During pitched battles in which the Taliban fought against Afghan government forces and their American patrons in Nangarhar province, both sides occasionally put aside their differences and focused their firepower on a mutual enemy: Isis, which had gathered fighters from across the world and hidden itself within the forbidding mountains along the Pakistan-Afghanistan border.
That was several years ago, and beating the threat posed by the local branch of Isis to all of south Asia became a major impetus for the deal eventually struck between Washington and the Taliban.
Isis-K has now claimed responsibility for the terrorist bombing outside Kabul’s Hamid Karzai airport, which left at least 60 people dead, including children, and added to the chaos and despair in Afghanistan on the eve of the final withdrawal of international forces from the country after nearly 20 years of failed efforts at stabilisation and state-building.
“The main thing that signals is that, even now that the Taliban spokesman has been saying the war is over, this really shows that terrorism is still very much prevalent in Afghanistan and will continue to be so under this Taliban regime,” said Viraj Solanki, a south Asia researcher at the International Institute for Strategic Studies in London. “Afghan civilian lives will continue to be under threat.”
Declared in 2015, and formally called the Islamic State in Khorasan Province, Isis’s south Asia branch is believed to have been responsible for some of the most horrific attacks in Afghanistan, including bombings of Shia mosques and institutions, which have worsened sectarian mistrust in the country.
It has also struck inside Pakistan, targeting government forces as well as members of the country’s Sufi minority. Isis affiliates were responsible for the worst ever terrorist attack in Sri Lanka, when eight suicide bombers carried out a series of coordinated attacks that killed over 250 people in April 2019.
Experts have described Isis’s Khorasan branch as an umbrella group for at least a dozen or so militant factions occasionally cooperating with each other across borders.
“Various similarities and distinctions in the nature and timing of ISK’s attacks in both countries indicate that ISK’s activity is coordinated across the AfPak region to a substantial degree,” said a 2018 report written by Amira Jadoon for West Point’s Combatting Terrorism Centre.
The group has between 2,000 and 5,000 fighters, with half hailing from outside south Asia, drawn to the region by the allure of violent jihad. It is led by a former Taliban commander named Shahab al-Muhajer, a former member of the Taliban’s al-Qaeda-linked Haqqani network, which is now, ironically, partially in charge of Kabul’s security.
The original Isis formed as an offshoot of al-Qaeda that eventually overpowered its predecessor in Iraq and Syria, establishing a self-declared caliphate that spanned a huge swathe of territory across the Levant.
But south Asia, which contains more Muslims than the Middle East and north Africa combined, was always in the sights of the group. Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi, the late jihadi who founded the caliphate, identified Afghanistan, Pakistan and India as targets of the group’s ambitions. His words and the caliphate’s early successes inspired franchise movements across the globe, including the south Asia branch, which has proven itself enormously effective despite losses suffered by the Isis core leadership in Iraq and Syria.
“This is a group that maintains branches from north Africa all the way to southeast Asia, but Afghanistan happens to be the most potent,” said Colin Clarke, director of policy and research at the Soufan Group, a Washington-based security consultancy. From the time of its formation, Isis’s south Asia affiliate has been building up strength as the lethality of its attacks has grown, despite persistent US airstrikes and engagements with the Afghan forces as well as attacks from the Taliban.
While other jihadi groups worldwide cheered the Taliban’s victory over the Kabul government and praised it for seemingly defeating a US-led Nato force, Isis cursed Afghanistan’s new masters as Washington dupes. “Taliban is merely a political movement using the cloak of Islam,” one Isis supporter wrote on the Telegram messaging platform. Even with the US announcing a withdrawal from Afghanistan, it continued to claim low-key attacks against Taliban strongholds. But suddenly the attacks stopped about 10 or 11 days ago, said Mr Clarke. His worry was that the group was planning something big.
“Pulling off a complex attack like this takes time, planning and training,” he said. “This wasn’t just a run-of-the-mill attack. There were multiple suicide bombs and gunmen involved.”
The attack on Kabul’s airport could set the tone for Afghanistan’s future the way the 2003 bombing of the United Nations compound in Baghdad darkened Iraq’s prospects. Since taking de facto control of the country, the Taliban has reached out to China, Turkey, Iran, and Russia in efforts to draw investment and technical expertise and gain international legitimacy. But Isis’ persistence in Afghanistan could undermine those efforts. The attack could also attract fresh Isis recruits, helping the group grow, and thereby drain any nascent efforts at creating a sustainable government in Afghanistan. “It’s going to be a shot in the arm for Isis-K,” said Mr Clarke.
“Success is sexy. When you have an attack like this it draws attention and new fighters. The political and psychological impact is tremendous. I can’t think of an attack that is going to have as big an impact.”