The Islamic State has released a photo purportedly showing the 10-man (or adolescent) team that assaulted the offices of Afghanistan’s interior ministry in Kabul yesterday. The image is similar to photos released after operations conducted by the Islamic State’s Khorasan “province” (or Wilayah Khorasan) in the past. The so-called caliphate’s inghimasi teams have launched sophisticated operations inside the Afghan capital on a number of occasions. The group likes to honor its “martyrs” with pictures of them mugging for the camera before their hour of terror. In this respect, the photo is not really noteworthy.
But it is important for another reason. Namely, the US initially said that it did not think the Islamic State’s arm was responsible for the assault. If the photo is legitimate, then that early assessment was wrong and Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi’s loyalists did carry it out.
At a press briefing yesterday, Gen. Nicholson was asked about the Islamic State’s claim of responsibility. “We believe it was a Taliban, Haqqani attack, but we’re still developing that information,” Nicholson responded. “This tactic tracks with their tactics in the past, but more to follow on that as we learn more about the identity of the attackers.” Nicholson later added: “And we don’t — at this time, do not believe it was an ISIS attack.”
The al Qaeda-allied Haqqani Network, which is an integral part of the Taliban coalition, is known for its sophisticated operations inside Kabul and elsewhere. So it is understandable that US military officials would immediately suspect the Haqqanis’ men. And Nicholson did hedge, saying that they needed to “learn more about the identity” of the jihadists. Moreover, multiple groups inside Afghanistan and Pakistan have claimed responsibility for the same attack on some occasions in the past, so there can be confusion.
However, in this instance, only the Islamic State claimed responsibility. And assuming the photo is accurate, then that claim is valid.
As Nicholson noted, Afghan forces acted swiftly to stop the assault and limit casualties. But the operation illustrates, once again, the Islamic State’s capability to plan complex raids inside the Afghan capital.
The jihadists were “wearing old uniforms that might cause a hesitation or a delay,” Nicholson noted. “In this case,” he elaborated, the “old-style Army uniforms” they wore were recovered “in a captured HMMWV” (or Humvee). The photo released today does not show the fighters in these uniforms, but in other clothes. It is still possible that the group will produce an image of them in the confiscated military garb.
“The good news is that the guards at the gate — the Afghan guards immediately recognized these as old uniforms, called on the terrorists to exit the vehicle so they could be checked out, and, at that point, the fighting started,” Nicholson said. The jihadists “never gained entrance” to the Ministry of Interior’s headquarters.
In addition to some Afghan casualties, the bad news is that the Islamic State, despite being under sustained counterterrorism pressure inside Afghanistan, was able to deploy a 10-man team inside the Afghan capital. They were equipped with captured uniforms, explosives and other weaponry.
That is, the Taliban-Haqqani Network and allied groups are not the only ones capable of planning sophisticated operations in Kabul nearly 17 years into the war.