What we know about ISIS-K, the anti-Taliban terrorist group springing up amid evacuations at Kabul airport

Crowds of people show their documents to U.S. troops outside the airport in Kabul, Afghanistan August 26, 2021. Photo by REUTERS/Stringer.

Today explosions erupted outside the Kabul airport, including one that went off in a dense crowd of people. Dozens are dead or injured, including 12 U.S. service members. The Taliban condemned the attack.

At this point, it is too soon to say who’s responsible. But on Thursday night, U.S. officials warned of a specific and credible threat targeting the airport — by the terrorist group called the Islamic State Khorasan (ISIS-K).

ISIS-K formed in 2014-2015 by members of the Pakistani Taliban, then recruited Islamic fundamentalists, explains Andrew Radin, a political scientist at the RAND Corporation.

He points out the group’s differences from the Taliban: “The Taliban, at least in their current incarnation, has signaled some acceptance of religious minority groups. … ISIS-K has taken a much stronger line and indeed targeted some of their attacks against [the] Hazaras minority in particular.”

If ISIS-K is indeed behind today’s bombings at the Kabul airport, what would their motivation(s) be?

“There's probably a few things going on,” says Radin. “One is … a longstanding hatred of Westerners and of the United States and its presence in Afghanistan. And the airport is a symbol of that.”

He continues, “Another factor is just the high profile characteristic of the attack. … For individuals who might be recruited or radicalized, it [the attacks] can raise the group's profile. So this is certainly going to do that, and sort of benefit the group possibly in its recruitment.”

ISIS-K has a history of particularly horrendous attacks on civilians, he points out. “There was an attack on a maternity ward in May of 2020, attack on a girls’ school in May of this year. And so they have both the capability and a demonstration that they’ve done sort of similar things in the past.”

For terrorists looking for a place to conduct operations, Radin wonders whether Afghanistan will be the focal point as compared to Yemen or West Africa. “I would guess that they’ll continue to be threats from all over the regino,” he says.

Credits

Guest:

  • Andrew Radin - political scientist at the RAND Corporation