International relations, National security | Asia, The World

7 March 2022

While ISIS no longer makes media headlines, a new low-profile – but no less dangerous – branch of the group should be a cause for concern for security analysts, Alex Szokalski writes.

The infamous terror group Islamic State in Syria and the Levant (ISIS) may no longer appear in breaking news reports, but their existence and operations are unfortunately still lingering in the region.

In October 2019, then American President Donald Trump proudly announced that with the killing of Abu al-Baghdadi. The group seemed obliterated and all efforts to rebuild were failing.

Indeed, while ISIS suffered major losses to its leadership, including a mass surrender of fighters and their families to the US-led coalition and Afghan forces, their existence and operations are more resilient than first thought.

A report undertaken by the United Nations Security Council (UNSC) in August 2020 reported several concerning findings. Under the direction of a new leader, ISIS’s core has begun to reconsolidate, and in areas once under its control, to openly operate and execute attacks in both Iraq and Syria.

Of particular concern is a branch that calls itself ‘ISIS-K’, for Islamic State Khorasan Province. The term Khorasan refers to the vast territory encompassing north-eastern Iran, Turkmenistan, and northern Afghanistan. More literally, its name means ‘the land of the sun.’ In the early seventh century, Khorasan became part of the Umayyad Caliphate and more essentially, a hub for the growth early Islamic culture.

So, what relevance does this have to ISIS?

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The term Khorasan is being used more frequently by modern jihadists because the ethos of the modern jihadist is to disregard the legitimacy of modern nation states. Instead, they rely on of historical terms for their legitimacy, specifically using the terminology of a past caliphate.

As the aim of ISIS has been to establish a worldwide caliphate, the usage of Khorasan suggests that there is a belief that they have a right to control or will control the territory of Khorasan.

Of course, the group already claim to control Iraq and Syria, and the addition of the Khorasan region to their rhetoric indicates an increased ambition by the group.

That said, their rhetoric and claims have escalated before, so why should this more exaggerated claim be means for concern?

Because they’ve shown a willingness to act on them. During the withdrawal of American forces from Iraq on 26 August 2021, a suicide bomber carried out an attack at the airport that killed 13 American soldiers and dozens of Afghan citizens. ISIS-K would later take responsibility for carrying out this attack.

While leaders could mistake this for a crippled group in its death throes desperately trying to remain relevant, they should note that over the last few years, ISIS-K has carried out several terrorist attacks across the region.

On 24 October 2020, a suicide bomber killed 30 people and injured 70 more in an attack on an educational centre in Kabul. That November saw 32 killed and 50 injured by an attack on Kabul University. Then, 8 May 2021 saw an attack on a school in western Kabul targeting children, while a week later they claimed an attack on a Kabul Mosque.

This has also occurred in the face of the Taliban’s ascendancy. Indeed, the Taliban claims that ISIS-K is not a threat and that once economic and administrative issues in Iraq are resolved, they will simply ‘disappear’. Moreover, they also assert that they have no need for external assistance to deal with ISIS-K.

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In reality, the Taliban do not appear to be handling this threat so well, as ISIS-K carry out almost daily attacks against them. They have killed a number of senior Taliban officials, including their head of security and the commander of their special forces unit. Even more were killed and wounded during an attack on a memorial for the mother of a senior Taliban spokesperson.

Additionally, the actions that the Taliban have taken in governing their territory appear contradictory, and are likely a driving factor in ISIS-K recruitment – the Taliban have been inconsistent, protecting Shi’ite Muslims in some areas but cleansing them from others, and trying to win support from Salafi Muslims whilst also suppressing them.

Members of the Afghan intelligence services and special forces who were trained by the United States, then forced out of work and left penniless by the Taliban are reportedly quick to join ISIS-K, providing the group specialised capabilities they once lacked.

ISIS-K have also capitalised on China’s open and public relationship with the Taliban and have created campaigns to draw Uyghur Muslims to support its cause. Indeed, the group has already claimed responsibility for the bombing of a Shi’ite Mosque in Kunduz, which they emphasised was carried out by a Uyghur member.

Despite the Taliban’s rise to power, Afghanistan is on the road to a complete economic collapse and humanitarian disaster, and its inconsistent governance and ideology, brutality toward its own people, and an inability to pay fighters will likely see those fighters turn toward ISIS-K.

The Taliban were founded on an ideal of martyrdom and jihad. If they are not able to create a system of stable governance and economic growth, many within their rank and file may join ISIS-K simply to keep fighting.

If ISIS-K continues to develop support in the Khorasan region whilst degrading Taliban control of Afghanistan, it is not inconceivable that they will have the capacity to begin rebuilding or even rebranding. They could once again pose a sizeable threat to national, regional, and international security.

Whilst they have been largely absent from media headlines outside the region in recent times, security analysts would be wise to track ISIS-K’s development more closely. They might even be forced to consider an uneasy coalition with the lesser of two evils, the Taliban, to prevent ISIS-K rising to the levels of power ISIS has used to cause misery and destruction in the region in the past.

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