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Relatives load into a car the coffin of a victim of the August 26 twin suicide bombs outside the Kabul airport. | Aamir Qureshi/AFP via Getty Images

What to know about the Afghanistan offshoot of the group in Iraq and Syria that waged a deadly attack at the Kabul airport.

The United States issued a warning this week amid the crush and chaos at the Hamid Karzai International Airport in Kabul, Afghanistan: Avoid the area because of a possible ISIS terror attack.

On Thursday, the threat bore out. The full tragedy of the attack is still unclear, but at least 170 Afghans and 13 US service members were killed in an explosion around Kabul airport, the deadliest day for American combat troops in Afghanistan in a decade.

The Islamic State in Khorasan Province, or ISIS-K, claimed responsibility. The organization is an offshoot of the original group in Iraq and Syria, and it emerged in 2015, not long after ISIS had consolidated territory in Iraq and Syria. In Afghanistan, ISIS is building toward its goal of establishing a global caliphate.

Ex-Taliban filled ISIS-K’s ranks early on, and the two groups have morphed into enemies, fighting each other and trying to sell their competing ideologies to recruits. The United States-led coalition in Afghanistan also battered ISIS-K in recent years — occasionally even ending up on the Taliban’s side of the battle against the ISIS offshoot. Those efforts weakened the group but never dismantled it.

Thursday’s attack was a reminder of that ongoing presence — and a reminder of ISIS’s ability to sow chaos and confusion, says Andrew Mines, a research fellow at the Program on Extremism at George Washington University.

Workers in the aftermath of the bombing of Kabul’s airport wheel a gurney past a barricade.Sayed Khodaiberdi Sadat/Anadolu Agency via Getty Images
The full tragedy of the attack is still unclear, but at least 170 Afghans and 13 US service members were killed in the explosion.

ISIS-K is doing this right as the US is leaving because, Mines says, facilitating “an increased US and international footprint” aligns with their bigger goal of discrediting the Taliban.

“If ISIS-K can force that [international presence], it makes the Taliban both look as collaborators with the West — which is really good for ISIS-K messaging — but also like failed collaborators, right? ‘You can’t even provide security, you’re incapable of ruling this nation, we [ISIS] are the viable alternative,’” says Mines, who is co-authoring a book on the Islamic State Khorasan with Amira Jadoon, an expert on the group. “It is almost certainly to discredit the Taliban and their ability to hold power and deliver security.”

Vox spoke to Mines about that rivalry with the Taliban, plus ISIS-K’s origins, the possible motivations behind Thursday’s attack, and what America’s withdrawal from Afghanistan might mean for the terror group.

Our conversation, edited for length and clarity, is below.


Jen Kirby

Let’s start with the basics. Who, or what, is ISIS-K?

Andrew Mines

Islamic State’s Khorasan Province — ISIS-K, IS-KP, IS-K, it goes by a bunch of different acronyms. It’s the official affiliate of the Islamic State group in Afghanistan. It was the official affiliate in Afghanistan and Pakistan, but in 2019, there was a split, and now it has distinct provinces for Afghanistan and Pakistan. So right now, ISIS-K is focused solely on Afghanistan. It’s been recognized by the Islamic State group leaders in Iraq and Syria and was officially founded in January 2015.

Jen Kirby

What was the impetus for starting an ISIS offshoot in Afghanistan?

Andrew Mines

In 2014, there were all these background discussions going on across different local groups and emissaries on behalf of the core group in Iraq and Syria. They were traveling and reaching out to different groups that already existed in Afghanistan and Pakistan to see about exactly that — to see about establishing a local affiliate, an official beachhead for ISIS in Afghanistan and Pakistan. ISIS looks at that as the crux of its broader jihad in Central and South Asia. It really sees it as a beachhead to launch attacks and pursue the vision of the global caliphate.

Jen Kirby

Does ISIS-K operate independently? Or do they report to — or have their activities coordinated by — ISIS in Iraq and Syria?

Andrew Mines

It’s kind of a mixed bag. The leader of the group, the governor of the wilayat [the province, in this case Khorasan] is nominated by others in his organization and then approved and appointed by the caliph and his delegating committee in Iraq and Syria. That nomination process means the group in Iraq and Syria, in theory, has control over the group in Afghanistan. But when it comes to the operational components, they’re pretty displaced from the day-to-day. There are core operators in Afghanistan — previously in Pakistan, not just Afghanistan — that are trying to figure out how to launch attacks and all this stuff by themselves.

