All You Need To Know About Islamic State-Khorasan Province — Jihadist Group Behind Kabul Airport Terror Attack
The Jihadist group has been reportedly making special attempts to recruit Indians for the past few years
On Thursday (26 August), two Islamic State suicide bombers attacked the Kabul airport, which is thronged by crowds of desperate Afghans seeking to flee the country after the Taliban takeover. The explosions caused numerous casualties, including 13 United States (US) personnel.
As per latest reports, around 150 people were killed and more were wounded in the attack. A blast at a nearby hotel also added to the casualties.
The terrorist group that took responsibility for the heinous attack was the Islamic State in Iraq and the Levant--Khorasan Province (also called as IS-KP, ISIL-KP, ISIL-K or ISIS-K) — the Afghan affiliate of Da'esh which is fast becoming a nightmare for the US ahead of the 31 August deadline to finish evacuations from Afghanistan.
Khorasan, often referred to as Greater Khorasan, is a historical region which formed the northeast province of Greater Iran and includes parts of Iran, Afghanistan and other bits of Central Asia.
The Kabul airport attack did not come as a shock as intelligence agencies had warned of an imminent attack by the group. The warning, which focused attention on ISIS-K — a group that has hitherto had a very low international profile, was echoed this week by British and Western European officials as well. The US' Department of Defence had also warned of a similar attack earlier this year.
In response to the attacks, US President Joe Biden vowed to avenge the killing of around 13 US armed forces personnel, saying US will "hunt down" the perpetrators and never forget what happened.
ISIS-K was founded just under six years ago after the two representatives of Islamic State made their way to Balochistan, the south-western province of Pakistan, for a meeting with a small group of disaffected Taliban commanders and other extremists who had been fighting in the region but felt marginalised within the Afghan jihadist movement.
Hafiz Saeed Khan, a former member of the Taliban in both Afghanistan and later Pakistan, was ISIS-K's first emir. It also has former members of other terror groups in the region. As per a The Hindu report, the outfit today comprises mainly former cadres of the Pakistan-based Lashkar-e-Taiba (LeT).
In 2015, the main ISIS parent organisation was approaching its zenith - seizing swaths of Syria and Iraq after a lightning-fast campaign. The group was plotting its global expansion even before the victories in West Asia that brought it international attention. It set about establishing affiliates all over the Islamic world.
As the power of ISIS declined in the Levant region, the group has looked to strengthen its hold in the Khorasan region.
Ideologically, ISIS-K is not only anti-western, but is also against Taliban, accusing it of being not Islamic enough. It believes that the Taliban have abandoned the Islamic faith because of their willingness to negotiate with the US, their apparent political pragmatism and their failure to apply Islamic law with sufficient rigour. They have portrayed the Taliban as sell-outs for signing a deal with America and co-operating with its withdrawal.
Furthermore, the Taliban draws inspiration from the Hanafi sect of Islam, while the ISIS-K is rooted in the Salafi tradition, which is strong in the country’s eastern provinces. ISIS-K is also the more vicious of the two, as it takes pride on being even less forgiving of non-believers— Hindus, Sikhs as well as minority sects of Islam, like the Shia.
Ideological reasons apart, the ISIS-K has declared itself as the sworn enemy of Taliban over fierce competition between the two jihadist groups for resources, both human and economic.
Notably, the group had even declared war on its rival Taliban in 2015, in which it was able to seize territory. However, it lost almost 12,000 operatives between 2015 and 2018, in the face of counter-terrorism pressure from America and the Pakistani government.
"Reportedly, over 1,400 ISIL-KP fighters and affiliates have surrendered since October, among them women and children. While ISIL-KP was largely expelled from Nangarhar Province in November 2019, it reportedly continues to have a presence in pockets of western Kunar Province," a UNSC report had said in March 2020.
The terror outfit has staged a comeback after suffering leadership, human and financial losses during 2020 when it came under sustained pressure in its strongholds in eastern Afghanistan.
ISIS-K rebuilt and strengthened the group by attracting intransigent Taliban and other militants who rejected the agreement between the United States and the Taliban and joined the Da'esh affiliate after "feeling alienated or threatened" by developments in the Afghan peace process. It soon started targeting the minorities, civil society actors, government employees and personnel of the Afghan National Defence and Security Forces.
ISIS-K took the responsibility of the terror attack on a gurudwara in Kabul on 26 March last year, which left 25 people from the minority Sikh-Hindu community in Afghanistan dead.
The same group had also recently claimed the responsibility for the brutal attack against humanitarian group HALO Trust in Baghlan Province on 8 June in which 10 deminers were killed and 16 injured.
However, experts have warned that Taliban and ISIS-K are closer than they appear. Not only united in their ideology of Islamism, the groups are connected through Haqqani network — a designated terror group which is called a "veritable arm of Pakistan's Inter-Services Intelligence agency".
According to Dr Sajjan Gohel of the London-based Asia Pacific Foundation, who monitors terror networks active in Afghanistan, the Haqqani Network has worked closely with ISIS-K in the past, and the two collaborated for "several major attacks between 2019 and 2021".
Counter-terrorism experts now reportedly believe that ISIS-K is merely a smokescreen created to conceal Pakistan's sponsorship of Islamist terrorism.
Not only the group has many LeT members, but the outfit’s former chief, Aslam Farooqi alias Abdullah Orokzai, is a Pakistani citizen. He was captured by Afghan forces in April 2020 in connection with the Gurudwara attack. During interrogation, he confessed to his links with the LeT.
It is possible that while initially ISIS-K was founded as an affiliate of Islamic State, as the fortune of the latter declined in West Asia, and the group struggled to challenge Taliban dominance, Pakistani elements found the space to get more involved.
ISIS-K, the experts say, is nothing but a group Pakistan is nurturing for targeted terror strikes in Afghanistan as well as Indian subcontinent while ensuring deniability. With this objective, the group is trying to recruit more and more Indians and highlight their involvement — to inspire more lone wolf home grown attacks pursuant to Jihad against India — a goal Pakistani leaders have repeatedly stated. The group will act as a leverage against Taliban too.
The attack at a gurdwara in Kabul on in March 2020 was also carried out by an Indian national-led module. The person — identified as Mohammed Muhasin, originally from Kerala — was shot dead by the Afghan forces during the attack.
ISIS-K has been reportedly making attempts to recruit Indians for the past few years, with social media as the choice of weapon. When the group was formed as an affiliate of Islamic State in Nangarhar province of Afghanistan in 2015, more than 25 Indians went to join the outfit.
The National Investigation Agency (NIA) recently busted an Indian module which ran an Instagram channel named ‘Chronicle Foundation’ and was in contact with some ISIS-K operatives, and also some others from Syria, Iraq and Africa. The module was headed by Mohammed Ameen, who is from Malappuram in Kerala. The Instagram channel had more than 5,000 members. Many of these had attempted to join ISIS-K in Afghanistan via Iran in April 2019.
Since March, the NIA has conducted searches in Jammu and Kashmir, Karnataka and Kerala, resulting in the arrest of 10 members of the module. Using social media platforms and applications like Hoop and Telegram, they were spreading the Jihadist ideology, recruiting new members, and raising funds.
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