What we know about the Islamic State group in Afghanistan, which claimed responsibility for the attack on Kabul

As the international coalition feared, the airport in the Afghan capital was, Thursday, August 26, the scene of a deadly attack, as the United States and its allies are in a hurry to evacuate people from the country before the 31st. August, when the Americans pledged to leave the country.

Twenty years ago, the attacks of September 11, 2001 triggered the intervention in Afghanistan of a coalition led by the United States to end the first Taliban regime and punish the country, which had sheltered jihadists from Al -Qaïda, responsible for the disaster.

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On Thursday, the Kabul airport bombing was the deadliest attack against the US military in Afghanistan since 2011. Claimed by the local branch of the Islamic State group, the Islamic State in Khorasan (EI-K ), the attack killed at least 85 people, including thirteen American soldiers, and raised fears that Afghanistan would once again become, under the Taliban, a refuge for the jihadist network and other terrorist organizations.

  • What is ISIS in Khorasan?

Shortly after the proclamation by ISIS in 2014 of a “caliphate” – which has since lost most of its territory – in Iraq and Syria, some members of the Tehreek-e-Taliban Pakistan (TTP, the Pakistani Taliban) have pledged allegiance to the leader of the new jihadist group, Abu Bakr Al-Baghdadi. Afghans, disappointed by the Taliban and their policy, considered too moderate, of negotiations with the United States, then quickly joined ISIS, which officially recognized, in early 2015, the creation of the province of Khorasan. This name refers to an ancient region that included parts of present-day Afghanistan, Pakistan, Iran and Central Asia.

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In 2015, IS-K established its foothold in the mountainous district of Achin, in the Afghan province of Nangarhar, the only one where it will finally manage to establish a lasting presence, along with the neighboring one of Kunar. Elsewhere, the group clashed with the Taliban. However, he has managed to form sleeper cells in the country, especially in Kabul, and Pakistan, according to the United Nations.

The latest estimates of the strength of the local branch vary from a minimum of 500 to a few thousand combatants, according to a United Nations (UN) Security Council report published in July.

  • What is the relationship between ISIS and the Taliban?

Even though they are two radical Sunni groups, ISIS and the Taliban oppose each other. They differ in theology and strategy, and also compete to embody jihad. A sign of the strong enmity between them, IS has described the Taliban as apostates in several press releases.

In particular, IS-K encountered repression by the Taliban against their dissidents, and proved incapable of expanding its territory, unlike what ISIS had succeeded in doing in Iraq and in Syria. In 2019, the Afghan government army, after joint operations with the United States, announced that the group had been defeated in Nangarhar province. According to assessments by the United States and the United Nations, ISIS has only operated through its sleeper cells in cities, for highly publicized attacks.

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In the agreement reached in February 2020 with the United States on the withdrawal of foreign forces, the Taliban promised not to let the country serve as a base for the organization of attacks against the Americans and their allies. The Islamic State group had been very critical of this withdrawal agreement, accusing the Taliban of having denied the jihadist cause. Thus, after their entry into Kabul on August 15, they received congratulations from several jihadist groups, but not those from ISIS.

Afghan civilians in hospital after the Islamic State group's claimed airport bombing in Kabul, Afghanistan, in August 2021.

On Friday, a spokesperson for the new Taliban regime also said that IS-K had been eradicated from all 34 Afghan provinces, except that of Kabul, where certain elements remain, which he said was protected by the former government. But the Islamic State group could profit from the collapse of the Afghan state.

  • How is IS-K a threat?

Unlike the Taliban, who have focused their ideological war and power on Afghanistan, ISIS is responding to the call of the Islamic State group for an international jihad.

He claimed responsibility for some of the deadliest attacks in recent years in Afghanistan and Pakistan. Including suicide attacks in mosques, hospitals and other public places. The group has specifically targeted Muslims it considers heretics, mainly Shiites from the Hazara minority.

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In August 2019, he claimed responsibility for an attack against Shiites during a wedding in Kabul, where 91 people were killed. In the provinces where it is established, its presence has left deep traces. His men have shot dead, beheaded, tortured, terrorized villagers, and left landmines everywhere.

ISIS thus succeeded in carrying out deadly attacks on Afghan soil even as American soldiers held the country. The withdrawal of all troops from Afghanistan deprives the United States of its military arsenal there and weakens its ability to follow the movements of the jihadist group. Official voices from the Biden administration, however, assured that the Islamic State group remained one threat among others, which they claim to be able to monitor using their spy and military tools, based in Gulf states.

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Le Monde with AFP and AP