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ISIS-K: Who is the ISIS Affiliate Behind the Kabul Airport Attack?

ISIS-K Kabul Airport
ISIS-K, the group behind the Kabul Airport attack, is an affiliate of ISIS and has had a presence in Afghanistan for the past few years. Credit: Carl Montgomery, CC BY 2.0

In his speech addressing the Kabul airport attack on Thursday, President Joe Biden said that “we will respond with force and precision, at our time, at the place we choose and at the moment of our choosing” against ISIS-K. But who are ISIS-K, and what is their affiliation with the infamous terrorist organization that drew international attention in 2014?

The “K” in ISIS-K stands for Khorasan. Khorasan is a region thought to include Afghanistan, Pakistan and Iran, and translates to “The Land of the Sun.” ISIS-K was started by Pakistani Taliban members who had grown dissatisfied with the Taliban’s conception of Islamic rule, and sought instead to align themselves with ISIS.

ISIS-K is not allies with the Taliban and considers their rule too weak

In fact, ISIS-K and the Taliban are enemies, and have frequently fought, especially in eastern Afghanistan, where ISIS-K built the foundation of their organization. ISIS-K has even denounced the Taliban’s current takeover.

ISIS-K has had a significant presence in the country since 2016, but it is unknown the extent to which ISIS’s central organization is involved in their leadership or Thursday’s attack in Kabul.

ISIS-K had executed a number of suicide bombings in and around Kabul in the years leading up to their attack on the capital’s airport, but their actions on Thursday has drawn more attention to the group than every before, as it comes at a time when all eyes are on the United States’s withdrawal effort in Kabul and the Taliban’s shocking return to power.

But the U.S. government had a background awareness of ISIS-K even before they had threatened their attack in the days leading up to the suicide bombings. The US Defense Department Inspector-General for Afghanistan wrote in an assessment of the group’s activity between April and June 2021 that “ISIS-Khorasan exploited the political instability and rise in violence during the quarter by attacking minority sectarian targets and infrastructure to spread fear and highlight the Afghan government’s inability to provide adequate security.”

ISIS - K Khorasan bomber
The alleged suicide bomber of ISIS-K that attacked the Kabul airport. Photo released by ISIS-K

ISIS-K has taken advantage of the United States’s breakneck August 31st deadline to target the Kabul airport– the nexus of Afghanistan’s ongoing crisis for both U.S. citizens and Afghans, as both desperately attempt to leave the country in time– to target America and perhaps attempt a power grab from the Taliban.

Biden himself had said on Tuesday that “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.”

Before their attack on the Kabul airport, ISIS-K had caused turmoil in the region in August of last year by attacking a prison in Jalalabad where their supporters were being held.

Although ISIS lost its former leader, Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi, in 2019 during the Trump administration, the organization continues to exist in various different regional iterations like Khorasan, and new structures of leadership have begun to emerge out of the loss of al-Baghdadi.

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