Before its devastating attack on Kabul airport last August, little attention (at least in western media circles) had been paid to the Islamic State Khorasan Province, or ISIS-K. That all changed when, in the midst of western evacuation efforts from Afghanistan, the group claimed the lives of up to 170 people, more than a dozen of which were US servicemen. The bombing prompted a swift and unequivocal response from the US Government; a remote strike of ISIS-K was later followed by a stern warning of further retaliation from Joe Biden.
Yet, as far as threats go, ISIS-K poses no immediate threat to western civilizations. The rhetorical projections of American grandeur barely mask this reality; this offshoot of the Islamic State is too numerically scarce to seriously direct any act of aggression against established liberal democracies. The UN estimates its militia to be between 500 and 1,500 fighters- a shell of its former height of 4,000 following its initial inception in 2014- 2015. However, its remoteness to the west is as much a product of its size as it is a reflection of the bloody territorial rivalries consuming Afghanistan. Far from being a current global threat, ISIS-K should be documented through a localized lens, necessarily avoiding the skewed security paradigm of terrorism directed to the west.
This is not to say that that ISIS-K hasn’t the motivation to inflict damage on the US and its allies; rather, its fierce religious extremism is better suited for mobilizing against contemporary Taliban rule. Although both groups are driven by an unwavering dedication to Sharia law, their relations are characterized by deep friction.
Catalyzed by its followers’ anger over perceived Taliban weakness, ISIS-K has enjoyed considerable traction amongst defectors and disenchanted extremists. In 2015, it declared war on the Taliban, leading to a concerted campaign of propaganda and radicalization. Such antagonism has undoubtedly escalated reactionary violence, helping to create a vicious circle of murder and entrenched domestic disturbance.
In truth, this dynamic has further aided in the brutalization of territorial Afghanistan; ISIS-K has perpetually attacked both the Taliban and former US-trained Afghan Government forces, alongside terrorist activity in Pakistan. Now, with the Taliban having swept aside the previous regime with frightening ease, there lies a heightened risk of deadly hostility between belligerent extremists. The consequences for civil society are drastic; the Kabul airport attack demonstrated the ruthlessness through which ISIS-K was prepared to advance its cause- regardless of civilian casualties.
Inevitably, the survival of the Afghan state will depend on the ability of the ruling Taliban to marginalize and frustrate the appeal of jihadism. Yet, without the expertise of US surveillance forces, the ability to castigate future mass attacks has become harder to ensure, even with the trove of military equipment left behind by the now-departed US. It is likely that further attacks on the capital, Kabul, could severely cripple infrastructure vital for the maintenance of an already fragile state. Already, ISIS-K has claimed responsibility for attacks on mosques across the country in the past two months which have left dozens dead.
What is exceedingly likely, however, is a thermostatic increase in social and political repression across Afghan society, principally as a means to consolidate a still infant Taliban regime. Although not structural, the transmission of extreme religious dogma will inevitably hamper demands for reform; Afghanistan has already seen a significant surge in human rights violations amid a deep humanitarian crisis. The degradation of women’s rights has also become the subject of increased concern.
This all points to a profoundly concerning state of affairs, with the withdrawal of western presence only serving to aggravate an already broken social fabric. The ruthless motivations of ISIS-K, driven by its devotion to form a ‘global Islamic Caliphate’, engender an immediate danger to the longevity of the Afghan state. Already sworn enemies of the Taliban before 2021, its new position as a serious menace to the governing elite will undoubtedly threaten to prolong destruction and hostility with citizens at its heart.
This is perhaps what the emergence and reemergence of ISIS-K represents: the failure of western interventionism to understand, react and adapt to contexts and cultural cleavages dissimilar to those of our own.
Image: Al Jazeera English via Wikimedia Commons