International Community’s Concerns Over ISIS Expansion in Afghanistan Under Taliban Rule
By: Amin Kawa
Prior to the Taliban’s regaining control of Afghanistan on August 15, 2021, they had long-standing connections with other international and regional extremist groups in terms of military, armaments, and ideology. During their battle against foreign forces and the military forces of the former Afghan government, thousands of members of these fighting forces fought alongside members of other extremist groups. After the Taliban’s takeover, hundreds of ISIS, Al-Qaeda, and members of other terrorist groups were released from the detention centers of the former regime. The National Resistance Front (NRF) and other anti-Taliban political groups had previously warned of the Taliban turning Afghanistan into a safe haven for members of regional and international terrorist groups. According to recent statements made by the chief of the US Central Command (CENTCOM), ISIS in Afghanistan is only six months away from being able to conduct overseas strikes. The Khorasan members of ISIS have conducted violent and destructive operations over the past two years, despite the Taliban’s denial of the presence of members of ISIS in Afghanistan. The most recent incidents include the assassination of Dawood Muzamel, the Taliban governor for Balkh, and an attack on a group of journalists in the city of Mazar-i-Sharif, both of which have been claimed by the Daesh organization.
General Michael Kurilla, the chief of US Central Command (CENTCOM), stated before the U.S. Senate’s military committee on Thursday, March 16, that ISIS in Afghanistan will soon be capable of launching overseas attacks. He highlighted, “ISIS can initiate a foreign operation against the U.S. or Western countries in less than six months without any prior warning.”
According to a report by Fox News, General Michael Corrella warned the US Senate Defense Committee that the Khorasan branch of ISIS in Afghanistan would be able to launch terrorist attacks in Europe and Asia within six months. Furthermore, General Kurilla noted that the US had only conducted one attack against ISIS in Afghanistan since leaving the nation, and predicted that ISIS would have more difficulty directly targeting the United States. After speaking before the U.S. Senate, where he reportedly requested additional funding to combat the threat posed by ISIS, General Kurilla provided additional information regarding the spread of ISIS in Afghanistan in a private meeting held in private.
The Commander of the United States Central Command (CENTCOM) issued a warning following the October 2021 report from U.S. intelligence services that the Khorasan branch of the Islamic State of Iraq and Syria (ISIS) was preparing to launch an attack against the United States within six months. On October 12, President Joe Biden declared that, in accordance with the U.S. National Security Strategy, Afghanistan will no longer be a safe haven for terrorists to carry out terrorist acts against the United States and its allies.
Afghan National Resistance Front’s Response
The U.S. Army commander of high rank issued a warning regarding the emergence of ISIS in Afghanistan, which is not seen as particularly novel, despite the fact that politicians and those opposed to the Taliban’s rule have previously issued multiple warnings about the growth of extremist groups operating under their protection. The opponents of the Taliban assert that Afghanistan will become a safe haven for terrorists if the Taliban remain in power. Both the Taliban and ISIS are viewed as threats to global and regional security by the National Resistance Front, which is actively engaged in combatting the Taliban.
Sibghatullah Ahmadi, the spokesperson for the National Resistance Front of Afghanistan, informed Hasht-e-Subh that “ISIS, the Taliban, and other terrorist groups are two sides of the same coin when it comes to imposing restrictions on people’s lives; they pose a real danger to the world. The Taliban were the primary instigators of the fanaticism that is manifesting itself in the form of ISIS. The other aspect of the terrorist organization has been concealed, however, due to the connections of several countries with the Taliban.”
Mr. Ahmadi asserted that all terrorist organizations in Afghanistan have acquired the capability to carry out operations abroad. He further stated that these organizations share a variety of resources with the Taliban, such as training facilities, access to powerful weapons and military equipment, the ability to bear arms, decision-making abilities, and expertise in executing international terrorism.
According to Mr. Ahmadi, ISIS was disheartened and unsuccessful when the republican regime attempted to establish itself in Afghanistan, however, it has regained its assurance to resurface under the Taliban’s rule. Furthermore, he noted, “Terrorist organizations collaborate and work together in Afghanistan under different identities.”
The spokesperson for the National Resistance Front went on to say, “The majority of Taliban leaders are in agreement with the views and methods of Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi. All of these organizations have ideologies that are antithetical to the values of modern societies. ISIS and other similar groups have flourished in Afghanistan under the auspices of the Taliban, who are exploiting this to wage war against the international community.”
