It boasts only a few thousand fighters in its ranks, but the Islamic State-Khorasan — or ISIS-K — has built its reputation on high-profile, horrific terrorist attacks, from a brutal assault on an Afghan maternity ward 15 months ago to Thursday’s dual suicide bombings that killed civilians and American troops at Kabul‘s airport.
U.S. officials and counterterrorism specialists quickly blamed the dual attack on ISIS-K, an ultra-extremist jihadi outfit that formed as an offshoot of the Islamic State that had headquarters in Syria. As Thursday’s carnage spread across television and phone screens around the world, ISIS-K claimed responsibility.
The developments were no surprise for the U.S. intelligence community, which has hunted the group and analyzed its activities for several years. Top Biden administration officials had warned for days that the Salafi jihadists were dead set on derailing the U.S.-led airlift out of Kabul.
At least 13 U.S. troops died in the attacks, which struck a main entry at the airport and the nearby Baron Hotel. About 60 Afghans were killed, and another 143 were wounded. After the first bomb went off, ISIS-K gunmen opened fire on American troops guarding the airport gate, elevating the number of people killed.
Within hours, the incidents had thrust into the spotlight long-elusive questions about the relationship between ISIS-K and the hard-line Islamist Taliban now ruling Kabul. The Associated Press cited a Taliban spokesman as publicly condemning Thursday’s attacks, saying they occurred in an area controlled by U.S. forces.
While Taliban leaders have also made headlines in recent months by claiming to consider ISIS-K to be a sworn enemy, counterterrorism experts say there is considerable crossover between ISIS-K and radical factions of Taliban fighters.
U.S. sources say the birth of ISIS-K can be traced to Pakistan.
The group was founded in 2014 by former members of the Pakistani Taliban to serve as the Islamic State’s Afghanistan branch. Members pledged allegiance to the “caliphate” that Islamic State founder Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi had established that year in Syria and Iraq.
Hafiz Saeed Khan, ISIS-K’s first leader, or emir, was born in Pakistan and reportedly crossed Afghanistan to fight U.S. troops after the American invasion in October 2001.
The ranks of ISIS-K, specialists say, almost surely include a mix of fighters with close ties to the Taliban and hardened militants from the Haqqani Network, a radical subset of the Taliban that also has roots in Pakistan.
The Haqqani Network’s leader, Sirajuddin Haqqani, was tapped in recent days by Taliban commanders in Kabul to serve as a top-ranking security official. Haqqani has been on the FBI’s most-wanted list for years for his role in a 2008 terrorist attack that killed six people, including an American citizen.
Analysts debate the extent of communication among ISIS-K, the Taliban and the Haqqani Network.
Some argue that ISIS-K is by far the most extremist of the three and is viewed by the other two groups as a rival for control of the jihadi mantle in Afghanistan.
Others say the Taliban and the Haqqani Network operate ISIS-K as a proxy to give their leaders plausible deniability for attacks on Afghan citizens and Americans.
Several analysts said Thursday that the attacks on the airport should put to rest the notion that the Taliban are capable or even willing to crack down on ISIS-K.
Under the terms of a delicate peace deal that the Trump administration negotiated with Taliban leaders last year, the militants vowed to stop harboring al Qaeda and other extremist groups, including ISIS-K, in exchange for a phased withdrawal of U.S. and other foreign combat troops.
President Biden said in remarks Thursday evening that he had received “no evidence … that there has been collusion between the Taliban and ISIS in carrying out what happened today.”
Some analysts say Taliban leaders who have taken control of the Afghan capital think ISIS-K attacks, such as those that rocked the Kabul airport, play to their strategic advantage.
“Isn’t it convenient at a time when the Taliban is looking for international recognition and looking for the U.S. to further endorse it as a counterterrorism partner, that they can hold up ISIS-K and any attack by ISIS-K and say, ‘Look, we’re your partners. You need us to guarantee this doesn’t happen going forward,’” said Thomas Joscelyn, a senior fellow at the Foundation for Defense of Democracies.
“I think it’s foolish. I think it’s rubbish,” Mr. Joscelyn told reporters.
“A lot of ISIS-K leaders were formerly Taliban or al Qaeda leaders,” he said. “They are different breeds of the same species.”
Not everyone agrees. ABC News cited Bruce Hoffman, a counterterrorism scholar at the Council on Foreign Relations, as saying ISIS-K stands against the Taliban and the U.S.
“Their objective is to wantonly attack the U.S. because they see the U.S. as their main enemy,” Mr. Hoffman said. “Also, I think it’s designed to embarrass the Taliban as well. ISIS attempted to move in and establish a base in Afghanistan to compete with the Taliban. Their ideologies are pretty much the same. It’s more of a power struggle than an ideological or religious one.”
Regardless, the dynamic between the two groups has created unease at the Pentagon.
U.S. military commanders wouldn’t blame the Taliban for allowing ISIS-K suicide bombers to reach the Kabul airport’s gates, but Pentagon officials made it clear that the bombers had traversed through Taliban checkpoints along streets surrounding the airport.
“The Taliban have conducted searches before they get to that point. Sometimes those searches have been good and sometimes not,” Gen. Kenneth F. McKenzie, the head of U.S. Central Command, told reporters at the Pentagon.
The attacks were the latest in what U.S. and international officials describe as a brutal and expanding track record of strikes carried out by ISIS-K terrorists.
In November, at least 22 people were killed when an ISIS-K gunman opened fire at Kabul University.
The shocking May 2020 attack on a maternity hospital in a majority Shiite neighborhood in Kabul killed at least 24 people, including newborns and mothers.
Two months earlier, an ISIS-K gunman killed at least 25 worshippers and wounded eight others during a rampage in a Sikh temple in Kabul. One child was killed.
Some retired U.S. officials say those kinds of attacks, along with the bombings and shootings in Kabul, are reminiscent of the tactics used by some Taliban fighters and members of the Haqqani Network.
“This is a ridiculous idea, that this is really ISIS-K, and gosh, the Taliban must be really disappointed. That’s crazy,” said retired Army Lt. Gen. H.R. McMaster, who served as President Trump’s first national security adviser.
“I’m sure that we will uncover evidence that this happened with the full knowledge of the Haqqanis and certainly elements of the Taliban, if not the most senior leadership,” he said in an MSNBC interview. “It has all the hallmarks of a complex attack of the kind the Haqqanis are experts at.”
Reuters reported that ISIS-K claimed responsibility for the Kabul attacks via a Telegram messaging channel operated by the Islamic State group’s Amaq News Agency.