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Thursday, March 30, 2023

ISIS-Khorasan Appears to Be Replacing the Taliban’s Terror in Afghanistan

ISIS-K expanded its target list in 2022 and included diplomats, critical infrastructure, and crowds in public places.

There have been debates on whether ISIS-Core and its regional affiliates have been defeated globally. Still, their 2022 activities indicate the strong presence of these groups in the world. For example, U.S. Central Command and partner forces conducted 313 military operations targeting ISIS in Syria and Iraq in 2022. In addition, the group’s branches in Mozambique, the Democratic Republic of Congo, Mali, Burkina Faso, Niger, Nigeria, the Philippines, Yemen, and Somalia continued to make attacks in 2022. ISIS-Khorasan (ISIS-K), an ISIS-affiliated organization that operates in Afghanistan and Pakistan, deserves special attention in terms of its highly complex attacks that killed hundreds of people in Afghanistan in 2022.

Afghanistan recorded 1,722 terrorist incidents that killed 8,522 people in 2020, predominantly perpetrated by the Taliban. ISIS-K was the perpetrator of 22 attacks in the same year, accounting for only one percent of total attacks. However, ISIS-K seemed to be a dominant terrorist organization in the country after the Taliban’s takeover in August 2021.

The Taliban has grappled with many political, economic, and social issues in the country after it began to rule in 2021. Its government has failed to present a promising life for Afghans. The government is not allowed to use its frozen assets, and its economy has faced a catastrophe. Women are still oppressed, and its recent decree banning university education for girls receives severe criticism. Furthermore, the Taliban government fails to act as a functional government that addresses the country’s never-ending issues. Afghanistan is still polarized, and the ethnic resistance groups in northern states target Taliban forces. Under all these circumstances, it is unsurprising to list terrorism and security threats as the country’s other top issues. Al-Qaeda enjoys operating under the Taliban leadership. The Haqqani Network group, an al-Qaeda-affiliated group, has a government-level representation, with its leader acting as the Minister of Interior. Al-Qaeda in the Indian Subcontinent (AQIS), another al-Qaeda-affiliated group, is well-settled in Afghanistan and places its ranks in the Taliban government.

Tehrik-i-Taliban Pakistan (TTP) and ISIS-K were some of two active terrorist organizations operating in Afghanistan in 2022. TTP intensified attacks in Pakistan’s Quetta and Khyber Pakhtunkhwa regions but limitedly operated in Afghanistan. TTP’s leadership cadre was targeted in several attacks that, for instance, happened on August 7 and killed three group senior commanders and on October 10 that seriously injured another TTP commander in the country. However, ISIS-K seemed to be the most active and capable group that claimed responsibility for most of its attacks in 2022, indicating its efforts to take credit and increase its popularity.

Before the Taliban’s takeover, ISIS-K limitedly operated in Kabul, and its activities were confined to Kunar and Nangarhar provinces; however, the group, with its organizational structure that includes global jihadists, was able to exert its influence in almost all 34 provinces and continued to carry out attacks in Uzbekistan, Tajikistan, and Pakistan in 2022.

ISIS-K targeted a variety of groups in its 2022 attacks. First, ISIS-K aimed to attack the members of the Haqqani Network group and Taliban forces in a significant number of attacks in 2022. ISIS-K sees the Taliban as a heretic organization because the Taliban collaborated with western countries and joined peace talks with the United States. ISIS-K believes the Taliban is an irreconcilable threat that must be militarily targeted. The sectarian difference between ISIS-K and the Taliban is another reason for hostility. ISIS-K subscribes to the jihadi-Salafism and sees the Taliban’s Hanafi madhhab as deficient. ISIS-K also objects to the Taliban’s nationalism and considers that the Taliban cannot rule Afghanistan. ISIS-K conducted car bombings and suicide bombings and planted mines and Improvised Explosive Devices (IED) when targeting the Taliban forces in 2022. Also, ISIS-K targeted high-level members of the Taliban government. For example, the Taliban’s intelligence chief was killed in an ISIS-K attack on January 11, 2022. Moreover, ISIS-K beheaded one individual who was accused of spying for the Haqqani Network on March 18, 2022. In another attack, ISIS-K targeted a local Taliban leader and his security guard in Badakhshan, planting an IED underneath his vehicle on April 24, 2022.

