ISK: A Potent Security Threat in Afghanistan
The Islamic State of Khorasan or ISK has emerged as a potent security threat in Afghanistan. Publicly however the De Facto authorities or the Islamic Emirate of Afghanistan commonly known as the Taliban deny that there is a large presence of the ISK cadres and claim that many of the fighters are from neighbouring countries.
Never the less the recent security incidents in the country which are mainly ascribed to the group remain unexplained. Here is a review-
Major Security Incidents in March
On March 27, a suicide bomber was neutralised before reaching the target near the security Checkpoint at Malik Asghar intersection of the second security zone of Kabul killing six civilians and wounding several. This was preceded by a blast in front of the Ministry of Foreign Affairs in Kabul, killing two and injuring 12 employees just hours before.
On March 21, Zabiullah Mujahid, the Taliban senior spokesperson claimed that three important Islamic State (ISIS) members were killed after Taliban security forces attacked an important hideout during a special operation in Kabul’s provincial district 12.
In attacks in the North the ISK group claimed two of the major strikes in Balkh province
The first killed the Taliban governor of the Balkh province as suicide bombers entered his office.
In the second occurred the ISK targeted an Afghan journalist’ gathering in Tebyan cultural center which is supported by Iran killing many journalists and injuring several others.
In the past months in Kabul the ISK has claimed attacks on the Russian Embassy, Pakistani Diplomatic Mission, and a Chinese-run hotel.
Assessment of ISK Presence
Taliban foreign minister recently claimed that ISIS does not exist in Afghanistan. In a conversation with the Taliban-controlled national television, Bakhtar News, Amir Khan Muttaqi said that those ISIS members who are fighting with the Taliban are "foreigners" who entered Afghanistan from outside the country.
As per assessment by the United States Central Command however Islamic State in Afghanistan will have the potential to attack American or Western interests outside the country in less than six months.
US Army General Michael Kurilla, Commander of US Central Command, told the US Senate Armed Services Committee acknowledged that the quality of US intelligence has degraded since the pullout from Afghanistan, and conducting counterterrorism operations has become difficult but not impossible.
“My commanders estimate that they can do an external operation against US or Western interests in under six months with little to no warning. In a classified session, I would talk about why I made that assessment. It is much harder for them to be able to do that against the homeland,” he said.
Taliban spokesperson accused the US of "exaggerating" about the danger ISIS poses out of Afghanistan.
British Foreign Ministry has advised citizens to avoid visiting Afghanistan. “There is an ongoing and high threat of terrorist attacks throughout Afghanistan, including around the airport. There is a heightened threat of terrorist attacks in or around religious sites and during religious festivals, such as Ramadan. Travel throughout Afghanistan is extremely dangerous, and border crossings may not be open,” the statement said as per the Khaama Report.
Ironically Sheikh Abdul Rahim Muslimdost, in a recent interview with al-Mersaad Media, claimed that Pakistan is financing the ISIS group in Afghanistan. Muslimdost was a former founding member of the Islamic State Khorasan Province (ISKP) who surrendered to the Taliban in March 2022, according to the media reports. Muslimdost claimed that Pakistan-based Lashkar-e-Taiba provided 50 Lakh Pakistani Rupee to the ISKP in 2015 as per Khaama report.
Tajikistan President Emomali Rahman met with the Secretary General of the Collective Security Treaty Organization (CSTO), Imangali Tasmagambetov, on 14 March in Dushanbe and discussed the situation in Afghanistan. “During the conversation, views were exchanged on the situation in Afghanistan and other topical issues of the international and regional agenda,” a press release said.
Imangali Tasmagambetov, Secretary General of the Collective Security Treaty Organisation (CSTO) warned that the risk of "terrorists" infiltrating from Afghanistan to Central Asia has increased.
In particular, terrorism, extremism, radicalization, drug trafficking, cybercrime, and transnational organized crime were highlighted as the significant challenges and threats to security to counter through a comprehensive approach, stated Tasmagambetov. Earlier, the CSTO had expressed concern with the presence of Islamic State-Khorasan fighters along the Tajikistan-Afghanistan border area.
The presence of ISK sanctuaries in Afghanistan is undeniable. These are spread in the Northern provinces which could mainly comprise of fighters from the Central Asian countries as well as in the East where these could be a mix of Pakistan based as well as native Pashtun terrorists who have left the Taliban or the Tehreek Taliban Pakistan fold.
Inadequacy of Taliban Response to ISK
Denial, occasional neutralisation of leaders and cells and blaming foreign countries and fighters for the ISK remains the principal strategy of the Taliban to respond to the threat.
The Taliban thus continue to deny the presence of Daesh in the country and are now claiming that the group is mainly in the North and comprises of foreigners or those from Central Asia and other countries.
Despite the increasing attacks of the Taliban on ISIS members in Afghanistan, the group has tried to portray ISIS presence in Afghanistan as weak even as sanctuaries of the ISK are continuing to grow.