India and the United States both suspect the hand of ISIS behind the Kabul airport blast that occurred today, followed by another blast near the premises, at the Baron Hotel. Reports peg over 13 casualties in the explosion and over 70 injured.
Government sources told CNN-News18 that in the all-party meeting held today, the Indian government had said they feared an ISIS attack on Kabul airport. Meanwhile, the Associated Press quoted a source familiar with US congressional briefings as saying that US officials strongly believe that the Afghan affiliate of Islamic State, known as Islamic State Khorasan (ISIS-K), after an old name for the region, was responsible.
As horrific videos and images of the incident made news, the Taliban later condemned the incident in a post on Twitter, denying responsibility and said the Islamic Emirate of Aghanistan was paying “close attention to the security of its people”.
An affiliate of the ‘Islamic States’, the ISIS-K is known to be the Taliban’s “sworn enemy”, and in the chaos that had followed post the insurgent group’s takeover of Aghanistan, many key prisoners are said to be have let go from the country’s prisons.
But who are the ISIS-K and what threats to the pose to Afghans, already dealing with a bloody insurgency, and the ongoing evacuations in the war-torn country?
Who are ISIS-K?
An affliate of IS terrorist group, ISIS-K once gained large territories in northern Syria and Iraq. Established in 2015, the splinter group has been mostly based in eastern Afghanistan, part of an area known as the Khorasan province; referred to in their name ISIS-K.
In 2017, the United States, in a warning to the group, dropped what came to be known as “the mother of all bombs” in the area. But the threat was too big to ‘eliminated’ that way; its fighters are thought to be over 2,200 – a figure rising with the vacuum created by the withdrawal of US troops from the country.
Big threat for civilians
According to the Centre for Strategic and International Studies, ISIS-K carried out 100 strikes on civilians in Afghanistan and Pakistan between 2015 and 2017. Around 250 attacks have been carried out on US, Pakistani, and Afghan soldiers during the same time period; the number is likely to have increased since then.
‘ISIS-K’ has been operating in eastern Afghanistan’s Khorasan region for six years, says ITV News Global Security Editor Rohit Kachroo, “and has committed hundreds of strikes on civilians.”
Even though the US, Afghan forces, and the Taliban are said to have reduced ISIS-K’s ranks, it has carried out a number of high-profile strikes in recent years. An alleged strike on a Kabul maternity facility in May 2020 is believed to have killed 24 people, including newborn babies and mothers.
Assaults on the city’s universities and rocket strikes in November have also been attributed to the group. An attack on the Jalalabad prison in August was also attributed to ISIS-K.
US Secretary of State Antony Blinken had earlier assessed the prospect of an ISIS-K assault as “a very real possibility”.
Does ISIS-K have ties to the Taliban or al-Qaida?
There is animosity between ISIS-K and the Taliban, which the group believes is not radical enough. In the past, the insurgent groups have also clashed over land in Afghanistan.
An ISIS-K commander imprisoned in Kabul was killed by the Taliban last week, according to reports.
ISIS-K is less likely to be constrained by the Taliban’s agreement with Western forces to enable evacuations from Kabul airport because of the war between the two factions.
Also, despite their shared convictions, ISIS-K and al Qaida are unlikely to cooperate, reflecting the wider struggle between al Qaida and IS worldwide.
Biden’s Three Warnings since Aug 20
Since the Taliban took over Afghanistan, US President Joe Biden, who has been facing criticism over the withdrawal of US troops from the country, has repeatedly warned against an attack by the IS in the country, as reported by CNN.
“We’re also keeping a close watch on any potential terrorist threat at or around the airport, including from the ISIS affiliates in Afghanistan who were released from prison when the prisons were emptied. And because they are, by the way – to make everybody understand – that the ISIS in Afghanistan are the – have been the sworn enemy of the Taliban. I’ve said all along: We’re going to retain a laser-focus on our counterterrorism mission, working in close coordination with our allies and our partners and all those who have an interest in ensuring stability in the region.”
“They’re maintaining constant vigilance to mon- – we’re maintaining the constant vigilance to monitor and disrupt threats from any source, including the likely source being ISIS – ISIS-K, the Afghan affiliate referred to as “ISIS-K.” But we are under no illusions about the threat. I said on Friday, ISIS-K is a sworn enemy of the Taliban, and they have a history of fighting one another. But every day we have troops on the ground, these troops and innocent civilians at the airport face the risk of attack from ISIS-K from a distance, even though we’re moving back the perimeter significantly.”
“There are real and significant challenges that we also have to take into consideration. The longer we stay, starting with the acute and growing risk of an attack by a terrorist group known as ISIS-K, an ISIS affiliate in Afghanistan – which is the sworn enemy of the Taliban as well – every day we’re on the ground is another day we know that ISIS-K is seeking to target the airport and attack both U.S. and Allied forces and innocent civilians.”
NATO Condemns Kabul Airport Blast
Meanwhile, NATO chief also condemned the twin suicide bombings at the Kabul airport as a horrific terrorist attack that targeted desperate Afghans trying to leave the country and the alliance’s efforts to evacuate them from Afghanistan.