Courtesy of The Economist
Although they have been fighting in Afghanistan since 2015, the Islamic State Khorasan Province (ISKP), the Afghanistan-based chapter of ISIS, first entered the minds of most Americans on August 26 2021. After 20 years of war, the US was in the midst of evacuating Kabul after a botched withdrawal led to the Taliban rapidly seizing control of most of the country.
As crowds of people gathered at the airport in hopes of catching a flight out of the country, a suicide bomber detonated himself. The ensuing blast left 13 American soldiers and nearly 200 Afghan civilians dead.
While the US completed its withdrawal by the end of the month and the Biden administration tried its best to keep the ordeal out of mainstream political discussions, ISKP continued its campaign. Since the US left, ISKP has roughly doubled its ranks and spread its operations to all provinces in Afghanistan. Over the next two years, ISKP carried out frequent attacks against Afghan civilians, targeting Shia Muslims whom they view as heretics and the Taliban regime which they view as inadequately hardline and incompatible with their interpretation of Islamic Law. Therefore, ISKP believes they are religiously compelled to destroy what they see as a regime that is not truly Islamic. These attacks have left hundreds of civilians dead and demonstrated that the Afghanistan War did not end when the US withdrew.
ISKP has remained a potent threat to countries such as Russia, China, Pakistan, Iran, Tajikistan, and Uzbekistan which have been threatened by ISKP propaganda and experienced attacks on citizens in Afghanistan and against the country itself. ISKP is the most outward-focused ISIS chapter with propaganda published in more languages than the other chapters. The group has also threatened the US with a 9/11-caliber attack and has previously made plans to attack US infrastructure in Europe.
US officials have raised alarms over the group. US Army CENTCOM commander, General Michael Kurilla stated in March 2023 that ISKP could conduct external attacks within 6 months. On top of that, the capacity of ISKP is mostly unknown as another high-ranking general has been quoted saying that America’s intelligence capabilities in Afghanistan have been greatly reduced by around 97-98% and counterterrorism intelligence departments have been gutted as the US shifts to countering powerful nation states, or “near-peer” threats such as Russia and China.
While ISKP is growing in strength, it is unlikely to build a massive caliphate similar to what ISIS achieved in the Levant in the 2010s. ISKP initially tried to capture territory in Eastern Afghanistan but was driven out in 2019. There are multiple reasons why ISKP could not build a caliphate similar to the one built in the Levant. Firstly, ISKP lacks the support base of disillusioned Sunnis sympathetic to the ideology that helped them gain a foothold in Iraq and Syria. Afghanistan instead is dominated by a particular brand of Islam that ISIS sees as incompatible with its ideology. As a result of this alienation, approximately half of ISKP’s soldiers are foreigners.
Another reason for their lack of power relative to their Levantine counterparts is that ISKP lacks a lucrative source of income that can be used to finance its operations. ISIS captured billions of dollars in oil during their campaign in the Levant, making them the wealthiest terrorist group in the world at the time. However, Afghanistan lacks the infrastructure for large-scale resource extraction and therefore ISKP has been forced to rely on smaller and less reliable sources of income such as extortion and illicit activities.
ISKP has instead shifted to an urban strategy where small cells operate in cities to carry out attacks. These attacks are meant to keep the Taliban regime weak and isolated so that they can continue to grow without interference. The attacks are also meant to inspire other jihadists to join the movement such as Taliban fighters who wish to continue the jihad against the west.
One attempted strategy by the US to limit the growth of ISKP, consistent with their “over the horizon” policy for containing terrorist threats from Afghanistan, is attempting to collaborate with the Taliban to combat ISKP. This plan is unlikely to work for multiple reasons.
Put simply, the Taliban do not have an interest in eliminating ISKP. The Taliban see fighting ISKP as a secondary priority to hunting down and murdering members of the former Afghan armed forces and combating the democratic resistance movement in the country. The Taliban use supposed raids against ISKP cells as a cover story for carrying out these reprisals or to hide instances of Taliban infighting. There are even reports of low-level alliances between ISKP and factions of the Taliban for the purpose of eliminating rivals. Finally, opposition groups note that the Taliban would have a hard time motivating their fighters to fight against other jihadists even if they are from a rival group.
Analysts have suggested that the US could, instead of relying on the Taliban to do a job they are unwilling to do, partner with local resistance groups such as the National Resistance Front to provide on-the-ground eyes on terrorist groups and provide a way to eliminate these terrorists without risking US troops. This is similar to a US strategy already employed in Syria.
Ultimately, as Taliban rule prolongs, the threat of ISKP will grow for both the US and the rest of the world. Even if they are unable to build a caliphate like their predecessors, they are still able to operate with few restrictions due to the instability in the country. Afghanistan is now in a situation similar to the 1990s in which the rule of law is absent and the international community is underestimating the ability of terrorist groups to thrive in this environment. If the status quo persists in Afghanistan: absence of the rule of law and a government unable and unwilling to combat them, ISKP will continue to pose a serious threat to the region and beyond.