Two deadly explosions ripped through Kabul, Afghanistan early Thursday, killing over 70 people — including at least 12 U.S. military members — and injuring more than 140 others.
U.S. officials have accused the Islamic State in Afghanistan, also known as Islamic State Khorosan or ISIS-K, of the attacks. The group later claimed responsibility for the suicide bombings.
The attacks, which occurred just outside Kabul’s Hamid Karzai International Airport, comes amid a turbulent and chaotic time in Afghanistan.
Thousands of refugees and foreign nationals have scrambled over the last several weeks to flee the country before the impending withdrawal of U.S. forces by the end of month, as well as its sudden takeover by the Taliban.
U.S. officials have previously warned of an increased risk of an attack by ISIS-K — a risk that has now turned into reality following Thursday’s bombing.
As the group now comes to the forefront, what exactly is this Afghanistan-based offshoot of the Islamic State and how dangerous is it?
What is ISIS-K and how was it formed?
The group, inspired by the extremist views held by the Islamic State, officially formed in 2015 after hundreds of Pakistani Taliban fighters were pushed across the border into Afghanistan.
Over the next several years, the group had begun to grow in size amid continued U.S.-Taliban peace talks. Sympathetic extremists and Afghan Taliban fighters that were displeased by the Taliban’s increasingly moderate tone began to flood ISIS-K’s ranks.
Many who joined were unhappy that the Taliban, which brutally reigned Afghanistan from 1996 to 2001 before being ousted by U.S. forces on their hunt for al-Qaeda, were negotiating with the U.S. as opposed to marching against them militarily.
Other followers in the group comprise some fighters from the Islamic Movement of Uzbekistan, Iran and the Turkistan Islamic Party in China’s Xinjiang region.
The group’s official name — ISIS Khorosan — was taken from the Khorosan Province, which used to cover large parts of Afghanistan, Iran and Asia during the Middle Ages.
Other names for the group include ISK and ISKP. It has been officially recognized by the Islamic State’s leadership in Iraq and Syria.
How dangerous is ISIS-K?
While the Taliban has confined itself to Afghanistan, the country’s Islamic State group has joined a call for a worldwide jihad against non-Muslims.
Within the first several years of being formed, ISIS-K attacked minority groups, public areas and government targets across major cities in Afghanistan and Pakistan.
The group has launched dozens of attacks against civilians in Afghanistan and Pakistan and has clashed hundreds of times with local Afghan, Pakistan and U.S.-led coalition forces since 2017.
Two terrorism experts — Amira Jadoon from the U.S. Military Academy West Point and George Washington University’s Andrew Mines — told Reuters that by 2018, the group had been placed among the top four deadliest terrorist organizations in the world, citing rankings from the Institute for Economics and Peace’s Global Terrorism Index.
They said that the United States government still believes it to be a chronic threat to the U.S. and its allied interests, despite having not carried out attacks on American soil.
The group, however, suffered heavy casualties after years of fighting a mix of U.S.-led troops, aircraft and drones, and between 2019 to 2020, saw the surrender of over 1,400 fighters to the Afghan government. The organization was declared by some at the time to be defeated.
As for the main branch of the Islamic State, it had taken local and coalition forces five years of continued fighting to dismantle the caliphate it had established across large swathes of Syria and Iraq.
According to Jadoon and Mines, the current withdrawal of the U.S. from Afghanistan has reduced America’s capacity to detect and react to the Islamic State on the ground.
In a briefing Thursday afternoon, U.S. President Joe Biden promised to hunt down the attackers responsible for the Kabul bombings, and said he had asked Pentagon officials to make plans to strike back.
What is their relation to the Taliban now?
Despite both the Islamic State Khorosan and the Taliban being widely listed as terrorist entities, including by Canada, the groups are enemies.
Taliban fighters have launched major offensives against the Islamic State group in Afghanistan, with even some Taliban insurgents joining Afghan government and coalition forces to wipe out ISIS-K’s presence from parts of the country’s northeast.
A U.S. Department of Defense official previously told The Associated Press that the Trump administration was seeking the withdrawal deal with Taliban in hopes of joining forces against the Islamic State group, which it saw as the real threat.
— with files from Reuters and The Associated Press