Taliban’s Rule and ISIS Assaults
During the Taliban’s takeover of Afghanistan, the Khorasan branch of ISIS took responsibility for a series of suicide bombings that resulted in the deaths of hundreds of people. Some of the most notable attacks attributed to ISIS were those against the Kabul airport while people were being evacuated, worshipers in the cities of Kunduz, Kabul, and Kandahar, the Taliban’s Ministry of Foreign Affairs, the Pakistani and Russian embassies in Kabul, and the Chinese compound, which had been under the control of the Taliban for at least two years. Prior to the Taliban’s rule, ISIS had often been linked to terrorist attacks that had caused the deaths of numerous Afghans. One of the most widely known instances of an ISIS suicide attack in Afghanistan during the former republic government was the attack on a wedding hotel in the western part of Kabul city.
ISIS Attacks in Afghanistan
ISIS reportedly targeted the Tebiyan Cultural Center in Mazar–e–Sharif, the provincial capital of Balkh, on Sunday, March 12th. During a ceremony to honor journalists, an explosion occurred, resulting in two fatalities and over 30 injuries, contrary to the Taliban‘s claims that only one security officer of the Tebiyan Cultural Center was killed and eight others, including three children, were injured.
Dawood Muzamel, the Taliban governor for Balkh and one of their top commanders in southern Afghanistan, was assassinated on March 9 by a suicide bomber in his office. This was confirmed by the ISIS news outlet Amaaq, which reported that Abdulhaq Khorasani, one of ISIS’s suicide bombers, was responsible for the assassination.
On Thursday, March 9, ISIS released a newsletter in which they claimed responsibility for the attack on the vehicles transporting personnel from the Herat Water Supply Department. As a result of this attack, three people, including the head of the department, were killed and four others were injured.
On Wednesday, January 11, ISIS asserted responsibility for the suicide bombing that occurred in front of the Taliban‘s Ministry of Foreign Affairs in Kabul, resulting in 40 people being injured and 21 being killed. Furthermore, the ISIS group also claimed responsibility for the suicide bombing that happened in front of the Taliban military facility in Kabul, where 50 Taliban members were wounded or killed.
On December 26, 2022, ISIS asserted accountability for an explosion that resulted in the death of Mawlawi Abdul Haq Omar, the Taliban security commander in Badakhshan province. Nevertheless, certain reliable sources in Badakhshan province informed Hasht–e–Subh that Mawlawi Abdul Haq Omar was killed due to internal discord within the Taliban.
It is believed that the Chinese guest house in Kabul is another target of ISIS terrorist attacks. On Monday, December 12, ISIS attacked the guest house, which housed Chinese nationals. According to a newsletter released by ISIS, 30 people were killed in the attack, however, the Emergency Hospital in Kabul reported that three people had died and 18 were injured and taken to the hospital.
On Sunday, December 4, 2022, the Islamic State of Iraq and Syria (ISIS) released a newsletter in which they took responsibility for the attack on the Pakistani embassy in Kabul. The newsletter stated that they had targeted the Pakistani ambassador‘s guard. This group has been targeting various civilian organizations and agencies ruled by the Taliban for more than a year. Video footage of the Taliban attack on the Al–Farooq Division staff in Herat on Saturday, October 29, 2022 was released by ISIS, resulting in five deaths and eighteen injuries. Due to the rivalry between the Taliban and ISIS, ISIS has occasionally targeted powerful Taliban members. This was evidenced by the death of Mawlawi Rahimullah Haqqani, one of the Taliban‘s senior members, which was reported on the ISIS–affiliated Amaaq website on Thursday, August 11.
Over the past 19 months, ISIS have conducted operations in Afghanistan which have included targeting mosques and congregations. On Saturday, 18th June 2022, an attack on a Hindu temple in Kabul resulted in the death of one Afghan–Hindu citizen and a member of the Taliban, as well as seven other people being injured.
ISIS targeted mosques in multiple provinces of Afghanistan, with the Sayedabad Mosque in Kunduz being the target of an attack on October 8, 2021. This attack resulted in the deaths of approximately 50 Shia worshipers and the wounding of 143 others. Reports suggest that the death toll was higher than the Taliban‘s statistics indicated, with some residents of Kunduz province claiming that the attack caused the deaths of nearly 100 people. ISIS claimed responsibility for the attack, identifying the suicide bomber as “Mohammed Uighuri“.
ISIS claimed responsibility for another attack that resulted in 68 fatalities and 60 injuries one week after the attack on Shia worshippers in Kunduz. The Shiite Imam Bargah mosque in Kandahar province was the site of the attack, which occurred during prayers. According to an ISIS newsletter, two members of the group shot the mosque security guards before detonating explosives among the worshippers.
