How strong is the Islamic State in Taliban-ruled Afghanistan?

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A bomb blast that killed at least 21 worshipers, including an influential cleric, and injured more than 30 others in Afghanistan’s capital during evening prayers on Wednesday evening, according to Taliban officials and residents, has renewed focus on the threat to the Taliban posed by Afghanistan’s Islamic State affiliate.

Residents of the Khair Khana area of Kabul told The Washington Post that the prayer leader who was killed, Amir Mohammad Kabuli, was an outspoken preacher unaffiliated with any one faction. No group has claimed responsibility for Wednesday’s blast, but it came a week after the Islamic State-Khorasan (ISIS-K), a rival of the Taliban, claimed responsibility for a bombing that killed Rahimullah Haqqani, a prominent Taliban-linked cleric.

It’s the latest in a string of attacks, many of which have been attributed to ISIS-K, since the Taliban swept to national power in Afghanistan a year ago.

Here’s what to know about the Islamic State’s presence in Afghanistan.

What is ISIS-K?

The Islamic State is most associated with Iraq and Syria, where the brutal extremist group held huge swaths of territory under its self-declared “caliphate” at the group’s peak in late 2014.

Known for its transnational recruitment and appetite for violence, ISIS saw its power decline sharply after a U.S.-coalition drove it from the last of its territory in 2019. But the militant organization and offshoots continue to stage attacks and fuel violence and instability in the Middle East, South Asia and Africa.

ISIS-K began operating in Afghanistan in 2015. It was started by Pakistani national Hafiz Saeed Khan, who had pledged allegiance to then-Islamic State leader Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi in 2014. Originally consisting mostly of Pakistani militants and based largely in the eastern Afghan province of Nangahar, it drew some recruits from the Taliban and other extremist groups.

The Islamic State follows a version of Salafism, an ultraconservative movement in Sunni Islam. In Afghanistan, the Hazaras, a Shiite minority group, have been frequent targets of ISIS-K attacks. So have Sufis, who practice a form of Islamic mysticism or asceticism. Kabuli, the cleric killed in Wednesday’s bombing, was reportedly a Sufi leader.

ISIS-K is led by Sanaullah Ghafari, also known as Shahab al-Muhajir, who is reported to be in eastern Afghanistan, according to the United Nations. Its attacks declined after U.S.-led counterterrorism operations in the group’s stronghold in eastern Afghanistan between 2018 and 2020. Still, ISIS-K continued to launch attacks on civilian targets such as schools and weddings.

An Islamic State-claimed attack on Kabul’s international airport during the U.S. withdrawal last year killed 13 U.S. troops and an estimated 170 Afghans.

What is the group’s relationship to the Taliban?

In a word: combative.

The Taliban has a history of close ties with al-Qaeda, a rival to the Islamic State. Though Taliban leaders pledged in a 2020 agreement with the United States to prevent Afghanistan from becoming a haven for terrorist groups, the killing of al-Qaeda leader Ayman al-Zawahiri in a U.S. drone strike in Kabul last month seemed to indicate ongoing ties between the groups.

In contrast, the Taliban has clashed with ISIS-K virtually since the Islamic State offshoot first cropped up in Afghanistan. The Taliban mostly adheres to the Deobandi movement within the Hanafi school of Sunni Islam, which contributes to religious and political differences between the groups.

Before the Taliban takeover, the United Nations estimated that ISIS-K had some 1,500 to 2,200 fighters in Konar and Nangahar provinces, along with smaller cells in other parts of the country. Islamic State leaders, who think the Taliban is not sufficiently extreme, denounced its victory last year.

How has Taliban rule affected ISIS-K?

In the months after the Taliban seized national control, ISIS-K expanded its reach to nearly all of Afghanistan’s provinces, the U.N. mission in Afghanistan said in November. It also stepped up the tempo of its attacks, carrying out suicide bombings, ambushes and assassinations. The group has claimed 224 attacks in Afghanistan since August 2021, 30 of which were considered significant, according to SITE Intelligence Group, a nonprofit that monitors extremist groups. Most targeted Taliban gatherings.

Late last year, the core Islamic State group gave $500,000 in new funding to ISIS-K, according to the U.N. monitoring team. A Taliban intelligence official acknowledged in the fall that his group’s fight to overthrow the U.S.-backed Afghan government allowed many Islamic State prisoners to escape.

ISIS-K attacks declined over the winter — maybe because of winter weather, the United Nations said, or perhaps as a result of a Taliban counterterrorism campaign, aided by Pakistani intelligence.

The Taliban’s approach to counterinsurgency has been brutal: In the fall, local commanders in Jalalabad killed accused Islamic State collaborators and hung their bodies at busy intersections, The Post reported. Hundreds of suspected ISIS-K members disappeared or turned up dead.

Security has improved for most Afghans since the Taliban took power — but recent violence shows the Islamic State remains active. ISIS-K launched a fresh series of attacks in the spring, claiming 80 attacks between April and the end of June, mostly targeting Hazara and Sufi minorities, according to the latest report from the Defense Department’s lead inspector general for U.S. counterterrorism missions in Afghanistan, released Tuesday. Its most lethal attack, the bombing of a Hazara mosque in Mazar-e Sharif in April, killed at least 31 civilians and wounded more than 60.

The group also claimed cross-border attacks in Pakistan, Uzbekistan and Tajikistan.

The violence could “produce some cracks in the armor” of the Taliban government, said Michael Kugelman, deputy director of the Asia program at the Wilson Center.

“ISIS-K’s strategy is twofold: Target Taliban forces directly to undermine their hold on power, and target civilians to weaken Taliban legitimacy by shattering their core narrative that their takeover restored peace and stability,” he said in an email.

The indiscriminate smaller attacks in urban areas, in lieu of more sophisticated operations, could indicate that ISIS-K is short on “skilled terrorists,” said Antonio Giustozzi, a security expert at King’s College London.

“This strategic shift toward mass-casualty attacks and anti-Taliban media campaigns comes far more from a place of fear than confidence,” Rita Katz, SITE Intelligence Group’s director, wrote in an email.

Experts and intelligence officials warned last summer that a Taliban victory over the U.S.-backed Afghan government could drive Islamist militants from around the world to Afghanistan. ISIS-K rolled out a multilingual media operation over the past year to attract recruits, according to Katz. For the most part, though, Taliban rule hasn’t led yet to the boom in ISIS recruitment that some analysts predicted.

While the dire economic crisis in Afghanistan over the past year has created fertile ground for radicalization, experts said, Islamic State leaders can be strict about vetting their fighters’ ideological commitments.

Some lower-level Taliban commanders, mainly from Tajik and Uzbek communities in the north, have reportedly defected to ISIS-K, according to the United Nations. But the Taliban’s hard-line approach to governance hasn’t incentivized its ultraconservative leaders to jump ship, Kugelman said.

The Taliban last month declared ISIS-K a corrupt “sect” and banned Afghans from having contact with the group. Taliban forces have garnered praise from some Kabul residents for battling ISIS-K fighters who attacked predominantly Shiite neighborhoods.

In Salafi strongholds, though, the Taliban’s heavy-handed counterterrorism strategy could backfire, experts warned.

“They don’t have much capacity to use air power, the main tactic to target ISIS-K before the Taliban took over,” Kugelman said. “The Taliban have used ground offensives instead, but in so doing they’ve used scorched-earth tactics that have alienated local communities more than degraded the ISIS-K threat.”

Susannah George and Haq Nawaz Khan contributed to this report.

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