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Cristina Molina, Lydia Pardun, Extremism Team

Week of Monday, September 27, 2021

Taliban Humvee in Kabul[1]

The Islamic State of Khorasan (ISIS-K) has increased its activity since August 2021, including the suicide bombing of Kabul International Airport on August 26 which killed over 170 people, and multiple blasts in Northern Afghanistan starting on September 22, which killed 35 Taliban members.[2] Violence between ISIS-K and the Taliban has risen since the release of thousands of ISIS-K militants from Afghan prisons on August 12,[3] as well as the group’s interpretation of the Taliban as apostates.[4] ISIS-K utilize guerilla tactics in their attacks, which have concentrated mostly in the province of Nangarhar.[5] The Taliban have vowed to crack down on the group’s activities in the hopes of legitimizing their power in Afghanistan.[6] Violence between the two groups is very likely to continue and escalate as ISIS-K grows in membership and continues to cause Taliban casualties. However, possible cooperation with foreign powers will likely empower the Taliban-controlled Afghan government to gain an advantage over ISIS-K and reduce the group’s capacity to commit attacks.

ISIS-K, a local affiliate of the Islamic State in Afghanistan, is likely to become one of the most lethal and aggressive terrorist groups in the region due to their targeting of Afghan security forces, politicians, religious minorities, and international agencies.[7] Recent attacks in Kabul International Airport and around the city of Jalalabad, the capital of Afghanistan’s North Eastern province Nangarhar, believed to be an ISIS-K stronghold, have granted them notoriety and international media attention, vying with the Taliban on Afghan soil. It is likely that the choice to target Kabul International Airport was to ensure the widespread publication of the damage in their aims to justify their new presence through a demonstration of power and increase the negative attention towards the Taliban in both the national and international sphere. The confusion that followed the Kabul Airport attack, whose perpetrators were initially unknown, together with the tense atmosphere of those trying to flee the country, was likely taken as an advantage by the group to appear on the international scene as an additional actor in Afghanistan. Their appearance is likely to have impressed individuals who believe that ISIS could be an effective alternative power in Afghanistan and who are discouraged by the current moderate steps in the Taliban-controlled Afghan government and their ongoing discussions with the international community. ISIS-K will likely find a recruitment pool within disaffected Taliban who think their own group is not violent or extreme enough, therefore enlarging ISIS-K’s number of militants, strength, networking and training capabilities. Disenchantment may also spur Afghan citizens hoping for a stronger government after US withdrawal to support ISIS-K. Neighboring countries’ individuals and jihadi affiliates are also likely to monitor the development of the group and their prospects of recruitment and expansion, and it is likely that a flow of weapons, funding, and training could eventually occur. If regional actors support ISIS-K, violent encounters are likely to increase in Nangarhar and spread to other parts of Afghanistan. Civilian casualties and infrastructure destruction would likely follow.

ISIS-K’s hostility toward the Taliban increased after the Taliban’s negotiated peace settlement with the US in 2020.[8] ISIS-K has declared the Taliban as apostates for abandoning jihad and the battlefield, justifying their own attacks against the Taliban.[9] The violence between the two groups is very likely to escalate and attacks will likely increase in severity, resulting in more victims and likely motivating retaliatory action between individual members of ISIS-K and the Taliban. During the Taliban’s takeover of Afghanistan, many militants were released from prisons around the country, including thousands of ISIS-K members.[10] Attacks are therefore very likely to grow in frequency as members return and their numbers grow. It is unlikely that ISIS-K will grow enough to gain territory in the near future. However, it is very likely that ISIS-K will continue to pose a threat both globally and in Afghanistan as they build on their current momentum and stay committed to their goal of killing all whom they consider apostates. Additionally, the global jihadi movement could likely be inspired by ISIS-K’s recent activities, and local and regional jihadi groups which have been gaining stability in the Sahel region, particularly in Mali and Nigeria, will likely carry out new waves of violent attacks as a form of political pressure, and to illustrate their strength and reinvigoration to the international community.

The Taliban-controlled Afghan government has announced that they will not allow Afghanistan to be used as a base for international terrorist organizations, nor will they grant haven to terrorist organizations such as Al-Qaeda or ISIS on their territory.[11] While the Taliban have fallen short on other promises, such as protecting women’s rights and religious freedom, this objective is aligned with their need to assume the image of a functioning government in order to prove their authority and gain international recognition.[12] This is likely essential to preserve their current hold on power, increase their structural capabilities, and prevent further foreign intervention. However, their announcement is undermined by the recent appointment of ministers and government officials linked to the pre-2001 Taliban government and the Haqqani network, such as Interior Minister Sirajuddin Haqqani.[13] While links between ISIS-K and the Taliban are reportedly inexistent, or contingent upon collaboration with third actors such as the Haqqani network, this choice is likely to raise suspicions of further connections between both groups. The restoration of unlawful detentions, executions, and hand amputations will likely be an element of further disruption and outrage for the international community.[14] In order to fulfill the requirements for international recognition as Afghanistan’s government, the Taliban will likely need to ease their impositions on women’s and minorities’ rights, lessen physical punishments, and dissociate the new government from the one prior to 2001 that was characterized by aggressiveness and cruelty.

With a common interest in the threat of ISIS-K, the US is considering limited cooperation with the Taliban despite not recognizing them as the official government.[15] However, the Taliban has stated that they will not cooperate with the US in counterterrorism.[16] The Taliban is likely in need of resources and power in order to defeat ISIS-K, and it is very likely that they will seek cooperation from China, whom they coordinated with to remove Uyghur militants from their shared border.[17] It is almost certain that the two countries will increase their cooperation, likely starting with a focus on Uyghur militant groups before potentially collaborating to fight the threat of ISIS-K. With China’s aid, the Taliban is very likely to increase its use of violence to defeat ISIS-K, likely leading to greater civilian casualties and authoritarian action by the Taliban. The role of the Haqqani network in this dispute for authority and power is yet to be seen, but it should be closely monitored. CTG will continue to monitor and report on the situation in Afghanistan.

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[2] Taliban takes on ISKP, its most serious foe in Afghanistan, Aljazeera, September 2021,

[3] Pentagon admits ‘thousands’ of Isis-K militants released from US prisons by Taliban, Independent, August 2021,

[4] Afghanistan airport attack: Who are IS-K?, BBC News, August 2021,

[5] Ibid

[6] Taliban say no al Qaeda or ISIS in Afghanistan, Reuters, September 2021,

[7] Afghanistan airport attack: Who are IS-K?, BBC News, August 2021,

[8] Ibid

[9] Ibid

[10] Pentagon admits ‘thousands’ of Isis-K militants released from US prisons by Taliban, Independent, August 2021,

[11] Taliban say no al Qaeda or ISIS in Afghanistan, Reuters, September 2021,

[12] EU: Provisional Taliban government does not fulfill promises, The Hill, September 2021,

[13] Hardliners get key posts in new Taliban government, BBC, September 2021,

[14] A Taliban founder says cutting off hands as punishment will be ‘necessary for security’, The Washington Post, September 2021,

[15] U.S. Coordination With Taliban Against ISIS-K ‘Possible,’ Pentagon Says, Forbes, September 2021,

[16] Taliban say they won’t work with US to contain Islamic State, AP News, October 2021,

[17] Taliban 'Removing' Uyghur Militants From Afghanistan's Border With China, Radio Free Europe Radio Liberty, October 2021,



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