The Islamic State Khurasan, or ISIS-K, was not much in the news during the closing days of the Taliban victory in 2021 and the ouster of the elected regime in Kabul headed by Ashraf Ghani.
The Taliban knew that the ISIS-K had infiltrated Afghanistan, but they did not expect their victory to land them into another spell of bloodshed and violence, which would cast a pall of gloom over their ambitions and aspirations as the new rulers of the war-torn nation. Their expectations are belied.
A fresh wave of assassination attempts on top Taliban officials has rocked multiple regions nationwide. It could be that the ISIS-K had been hibernating to gain sufficient logistic support and manpower to come out for an open confrontation with the Taliban.
Another reason for the ISIS-K lying low for a year-and-a-half could be to assess how the Taliban conducted the affairs of the state now that the Americans had abandoned Afghanistan.
One of the much-orchestrated canons of ISIS-K is to fight and destroy America. Surprisingly, they have turned their guns towards the Afghan Taliban, who uphold the same canon and fought a two-decade war against the Americans.
One more reason for the ISIS-K to keep lying low after the Taliban ascended to power in Kabul is to closely watch watching the Taliban-Pakistan border clashes and the downslide in Taliban-Pakistan relations.
But again, Pakistan is under the radar of ISIS-K because they believe that the Pakistan army is a beneficiary of the largesse of the Pentagon. If that is true, then there seems to be no convincing reason for ISIS-K to open a front against the Taliban.
They would have instead welcomed the action of the Taliban against Pakistan’s intrusions on the Pak-Afghan border.
It is also surmised that during their hibernation period, the Islamic group was in constant touch with the Pakistani sleuths keeping them informed of what was brewing in Kabul about security matters.
This prompts us to believe that the ISIS-K is pursuing an agenda far beyond the sporadic killings and unleashing of violence in Afghanistan and elsewhere. The group operating in Kabul is the official Islamic State group affiliate.
There are reports that these operatives have enticed local Afghans and the vulnerable individuals or commanders of the Afghan Taliban to abandon their association with the Taliban and join the rank and file of the ISIS-K. The reports are that a good number of deserters have passed on sensitive information to the Islamic group.
Reports from Afghan said there are fears of the group’s potential to attack targets outside Afghanistan, including the US, western interests, and India. The slogan of Ghazavatu’l Hind was first raised by the propagators of Ghazava-e Khurasan, later re-christened as ISIS-K.
This is one big difference between the Afghan Taliban and the ISIS group. Taliban has repeatedly said that they adhere to the policy of not fighting on any soil except their own unless their sovereignty is violated.
On the other hand, Daesh or ISIS plans to raise an Islamic Caliphate with a geography of territories from the Dardanelles to the Strait of Malacca in Indonesia.
Therefore, the mission of ISIS is not to eradicate only the non-Islamic centers in the self-styled territories of the Islamic Caliphate but also those Muslims who have dealings with the Americans. Pakistan army and sections of Pakistan polity fall into this category, and hence Pakistan is also on their agenda.
On March 9, 2023, the Islamic State claimed responsibility for a suicide bomb attack that killed Muhamad Dawood Muzammil, the Taliban governor of Balkh province, along with two others.
One day earlier, the group’s fighters carried out a targeted killing against the head of the water supply department in Afghanistan’s western Herat province. And recently, on March 15, the group claimed a failed attack on a Taliban district governor in the eastern province of Nangarhar, a former ISIS-K stronghold.
Considering the comprehensive agenda pursued by the Islamic Caliphate group, the recent attacks are only a few in a long line of attacks it has carried out or attempted in Afghanistan since its forming in 2015.
By and large, ISIS-K activists have successfully killed their targeted personalities, including government and military officials, media influencers, religious leaders, and other civil society figures.
The group is responsible for the bombing that left 13 US service members and scores of Afghans dead in August 2021, following the collapse of the former government and the US-led withdrawal from Afghanistan.
Some of the attempts that failed were made against NATO Secretary General Jens Stoltenberg, former US Secretary of Defense James Mattis in 2017, former Afghan Vice President Abdul Rashid Dostum in 2018, former Afghan president Ashraf Ghani in 2020, and former US diplomat in Kabul Ross Wilson in 2021. These killings are simply a continuation of the group’s attack priorities.
ISIS is a rabid Sunni Islamic group that does not spare other Islamic factions, mainly the Shia. The failed assassination attack on the governor of Nangarhar and the Afghan Vice President Rashid Dostum were carried out because both adhere to the Shia faith.
Assassination, the fundamental pillar of the Islamic State group’s insurgency doctrine, has been observed even by other less potential Islamic fighting organizations. For example, the principle was followed by the Lashkar-e-Tayyaba and Jaish-e-Mohamed gun-wielders during their attacks on minorities in Kashmir in 1990 or the attacks of ISIS on the hapless Yazidis in Iraq and Syria in 2017.
The roots of suicide bombing and assassination as instruments of war go back to the days of Hasan bin Saba of Alamut fame and the Hashishis in Iranian history of the 13th century.
While analyzing the reason for the Islamic group targeting influential Taliban personalities, we may say that at the time of taking over power in Kabul in August 2021, the Taliban had attacked and killed some important commanders of the Islamic State group.
That forced the ISIS-K group to go underground for some time. They wanted to take revenge. At the same time, the Afghan affiliate of ISIS expected greater attention and support for expanding their activities in the Khurasan region.
It will be recalled that after the attack on Kabul airport in August 2021, ISIS-K received new cash payments from top Islamic State leaders by way of reward or investment, or both.
The question that needs to be dealt with is to what extent ISIS can have the capacity to damage the interests of the US. The answer is that it depends on the premise of the extent to which its affiliates in different parts remain aligned with it.
Accusing the Taliban of apostasy for accepting foreign investment and humanitarian aid from “infidel” or enemy governments — including China, the US, Iran, Turkey, and others –- helps distinguish ISIS-K’s brand from its rivals.
However, a February 2023 US intelligence report “warned of ISIS-K desire to attack the West.” The recent killings of influential Afghan personalities by the ISIS-K group substantiates the US intelligence report.
The question is how Washington will perceive the entire scenario and what will be its reaction?
So far, Washington has not reflected on the situation in Afghanistan. However, of course, the success in decimating Ayman al Zawahiri, the top al Qaeda leader, in a missile attack shows that the US is not oblivious to the activities of its enemies in the sensitive region. The ISIS-K may be under its radar.