leader in Syria and Iraq. The armed group of local and foreign jihadis from the central Asian region gained world notoriety for their attack on Kabul airport last August while people tried to flee the country, which killed more than 183 people and injured some 150.
Years of violence have made rural areas of Afghanistan a safe haven for some of the most extreme Sunni jihadist groups, but keeping tabs on them has become the sole responsibility of the Taliban. A pledge by the Taliban to reduce violence has kept their government connected to a number of countries in the region, including China, and Pakistan, while the group awaits wider international recognition that it is unlikely to get.
The exit of western forces and the collapse of their Afghan allies left the Taliban solely in charge of security in Afghanistan, which is filled with other Islamist groups.
“The Taliban is aggressively pursuing ISKP through counter-terrorism operations and intelligence activities,” Webber, the extremism expert, told VICE World News.
“ISKP has exposed the Taliban's limited counter-terrorism capacity and has been able to conduct special operations in Kabul frequently.”
ISIS-K boasted about the Russian embassy attack on Monday on its propaganda accounts and called it a victory over the “crusaders”.
Khalid Zardan, the Kabul police spokesperson, said in a statement that the Taliban security forces engaged with the attacker, but the suicide bomber detonated. "Security forces are investigating the incident,” he said.
The attack was condemned by the Russian Foreign Minister, Sergey Lavrov, who demanded more information about the attack.
Lavrov also said that security had been intensified at the embassy following the attack along with “additional forces of the Taliban authorities.”
“Let's hope that the organisers of this terrorist act and its perpetrators will be punished,” he added.