Five things to know about ISIS-K

As the United States looks to finish its withdrawal from Afghanistan within days, an ISIS affiliate in the country is poised to seize on the instability and become the most pressing security threat in the region.

ISIS-Khorasan (ISIS-K) on Thursday carried out its biggest attack, killing 13 U.S. service members and more than 170 Afghans in a suicide bombing outside the airport in Kabul.

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The U.S. military has already spent the last 20 years fighting the Taliban, al Qaeda and Haqqani insurgent groups in Afghanistan to prevent terrorist attacks on American allies. But ISIS-K is shaping up to be a much bigger threat.

Here’s what to know about the militant group:

What does ISIS-K stand for?

Khorasan, the word for which the “K” stands, translates to “The Land of the Sun,” referring to a historical region that once encompassed parts of Iran, Afghanistan, Pakistan and Turkmenistan.

ISIS-K, the most violent of Afghanistan’s jihadist militant groups, backs a more extreme version of Islam than the Taliban and appeals to a younger generation of fighters.

Who are its enemies?

ISIS-K has targeted U.S. forces, allies and civilians as well as other Islamic militant groups including the Taliban, whom it sees as an enemy for not adhering to a strict version of Islam.

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At least 28 of those killed in this week’s Kabul airport attack were reportedly Taliban fighters.

The two militant groups have fought for territory in the past, mostly in eastern Afghanistan, but clashes are likely to continue since the Taliban took control of the government on Aug. 15.

ISIS-K has also been responsible for about 250 clashes with U.S. troops and Afghan and Pakistani security forces since 2017.

Where did it come from?

ISIS-K formed as a regional branch in early 2015 after the Islamic State (ISIS) swept across northern Iraq the year prior. The group is comprised of disaffected members who left the Pakistani Taliban and Afghan Taliban. 

Hafiz Saeed Khan — one of six Taliban leaders who left the Pakistani Taliban and pledged allegiance to ISIS’s then-leader Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi — was named the first head of ISIS-K, according to video posted on jihadi forums in 2015. The Pentagon confirmed Kahn was killed during a 2016 U.S. drone strike in Afghanistan’s Nangarhar Province.

Over time, the group has added recruits defecting from other extremist organizations in the region, including the Islamic Movement of Uzbekistan. 

Abdul Hasib succeeded Khan but was killed in 2017 by a joint Afghan and U.S. military raid. Shahab al-Muhajir has led ISIS-K since June 2020, according to a report from a UN Monitoring Team.

“It remains active and dangerous, particularly if it is able, by positioning itself as the sole pure rejectionist group in Afghanistan, to recruit disaffected Taliban and other militants to swell its ranks,” warned the report. 

Where is it located?

ISIS-K — despite the chapter weakening from military setbacks starting in 2018 — has maintained between 1,500 to 2,200 core fighters in small areas of Kunar and Nangarhar Provinces in northeast Afghanistan, according to the UN report. 

ISIS-K focused on setting up sleeper cells — groups of agents that work undercover until ordered to act — in Kabul during the October 2018 parliamentary elections, according to the Center for Strategic and International Studies. In a 2020 report, the Institute for Economics and Peace said the group was “believed to still have sleeper cells in cities such as Kabul and Jalalabad.” 

Despite having a historical region as part of its title, ISIS-K “disregards international borders and envisions its territory transcending nation-states like Afghanistan and Pakistan,” the Center for Strategic and International Studies said. 

What attacks has it claimed? 

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ISIS-K is looking to increase its numbers of attacks and recruiting efforts, and “remains active and dangerous,” the U.N. report noted.

Most recently, ISIS-K has claimed responsibility for the deadly bombing attack outside the Hamid Karzai International Airport in Kabul, which killed at least 170 Afghans and 13 U.S. service members Thursday and injured hundreds more.

A suicide bomber “managed to reach a large gathering of translators and collaborators with the American army at 'Baran Camp' near Kabul Airport and detonated his explosive belt among them, killing about 60 people and wounding more than 100 others, including Taliban fighters,” ISIS said in a statement, according to Reuters.

ISIS-K has carried out 77 attacks in the first four months of this year compared to 21 in 2020, according to the UN report.  

The group is believed to be behind a May bombing that killed 90 people and wounded nearly 150 at a girls’ high school in Kabul.  

By 2018, ISIS-K ranked as one of the top four deadliest terrorist organizations in the world, according to the Institute for Economics and Peace’s Global Terrorism Index. 

A U.S. State Department report said it remained one of the most active ISIS affiliates, responsible for 110 incidents and 1,324 deaths that year in Afghanistan and Pakistan.

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The majority of those incidents were suicide bombings, including a public bombing in Nangarhar that killed 68 on the anniversary of the Sept. 11 attacks.  

An ISIS-K suicide bomber killed at least 149 people and injured 186 others at a preelection campaign rally in Mastung, Pakistan, in July 2018. Three months later, another affiliated suicide bombing left at least 33 people dead and 56 others injured in Hangu, Pakistan. 

Even before its height in 2018, the group claimed responsibility for thousands of deaths; multiple ISIS-K bombings targeting civilians at a Shi’ite cultural center and news agency in Kabul claimed 41 lives, and as early as April 2015, ISIS-K was behind a bombing at a bank in Jalalabad, Afghanistan that resulted in at least 30 deaths.