When the Islamic State ofcially declared the formation of its province in Afghanistan and Pakistan (AfPak)—Wilayat Khorasan, or Islamic State Khorasan (ISK)—in January 2015, many global and regional policymakers dismissed the threat of an Islamic State afliate in the AfPak theater. In the years following its formation, ISK unleashed some of the most devastating attacks in the AfPak region, persisting in the face of U.S. airstrikes, Pakistani military operations, and clashes with the Afghan Taliban. Although the potential threat of ISK is acknowledged today, questions about the nature of the nascent group and its efcacy, resilience, and trajectory remain unanswered. What are the broader contours of ISK’s lethality, targets, and tactics in Afghanistan and Pakistan?1 How do ISK’s operational trends compare and contrast across the two countries? How have ISK’s alliances contributed to its overall capacity and resilience? More broadly, what explains ISK’s demonstrated ability to survive and thrive in the AfPak region, and what do its operational trends and alliances collectively tell us about its future trajectory?
To shed light on the above questions, this report draws on open-source materials to uncover various facets of ISK’s presence in Afghanistan and Pakistan. Part 1 of the report compares and contrasts the geography and operational trends of ISK attacks in Afghanistan and Pakistan between January 2014 and July 2018. After establishing an overview of ISK’s organizational capacity, Part 2 seeks to explain the source of ISK’s demonstrated capacity and resilience. This part maps out the universe of ISK’s alliances in the AfPak region, explaining various types of cooperation (ideological, logistical, and operational) and the quality of cooperation (high-end and low-end cooperation). Part 3 of the report analyzes the direct linkages between ISK and three of its alliances to show the extent to which ISK relies on operational cooperation to sustain its activity. This part focuses on jointly claimed attacks by ISK and its allies, their overlapping areas of operation, and seasonality trends. Part 4 offers an analysis of the similarities and differences in ISK’s activity in Afghanistan and Pakistan and highlights the associated security implications of its alliance hub.
The findings of this report demonstrate that ISK has been successful in reinforcing its organizational capacity in both Afghanistan and Pakistan by fostering partnerships with regional militant groups. Moreover, various parallels in the nature and timing of ISK’s attacks in both countries, as shown in this report, indicate that ISK activity is coordinated across the AfPak region to a certain degree. Taken together, these findings strongly suggest that ISK’s continued ability to leverage and make efective use of a lethal, cross-border, and resourceful network in the Khorasan region will define the parameters of its future trajectory. A nuanced understanding of how ISK cultivates alliances, which facilitate its activity in AfPak, is imperative to successfully counter the group.