ISIS-K: The Taliban’s ‘Sworn Enemy’ – or Covert Collaborator?

Patrick Goodenough | August 26, 2021 | 2:02am EDT
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Afghan security personnel at a site of a November 2017 suicide bombing in Kabul for which ISIS-K claimed responsibility. At least nine people were killed. (Photo by Shah Marai/AFP via Getty Images)
Afghan security personnel at a site of a November 2017 suicide bombing in Kabul for which ISIS-K claimed responsibility. At least nine people were killed. (Photo by Shah Marai/AFP via Getty Images)

( – ISIS-K, the group named by the Biden administration as posing a serious terrorist threat as the clock runs out on the evacuation mission at the Kabul airport, is generally described as a rival of the Taliban. But the lines are more blurred when it comes to the Taliban’s most dangerous faction, the Haqqani Network.

National Security Advisor Jake Sullivan this week described the ISIS-K threat in Kabul as “acute” and the Pentagon on Wednesday called it “credible.”

The U.S. Embassy overnight warned U.S. citizens not to travel to the airport, and urged those at three airport gates to leave immediately due to “security threats,” although without elaborating.

Khorasan is a historical name for the region incorporating parts of Afghanistan and neighboring territories. “ISIS in the Khorasan Province” (ISIS-K, ISIL-K, or ISKP) emerged in early 2015, as the Islamic State in Iraq and Syria sought to spread its influence and ideology from its “caliphate” stronghold, attracting as early recruits disaffected members of the Taliban in Afghanistan and Pakistan.

By March of that year, the head of the U.N. Assistance Mission in Afghanistan was warning the U.N. Security Council that the group, although yet to establish “firm roots,” was positioned “to offer an alternative flagpole to which otherwise isolated insurgent splinter groups can rally.”

Jen Psaki, who at the time was spokesperson for the State Department, said the Obama administration believed the fledgling group “represents a rebranding of a few marginalized Taliban,” but was also taking the potential threat seriously.

The first of what would become many deadly attacks claimed by ISIS-K occurred in April 2015, when at least 33 people were killed and more than 100 injured in a suicide bombing outside a bank in Jalalabad where government and military personnel were collecting salaries.

Two months later, the Taliban sent a letter to ISIS leader Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi, asking him not to encroach on and recruit in its territory.

“Jihad against American invaders and their slaves in Afghanistan must be under one flag, one leadership and one command,” read the letter, which the Taliban also released publicly in an apparent attempt to discourage defections.

The two groups have clashed frequently over the years since, especially in what become ISIS-K strongholds in Nangarhar and Kunar provinces. Each had attracted defectors from the other.

By 2018, ISIS-K was estimated in U.N. Security Council reports to boast some 4,000 fighters, although a U.N. report earlier this year estimated that the number had dropped to as low as 2,200.

Meanwhile U.S. airstrikes and U.S. and Afghan special forces killed four ISIS-K leaders between mid-2016 and mid-2018.

After the Taliban signed the Doha agreement with the U.S. in February last year, ISIS published an article online saying the deal marked an admission of defeat by the U.S., but also criticizing the Taliban for the fact that foreign troops were still in the country.

In his comments on Tuesday reaffirming the August 31 deadline for the evacuation mission, President Biden made a point of emphasizing that ISIS-K is “the sworn enemy of the Taliban.”

The picture is less clear, however, with regards to the Haqqani Network, an integral part of the Taliban whose leaders have begun to return to Kabul since the August 15 takeover.

In March last year, terrorists attacked a Sikh shrine in Kabul, killing at least 25 worshippers. ISIS-K claimed responsibility, but two months later Afghanistan’s National Directorate of Security (NDS) reported the capture of members of what it called a cell comprising members of both ISIS-K and the Haqqani Network, blaming it for the Sikh shrine attack and others.

In the same month, the NDS said it had arrested an ISIS-K terrorist with links to both the Haqqani Network and another Pakistan-linked terrorist group, Laskar e-Toiba (LeT).

(The Haqqani Network, ISIS-K, and LeT are U.S.-designated foreign terrorist organizations; the Taliban is not.)

Last August, Afghan Interior Minister and NDS director-general Masoud Andrabi tweeted that the newly-appointed leader of ISIS-K, Shahab al-Mahajir, was a member of the Haqqani Network.

“Haqqani & the Taliban carry out their terrorism on a daily basis across Afg & when their terrorist activities does not suit them politically they rebrand it under ISKP,” he said, using an alternative acronym for ISIS-K.

(Images; Public domain)
The flags of the Taliban/Haqqani Network, left, and ISIS, right. (Images: Public domain)



The allegations have not only come from officials in the now-ousted government.

U.N. Security Council monitoring reports, which incorporate intelligence from member-states, have also referred to evident ISIS-K–Haqqani links.

One such report last May said two Taliban commanders in Kunduz province, named as Mawlawi Satar and Mawlawi Abdullah Majid, had traveled to Nangarhar province to fight for ISIS-K.

The report said further that some of the terrorist attacks being claimed by ISIS-K “may have arisen wholly or partly from a tactical accommodation with the Haqqani Network.”

“Member States have commented that most attacks claimed by ISIL-K demonstrated some degree of ‘involvement, facilitation, or the provision of technical assistance’ by the Haqqani Network,” it said.

“The Monitoring Team has previously viewed communication intercepts following ISIL-K claimed attacks that were identified as traceable to known members of the Haqqani Network.”

The report also said that “operations resulting in civilian casualties allow Taliban deniability whereas ISIL-K is willing to claim responsibility to demonstrate capability and relevance.”

Atlantic Council senior fellow Javid Ahmad  – who is also Afghanistan’s ambassador to the UAE – has referred to a “division of labor” between ISIS-K and the Haqqani Network, sometimes also in collaboration with LeT.

“Although the Haqqanis are skilled at staging complex raids, they hardly claim any attacks under their name,” he wrote in a June 2020 op-ed for The Hill.  “Instead, the Taliban take responsibility for nearly every attack that results in military casualties, while ISIS-K often claims ones that kill civilians.”

“It almost seems that in this transactional partnership, the Taliban hardliners have found a willing scapegoat in ISIS-K and have outsourced their dirty work of targeting civilians,” Ahmad argued. “In fact, there have been instances of simultaneous attacks on the same day in a city, where ISIS-K has claimed the attack on civilian targets while the Taliban claims the one on Afghan forces and institutions.”

See also:

US-Wanted Leader of Notorious Terrorist Group Is Back in Kabul (Aug. 23, 2021)

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