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A bloodthirsty ISIS branch is 'on the upswing' after the US left Afghanistan in a lurch, a former top commander says

Jake Epstein   

A bloodthirsty ISIS branch is 'on the upswing' after the US left Afghanistan in a lurch, a former top commander says
  • The past few years have seen a surge in activity from ISIS-K, the terror group's Afghanistan branch.
  • Once limited to the country, ISIS-K has now emerged as a broader threat to other regions.

In the years since the US and its NATO allies left Afghanistan, a particularly violent branch of the Islamic State terror group has grown stronger.

ISIS-K was once relatively restricted to the country, with limited influence beyond its borders. But it has since expanded and is now responsible for deadly attacks farther away from its home base, including a bloody massacre at a Moscow concert hall last month.

Under the loose watch of a second Taliban government, the terror group has found space to develop and thrive, while also enjoying the absence of the military forces that used to be a thorn in its side, a former top US commander said.

"It doesn't take very long for these organizations to rise up and become more capable," retired Gen. Joseph Votel, who oversaw military operations in the Middle East in the 2010s, told Business Insider.

ISIS-K, also known as the Islamic State in Khorasan Provence, is the notorious terror group's Afghanistan affiliate. It emerged in 2015 shortly after the organization declared a caliphate in Iraq and Syria.

During the first few years of its existence, ISIS-K attacks were mainly confined to Afghanistan and Pakistan. The group has a bitter rivalry with the Taliban, due to sectarian differences, and has fought against the militants, as well as US and Afghan forces.

In the months leading up to the Afghan government's collapse in August 2021, ISIS-K launched dozens of attacks. But the group gained the most global attention just days before the last US troops left Kabul after a suicide bombing at the airport killed at least 169 Afghans and 13 American service members.

A 'galvanizing element' for ISIS-K

Since the US withdrawal, experts say there has been an overall surge in ISIS-K activity. The first year under the Taliban's rule saw a sharp uptick in terror attacks inside Afghanistan. But that trend has changed in recent months; attacks inside the country declined while attacks beyond its borders have increased.

Both the American departure and the Taliban takeover of Afghanistan has "energized" ISIS-K, Michael Kugelman, the director of the South Asia Institute at the Wilson Center think tank, told BI.

ISIS-K saw an opportunity to go after the militants, their sworn enemies, and make them look bad, projecting an image to the Afghan people that the Taliban are incapable of restoring peace and security. Their return to power, in effect, "has been a galvanizing element for ISIS-K," Kugelman said, "and that's why they've been scaling up attacks."

The Taliban have attempted to combat ISIS-K over the last few years and have managed to find some success degrading the group internally. But the militants now also have more responsibilities to which they are diverting resources and effort — leaving gaps in their territorial governance and oversight. Thus, the conditions inside Afghanistan have awarded the terror group space to develop a greater capacity to stage external attacks.

The lack of a US military presence inside Afghanistan is also a major factor in how ISIS-K has managed to become more influential. Without constant pressure, "these organizations have an ability to regenerate themselves," said Votel, who served as the commander of US Central Command, or CENTCOM, from 2016 to 2019.

"That's the concern" with ISIS-K right now, he said.

'A global threat in very little time'

Prior to August 2021, the US had a wide range of tools at its disposal that it could use to fight ISIS-K and keep pressure on the terrorists as its adversary — the Taliban — did the same.

Washington had significant intelligence capabilities on the ground and the ability to conduct kinetic strikes against the terror group, while also advising and assisting Afghan forces in conducting key operations. But this "mowing-the-grass" approach to counterterrorism, Votel said, has since paved way for a stronger and more resilient ISIS-K that's focused on projecting its influence elsewhere.

"We had a lot of flexibility in terms of how we were trying to go after [ISIS-K] and put pressure on them in a variety of ways," he said. Now, "we're seeing their ability to project beyond the borders of Afghanistan and go do things in other areas."

ISIS-K has long been behind attacks in its immediate neighborhood, in places like Pakistan, Iran, and Central Asia. Earlier this year, for instance, a twin suicide bombing in the southeastern Iranian city of Kerman killed nearly 100 people who had gathered to mark the fourth anniversary of Qassem Soleimani's assassination at the hands of a US drone strike.

The terror group has also been linked to planned attacks in Europe. Then, in March, gunmen stormed a Moscow concert hall and set fire to the facility, killing more than 140 people. The shocking carnage, which was built upon ISIS-K's longstanding grievances with Russia, underscored its ability to strike far beyond the region that it was meant to focus on as a branch of the Islamic State.

"It has been able to project a global threat in very little time," Kugelman said, adding that it seems like out of nowhere, just over the last year or so, ISIS-K has "started to be linked to all of these attacks outside of Afghanistan."

'We don't have much on the ground to help'

The US has closely monitored ISIS-K in the years since the deadly Kabul airport bombing, with officials routinely warning that the terror group continues to pose a significant threat.

Gen. Michael Kurilla, the current CENTCOM commander, told lawmakers in March that ISIS-K could strike US or Western interests abroad with little to no warning in a matter of months — reiterating similar remarks he delivered the year prior.

Days after the Moscow attack, White House National Security spokesperson John Kirby said the Biden administration is "very vigilant in monitoring ISIS-K activity, such to the point that the US was able to warn Russia of an imminent attack ahead of time.

"Because we're watching it very, very closely, we don't see any sort of credible threat by ISIS to the American homeland," Kirby told reporters, adding that it's "not something we're taking for granted."

Without boots on the ground in Afghanistan, options are fairly limited to combating ISIS-K. The White House has previously backed an over-the-horizon targeting strategy that relies on surveillance systems to hunt down terrorists and kill them in drone strikes, but there doesn't appear to be evidence that such a strategy has worked.

"ISIS-K is on the upswing right now," Votel said. "And we don't have much on the ground to help reduce that risk that this organization poses."

The US still has the ability to gather meaningful intelligence in the region, although Votel said these capabilities are likely diminished from what they previously were. But it's very important, he stressed, that the US continues to dedicate resources toward the threat and make it a priority.

One way for the US to do this is to work with regional partners around Afghanistan, such as Pakistan or states in Central Asia, to increase collaboration and the exchange of information with regard to violent extremism, Votel said. Another method would be for lawmakers to reauthorize a powerful surveillance tool known as Section 702, which is set to expire later this month.

As US and partner forces continue to battle ISIS with great effect in Iraq and Syria, the terror group's Afghanistan affiliate remains a loose cannon of sorts. And as they continue to recruit from around the world, the threat is clearly enough to keep Washington on its toes.

"The fact that ISIS-K has shown not only the will but also the capacity to target Americans — that in and of itself, I think, is reason for concern for the perspective of US policymakers," Kugelman said, "and a good reason why it's important not to take our eye off the ball, so to speak, when it comes to this threat."

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