At the strategic level, ISIS-K aims to implement much of the same the group in Iraq and Syria does. It pursues sectarian attacks against groups like the Hazaras [a predominately Shia ethnic group in Afghanistan] and Sikhs. It seeks to consolidate territorial control. In fact, that’s one of the qualifications that a group needs to hit to be acknowledged by the core group in Iraq and Syria — what it calls “territorial consolidation.” Once that happened, they were like, “Okay, check, you can be a province now.”

Jen Kirby

You qualify, basically.

Andrew Mines

You qualify, right? There are a few others on that list, but that’s one of the big ones.

The other biggest one is coming forward with a leader that can be appointed by the delegating committee. It looks different in Somalia, it looks different in Yemen, it looks different in Afghanistan, but whichever groups or sets of individuals are coming together need to nominate a leader that the core leadership can vet first and then appoint.

Jen Kirby

This is probably not the best example for a terrorist organization, but it almost sounds like franchising? You have an ISIS branch in Afghanistan and then you have the corporate headquarters in Iraq and Syria.

Andrew Mines

I mean, that’s exactly it. One of my colleagues calls it the “routinization” of the Islamic State movement.

Jen Kirby

So who is in charge of ISIS-K right now?

Andrew Mines

There’s a great article by one of our colleagues, Abdul Sayed, in Lawfare that addresses this issue. Right now, it’s a man by the name of Shahab al-Muhajir. He’s believed to be a former and experienced Haqqani network [an Islamist militant group affiliated with the Taliban] operative. He has a lot of experience with the makings of a terrorist organization, when it goes from a low-level insurgency, and it’s trying to pursue re-expansion. He’s a bit of an urban warfare expert.

He’s also reportedly appointed as the first non-Afghan or non-Pakistani national to head the group. That’s pretty significant, to be headed by a non-Afghan, or non-Pakistani, or non-Pashtun is a pretty big deal. He’s tasked with overseeing the group through this period of relative decline and relative uncertainty.

Jen Kirby

What is Shahab al-Muhajir’s background?

Andrew Mines

Other ISIS-K leaders were super well-known, and through ISIS’s own propaganda, they did these backgrounds on the first governor [Hafiz Saeed Khan]. They did this whole interview in ISIS’s main magazine with him.

This newest governor [Shahab al-Muhajir] was shrouded in a little bit of uncertainty. It took him a while to issue his first statement. There was confusion about whether they were trying to hide his accent because he’s not Afghani, not Pakistani. So there’s a lot of mystery when he was first announced as governor.

Jen Kirby

And Shahab al-Muhajir has been governor since when?

Andrew Mines

Since 2020.

Jen Kirby

Okay, so he’s fairly new to the job then. But who exactly makes up ISIS-K’s ranks?

Andrew Mines

ISIS-K starts in 2015 — and, obviously, those discussions [about its formation] were going on in the background in 2014. This was a time when there’s a little bit of disgruntlement with the Taliban as a movement — especially once news got out that [Taliban founder and leader] Mullah Omar was dead and had been dead for some time.

ISIS, as an entity, had just established the global caliphate, and that was a huge messaging boost. The Taliban, as an entity, their aspiration is for a government focused only on Afghanistan, within the boundaries of Afghanistan. When these guys get in fights with each other and when they diss each other in their propaganda and their narrative messaging in how they recruit people, that’s how ISIS-K brands the Taliban. They brand them as “filthy nationalists.”

Jen Kirby

It’s like ISIS was the cool, new, hip group in town. The Taliban has been around for a while; it’s kind of fusty, and so ISIS-K was trying to capitalize on their success in Iraq and Syria to recruit in Afghanistan.

Andrew Mines

Definitely. We’ve got founding members from the Pakistani Taliban. We’ve got founding members from the Afghan Taliban. We’ve got members from the Islamic movement of Uzbekistan, and then over time, a bunch of other groups start to join them.

But what kind of happens in these first few months and, then over time, is that the Taliban catch on to this really quickly, and they start to clamp down on all of their commanders and anybody who’s thinking about joining ISIS-K.

Really, 2015, was a pretty crazy year that saw, across Afghanistan, in different provinces, major Taliban commanders switching flags and joining ISIS-K. This is a huge pivotal moment because the Taliban realizes if the dominoes start to fall, ISIS-K becomes the preeminent jihadist organization in the country.

Jen Kirby

I do want to talk more about the relationship with the Taliban, but when we talk about ISIS-K 2021, how big is it?

Andrew Mines

Starting in 2016 to 2018 is when the coalition really hammers down on ISIS-K. That piggybacks off the Taliban routing ISIS-K in different places. Sometimes they coincide. Sometimes it’s just the Taliban; sometimes it’s just the coalition.

In one sense or another, by 2019, the group is pretty decimated — at the end of 2019, over 1,400 fighters and their families surrendered to government forces in northeast Afghanistan. This is really where we start to see this messaging, especially by the Afghan government, that ISIS is defeated in the country, and that there’s no more ISIS here. That’s when we really see ISIS-K go back to this survival mode, like low-level insurgency.

