TORONTO — As U.S. and NATO forces continue to withdraw from Afghanistan, an affiliate of the Islamic State terrorist group is posing a new threat to civilian evacuation efforts in Kabul.
U.S. officials say that there is a real risk that the Islamic State — Khorasan Province (ISIS-K) could stage an attack at the Kabul airport and derail ongoing evacuation efforts while creating mayhem in the country.
Here’s what you need to know.
WHAT IS ISIS-K?
ISIS-K is a branch of ISIS that was established in January 2015 by disgruntled members of Taliban’s Pakistani affiliate and have been a sworn enemy of the Taliban.
As their name suggests, their goal is to establish a caliphate, or an Islamic empire governed by Sharia law, in the historic Khorasan region, which encompasses large parts of Central and South Asia.
A United Nations report published in June said that the group has approximately 1,500 to 2,200 core fighters, mostly based in the Kunar and Nangarhar provinces of eastern Afghanistan.
The Center for Strategic and International Studies, a U.S. foreign policy think tank, estimates that between 2015 and 2017, ISIS-K had launched nearly 100 terrorist attacks in Afghanistan and Pakistan.
One of these attacks was a June 2016 bombing of a bus in Kabul carrying security guards contracted by the Canadian Embassy, Public Safety Canada says.
The Canadian government listed ISIS-K, also referred to as ISKP, as a terrorist entity under the Criminal Code in 2018.
In the first four months of 2021, the UN says that there were 77 attacks in Afghanistan that were attributed to or claimed by ISIS-K. That’s up from the same period in 2020, which saw only 21 ISIS-K attacks.
WHAT THREAT DOES ISIS-K POSE IN AFGHANISTAN?
CNN reports that U.S. officials are worried that ISIS-K could carry out an attack at the Kabul airport, where thousands of Afghans and foreign nationals have been trying to catch flights out of the country.
Concerns increased after more than 100 prison inmates loyal to the ISIS affiliate in Afghanistan escaped from two prisons near Kabul as the Taliban advanced on the Afghan capital, CNN reported.
U.S. President Joe Biden on Tuesday reiterated his support for the Aug. 31 deadline to withdraw American troops, citing the threat posed by ISIS-K.
“Every day we’re on the ground is another day we know that ISIS-K is seeking to target the airport and attack both U.S. and allied forces and innocent civilians,” Biden said in a speech from the White House.
CTV News Security Analyst Jeanne Meserve said an attack at the Kabul airport would also pose challenges to the Taliban, who are trying to establish authority to put together a government.
“Not only would that be devastating for the United States, and for the Afghans who would be affected and the U.S. citizens who might be injured or killed, but it clearly also would be a very, very serious blow to the Taliban itself,” she told CTV News Channel on Wednesday.
With files from CNN