An ISIS-K commander imprisoned in Kabul was assassinated by the Taliban, prompting ISIS-K to deploy a suicide bomber on Thursday who killed 13 U.S. service members including 10 Marines and up to 170 Afghans and others, derailing the ongoing Afghanistan evacuation.
Islamic State Khorasan (ISIS-K ) is an offshoot in Afghanistan of the Islamic State terror group, which publicly beheaded foreign journalists and inflicted brutalities on captured Kurds and others in Iraq and Syria.
The animosity between the Taliban and ISIS-K is not new, having existed as long as the two militant groups have been around.
The militant group, believed to have 2,000 members, is a sworn enemy of the Taliban and believes the Taliban are not radical enough.
The Taliban, which took control of Afghanistan earlier this month, has been guarding the perimeter of the Kabul airport, where evacuations of Americans and Afghans are taking place.
“ISIS-K have a higher inclination to target civilians they regard as infidels,” said Seth G. Jones a counterterrorism expert at the Center for Strategic and International Studies.
U.S. officials have grown alarmed in recent years about ISIS-K’s growing strength, savagery, and intent on attacking Western targets.
Here are seven things you need to know about ISIS-K vs. the Taliban.
The ISIS-K attack in Kabul was not just aimed at the Americans, it was also meant to embarrass the Taliban.
“This attack will look bad to the West, but it makes the Taliban look as if they are not in control of their own environment,” said Raffaello Pantucci, senior fellow at the international Centre for Political Violence and Terrorism Research at the S. Rajaratnam School of International Studies in Singapore. “It undermines the idea that they rule this place.”
In an unconfirmed statement claiming responsibility for Thursday’s airport attack, ISIS-K reportedly accused the Taliban of being “in a partnership” with the U.S. military to evacuate “spies” from Afghanistan.
It also reportedly claimed that a suicide bomber “managed to penetrate all the security measures imposed by the American forces and the Taliban militia in the capital Kabul,” according to a series of tweets by Evan Kohlmann, a co-founder of the Flashpoint intelligence consulting company.
The Taliban are a populist movement focused almost exclusively on Afghanistan, unlike ISIS-K, whose goal is to build an Islamic caliphate across the Middle East and Asia that would include Afghanistan. This will be governed by Shariah law, which will expand as Muslims from across the region and world join. Unlike the Taliban, who solidified their position by retaking control of Afghanistan at lightning speed, ISIS-K is trying to launch high-profile attacks.
A top insurgent military leader in eastern Afghanistan acknowledged that the Taliban had suffered devastating losses from U.S. strikes and government operations over the past decade. Those losses have changed little on the ground because the Taliban keep replacing their dead and wounded.
“We see this fight as worship,” said Mawlawi Mohammed Qais, the head of the Taliban’s military commission in Laghman Province.
ISIS-K was formally recognized as a terrorist organization by 2015, according to Katherine Zimmerman, a fellow in foreign and defense policy for the American Enterprise Institute. Zimmerman said that the group has a more hard-line vision of its interpretation of Islam than the Taliban.
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“They define their enemies differently,” she said. “ISIS-K sees anybody who does not accept its vision as an enemy — that includes the Taliban, that includes the Shia, that includes the west.”
The Taliban have taken to harsh beatings, firing weapons into the air and blocking people from Kabul airport access in an attempt to control the massive groups forming outside the airport gates. However, Zimmerman argues that these are soft targets for ISIS-K .
“That crowd around the Kabul airport is certainly one that it could target knowing that it is going to be able to get what it perceives to be legitimate victims — Afghans who are trying to flee to the United States or the west, who are not willing to live under the Sharia law, who collaborated with the United States,” she added.
ISIS-K has focused recent recruitment and training efforts on Taliban members opposed to the peace process initiated by former President Donald Trump, according to a United Nations report. The report warned that extremists “who are not willing to be controlled by the Taliban” could seek to join ISIS-K. The two groups have launched deadly attacks on each other, with the Taliban viewing ISIS-K as a threat to both itself and its ally, the Haqqani network.
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