At that point, a lot of ISIS-K’s recruitment messaging is starting to localize. Historically, a lot of its rank-and-file members have come from across the border in Pakistan. More recently, there’s other good evidence of recruitment of young urban Afghans who have become disillusioned with the peace process and just don’t think it’s going anywhere. So ISIS-K is really kind of a mix of the core hardened guys, who managed to survive the onslaught of coalition targeting, and then newer recruits, and then attack operation cells spread throughout different Afghan cities.

 Wakil Kohsar/AFP via Getty Images
A Taliban fighter stands guard at the site of the August 26 twin suicide bombs.

Jen Kirby

I do remember in 2017 when the US dropped the “mother of all bombs” on ISIS caves in Afghanistan, which stands out as the big example, in my mind, of that US-led campaign.

Andrew Mines

It was a big bomb. The purpose of it was to clear this cave tunnel complex to allow forces to get into a valley where they had been set up, basically, since their inception in 2015. But it’s also a messaging thing in its own right, which is, “this is what happens, and so be prepared, because we’re going to use this kind of ordnance on you guys.”

Jen Kirby

Let’s talk about this strategic rivalry. Why are ISIS-K and the Taliban enemies?

Andrew Mines

The biggest one is over the distinction between emirate and caliphate. This goes all the way back to 2015. There were actually talks between senior leadership in the Taliban and [ISIS leader Abu Bakr] al-Baghdadi himself and his delegating committee. [The Taliban is] basically like, “why are you instructing these guys to do this? Call your guys off.” And Baghdadi is like, “Well, recognize me as caliph and then we’ll be good, right?” So that beef goes back a long time. But the crux of it is really about emirate or caliphate — global movement or national confines.

Jen Kirby

The emirate is Taliban-style and caliphate is ISIS-style?

Andrew Mines

Yes, exactly.

Jen Kirby

Okay, and during this past five-plus years, the United States was bombing ISIS-K targets, and the Taliban and ISIS-K were also fighting on the ground.

Andrew Mines

Yes, extensively.

Jen Kirby

And what are the dynamics of that fighting between the Taliban and ISIS-K?

Andrew Mines

The dynamics of that took a bunch of forms. It was really a bit more positional fighting, so the Taliban attacked ISIS-K positions. That went all the way down to skirmishes in the outskirts of districts and in rural areas, to targeted attacks against individual units and individual fighters.

But the majority of ISIS-K attack campaigns, in late 2020 and throughout this year, have been focused on some of the same stuff that we saw in Iraq and Syria, which is called a harvesting campaign — which is a horrible name — but that’s how they view it.

ISIS-K goes after journalists, they go after aid workers, they go after intelligence and security personnel that they can identify. They go after government facilities and government targets and anything they can do to prove that the governing power is not able to provide security to anybody, and to sow confusion and chaos.

Jen Kirby

The US and the Taliban both don’t want ISIS-K in Afghanistan. I’m wondering if there was any coordination or collaboration on ISIS targets during the war at all? Or do we just not know that information?

Andrew Mines

It’s actually a really difficult question. Wesley Morgan is really the guy on this one. He wrote this piece in the Washington Post about how there was unofficial coordination. It wasn’t cooperation, per se, but it’s basically, “we’re about to hit ISIS-K here, just so you know.”

It falls very far short of strategic cooperation between the Afghan Taliban and the US armed forces and Afghan forces to root out ISIS. But it’s in both of their interests, and when made sense, it seems like there was kind of unofficial cooperation.

Jen Kirby

Now we just saw the Taliban go on this rout through Afghanistan. What has ISIS-K been up to in the last few months as this was unfolding?

Andrew Mines

If you look at ISIS-K attack numbers, in terms of their operational tempo, it was a lot lower than 2020 and early 2021. A lot of people interpret that as they’re either lying low to see what happens, or they’re pooling their resources and just biding their time for what we saw at the Kabul airport on Thursday.

The question becomes: What is their interest in conducting an attack like we saw Thursday?

Jen Kirby

And so what is their interest in conducting that attack we saw?

Andrew Mines

The first is simply just do the same thing that’s coming out of the Iraq and Syria textbook, which is to sow chaos and confusion and create those conditions that insurgent groups like these try to fill.

The second is to encourage and, in their view, hopefully facilitate an increased US and international footprint, which would be reneging on the withdrawal process.

If ISIS-K can force that, it makes the Taliban both look like collaborators with the West — which is really good for ISIS-K messaging — but also like failed collaborators, right? “You can’t even provide security, you’re incapable of ruling this nation, we [ISIS] are the viable alternative.” It is almost certainly to discredit the Taliban and their ability to hold power and deliver security.

