The international community risks underestimating the threat posed by the Islamic State in Afghanistan, also known as Islamic State Khorasan Province (ISKP). Just this week it was revealed that the Taliban had killed the Islamic State militant believed to be the leader of the cell that orchestrated the suicide attack near Abbey Gate at Kabul’s airport in August 2021. That attack killed 13 U.S. servicemembers, as well as 169 Afghan civilians, and remains part of a broader inquiry by the U.S. Congress, where a series of hearings aims to investigate the disastrous U.S. withdrawal and its aftermath.
The Biden administration has attempted to assuage its critics by touting the efficacy of “over-the-horizon” counterterrorism strikes, relying on armed drones and intelligence, surveillance, and reconnaissance (ISR) capabilities to target terrorist leaders. The killing of al-Qaida leader Ayman al-Zawahiri in July 2022 at a Haqqani guest house in Kabul is frequently cited as proof of concept. But that strike, impressive as it was for its lethal precision, is merely one data point. Offshore counterterrorism campaigns are complex and challenging even for a military as advanced as the United States.
The challenge posed by ISKP is far more complex than the Biden administration has acknowledged. The group has spread to nearly all of Afghanistan’s 34 provinces and boasts between 1,500-2,200 members. Since August 2021, the Islamic State’s Afghan affiliate has committed nearly 400 attacks in Afghanistan and Pakistan’s Khyber Pakhtunkhwa region. Within Afghanistan, ISKP has relentlessly attacked the Shia Hazara community in an attempt to further its sectarian aims. The group has been behind some of the most heinous attacks in recent memory, including the bombing of a maternity ward in Kabul in May 2020 and another attack against an office of Save the Children in Jalalabad.
ISKP threatens Pakistan, Russia, and China in its propaganda, demonstrating its bona fides to other jihadist groups by expanding the target set beyond the West. ISKP sent suicide bombers to detonate at the Russian embassy in Kabul in September 2022; attacked the Pakistani embassy in Kabul in December 2022; and attacked the Kabul Longan Hotel, frequented by Chinese businessmen, also in December 2022.
Within Afghanistan, ISKP is more than a terrorist group, having evolved into a low-level yet persistent and deadly insurgency. At the same time, the group is building its capabilities to conduct spectacular attacks outside of Afghanistan. Last month in testimony before the U.S. Senate Armed Services Committee, CENTCOM commander Army General Michael Kurilla suggested that ISKP could be capable of conducting external operations “with little to no warning” in less than six months. While Kurilla was speaking primarily about the group’s ability to attack Europe or Asia, the intent to strike the United States remains, as evidenced by ISKP’s propaganda campaigns, which have threatened Americans with a 9/11-type attack.
The recent leak of classified intelligence documents sheds further light on ISKP’s growing ambitions. According to the leaked documents, Islamic State leaders in Afghanistan were involved in plotting as many as 15 attacks as recently as February, spanning a range of targets such as embassies and churches. Building upon the blueprint pioneered by the Islamic State’s core leadership in Iraq and Syria between 2014 and 2017, sometimes called the “virtual planner” model, this cost-effective approach relies on logistical and facilitation networks worldwide. There is precedent for ISKP seeking to launch high-profile attacks in the past. In April 2020, an ISKP cell was disrupted while plotting attacks against U.S. and NATO military bases in Germany.
Following the August 2021 withdrawal, the United States has no troops or contractors on the ground in Taliban-controlled Afghanistan. As result, “Our ability to monitor terrorist threats in Afghanistan has been significantly degraded by the withdrawal, and we are no longer able to conduct a sustained kinetic campaign against groups active there,” Ambassador Nathan Sales recently noted in testimony before the U.S. House Committee on Homeland Security. The United States has no eyes and ears in Afghanistan and is limited in its ability to assess just how dire the threat environment has become. Without actionable intelligence, it becomes nearly impossible to go on the offense against proliferating threats.
The U.S. military has kept up pressure on Islamic State leaders in Syria, maintaining an aggressive operational tempo with a combination of targeted raids and precision strikes. Elsewhere, including in Libya, Yemen, Somalia, the Sinai in Egypt, and Southeast Asia, the Islamic State’s affiliates have been weakened significantly. But Afghanistan has fallen off the radar and stands in stark juxtaposition to American capabilities in Syria, where the United States maintains a small but potent deployment of approximately 900 troops. Moreover, Western countries have little to no contact or information sharing with the Taliban, so are unable to gain an accurate sense of how the threat is manifesting, which groups are growing in strength, and the overall terrorism landscape in Afghanistan.
Despite significant setbacks for the Islamic State, its decentralized organizational structure has allowed its far-flung provinces to stay connected. In late January, U.S. Special Forces killed Islamic State financier Bilal al-Sudani near a cave complex in northern Somalia. Al-Sudani was alleged to have supplied funding to the ISKP cell that conducted the Abbey Gate attack. He also maintained financial linkages to Islamic State members in the Democratic Republic of Congo, Mozambique, and South Africa, among other countries.
The situation in Afghanistan is beginning to feel eerily similar to the pre-9/11 era, with the Taliban in control of the country and reunited with al-Qaida and the Haqqani Network. Within Afghanistan’s borders, a witch’s brew of terrorist and insurgent groups is metastasizing. The Taliban are actively fighting against Islamic State militants, but the Taliban have yet to demonstrate the same competence as a counterinsurgent force as they did as an insurgency. A scorched earth approach in Kunar and Nangarhar provinces has pushed some locals to join the Islamic State’s ranks rather than eliminating the threat.
While the Taliban’s General Directorate of Intelligence (GDI) is conducting more attacks and raids against ISKP strongholds, attenuating the group’s leadership, ISKP continues to spread. Some, including journalist and longtime Afghanistan watcher Lynne O’Donnell, argue that ISKP remains potent because the Taliban’s counterterrorism operations are more about targeting former members of the Afghan National Security Forces than dismantling ISKP. “The Taliban are using the cover of counterterrorism to mask systematic killings of former security service personnel,” she noted. While the Taliban and ISKP do clash on the battlefield, the latter is just one of many enemies of the Islamic Emirate of Afghanistan.
The longer ISKP is able to keep hanging around, replacing leadership losses and poaching disaffected Taliban fighters, the more brazen the group will become. Last year, ISKP terrorists in Afghanistan conducted cross-border rocket attacks against Tajikistan and Uzbekistan and one of its terrorist plots was foiled in India. Yet it could only be a matter of time before the jihadists marry intent with capability and move to successfully operationalize one of several planned attacks.
The United States must prioritize combating the ISKP before the group is able to achieve its stated desire to attack the U.S. homeland. At the moment, however, the U.S. national security community has transitioned from focusing on the global terrorist threat to great power competition with Russia and China. U.S. and Western support for Ukraine has allowed Kyiv to fight Moscow to a stalemate so far. But with the redistribution of personnel, financing, and policy bandwidth from counterterrorism to competing with nation-state near-peer adversaries, Western intelligence services are now asked to do a difficult job with fewer resources.