The Islamic State Khorasan, or ISIS-K, is the Afghan branch of the Islamic State terror group that publicly beheaded foreign journalists and tortured captured Kurds and others in Iraq and Syria.
“They have a higher proclivity to target civilians they regard as infidels,” Seth G. Jones, a counterterrorism expert at the Center for Strategic and International Studies, said about ISIS-K
Experts say the attack on the Kabul airport Thursday was not only intended to harm Americans, It was also intended to embarrass the Taliban.
“This attack will look bad to the West, but it makes the Taliban look as if they are not in control of their own environment,” said Raffaello Pantucci, a senior fellow at the International Centre for Political Violence and Terrorism Research at the S. Rajaratnam School of International Studies in Singapore. “It undermines the idea that they rule this place.”
Based east of Kabul in the Kunar and the Nangarhar provinces near the Pakistani border, ISIS-K had an estimated 1,500 to 2,200 fighters three years ago, according to a study done by the Center for Strategic and International Studies.
Jones said it is unclear how many fighters ISIS-K has now as the group has been “on the receiving end of aggressive anti-terrorism operations by not only U.S. and Afghan forces, but also the Taliban.”
ISIS-K “has been around since 2014 and it came about when ISIS was at its apex,” Pantucci said. “It has struggled in some ways to make a real presence for itself on the battlefield” and in Afghanistan.
The Taliban are “fundamentally a Pashtun nationalist movement that is really focused on Afghanistan,” Pantucci said. “So a lot of the people (ISIS-K) tried to attract were people who had fallen out with the Taliban, so that was their way in.”
“ISIS-K is still viewed as a foreign organization in Afghanistan,” Jones agreed.
According to the Center for Strategic and International Studies, The core ISIS-K group in Kunar “consists mainly of Afghan and Pakistani nationals, while smaller groups located in Badakhshan, Kuynduz and Sar-e-Pol are largely made up of local Tajiks and Uzbeks.”
“There is no love lost between ISIS-K and the Taliban,” Pantucci said. “They are competitive organizations. They are trying to appeal to the same recruits and the same funding sources. They are trying to build the same thing in different ways.”
ISIS-K and the Islamic State group were at one time allies with Al Qaeda. Once led by Osama bin Laden, Al Qaeda was the terrorist group behind the 9/11 attacks and was under Taliban protection at the time in Afghanistan.
“They all come out of the same jihadist pool,” Jones said.
They all share some type of Shariah, or Islamic law, oppose democracy and oppose rights for women and non-Sunnis.
The Taliban is a “populist movement” focused primarily on Afghanistan, ISIS-K’s goal is to build an Islamic caliphate across the Middle East and Asia, including Afghanistan, experts said.
The Taliban solidified their position by retaking control of Afghanistan with precision and speed, ISIS-K on the other hand is trying to reassert itself by launching a “high-profile attack.” Jones said.
“Whether they can use the current situation in Afghanistan to stage a resurgence is an open question,” he said.