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What is the Islamic State threat in Afghanistan?

As the Taliban take control of Afghanistan, officials have warned of another jihadist threat

AFP, Kabul

AFP, Kabul

Published: August 26, 2021 07:29 AM GMT

Updated: August 26, 2021 07:39 AM GMT

What is the Islamic State threat in Afghanistan?

US Air Force personnel load passengers aboard a C-17 Globemaster III in support of the Afghanistan evacuation at Hamid Karzai International Airport in Kabul on Aug. 24. (Photo: AFP)

As desperate Afghans crowd Kabul airport trying to get on any evacuation flights to flee the Taliban, officials have warned of another jihadist threat: the Islamic State group.

President Joe Biden said there is "an acute and growing risk" of an attack at the airport by the group's regional chapter, called Islamic State-Khorasan or ISIS-K.

The United States, Britain and Australia have told people to leave the area for safer locations.

When asked directly about the threat, a Taliban spokesman acknowledged a risk of "nuisances" causing trouble in a chaotic situation they blamed entirely on the US-led evacuation.

Months after the Islamic State declared a caliphate in Iraq and Syria in 2014, breakaway fighters from the Pakistani Taliban joined militants in Afghanistan to form a regional chapter, pledging allegiance to Islamic State leader Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi.

The group was formally acknowledged by the central Islamic State leadership the next year as it sunk roots in northeastern Afghanistan, particularly Kunar, Nangarhar and Nuristan provinces.

It has massacred civilians in both countries, at mosques, shrines, public squares and even hospitals

It also managed to set up sleeper cells in other parts of Pakistan and Afghanistan, including Kabul, according to United Nations monitors.

Latest estimates of its strength vary from several thousand active fighters to as low as 500, according to a UN Security Council report released last month.

"Khorasan" is a historical name for the region, taking in parts of what is today Pakistan, Iran, Afghanistan and Central Asia.

The Islamic State's Afghanistan-Pakistan chapter has been responsible for some of the deadliest attacks of recent years.

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It has massacred civilians in both countries, at mosques, shrines, public squares and even hospitals. The group has especially targeted Muslims from sects it considers heretical, including Shia.

Last year it was blamed for an attack that shocked the world — gunmen went on a bloody rampage at a maternity ward in a predominantly Shia neighborhood of Kabul, killing 16 mothers and mothers-to-be.

Beyond bombings and massacres, ISIS-K has failed to hold any territory in the region, suffering huge losses because of Taliban and US-led military operations.

According to UN and US military assessments, after the phase of heavy defeats ISIS-K now operates largely through covert cells based in or near cities to carry out high-profile attacks.

While both groups are hardline Sunni Islamist militants, there is no love lost between ISIS-K and the Taliban. They have differed on the minutiae of religion and strategy while claiming to be the true flag-bearers of jihad.

That tussle has led to bloody fighting between the two, with the Taliban emerging largely victorious after 2019 when ISIS-K failed to secure territory as its parent group did in the Middle East.

In a sign of the enmity between the two jihadist groups, Islamic State statements have referred to the Taliban as apostates.

ISIS-K is a sworn enemy of the Taliban, and they have a history of fighting one another

How has Islamic State reacted to the Taliban victory in Afghanistan? Not well. Islamic State had been highly critical of the deal last year between Washington and the Taliban that led to the agreement for withdrawing foreign troops, accusing the latter of abandoning the jihadist cause.

Following the Taliban's lightning takeover of Afghanistan, a number of jihadist groups around the world congratulated them — but not Islamic State.

One Islamic State commentary published after the fall of Kabul accused the Taliban of betraying jihadists with the US withdrawal deal and vowed to continue its fight, according to the SITE Intelligence Group, which monitors militant communications.

US officials say Kabul airport, with thousands of US-led foreign troops surrounded by huge crowds of desperate Afghans, is under high threat from ISIS-K.

A flurry of near-identical travel warnings from London, Canberra and Washington late on Aug. 25 urged people gathered in the area to move to safer locations. They have not provided any specific details about the threat.

"ISIS-K is a sworn enemy of the Taliban, and they have a history of fighting one another," Biden said on Aug. 22.

"But every day we have troops on the ground, these troops and innocent civilians at the airport face the risk of attack from ISIS-K."

Some military transports taking off from Kabul airport in recent days have been seen launching flares, which are normally used to attract heat-seeking missiles.

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