ISKP’s transnational reemergence

By leveraging its stronghold in Afghanistan, in conjunction with its networks in Central and South Asia, the Islamic State Khorasan Province (ISKP) is reemerging as a transnational actor with the capacity to carry out operations across Asia and Europe.

Recent admissions by anonymous Taliban officials highlight the extent of ISKP’s influence in Afghanistan, where the group has been recruiting and expanding its presence since the U.S. withdrawal. The resurgence of ISKP poses a major security threat not only within Afghanistan but also to the broader international community, as evidenced by their recent activities and threats spanning from Central Asia to Europe.

ISKP gaining momentum in Afghanistan

Anonymous Taliban officials have admitted to local media the extent of ISKP influence across Afghanistan. A Taliban official speaking on the condition of anonymity on May 29 stated that following the U.S. withdrawal, hundreds of ISKP operatives were released from prison who have been recruiting fighters since the last two-three years.

The source added that ISKP’s strongholds are Nangahar and Kunar provinces bordering Pakistan but emphasized that ISKP is present across different provinces in Afghanistan. Another Taliban official expressed grave concern over how easily ISKP can coordinate attacks, and their capacity to recruit fighters and have access to resources such as weapons and vehicles is indicative of a major security breach.

ISKP issued a statement on May 18 published via The Voice of Khorasan in Pashto threatening to target the “financial and ideological supporters” of the Taliban. The statement also emphasizes that all foreign and Afghan organizations, companies, journalists and media that work in favor of the Taliban are legitimate targets for potential attacks. In a separate statement, The Voice of Khorasan labeled NGOs and foreign aid agencies in Afghanistan as the “actual rulers of this country” and claimed that many international organizations seek to promote Christianity as opposed to providing humanitarian aid.

The Afghanistan United Front (AUF), led by Sami Sadat, former commander of Afghanistan’s special forces, warned of the threats posed by ISKP in a detailed report on June 5. The report states that the group currently has 9,000 soldiers in Afghanistan and is gaining the operational capacity for suicide attacks, insurgency, and assassinations in cities as well as attack government facilities or economic centers throughout the region.

The Intelligence Commission of UAF stated that currently, the largest and strongest Islamic State stronghold in the world is the ISKP network in Central Asia, with its leadership based in Baluchistan region of Pakistan, and its operational members stationed in Afghanistan.

ISKP’s transnational reemergence in Europe

ISKP has carried out attacks in Russia, Iran, Pakistan and its members have been arrested in Europe and even the United States. In early May, U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement arrested an Uzbek man in Baltimore with alleged Islamic State ties, who had illegally entered the U.S. in 2022. In early April 2024, Italy and Turkey arrested ISKP operatives in separate incidents, all of whom that are citizens of Tajikistan. Similarly, the German federal prosecutor’s office in late April charged seven foreign nationals from Tajikistan, Turkmenistan, and Kyrgyzstan for allegedly plotting terrorist attacks on behalf of ISKP.

With the Paris Olympics and the European Football Championship tournaments in Germany coming up, Europe is on high alert following ISKP threats.  The Voice of Khorasan issued a statement in early May, calling for attacks on the upcoming Union of European Football Association Championship League that are taking place in Germany. The ISKP statement also depicted an armed jihadist in Germany and the caption read “score the final goal”.

A report released Tuesday on June 4 by the cybersecurity firm Recorded Future states that the greatest risk to the Paris Games will come from in-person threats instead of from cyberspace. “Terrorists and violent extremists — particularly IS [Islamic State] supporters will almost certainly continue to plot and incite violent attacks targeting the Paris Olympics,” the report added.

Islamic State has published “detailed” manuals for adapting drones to attack the Paris Olympics, The National reported on June 5. Former US Department of Homeland Security official Matt Mooney added that there is a “moderately high” probability that there will be a drone attack using a home-made bomb during this summer’s games: “in particular, the branch of ISIS based in Afghanistan’s Khorasan Province, known as ISKP, is keen to demonstrate its ability to carry out attacks abroad.”

ISKP strengthening Taliban’s relations with the Islamic Republic

ISKP issued a 56-minute audio recording on May 24, condemning the Taliban’s relationship with Iran. The recording claimed that the Taliban safeguard Iran and the Shias from ISKP attacks and called out the Taliban for attending former Iranian President Raisi’s funeral.

 Given ISKP’s growing influence in Afghanistan, paired with the group’s rigorous anti-Shia ideology, Iran and Taliban have cooperated in battling this shared threat. The Islamic Republic and the Taliban have capitalized on this issue to strengthen diplomatic relations in recent months, with Iran hosting Taliban officials’ meeting with the Amir of Qatar Tamim bin Hamad Al Thani and Hamas Chief Political Leader Ismail Haniyeh in Tehran, in addition to other high-level meetings.

Taliban leveraging ISKP threat to present itself as counterterrorism partner 

By portraying themselves as a counterweight against the extremism of ISKP, the Taliban has sought to gain legitimacy and support from various nations. This narrative has even found traction in the United States, where some view the Taliban as a necessary force to counterbalance ISKP’s influence.

However, entrusting one group of terrorists to combat another is a fundamentally flawed strategy. This approach incentivizes the Taliban to view ISKP as a strategic asset rather than a genuine threat, thereby reducing their motivation to completely eradicate ISKP. Instead, the Taliban might use the existence of ISKP as leverage to gain concessions and support from Western countries, ultimately perpetuating the cycle of violence and instability rather than resolving it.

Janatan Sayeh is a research analyst at the Foundation for Defense of Democracies focused on Iranian domestic affairs and the Islamic Republic’s regional malign influence.

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