Within the two months and seven days of the current solar year, 96 people have been killed due to ISIS attacks in Afghanistan. According to a report by Hasht–e–Subh, 96 individuals were killed as a result of ISIS assaults between October and December of last year. Additionally, 21 Taliban members and 141 civilians were injured, with 73 civilians and 23 Taliban members being killed.
Under the Taliban‘s rule, numerous deadly suicide attacks occurred in the Dasht–e–Barchi area in the west of Kabul, resulting in hundreds of deaths and injuries. According to the Human Rights Watch report, ISIS has accepted responsibility for 13 violent attacks on Hazaras from August 2021 to August 2022, which have caused a minimum of 700 deaths and injuries.
Waqas Mohajer was identified as the perpetrator of the attack on the Russian Embassy in Kabul by ISIS, who also claimed responsibility for a multitude of other violent attacks that resulted in the deaths and injuries of numerous civilians in Afghanistan.
Perceptions of ISIS in Afghanistan from Other Countries
According to a report from the Russian news agency TASS, Anatoly Sidrov, the Chief of the Joint Staff of the Collective Security Treaty, has stated that 4,000 ISIS members have gathered near the Afghanistan–Tajikistan border. Additionally, it has been reported that there are already 6,500 ISIS fighters operating in Afghanistan, with the majority of them relocating to the provinces of Badakhshan, Takhar, and Kunduz in the northeast. Furthermore, Zamir Kabulov, Russia‘s special representative to Afghanistan, stated in an interview with the Russian 24 TV station on Friday, January 20, 2023, that the “Anglo–Saxons“ are in contact with the Taliban‘s opposition forces and are covertly providing support to ISIS.
Hugo Shorter, the British Embassy‘s Charge d‘Affaires, warned of the potential for ISIS‘s resurgence in Afghanistan at the conclusion of his mission, in addition to the Russian Government‘s approach to ISIS‘s presence in Afghanistan. On Saturday, February 11th, he discussed this topic on his Twitter page. Prior to him, the U.S. National Intelligence Council had predicted that the Taliban and the West would face the greatest threat from the Khorasan branch of ISIS; however, the al–Qaeda group requires substantial reconstruction.
In addition to the official announcements of major countries, a plethora of Western media outlets have published numerous articles regarding the presence of ISIS in Afghanistan. The Washington Post, for example, reported that ISIS had conducted over 224 large–scale and lethal attacks in Afghanistan between August 2021 and August 2022, citing the SITE Intelligence Agency, which monitors the activities of terrorist organizations and publishes such information. Furthermore, the United Nations‘ “Analytical Support and Sanctions Monitoring Team“ reported on Tuesday, July 19, 2022, the extensive violent operations of terrorist groups in Afghanistan, including the Al–Qaeda and ISIS groups. This organization‘s members have asserted that Al–Qaeda and ISIS are attempting to acquire aircraft and other advanced military equipment from other countries to target Afghanistan‘s neighboring countries; according to the Institute of War Studies‘ statement released on Wednesday, June 1, 2022, this is being done in order to demoralize the Taliban and demonstrate their capability to carry out cross–border assaults.
ISIS‘s Use of Afghanistan to Target Other Countries
The Tajik government has long been concerned about the presence of terrorists in Afghanistan under the Taliban‘s leadership. However, the Taliban maintained that no country would be targeted from Afghanistan. On Sunday, June 8, 2022, ISIS released a video claiming responsibility for missile attacks on military targets in Tajikistan that had been launched from Afghanistan’s Takhar province.
The Taliban have strong connections to Uzbekistan, a neighboring country of Afghanistan. Not only did Uzbekistan host a conference with high–ranking Taliban representatives, but it has also often welcomed Taliban commanders. Nevertheless, rockets fired from Afghanistan have struck Uzbekistan on three occasions. Moreover, ISIS declared responsibility for the missile attack on Uzbekistan’s business center on April 18, 2022.
Since the collapse of the republic, Uzbekistan has experienced three rocket attacks from Afghanistan. On Monday, April 18, 2022, ten Katyusha rockets were launched from the “Sar–e–chaah“ area in the industrial district of Bandar–e-Hairataan on Uzbekistani territory. On July 5, 2022, five rockets were launched from Afghanistan against the Majnoontal region of the Uzbek province of Sarkhan–Darya. The third attack occurred on July 17, 2022.
Analysts have suggested that the Taliban have been attempting to gain credibility with the United States and other major nations by misrepresenting ISIS. BBC Persian security reporter Frank Gadner has stated that the ISIS Khorasan provincial group has a strong connection to the Haqqani network, which is closely associated with the Taliban. Despite this, the Taliban have maintained that they have full control over Afghanistan and that ISIS is not active in the country.