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Islamic State-Khorasan a threat to Afghan civilians, Taliban

Islamic State-Khorasan a threat to Afghan civilians, Taliban
Rockets can be scene inside a car as Afghans inspect the destroyed vehicle after the U.S. military said it was used to fire rockets toward the international airport in Kabul, Afghanistan, on August 30. Photo by Bashir Darwish/ UPI | License Photo

Sept. 17 (UPI) -- The Islamic State-Khorasan Province made headlines when it claimed responsibility for a suicide bombing at Hamid Karzai International Airport in Kabul, Afghanistan, in the final days of the U.S. troop withdrawal.

Nearly 200 people were killed, including 13 U.S. troops assisting with evacuations.

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But who is ISIS-K and how close is its affiliation with the Islamic State, which has been active in Iraq and Syria since 2014?

Much like its parent terror group, ISIS-K is known by many names. The U.S. government refers to it as ISIS-K, while other agencies or media outlets may call it IS-KP, ISIL-K or Daesh-Khorasan (based on a transliteration of the Arabic acronym for the Islamic State). The group takes its name from the historical Khorasan region in Asia -- parts of Iran, Afghanistan, Turkmenistan, Tajikistan, Uzbekistan and Pakistan.

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According to an analysis of ISIS-K's history by the Center for Strategic and International Studies, the group was first made up of militants who defected in 2014 from Tehrik-e-Taliban, al-Qaida and Taliban in Afghanistan and Pakistan. The Islamic State sent its members to meet with these defected fighters to form the Khorasan branch by early 2015 under the leadership of Hafiz Saeed Khan.

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Membership in ISIS-K also includes fighters from Pakistan, Bangladesh, India and Myanmar.

Like the Islamic State, the Khorasan offshoot seeks to establish an Islamic caliphate and label those who reject Sharia law as apostates who can be executed as punishment.

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ISIS-K was -- and still is -- a rival to the Taliban political movement and militant group, though there has been some overlap with the Taliban's Haqqani Network. Specifically, ISIS-K vowed to retaliate against the Taliban for engaging in peace negotiations with the United States earlier this year and for not ruling strictly according to Sharia law.

ISIS-K has also fought Afghan security forces, as well as other international forces -- basically any entity that doesn't abide by its strict form of Islamic rule.

A July 2016 U.S. airstrike killed ISIS-K's first leader, Khan. The group's seventh leader, Shabab al-Muhajir, is currently in power. Al-Muhajir, an Iraqi, previously belonged to the Haqqani Network and al-Qaida, before joining ISIS-K.

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The CSIS said al-Muhajir is believed to be the first commander of the group to hail from outside the historic Khorasan region.

The group is funded largely through local donations, extortion and by the parent ISIS group, according to the U.S. Treasury Department.

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A CSIS analysis indicated that ISIS-K was at its strongest in 2018 and has since declined. The group conducted some 200 attacks in 2018, while it has claimed responsibility for roughly 50 so far in 2021.

By May 2021, the U.N. Security Council estimated ISIS-K had a membership of between 1,500 and 2,200 fighters based mostly in Kunar and Nangarhar provinces, Afghanistan.

Among its most notable attacks were a series of explosions at campaign rallies in Bannu and Mastung, Pakistan, in 2018 that killed about 150 people. The group also claimed responsibility for a series of bombs near a school in Kabul in May, which killed 90 people.

Still, its most deadly single attack remains the Aug. 26 suicide explosion at the Kabul International Airport amid the Taliban's takeover of Afghanistan and the U.S.-led evacuation of the capital.

In its assessment, the CSIS said ISIS-K is a threat to Afghan civilians and the newly established Taliban government, and the group likely feels "emboldened" by its deadly attack on Aug. 26 and the "power vacuum" left by the withdrawal of U.S. troops and allies.

"ISKP will likely continue to plan and conduct attacks, as well as expand recruitment efforts, but its success will depend on several factors, including the Taliban's speed and success in establishing a government, local and regional counterterrorism efforts, and ISKP's ability to manage its image among a population that it has historically struggled to recruit," said the CSIS report written by lead author Catrina Doxsee, program manager and research associate.

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Earlier this month, U.S. Army Gen. Mark Milley, chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, said it's "possible" the threat of ISIS-K could lead the United States to work with the Taliban to defeat the militant group, but Defense Secretary Lloyd Austin appeared to doubt that cooperation would extend beyond evacuation efforts.

For his part, President Joe Biden promised to respond with force against the ISIS-K in the hours after the attack.

"To those who carried out this attack, as well as anyone who wishes America harm, know this: We will not forgive, we will not forget, we will hunt you down and make you pay," he said in a televised address to the nation.

Indeed, one day later, the U.S. military conducted a drone strike that killed at least one planner of the Aug. 26 attack.

Scott Lucas, a professor of international politics at the University of Birmingham, wrote in an op-ed piece for The Conversation that the Aug. 26 attack forced the United States to "recalculate" its approach in Afghanistan. He said the United States will need local assets to help identify and track ISIS-K targets, but that will be difficult to do after withdrawal.

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Lucas questioned whether the Biden administration will continue its cooperation with the Taliban in order to focus on retaliation against ISIS-K.

"It is unlikely that the maneuvering with the Taliban will be in public, but watch the signals from Washington, London and elsewhere carefully," he wrote. "If rhetoric about rights and security for Afghans is replaced with slogans about security for Americans and Britons -- if the fate of Afghans is supplanted by the war on terror -- then the West may be preparing for the unlikeliest of bedfellows in whatever conflict lies ahead."

Scenes from the U.S. withdrawal from Afghanistan

Secretary of Defense Lloyd J. Austin III (L) and Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff Army Gen. Mark A. Milley deliver remarks about the end of the 20-year military mission in Afghanistan at the Pentagon, in Arlington, Va., on September 1. Photo by Ken Cedeno/UPI | License Photo

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