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27 August 2021updated 03 Sep 2021 8:01am

Who are IS-K and what do they want?

The terrorist group behind the Kabul airport attack has long-standing differences with the Taliban.

By Shiraz Maher

On the morning of Thursday 26 August, officials from various Western governments warned that an attack at Kabul airport was almost inevitable. Just hours later, two explosions ripped through crowds waiting to see if they could escape the newly Taliban-controlled country. At time of writing, 72 Afghans are now known to have died along with 13 American soldiers. Hundreds more people, both civilian and military, are also injured – many of them, badly.

An official statement from IS-K, the affiliate of Islamic State (IS) in Afghanistan, has claimed responsibility for yesterday’s atrocity. The airport brought together Western armed forces, Taliban members, and evacuees, and so represented an irresistible mix of targets for IS.

As foreign forces depart ahead of the 31 August deadline for withdrawal, the UK government has advised that the threat of Isis-K attacks is only likely to increase. This explainer looks at who the group is and what it wants, as well as highlighting its differences from the Taliban.

What is IS-K?

IS operates a number of affiliates beyond its core operations in Syria and Iraq. Its chapter in Afghanistan is known as Islamic State-Khorasan (IS-K), with Khorasan referring to a historical region encompassing parts of north-eastern Iran, much of Afghanistan and the southern parts of Turkmenistan, Uzbekistan, Kyrgyzstan and Tajikistan. According to the US State Department, IS has around nine different affiliates from as far afield as the Philippines to Mozambique to West Africa.

Where did IS-K come from?

This “franchise” model has also been used by jihadist groups such as al-Qaeda to expand their sphere of operations, with notable al-Qaeda chapters operating in the Islamic Maghreb and Yemen.

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The antecedents of IS-K are long and murky, as with much else in the “war on terror”, and incorporate different countries and events. Much of the group’s current leadership and foot soldiers come from the Tehrik-i-Taliban Pakistan (TTP; also colloquially known as the Pakistani Taliban).

One of the most significant characters in IS-K’s creation was Abdul Rauf Khadem (died 2015), who had grown estranged from the Taliban’s leadership over ideological differences (see below) relating to their methodology. According to the United Nations Security Council he visited Iraq in October 2014, around four months after Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi, the IS leader, first declared the caliphate and when the group was at the zenith of its power.

Convinced by IS’s seemingly more doctrinaire approach, he returned to Afghanistan and began recruiting a flurry of both TTP and Afghan leaders to his cause. IS-K released a video in January 2015 declaring allegiance to Baghdadi and announcing the official creation of an IS branch in Khorasan. It has been an established militant group in the region ever since.

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It is worth contextualising Khadem’s significance. He is known to have headed the Taliban’s intelligence commission and was also an adviser to Mullah Mohammed Omar, who founded the Taliban’s 1996 Islamic Emirate of Afghanistan. He later served on the Quetta Shura (meaning council), a powerful committee put together to help coordinate the Taliban’s activities once it had been toppled from power. Indeed, his importance within the movement is illustrated by the revelation that he was sanctioned by the United Nations even before 9/11, in February 2001.

What does IS-K want?

IS-K stressed several themes in its official claim for the attack. The first is a message of defiance and enmity towards the West, with the group celebrating the deaths of American soldiers. The second relates to the Taliban, which is regarded as having betrayed the jihadist cause by working with the US through a diplomatic process. The intended meaning is clear: while the Taliban is embracing the American enemy, IS-K is bravely fighting them. Finally, the group also branded those queuing at the airport as “spies” who had become apostates as a result. “Let the crusaders and their agents know that the soldiers of the caliphate will continue to fight them,” read a statement from the group.

The attack will also pressure the Taliban because it represents a breach of the Agreement for Bringing Peace to Afghanistan which it signed with America last year, which states: “The Taliban will prevent any group or individual in Afghanistan from threatening the security of the United States and its allies, and will prevent them from recruiting, training, and fundraising and will not host them.” The US will now expect the Taliban to act in accordance with its part of the agreement.

All of this reveals that although the Taliban is now in Kabul and has its hands on most of the levers of power, its control across the country is not yet absolute. IS-K factions continue to operate in some areas, as do others opposed to the Taliban for either political or ideological reasons.

The broader context of this attack, therefore, is that it demonstrates IS-K’s ongoing prowess despite the Taliban’s renewed fortunes. IS-K is keen to show that it is not a spent force and that it still has the power to disrupt proceedings. In this regard, it has form. Around the time IS was making its last stand in Syria in 2019, the group managed to seriously injure two SAS soldiers who were embedded with the Syrian Democratic Forces. Days later it killed two American soldiers and wounded another three in the town of Manbij. Much was made of this in IS propaganda – just as the group is now celebrating its attack at Kabul airport.

Ideological differences

The main ideological difference that has led to tensions between the Taliban and IS-K stems from the Taliban leadership’s willingness to engage in diplomatic negotiation with other states. IS has always rejected this in its entirety and regards political engagement of this type as a violation of Islamic law. From its perspective, the only way to overcome an enemy is through combat.

The Taliban’s agreement with the United States, therefore, represents the worst kind of betrayal. For example, the agreement states that America and the Taliban will “seek positive relations with each other” and that “the United States will seek economic cooperation for reconstruction with the new post-settlement Afghan Islamic government”. Such statements are an anathema to IS-K.

These differences are not new. When Khadem first began to drift from the Taliban in 2012 it was precisely over this issue. It had already been two years since the Taliban first began mooting the idea of opening a “political office” in Doha and engaging in some kind of dialogue with the international community. It was a controversial decision that hardliners within the movement regarded as a betrayal of jihadist principles and of their brethren in al-Qaeda. When the Taliban decided in January 2012 that it would proceed with this plan, Khadem staged a walkout and created new bases for those who also dissented.

This disagreement about how to approach the international system remains one of the most significant material differences between the two groups, although there are others relating to theological disputes over what shape and form an Islamic state should take once founded.

What next for IS-K?

While the events at the airport are horrific and are attracting global attention, this in itself should not be taken as an indication of Islamic State’s resurgence. Yes, IS is deadly and violent, but it has already operated in Afghanistan for a number of years and has not been able to seriously challenge the Taliban’s military dominance.

What is happening now at Kabul airport is a chaotic and disordered transfer of power, precisely the kind of environment in which IS-K is able to thrive in its role as a terrorist spoiler. It has already demonstrated a dramatic uptick in attacks this year compared to the previous one, but this is likely to be the extent of its place in Afghanistan’s political landscape for the immediate future.

[See also: The Taliban has taken lessons from the global jihadist movement]