Jen Kirby

What does the attack say about the relative power of ISIS-K? I’m trying to understand if this was its coming-out party to say, “we’re back!” Or is the group still relatively weakened by years of US bombings and Taliban fighting? Or do we just not really know the answer to that question at this point?

Andrew Mines

It’s certainly been weakened in 2019 and 2020. That’s why we see them really pursue these kinds of attack campaigns.

At the same time, some of the more credible estimates of the group’s force size show them gradually increasing; they are trying to continue recruiting, trying to reconsolidate some semblance of territory. Their attack cells are also carrying out these really vicious campaigns throughout last year and this year and so they maintain that capability.

Jen Kirby

President Joe Biden said Thursday that the US would retaliate for the attacks. But putting aside the US withdrawal for a moment, is ISIS-K a big threat to the Taliban and the Taliban’s ability to govern Afghanistan?

Andrew Mines

Yes, yes. The short answer is yes.

Jen Kirby

Okay! How so?

Andrew Mines

We look at three things. The first is, again, that message, it has the playbook of the group from Iraq and Syria, which was effective. We saw that in 2011, and onwards.

It has the personnel and the core membership necessary to stay relevant but also to expand and go through this period of, “okay, this is the low point.”

The third part is the conditions. It really is early days, and I’m not one to really speculate. But when Amira and I looked at the kind of fatalities, and then casualties occurring to ISIS-K, over time, the vast majority of them are coming from the US-led coalition, Afghan airpower, and ground operations. The Afghan Taliban is routing ISIS in areas, sometimes by itself, but when we look at how ISIS-K suffered over time, a lot of that’s been at the hand of US forces, alongside Afghan partners, and especially US airpower. Without that, I don’t know what that’s going to look like. Biden’s into an “over the horizon” posture. But it is just early days, so we don’t know what that’s going to look like yet.

Jen Kirby

As you’re saying this, I’m having flashbacks to Iraq a little bit. I know you don’t want to make predictions, but it does seem like there’s the possibility of history repeating itself?

Andrew Mines

It’s sad, and you hate to see these kinds of things play out, and obviously, there are different dynamics — there’s no Taliban equivalent in Iraq, of course. But those predictions so far look like they’re on track.

Again, it’s early days, and we’ll see, and I know the US’s primary mission is getting people who have helped us and our people out of there. But ISIS-K has ambitions beyond this evacuation timeline. We need to treat them with the seriousness of their ambitions.

 Wali Sabawoon/AP
A woman tries to identify a body at a hospital in Kabul on August 27.

Jen Kirby

Okay, so I know it’s early days, but what are you watching for in regards to ISIS-K?

Andrew Mines

That depends on what the US does next. It really does. But if we stick to where we’re at, and we don’t put too many more assets on the ground, more or less we’re out of there in a real meaningful sense, very, very rapidly, as in within the next week or two. My safe bet is that you just replace the Afghan government as a target with the Taliban as a target.

If the Taliban is now going to be the guarantor of security in the country, who does ISIS-K need to attack to make sure that they are seen as the viable alternative to some power that can’t provide security to the people? That’s going to be the Afghan Taliban.

At the same time, they will still need to stick to their brand messaging, so: targeting minorities, check. Targeting government infrastructure and government personnel, and in this case, it will be Taliban-run and Taliban personnel, check. Targeting civilian spaces to create that panic and chaos and confusion to show that the Taliban can’t protect, check. That’ll be the playbook.

Jen Kirby

So what does corporate headquarters think about all this? Where does Afghanistan fit in terms of ISIS’s larger dynamics?

Andrew Mines

Afghanistan, from the start, was really important to this group — the greater region, Khorasan, has this huge lore in Middle East history, and I won’t bother you with the boring details of that.

But it’s always had this lore for them. And the legacy of [al Qaeda’s No. 2, Abu Musab al-] Zarqawi and the legacy of bin Laden is there. They try to seize that legacy. They try to seize that mantle. “We are the jihadist group; there’s no alternative. Al Qaeda, they failed; they are not the true inheritance of Zarqawi and Bin Laden’s legacy, we are.” And so Afghanistan has always been important to them.

From ISIS’s perspective, it’s really about how you allocate resources. Especially as Africa has become just as huge, the movement starts to dedicate a lot of resources. The same thing we saw with Afghanistan — share money a little bit, but also trainers, advisers. And so there’s a clear precedent and clear historical interest for them to send advisors, to send assets and money that they can get into Afghanistan to make sure that ISIS-K has what it needs to pursue this next chapter.

Author: Jen Kirby

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