Second, ISIS-K attacks targeted Hazaras in Afghanistan, a Shia community living primarily in the Hazarajat region and scattered throughout the country. They are the biggest target of ISIS-K due to their religious identity. ISIS considers Shias to be apostates that need to be punished. They are also easy targets for ISIS-K, as the Taliban is reluctant to protect Hazaras. ISIS-K mainly targeted Shia gatherings in religious schools, funerals, bus terminals, and mosques in 2022, regardless of brutally killing adults or children. For example, ISIS-K’s twin blasts killed nine people and wounded 13 others in a minibus terminal on April 28, 2022. The group targeted a religious school in the Nada Ali district on September 3, 2022, killing four students in a blast. ISIS-K’s suicide bomber blew himself up in a university test center, killed 35 students and wounding 88 others in a Shia neighborhood in Kabul on October 1, 2022. Every month, ISIS-K targeted one or more Shia mosques in 2022. For example, the deadly attack on Khanaqa-e-Malawi Sikandar mosque in Kunduz province killed 33 people on April 22, 2022. ISIS-K’s explosions targeting Wazir Akbar Khan mosque in Kabul killed seven worshippers and wounded 41 others on September 24, 2022. In another attack on October 6, ISIS-K’s suicide bomber exploded and killed five people in a sub mosque at the Ministry of Interior in Kabul.

Third, ISIS-K attacks targeted the followers of Sufi Islam. ISIS-K is against Sufism because the organization sees it as a heretic group and does not see them as Muslims. For example, ISIS-K targeted a group of Sunni Muslims at Khalifa Sahib Mosque and killed more than 50 worshippers on April 29, 2022, during a congregation known as Zikr – an act of religious remembrance practiced by some Muslims but seen as heretical by hardline ISIS militants. In another attack, ISIS-K targeted Abu Bakr Siddique mosque and killed 21 people in Kabul on August 17, 2022.

Fourth, ISIS-K expanded its target list and included diplomats, critical infrastructure, and crowds in public places. For example, an ISIS-K suicide bomber targeted the Russian embassy and killed six people, including two Russian embassy staff, on September 5, 2022. In another attack, the group blew up three electricity pylons in Samanghan province on May 22, 2022. Finally, ISIS-K killed at least 10 people as three bombs placed on separate minibuses exploded in Mazar-i Sharif on May 25, 2022.

To conclude, ISIS-K seems to be replacing Taliban terror in Afghanistan. The organization has immediately filled the voids left by the security failure of the Taliban government and operates in almost all provinces of the country. The group is strategically capable of doing car bombings and deploying suicide bombers and targeting Taliban forces, embassy personnel, and civilians. Moreover, nothing has stopped ISIS-K from targeting Shia and Sunni mosques and damaging the country’s critical infrastructure. Its 2022 efforts and capacity are strong indicators of ISIS-K’s growing danger in the region, and the world will increasingly see its bloody attacks targeting war-weary Afghans in the future.

Mahmut Cengiz
Dr. Mahmut Cengiz is an Associate Professor and Research Faculty with Terrorism, Transnational Crime and Corruption Center (TraCCC) and the Schar School of Policy and Government at George Mason University. Dr. Cengiz has international field experience where he has delivered capacity building and training assistance to international partners in the Middle East, Asia, and Europe. He also has been involved in research projects for the Brookings Institute, European Union, and various U.S. agencies. Dr. Cengiz regularly publishes books, articles and Op-eds. He is the author of six books, a number of articles, and book chapters regarding terrorism, organized crime, smuggling, terrorist financing, and trafficking issues. His 2019 book, “The Illicit Economy in Turkey: How Criminals, Terrorists, and the Syrian Conflict Fuel Underground Economies,” analyzes the role of criminals, money launderers, and corrupt politicians and discusses the involvement of ISIS and al-Qaida-affiliated groups in illicit economy. Dr. Cengiz holds two masters and two doctorate degrees from Turkey and the United States. His Turkish graduate degrees are in sociology. He has a master's degree from the School of International Service Program of American University and a Ph.D. from the School of Public Policy program of George Mason University. He is teaching Terrorism, American Security Policy and Narco-Terrorism courses at George Mason University.

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