Moscow Attack Raises Concerns of ISIS-K Threat Under Taliban

The devastating terrorist attack on a crowded concert hall in the Moscow suburbs on March 22 thrust Afghanistan back into the spotlight, with suspicion that the ISIS-K threat is returning in the country. While ISIS claimed the attack was carried out by a previously unheard-of Russian wing, the U.S. had issued a warning about intelligence suggesting that ISIS-Khorasan (ISIS-K), the Afghan affiliate, was planning attacks in Russia. Around the same time, Russian officials announced the thwarting of another ISIS-K plot targeting a synagogue in Moscow.

Four men, identified by Russia as suspects in the concert hall attack and presented before a judge with signs of significant beatings, were reported to be nationals of Tajikistan. Tajikistan shares a border with Afghanistan, and many ISIS-K fighters are reportedly Tajik nationals.

Amid accusations from Moscow towards Ukraine, which both Kyiv and Washington refute as baseless, and with no direct link established between the concert hall attack and ISIS’s Afghan faction, concerns have been reignited about the Taliban’s pledge to prevent Afghanistan from once again becoming a safe haven for terrorist groups plotting global attacks.

Taliban and ISIS-K: Foes in Afghanistan

An array of terrorist groups operated within Afghanistan before and during the extended military presence of the United States and its allies in the country. However, since the Taliban regained control almost three years ago, many of these militant organizations have ceased their activities there.

Yet, ISIS-K remains active, persistently engaging in indiscriminate violence to challenge and undermine the authority of the Taliban. Both groups adhere to Islamic fundamentalist ideologies. However, the US recognises them as terrorist entities. They possess distinct ideologies, objectives, and engage in conflict with each other.

For over two decades, the Taliban’s primary objective had been to overthrow the U.S.-backed government in Afghanistan and reinstate its stringent interpretation of an Islamic state, which it has achieved. Conversely, ISIS-K is one of the more menacing branches of the global network originating from conflicts in Iraq and Syria. Formed in 2015 along the Afghanistan-Pakistan border, its objective is to establish an Islamic caliphate in the region, similar to its previous presence in parts of Iraq and Syria, and to expand its terrorist activities globally.

In recent years, ISIS-K has carried out significant attacks against Taliban officials in Afghanistan, resulting in the deaths of notable figures alongside civilians. Just last week, the group orchestrated a suicide attack in Kandahar province, targeting Taliban workers gathering outside a bank to collect their salaries.

Data from the United Nations indicates that since 2022, ISIS-K has claimed responsibility for over 190 suicide bombings in major cities, leading to approximately 1,300 casualties.

Taliban’s Capacity to Halt ISIS-K: Doubts Persist

The Taliban, having regained control in Afghanistan, now stands as a formidable military entity, fortified by equipment left behind by the hasty withdrawal of U.S. and allied forces in 2021. Despite efforts to combat ISIS-K within Afghanistan, analysts and United Nations envoys express doubts about the Taliban’s ability or willingness to restrain the group’s operations beyond Afghan borders. While the Taliban has focused on combating ISIS-K internally, recent attacks and foiled plots attributed to ISIS-K in Iran, Russia, and Europe raise concerns about the Taliban’s efficacy in curbing the group’s external activities.

A year after the Taliban’s return to power, challenges to their pledge to prevent terrorist groups from using Afghanistan as a base have emerged. The killing of Al Qaeda leader Ayman Al Zawahiri by a U.S. drone strike in Kabul in July 2022, and the release of thousands of prisoners, including ISIS-K fighters, during the chaotic U.S. withdrawal, have fueled concerns. This has led to ISIS-K demonstrating an increased capacity to pose threats beyond Afghanistan.

France recently raised its national security threat level after thwarting two attempted attacks by ISIS-K, highlighting the group’s global reach. Despite territorial and leadership losses, ISIS has maintained its operational capabilities, often through regional affiliates like ISIS-K. Intelligence-based screening of individuals entering the United States emphasized as a crucial countermeasure against the ongoing ISIS-K threat. Although there concerns about the loss of intelligence capabilities following withdrawals from Afghanistan and Iraq.

ISIS-K’s training camps and strongholds are primarily located in Afghanistan’s northern, northeastern, and eastern provinces, with new ones established in 2022. While the Taliban claims to have neutralized the ISIS-K threat, doubts persist regarding their effectiveness in fully eradicating the group’s presence.