In the wake of the terrorist attacks, Afghanistan is entering a new phase that could lead to an internal war in the country between the different jihadist factions

Islamic State-Khorasan: the Afghan security threat

photo_camera AFP/ NOORULLAH SHIRZADA / - Afghan security officials inspect weapons seized near a damaged house from where a Daesh group fired mortar shells as another group stormed a prison, in Jalalabad on August 4, 2020

In the vicinity of Kabul airport, an explosion went off at one of the entrances, specifically at the Abbey gate, plunging the population inside the airport into absolute panic. Subsequently, a second explosion went off just outside the airport, near the Baron Hotel, causing dozens of people to be injured and killed instantly.

At first, it was almost impossible to put a figure on the number of dead and wounded caused by the explosions. In fact, almost 24 hours later, the death toll is still rising and hospitals in Kabul are still receiving patients. Countries such as the United States, Australia, the United Kingdom and Germany had already warned of the danger of a possible imminent attack at Kabul International Airport and had asked the Afghan population not to go to the facilities. 


However, human desperation to leave Afghanistan, now under Taliban rule, and uncertainty led crowds of people to continue to throng, trying to flee the chaos. As reported by the intelligence of several countries, the attacks took place: two almost instantaneous immolations, i.e. a modus operandi executed on multiple occasions by Daesh. However, the various powers were still hesitant to assign official responsibility for the attacks.

After a few hours, the Islamic State-Khorasan, a Daesh affiliate based on Afghan soil and a fierce enemy of the Taliban, claimed responsibility for the attacks. This branch of Daesh is under the leadership of Shahab al Muhajir, also known as Sanaullah, an expert in urban guerrilla warfare and the mastermind of some of the most important operations carried out by the group, as reported by Europa Press. 


The group's origins date back to 2015, when Abu Bakr al-Baghadi led the terrorist organisation. The organisation was founded in the mountainous Achin region of Nangarhar province in eastern Afghanistan, and is the only one that has managed to establish a stable presence, as well as in the neighbouring Kunar region.

Along these lines, the Islamic State Khorasan began to gain strength by drawing on disenchanted Taliban from both Afghanistan and Pakistan.

In 2016, the peak of the terrorist group, it is estimated that between 2,500 and 8,500 fighters were grouped together. However, ongoing counter-terrorism operations by the Afghan army, with US support, brought this number down to just 2,000 in 2019. In addition, in the period 2015-2019, ISIL-J lost six of its leaders, four of them in bombings and the last two after they were arrested.  


According to the UN's latest report by the UN Al-Qaeda and Islamic State Sanctions Monitoring and Analysis Team, the Daesh affiliate "has moved into other provinces, including Nuristan, Badghis, Sari Pul, Baghlan, Badakhsan, Kunduz and Kabul, where fighters have formed sleeper cells".

The report notes that the terrorist group "has strengthened its positions in and around Kabul, where it commits most of its attacks, targeting minorities, activists, government employees and Afghan National Defence and Security Forces personnel". 

Given this situation, what can we expect from the new scenario in Afghanistan after the emergence of ISIL-J? Luis de la Corte, professor at the Autonomous University of Madrid and director of the Centre for Strategic Studies and Intelligence, presents this magazine with a series of plausible scenarios that could occur depending on the direction the country takes. 


According to the director, "the consequences of the terrorist attacks may be the beginning of a more prolonged campaign of terror". "Daesh cannot afford to allow the Taliban to proclaim an Emirate that does not recognise the Caliphate that the Islamic State defends," he says.

"The terrorist action of Daesh can give the Taliban a certain legitimacy, with all that this implies (...) if the attacks of the Islamic State continue, the international community can give the Taliban a certain amount of credit. Now the Taliban have no way back," he points out. 

If Afghanistan becomes a theatre of confrontation between the jihadist groups, "the Taliban can ask for help from Al-Qaeda, who will provide them with weapons and operations, but the insurgent group is not expected to commit attacks because then public opinion, as well as the position of some countries about them, would go against them". 


With respect to the latest statements issued by Biden, de La Corte explains that "it is believed that it will be possible to carry out very specific actions against very well studied and controlled terrorist targets (...) it is very unlikely that the United States will redeploy its troops".

On the other hand, he indicates that the strategy adopted responds to "a strategy of chaos", "what they are pursuing is to sow chaos and thus accentuate the internal dimension of the conflict". One possible scenario is that this could be a civil war between jihadist groups", as it was before the Soviet withdrawal, "the Taliban, in order to maintain international support, will not want to commit attacks against the population and in urban areas, unlike Daesh".  He also claims that these attacks show that the Taliban "do not control Kabul well".

On the other hand, the fact that there are Daesh sleeper cells may cause "jihadists from other parts of the world to mobilise and come to Afghanistan to join their ranks (...) there are sleeper cells, we don't know how many yet". 


Afghanistan thus faces a new scenario reminiscent of times past. Adopting a strategy of chaos to spread terror benefits both Taliban and Daesh jihadists. The Islamic State-Khorasan will try to overthrow the new Afghan power through attacks that are unlikely to be the last. The Taliban, for their part, will take advantage of their position to gain public credibility by possibly adopting strategies far removed from Da'esh. Indeed, the latest terrorist attacks have been fervently condemned by the Taliban, thus moving away from their strategy.

If Daesh awakens further in the country, people from other countries will join their ranks, as already happened in the Syrian war, thus taking on a greater magnitude and posing a danger to Western security by being able to commit terrorist acts outside their borders.

Regardless of the fighting between jihadists, civilians will once again be the main victims in a new scenario of violence and chaos that has only just begun. 

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