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Afghan ISIS offshoot ISKP takes on Taliban and US with deadly Kabul bombing

Airport attack that killed 90, including 13 American soldiers, is a warning shot of dissent among extremist Islamists that could spark air war

Paul Rogers author pic
Paul Rogers
27 August 2021, 12.28pm
US soldiers were killed at Kabul airport
Abaca Press/Alamy Live News. All rights reserved

When the Taliban completed the recent takeover of Afghanistan, their victory was welcomed by jihadist paramilitaries across the world. It was widely seen as an inspiration for the future, much as the 9/11 attacks had been presented as an astonishing assault on the financial and military heartlands of the “far enemy” (the United States).

Older jihadists will recall echoes of 1988, when the Mujahidin, supported by many Arab fighters, including Osama bin Laden, evicted the Soviets from Afghanistan. Not only that, but they could claim that the defeat had brought a superpower to its knees, even contributing to its collapse barely two years later.

However, there isn’t universal euphoria among extremist Islamists about the Taliban takeover, with ISIS emerging as a key source of dissent. And its Afghan affiliate, ISKP (Islamic State Khorasan Province), has claimed responsibility for the attack at Hamid Karzai International Airport in Kabul yesterday that has killed over more than 90 people and wounded at least 150.

Its main aim was to kill American soldiers, not least as revenge for the tens of thousands of ISIS supporters killed in the US-led air war in Iraq and Syria that only ended three years ago. And so its current leadership will draw satisfaction from the fact that the bomb killed 13 American soldiers and wounded 18.

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A secondary aim would have been to kill Taliban paramilitaries, since ISKP regards the Taliban as apostate and sacrilegious for even being willing to talk to the Americans. The recent talks in Kabul between the de facto Taliban leader, Abdul Ghani Baradar, and the CIA director, William Burns, would have particularly sparked anger. The high number of casualties in the attack shows the prowess of ISKP, and especially its capabilities in Afghanistan, which is a serious marker for the future.

Origins of extremist offshoot

To understand what this future might bring, it’s important to remember the origins of this singularly extreme group. ISKP only formed in Afghanistan six years ago but ISIS as a whole originated in Iraq, evolving from an al-Qaida affiliate, AQI, when its brutal leader, the Jordanian Abu Musab al-Zarqawi, broke away from mainstream al-Qaida after he had taken control in 2004. He was killed by US forces in 2006 in Operation Arcadia, as part of an intensive multi-year collaboration between US and UK special forces to destroy the heart of the Iraqi insurgency.

That appeared to succeed, and by the end of 2011 the then US president, Barack Obama, had withdrawn almost all uniformed US military from Iraq. In the process, several thousand AQI paramilitaries were handed over to the Iraqi government for long-term detention.

However, enough of the movement were able to regroup and link up with paramilitaries in Syria to create the Islamic State (ISIS) in early 2014 under the founding leader, Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi. The launch of ISIS was massively boosted by its Operation Breaking the Walls, when it broke out upwards of 2,000 AQI paramilitaries from high-security Iraqi prisons in 2013-14.

Within months, ISIS was spreading across northern Iraq and Syria and even threatening the security of Baghdad. The US led a new coalition with the UK, France and a few other states, and started the intense 2014-18 air war against ISIS in Iraq and Syria, Operation Inherent Resolve.

Dependent almost entirely on strike aircraft, stand-off weapons and armed drones, it involved more than 100,000 precision-guided smart bombs and missiles. Upwards of 60,000 people, including thousands of civilians, were killed and this set the scene for the destruction of ISIS’s short-lived caliphate.

A key long-term aim of ISIS has been establishing and maintaining a base in Afghanistan, and it has succeeded with ISKP

Once again, though, things were not what they seemed, as the ISIS message survived in Iraq and Syria and began to spread across the world. It has grown to include groups in the Sahel and West Africa, including Mauritania, Maili, Burkina Faso, Niger, Nigeria and Chad.

It developed particularly close links with the Nigerian Boko Haram group, assuming a degree of control after its offshoot, ISWAP (Islamic State in West Africa), assassinated the previous leader, Abubakar Shekau. This was reportedly on the orders of the current ISIS leader, Abu Ibrahim al-Hashimi al-Qurayshi, who is presumed to be still operating from Iraq.

In northern Mozambique, ISIS laid claim to the insurgency that hindered the development of gas reserves. Since 2017, fuelled by local grievances, it has spread rapidly across the Cabo Delgado province, killing as many as 2,700 people and displacing close to 670,000.

ISIS offshoots have also been active in the DRC, close to the Ugandan border, as well as in Bangladesh and southern Thailand. In the Philippines, the offshoots took over and held the city of Marawi for four months from May 2017. When the Philippine army finally regained control of Marawi, aided by US Special Forces and US Navy surveillance aircraft, the city of 200,000 people had been transformed into a moonscape by almost daily bombardments.

A key long-term aim of ISIS has been establishing and maintaining a base in Afghanistan, and it has succeeded with ISKP. The group has been responsible for some of the most brutal actions there, including massacres of Hazaras, a Shi’a minority. In June, ISKP claimed responsibility for the attack on the Halo mine clearing team that killed ten and injured many more.

The Taliban may well want to keep ISKP under control, not least because if the offshoot goes transnational, the US will be in like a shot, not with boots on the ground, but yet another air war. Anyway, it’s likely that ISKP is content with the carnage it caused this week. From its perspective, killing 13 American military in Afghanistan, in response to tens of thousands of its own people killed in Iraq and Syria is a start on the road to revenge.

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