The horrific bombing outside of Kabul airport that killed 13 U.S. troops and up to 75 Afghan civilians was the work of the Islamic State – Khorasan (ISIS-K). The group is an offshoot of ISIS which had occupied parts of Syria and Iraq in a self-described “caliphate.”

The attack on Thursday began when ISIS-K terrorists detonated suicide devices, one near the Abbey Gate of the airport and another at the nearby Baron Hotel. Gunmen were also involved in the violence.

There had previously been numerous warnings that such an attack could take place. 

While the name of ISIS-K might not be very familiar to the average American, it is quite well-known to U.S. and allied counterterrorism forces who have been attacking the group within the borders of Afghanistan for quite some time. 


The Origins of ISIS-K

Kabul airport attack
Smoke rises above Kabul airport after the suicide bombing. (AP)

The Islamic State Khorasan was formed in late 2014 and operates as an ISIS affiliate in both Afghanistan and Pakistan. Khorasan is a historical term for a region that includes present-day Afghanistan and parts of Iran and Central Asia.

The founding members of ISIS-K included militants who left both the Afghan and Pakistani Taliban because they did not feel the Taliban were extreme enough in their enforcement of strict Sharia law. The members used tactics that were brutal even by Taliban standards, such as public executions, bombing girls’ schools, attacking maternity wards, and executing tribal elders.

However, unlike the Taliban, who are interested in only Afghanistan, ISIS-K is part of the global terrorist network against Western, international, and humanitarian targets.

ISIS-K is based mainly in the eastern province of Nangarhar, close to the opium-growing areas and smuggling routes of Pakistan.

At its height, the group numbered about 3,000 fighters. Yet, it has suffered significant casualties in clashes with American and Afghan security forces and also with the Taliban. U.S. officials claim that American forces have killed up to 75 percent of its fighters in counter-terrorism operations. 

ISIS-K leader Hafiz Saeed Khan and other top commanders had pledged their allegiance to Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi, then the Islamic State’s leader, and had declared themselves administrators of a new ISIS territory in Afghanistan.

Baghdadi died in 2019 after he set off an explosive vest during a raid by U.S. special operations forces. Khan had been killed earlier in 2016 in an American drone strike.


Links to the Taliban

Joe Biden ISIS-K retaliation
President Joe Biden has vowed retaliation against ISIS-K. (AP)

While there is open enmity between the Taliban and ISIS-K, there are also links that can’t be ignored in a region that is rife with shifting allegiances and treachery. The Taliban along with al-Qaeda and ISIS-K are all vying for power in Afghanistan.

While there are ideological differences and competition for resources, ISIS-K accused the Taliban of drawing its legitimacy from a narrow nationalistic base; they claim to call to a universal Islamic creed.

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However, there is evidence that both the Taliban and ISIS-K have connections to the Haqqani Network. Dr. Sajjan Gohel from the Asia Pacific Foundation told the BBC that ISIS-K attacks between 2019 to today involved collaboration between ISIS-K, the Taliban’s Haqqani Network, and other terrorist groups based in Pakistan.

Further, when the Taliban took over Kabul earlier this month, they released large numbers of prisoners from Pul-e-Charki jail; among the released prisoners were the Taliban’s al-Qaeda allies but also ISIS-K militants. 

ISIS-K has been critical of the Taliban for negotiating with the United States from “posh hotels in Doha” and in effect abandoning Jihad.

In trying to control the entire country, the Taliban face challenges from ISIS-K. Nevertheless, the two groups may have more similarities than differences and, in the country’s constant power games, the future could see them establishing a closer relationship.