This has allowed ISIS-K to forge alliances in the first years since its formation with groups in eastern Afghanistan that see themselves as Taliban rivals – and to call in recruits with promises of increased violence and large-scale jihad.
But in 2019, US airstrikes and Afghan military operations, as well as the political and military attack by the Afghan Taliban, diminished ISIS-K. He has lost leaders and grassroots fighters. Territory under his control shrank and allies on the battlefield switched sides, as the perception of the Taliban’s imminent return to power in Afghanistan grew.
Yet ISIS-K did not give up. It has positioned itself as a movement to reject the Taliban, caricaturing the Taliban as eager to ally with Pakistan and make deals with the US government. It targeted anti-Salafist clerics of the Taliban, including those in Pakistan. In mid-2020, even as it lost its rural territory, it had an urban network.
It has also recovered thousands of its imprisoned fighters through prison breaks, once after a complex attack and more recently when thousands of prisoners were able to flee Afghan prisons after the Taliban took control of Kabul. Since then, ISIS-K has targeted the US military and vulnerable Afghan civilians in and around Kabul, demonstrating to its supporters and rivals that Islamic State is still in the game of not only local but also global jihad. .
The airport attack also demonstrated that ISIS-K has no qualms about exploiting divisions within the Taliban. There are murmur within the group that some Taliban commanders on the battlefield are unhappy with the central leadership’s softer public line, including the announcement of a post-war amnesty for Afghans who have worked with the Americans and the Afghan government, the desire for an inclusive government that integrates political rivals and religious minorities, and the decision to fully fire the United States until withdrawal.
ISIS is well positioned to take advantage of this base of support.
The persistence of ISIS-K threatens other terrorist groups. Al-Qaeda, in particular, will feel the pressure because ISIS-K has killed Americans – something it failed to do this year. The Tehrik-e-Taliban Pakistan, which lost cadres to ISIS-K a few years ago and could do it again, is also worried. Central Asian jihadists in Afghanistan can also cover their bets, developing an alliance with the Islamic State as insurance against abandonment by the Taliban.