ISKP in Afghanistan: US interests and regional security

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Examining Extremism: Islamic State Khorasan Province (ISKP) | Examining  Extremism | CSIS

by Khalid Iqbal     30 November 2023

As the Islamic State group’s branch in Afghanistan and Pakistan, known as ISKP continues to flex its muscles and expand its operational reach, concerns are mounting over the potential for the group to carry out attacks far beyond its home turf. Officials at the highest levels have sounded the alarm, warning of the group’s aspirations to export its violence to other countries, including the U.S. homeland and Western interests abroad.

The head of U.S. Central Command, General Michael Kurilla, cautioned the Senate Armed Forces Committee in March about ISKP’s increased attacks in the region and its desire to conduct external operations against U.S. interests. The United Nations Security Council estimated that the group has between 1,000 to 3,000 fighters and retains ambitions for external operations. With ISKP’s propensity for global jihad and its focus on the U.S., China, and Russia, the international community must be vigilant to the threat it poses.

ISKP has demonstrated a clear intent to propagate its message and broaden its targeting strategy through its centralized propaganda apparatus. It now produces propaganda in more languages than any other branch of the Islamic State since the height of the caliphate in Iraq and Syria. Its media team, once locally focused, now weighs in on geopolitical trends involving great powers, including Russia’s war in Eastern Europe and tensions between the U.S. and China over Taiwan.

Although the U.S. has withdrawn its forces from Afghanistan, ISKP remains steadfast in its animosity towards America and frequently targets the U.S. and Western interests in its messaging. The group had celebrated its suicide bombing at the Kabul Airport in 2021, expressing its desire for more such attacks. The international community, therefore, must not underestimate the group’s capabilities and its determination to carry out complex attacks.

ISKP’s strategy involves making its enemies pay while undermining international confidence in the Taliban’s governance and security capabilities in Afghanistan. A successful operation against U.S. interests if happens could be a significant boost for the group and a severe blow to the Taliban, which has vowed to prevent such attacks. While the Taliban has increased counterterrorism operations, Afghanistan has historically been a hub for terrorist planning, making it necessary to maintain constant vigilance.

The key question now is where ISIS-K might target attacks. While U.S. interests in South and Central Asia could be at risk, the group’s capabilities may be more strained outside of Afghanistan and its immediate neighbors. However, ISKP has strengthened its fundraising and recruitment networks into Central Asia and Syria, which could pose a threat to American interests in the region. The danger extends beyond direct attacks as well. ISKP’s incitement poses a significant concern for the West. The group has a base of international supporters and has attracted foreign fighters from various regions. It has sympathizers in Europe and North America, as evidenced by arrests of suspected recruits and sympathizers involved in raising funds and producing propaganda.

In February 2022, two suspected ISKP recruits from Europe were arrested while trying to enter northern Afghanistan. In April 2020, German police thwarted an alleged plot by a Tajik cell to attack U.S. and NATO bases in Germany. Investigators discovered that the terrorist network was in regular contact with IS militants in Afghanistan and Syria. Such incidents underscore the importance of addressing the global nature of the threat posed by ISKP.

The global community must address the growing threat of ISKP through a multi-faceted approach. Strengthening intelligence sharing, cooperation between nations, and counterterrorism efforts is imperative. Additionally, tackling the root causes of extremism, including marginalization, social and economic disparities, and the spread of radical ideologies, must remain a top priority. It is crucial to recognize that ISKP is an international threat, and collective action is necessary to mitigate its impact on global security. By remaining vigilant, cooperating closely, and addressing the underlying factors driving extremism, the international community can bolster its defenses and protect against the spread of violence and instability. Only through unified efforts can we hope to effectively confront the menace posed by ISKP and safeguard peace and stability for all.

Efforts must also be made to counter ISKP’s propaganda and recruitment tactics. The group’s sophisticated media apparatus is adept at spreading its extremist message and recruiting individuals from diverse backgrounds. Governments and civil society organizations must work together to expose the fallacies of the group’s ideology and provide alternative narratives that promote tolerance, inclusivity, and peace. Furthermore, addressing the root causes of radicalization is paramount. Socioeconomic factors, political grievances, and the absence of opportunities can contribute to the allure of extremist ideologies. Investing in education, job creation, and community development can help dissuade vulnerable individuals from falling prey to ISKP’s recruitment efforts.

Moreover, regional cooperation is vital in confronting the ISKP threat effectively. Afghanistan’s neighbors, particularly those in South and Central Asia, must coordinate efforts to share intelligence and prevent the cross-border movement of terrorists. Joint military exercises and training programs can enhance the capacity of regional security forces to combat the menace of ISKP. The international community should also support the Afghan government in its efforts to stabilize the country and prevent the resurgence of terrorist groups. Strengthening governance, promoting rule of law, and addressing underlying grievances can contribute to long-term peace and security in Afghanistan.

In conclusion, ISKP poses a significant threat to global security with its ambitions to conduct external operations and target Western interests. It is crucial for the international community to remain vigilant and united in its efforts to counter the group’s violent ideology and prevent its spread beyond its home turf. By addressing the root causes of radicalization, enhancing regional cooperation, and supporting Afghanistan’s stabilization efforts, the world can effectively confront the menace posed by ISKP and ensure a more secure and peaceful future for all.