What Is ISIS-K? The Origin Story Of The Terror Group Sweeping Afghanistan

The terror group known as “ISIS-K” claimed responsibility for the terror attacks in Kabul, Afghanistan, which took place during the disastrous withdrawal of U.S. forces carried out by the Biden administration. The attack killed at least thirteen United States service members and over a hundred Afghans.

The group’s name, “ISIS-K,” specifies it as the “Khorasan” branch of the Islamic State in Afghanistan. Khorasan is a wider historical region and “a vast territory now lying in northeastern Iran, southern Turkmenistan, and northern Afghanistan,” per Britannica.  

Katherine Zimmerman, a fellow at the American Enterprise Institute, told The Daily Wire the group was officially recognized in early 2015. The group started to form in the fall of 2014 and was comprised of disaffected members of the Pakistani Taliban in the Afghanistan/Pakistan region. The group was at odds with the Taliban — who they view as having compromised with the West and not truly pursuing global jihad. 

Now, experts say ISIS-K has worked to expand its network into more urban areas, like Kabul, as was seen by the recent terrorist attack.

A 2018 report by the Center for Strategic and International Studies noted, “Like the Islamic State’s core leadership in Iraq and Syria, IS-K seeks to establish a Caliphate beginning in South and Central Asia, governed by sharia law, which will expand as Muslims from across the region and world join.”  

“IS-K has received support from the Islamic State’s core leadership in Iraq and Syria since its founding in 2015. As the Islamic State loses territory, it has increasingly turned to Afghanistan as a base for its global caliphate,” the report stated.

The report added: 

IS-K disregards international borders and envisions its territory transcending nation-states like Afghanistan and Pakistan.

Furthermore, its global aspirations include “[raising] the banner of al-Uqab above Jerusalem and the White House,” which equates to the defeat of both Israel and the United States…IS-K’s ideology seeks to rid its territory of foreign “crusaders” who “proselytize Muslims” as well as “apostates,” which include anyone from Sunni Afghan National Army recruits to Hazara Shias.

A 2021 United Nations report explained the Islamic State’s presence in the region and its activity in Afghanistan. “Islamic State in Iraq and the Levant – Khorasan… has expanded its presence in several provinces of Afghanistan, despite leadership, human and financial losses during 2020,” it found.

The report, released on July 27th, 2021, also stated: 

The group has strengthened its positions in and around Kabul, where it targets most of its attacks against minorities, civil society actors, government employees and personnel of the Afghan National Defence and Security Forces. Most recently, Da’esh [the Arabic acronym for the Islamic State] claimed responsibility for the brutal attack of 8 June in which 10 humanitarian deminers were killed and 16 injured in Baghlan Province. One of the main risks identified by Member States is that militants in Afghanistan, from the Taliban or other groups, may join the Da’esh affiliate if they feel alienated or threatened by developments in the Afghan peace process.

A 2019 report by the Institute for Economics & Peace (IEP) noted: 

The Khorasan Chapter of the Islamic State was the fourth deadliest terrorist group in 2018, with over a thousand recorded deaths, with the majority of these deaths occurring in Afghanistan. In total, there were 13 groups or movements who were responsible for more than a hundred deaths in 2018.

It added, “The four terrorist groups responsible for the most deaths in 2018 were the Taliban, ISIL, the Khorasan Chapter of the Islamic State, and Boko Haram…However, of the four deadliest groups in 2018 only the Taliban and the Khorasan Chapter of the Islamic State, both of which operate primarily in Afghanistan, have seen increases in the level of terrorism over the past year.”

Zimmerman pressed that it’s important to understand the difference between the ideologies of the main groups in the region — specifically between the Taliban, Al-Qaeda, and the Islamic State. 

One of the main differences lies in how each group treats other Muslims. The Taliban and Al-Qaeda believe that Muslims must be taught true Islam in order to be held accountable for the things they do.

The word “Taliban” means “students” in Pashto, one of the official languages of Afghanistan. Since the Taliban is in control now, however, they will be strictly enforcing Sharia law. 

Zimmerman told The Daily Wire the Islamic State, however, is more extreme and fringe in that they believe any individual — especially Muslims — who haven’t yet answered the call to jihad and joined the Islamic State are not actually Muslims. She said this distinction is extremely important.  

According to experts, The Islamic State views it as a duty to enforce its interpretation of Islam with force. Muslims who resist or reject this must be — and are liable to be — killed. The Taliban, by contrast, believe they need to teach Muslims their interpretation of Islam, and that people will adjust once they’re exposed to it.

Zimmerman also pointed out how the United States might not have the intelligence capabilities it needs in order to carry out counter-terrorism against threats from afar. 

On August 30th, General Kenneth F. McKenzie Jr. discussed the drone strike that took place the day prior and was later revealed to have mistakenly killed civilians.

At the time, Gen. McKenzie discussed the threat of ISIS in Afghanistan, saying, “there are at least 2,000 hardcore ISIS fighters in Afghanistan now. And, of course, many of those come from prisons that were — that were opened … a few days ago. So that number is up and is probably as high as it’s ever been in quite a while, and that’s going to be a challenge for the Taliban, I believe, in the days ahead.”

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