DAYS BEFORE two suicide bombers took the lives of more than 100 Afghans and American soldiers outside Kabul airport, Western governments had warned that an attack was imminent. Just as the bombings on August 26th did not come as a shock, nor did their perpetrators. Intelligence agencies had picked up signals that Islamic State Khorasan Province (ISKP) was preparing to unleash carnage. In response, President Joe Biden vowed to hunt down the attackers and instructed his military leaders to draw up plans against the group, which is also known as ISIS-K. So who are ISKP, and what is their goal?
ISKP is the Central Asian offshoot of Islamic State (IS), a jihadist group that established a short-lived and terrible caliphate in Iraq and Syria between 2014 and 2018. Khorasan is a historical area that takes in parts of Iran, Afghanistan and other bits of Central Asia. As its power in the Levant has waned, IS has increasingly looked to gain a foothold in the region. ISKP is not only fiercely anti-Western, but also the sworn enemy of the Taliban, another Islamist group that has taken control of Afghanistan. ISKP has portrayed the Taliban as sell-outs for signing a deal with America and co-operating with its withdrawal.
Whereas the Taliban are rooted in the Hanafi sect of Islam, ISKP draws its inspiration from the Salafi tradition, which is strong in the country’s eastern provinces. It prides itself on being even less forgiving of non-believers—including minority sects of Islam, like the Shia—than its fellow jihadists. Its violence knows few bounds. In May 2020 it is thought to have attacked the maternity ward of Kabul’s Dasht-e-Barchi hospital, killing 24 people, including two children. A year later it allegedly struck the Sayed Al-Shuhada school in a part of the capital populated by the Shia Hazara minority, killing 90 people, mostly schoolgirls. A month later it murdered ten humanitarian workers removing mines in Baghlan province, to the north of Kabul.
Its hatred of the Taliban is not just theological. It is also the product of fierce competition between jihadists for resources, both human and economic. The group seems to have been established in 2014, with Hafiz Saeed Khan (pictured), a former member of the Taliban in both Afghanistan and later Pakistan, as its first emir. (He was killed by an American airstrike in Afghanistan in 2016.) It grew by attracting other disaffected members of the Taliban, which had been routed in Afghanistan and had fled across the border into Pakistan. It went as far as declaring war on its rival in 2015. But ISKP now has relatively few fighters in Afghanistan. It lost almost 12,000 operatives between 2015 and 2018, in the face of counter-terrorism pressure from America and the Pakistani government. The UN reckons it has just 500 to 1,500 left.
But even after being rooted out of its eastern strongholds, in Kunar and Nuristan provinces, it has managed to strike repeatedly in Afghan cities. One reason for that, notes Abdul Sayed, an expert on jihadist groups, is that ISKP has absorbed defectors from the Haqqani network, a Taliban-allied group that is also close to al-Qaeda, and which has long experience in conducting suicide bombings in Kabul. The fact that the Taliban had reportedly placed the Haqqani network in charge of Kabul’s security may have helped ISKP mount its attack.
For the moment ISKP’s threat seems to be confined to its heartlands. There is no evidence linking it to terror plots in the West (although one of its stated long-term aims is to raise the “banner of al-Uqab above Jerusalem and the White House”). There also seems to be little love for it in Afghanistan itself. In regions it has previously controlled, such as Nangarhar, its introduction of strict sharia law—from the closing of schools, to brutal punishments for those that fell foul of its interpretation of Isam—has led to resentment. All of that suggests its immediate impact will be limited to the types of outrages perpetrated in Kabul on August 26th. It is no less terrifying for that.