The Islamic State of Khorasan or simply ISIS(K) is a branch of Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi’s Islamic State of Iraq and Syria, one of the most savage jihadi outfits. But it remains a shadowy group and little is known of the ISIS (k) leadership.
The group has claimed responsibility for Thursday’s suicide attack near the Kabul airport, which killed 13 US marines as well as over 60 Afghan civilians desperately hoping to escape from a Taliban-controlled Afghanistan.
The ISIS-K was formed in January 2015, at a time when Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi was controlling territory extending from Iraq to Syria. Most of the K group are located in the Nangarhar province of Afghanistan, along the drug smuggling route in and out of Pakistan. The exact numbers of their cadres are not known, but at one time experts say they had around 3,000 fighters. These numbers may swell now as ISIS takes advantage of the chaos now prevailing in Afghanistan.
The ISIS-K has followed in the footsteps of Baghdadi and is among the most violent outfits operating in Afghanistan. Responsible for attacks on Shia’s, on girls schools, wedding halls and beheadings of victims.
Baghdadi at the height of his power was the poster boy of jihadis. He was known for his penchant for beheading victims and posting videos to popularise his misdeeds. The genocide of the Yazidis in Iraq was one of Baghdadi’s infamous acts. Taken sex slaves was another.
Youth across the world flocked to join ISIS and he regarded himself as the head of an Islamic Caliphate. His popularity among the hard-line extremists around the world made ISIS more popular than Al Qaeda and all other jihadi groups.
ISIS-K recruited cadres from both Afghanistan and Pakistan. Many within the outfit are those who felt that the Taliban was not extreme enough. The Taliban has so far not shown much inclination to be part of the worldwide jihadi movement, like either Al Qaeda or ISIS. The Taliban focussed mainly on getting the American and NATO forces out of Afghanistan and targeted the US-supported administration of both Hamdi Karzai and Ashraf Ghani. It is another matter that Karzai now has working relations with the Taliban. But according to reports from Kabul both Karzai and the head of the former high peace council Abdullah-Abdullah have been divested for their personal security by the Taliban and more or less confined to their homes.
The Taliban and the ISIS-K cadres had fought bitterly in the past. They are rivals but collaborate sometimes as both groups operate in the wider jihadi ecosystem. In this shadowy world groups often come together on certain issues and break away as the occasion demands. This is why it is difficult for outsiders to understand the equation among these various Islamic outfits.
Yesterday’s suicide attack is an embarrassment for the Taliban. Experts say the ISIS-K like the original ISIS of Baghdadi thrives in situations of chaos. After all, Baghdadi flourished during the civil war in Iraq. Likewise, the chaos and confusion in Kabul without a proper government in place is ideal for the ISIS-K.
There is also a chance that the group is hoping to drive a wedge between the Taliban and the US. Attacking US marines is a good way to throw a spanner on the almost cordial ties now between the US and the Taliban. The ISIS-K is bitterly hostile to the Americans and has charged the Taliban for letting down the jihadi movement by signing the peace agreement with the US.
During Karzai and Ashraf Ghani’s respective tenures most of the ISIS and other extremist elements were behind bars. Some 5000 hardcore prisoners were released by the former Afghan government thanks to US pressure, following the signing of the peace deal between the Taliban and the Trump administration last February. Again when the Ghani government crumbled and the Taliban took over prison gates were thrown open in every place which fell to the Taliban. So several ISIS-K activists were released together with the Taliban and other extremist murderers and terrorists. So it is natural for the ISIS-K to now try to show their power and take on the Taliban when necessary.
But there is another twist here. The ISIS-K is said to be close to the Haqqani network which joined the Taliban in 1995. While the founder of the group Jalaluddin Haqqani is no more, his two sons are now important members of the Taliban. The Taliban’s connection with ISIS-K is through the Haqqani’s. The network is also close to Pakistan and was responsible for the suicide attack on the Indian embassy in 2008. New Delhi is concerned that the Haqqani brothers will be used by Pakistan to ensure India’s interests in Afghanistan are rolled back.
The Haqqani’s are in charge of security in Kabul. There are speculations not confirmed that this group may have allowed the ISIS-K terrorists to slip past the barricades guarded by their men. But there are wheels within wheels and a clear picture is yet to emerge. Ends