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CTC Report: The Islamic State Khorasan is Broken, but Not Defeated

A Combating Terrorism Center report examines state-led operations against Islamic State Khorasan (also known as the ISK) in Afghanistan and Pakistan between 2015 and 2018.

Afghanistan and Pakistan became the home base for one of the Islamic State’s most dangerous and lethal affiliates—the Islamic State Khorasan (ISK)—approximately five years ago. In the half-decade since ISK’s official formation in January 2015, the group has been consistently subjected to a multitude of state-led operations in both Afghanistan and Pakistan. Despite recent indications that ISK may not possess the same level of potency as it did in years prior to 2019 (such as a decline in its total number of attacks in 2019 and recent surrenders in Nangarhar, Afghanistan),(1) it may be too early to interpret these developments as indicative of the group’s complete operational collapse. 

However, as this report demonstrates, intense targeting of ISK in both Afghanistan and Pakistan has resulted in substantial losses for the group over the past four years, which is likely to reshape its strategic and operational behavior in the future. In Afghanistan, ISK’s losses amounted to a total of 11,668 deaths, 696 individuals captured, and 375 individuals surrendered, which were primarily concentrated in Nangarhar. In Pakistan, the numbers were much lower, with a total of 433 captured and 104 killed, primarily in Punjab and Khyber Pakhtunkhwa (KPK). ISK leaders of various ranks were targeted in both countries, although the majority of these were located in Afghanistan, including all of its deceased emirs.(2) 

ISK leaders in Pakistan were primarily killed or captured in regions close to the Afghan-Pakistan border, in close proximity to its stronghold in Nangarhar. Despite prevalent operations against ISK, the lack of a systematic review of targeting tactics against the group means that specific outcomes of these operations and their efficacy remain unclear. 

A few questions remain unanswered: what is the nature and level of manpower losses incurred by ISK in various campaigns against the group? How have operations altered the level of the ISK threat, and what do they reveal about ISK’s militant base? How have these operations affected ISK’s operational capacity? 

This report draws on open-source materials to provide an overview of the diversity and magnitude of state-led efforts against ISK in Afghanistan and Pakistan. Chapter 1 of the report examines efforts against ISK in Afghanistan, while Chapter 2 focuses on Pakistan. Each of these chapters examines the unique nature of operations in both countries, the geographical hotspots and years of peaks in ISK’s losses, their outcomes in terms of leadership decapitation, and finally an overview of the effect of operations on ISK’s attacks, lethality (killed and wounded), and geographical expansion. Chapter 3 provides a discussion of these findings and their security implications.

Footnotes:
1 Ahmad Sultan and Rafiq Sherzad, “Afghanistan’s president claims victory over Islamic State,” Reuters, November 19, 2019. 2 The Arabic word ‘emir’ translates roughly to ‘commander’ in English and is often used to refer to ISK commanders who functionally fall beneath the head of the organization. To simplify, the authors reserved use of the word ‘emir’ to refer only to the head of the organization. A more detailed discussion of ISK’s leadership hierarchy is included in the methodology. 

Read the complete report at CTC

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