What We Know About ISIS-K, The Group Behind The Kabul Attack

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Medical and hospital staff bring an injured man on a stretcher for treatment after two blasts, which killed dozens of people, including U.S. service members, outside the airport in Kabul on Thursday.

Wakil Kohsar/AFP via Getty Images


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Wakil Kohsar/AFP via Getty Images

Smoke rises from an explosion outside the airport in Kabul Thursday. Thousands of people had flocked to the airport to flee the Taliban takeover of Afghanistan. U.S. service members and Afghans were among those killed and injured.

Wali Sabawoon/AP


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Wali Sabawoon/AP

What is the Islamic State affiliate?

The Islamic State Khorasan formed in late 2014 and operates as an ISIS affiliate in Afghanistan and Pakistan. Khorasan is a historical term for a region that includes present-day Afghanistan and parts of the Middle East and Central Asia. The group is also known as ISIS-K or IS-K.

The founding members included militants who left both the Afghan Taliban and the Pakistani Taliban.

«ISIS had sent representatives to both Pakistan and Afghanistan. They were essentially able to co-opt some disaffected Pakistani Taliban and a few Afghan Taliban [members] to join their cause,» Seth Jones, an Afghanistan specialist at the Center for Strategic and International Studies, said on NPR’s All Things Considered.

In a 2015 video, the group’s leader at the time, Hafiz Saeed Khan, and other top commanders pledged their allegiance to the Islamic State’s thenleader Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi and declared themselves administrators of a new ISIS territory in Afghanistan.

The regional affiliate governed with a strict interpretation of Islamic law and used violent enforcement tactics, such as carrying out public executions, killing tribal elders and closing schools, according to the Center for International Security and Cooperation at Stanford University.

Khan was killed in 2016 during a U.S. drone attack. Baghdadi died in 2019 after he set off an explosive vest during a raid by U.S. forces.

How is the Islamic State group tied to the Taliban?

The two are actually enemies, as President Biden noted in his televised address Thursday. Since its founding, the Islamic State affiliate has been at odds with the Taliban, which now control Afghanistan.

«Their goal really is an Islamic Emirate, and they are a competitor of both al-Qaida and the Taliban,» said Jones of CSIS.

Many Taliban militants defected to join the Islamic State affiliate, and the two groups fight for resources and territory.

Their differences are also ideological, according to the Stanford center.

«The hostility between the two groups arose both from ideological differences and competition for resources. IS accused the Taliban of drawing its legitimacy from a narrow ethnic and nationalistic base, rather than a universal Islamic creed,» the center said.

As the The Associated Press reports, as the Taliban sought to negotiate with the United States in recent years, many of those opposed to talks switched over to the more extremist Islamic State.

The Taliban condemned the blast outside the airport Thursday and said the area where the attacks occurred was controlled by the U.S.

Biden turned the focus back to the Taliban on Thursday, saying, «It is in the interest of the Taliban that ISIS-K does not metastasize.»

How big of a threat is the Islamic State in Afghanistan?

As of 2017, the U.S. military estimated that it had killed 75% of the Islamic State affiliate’s fighters, including some of its top leaders.

The Center for Strategic and International Studies counted almost 100 attacks by the group in Afghanistan and Pakistan by 2018, and hundreds of clashes with U.S., Afghan or Pakistani forces.

Monitors of United Nations sanctions believe the affiliate has around 2,000 fighters in eastern and northern Afghanistan but also noted that the group has had to «decentralize» after significant territorial losses.

But in a Pentagon briefing following the attacks Thursday, Gen. Kenneth McKenzie, the head of Central Command, said «the threat from ISIS is extremely real» and that there were other active threats against the airfield in Kabul.

According to the Congressional Research Service, the group has claimed responsibility for a string of high-profile attacks, including the bombing of a girls’ school in Kabul in May.

But Thursday’s attack also could reveal holes in the Taliban’s abilities. «What this does show, by the way, is that Taliban’s counterintelligence and counterterrorism capabilities actually are somewhat limited,» Jones said on All Things Considered. «They were not able to identify or stop the attack.»

  • Islamic State Khorasan Province
  • Islamic State
  • ISIS
  • Taliban
  • Afghanistan

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