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What We Know About ISIS-K

ASMA KHALID, HOST:

A group called ISIS-K is behind the airport attack that we just mentioned, and the attack has led to a lot of sudden questions here in the United States about the resurgence and modus of this Afghanistan-based offshoot of ISIS. But people in Afghanistan have been raising the same questions for some time. Here's a clip from a program on the country's TOLOnews network from almost a year ago, where host Shagofa Danish asked...

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

SHAGOFA DANISH: (Through interpreter) Is Afghanistan a place where ISIS can thrive? What's the source of support? Is there cooperation between the Taliban and ISIS? And will ISIS accept peace?

KHALID: We're joined now by Madiha Afzal with the Brookings Institution. Welcome to the program.

MADIHA AFZAL: Thanks for having me.

KHALID: So, Madiha, let's start with a basic definitional question. Who is ISIS-K? And frankly, how are they connected with the self-proclaimed Islamic State militants?

AFZAL: Sure. Well, ISIS-K - or the Islamic State Khorasan - is simply just a deadly and lethal regional affiliate of ISIS that attacks targets that's based within and attacks targets in Afghanistan and also Pakistan. It was formed in 2015 as part of sort of ISIS's aim to establish a global caliphate. ISIS accepted the branch that basically was formed by disaffected militants from the region, especially the Pakistani Taliban and Afghan Taliban - disaffected militants from those groups. And its attacks since 2015 have been marked by brutality on civilians, you know, like the one we saw at the Kabul airport. They've been attacking civilians at a maternity ward last year in Kabul, at a school this May in Kabul in a Hazara Shia neighborhood. And they follow the core ideology of ISIS, but they run their own day-to-day operations.

KHALID: And so, Madiha, I guess I'm curious to better understand what the actual relationship is like between ISIS-K and other groups there. I think of the Taliban or al-Qaeda.

AFZAL: Sure. Well, ISIS-K and the Taliban are enemies, essentially. You know, ISIS-K, because it was established by disaffected militants from these various Taliban groups, including the Tehrik-i-Taliban Pakistan, as I said, and the Afghan Taliban - they basically are an extreme version of these groups. And they don't think the Taliban is hard-line enough. In fact, you know, one of the things that they're using to recruit people now has been the Taliban's deal with the United States and the Taliban coming into power in Afghanistan. They essentially - you know, they're ideologically a much more hard-line version even of the hard-line Taliban.

KHALID: I see. Do you have any sense of how well-armed they are, how well-funded they are?

AFZAL: Sure. Well, I think there's no exact figure that we have. But, you know, they are - they're - they receive some funding from local sources that they extract through natural resources, drug - the drug trade, you know, taxing locals, kidnapping. But there are figures that suggest that their outside funding could be about $300 million a year that's coming from various donors in mostly sort of Gulf countries - you know, thinking about Qatar, Kuwait, Saudi Arabia.

KHALID: You know, the U.S. responded to Thursday's airport attack with a drone strike targeting ISIS-K. So talk to me about how effective these sorts of aerial operations are. Do you think it's feasible to defeat the group without an on-the-ground troop presence?

AFZAL: Sure. Well, you know, I'll answer that in a couple of ways. The first is that the U.S. and Afghan security forces, when they were, you know, not defunct as they are now are, attacked ISIS targets - ISIS-K targets in Afghanistan over the last few years. And, in fact, you know, over the last few years, there are hundreds that were killed of - ISIS-K leadership people were killed in attacks, and four of its emirs were even killed.

So the first thing we know is that these groups in this region have an ability to resurge, and regroup and just leadership-level targeting does not work. It's only effective in the short term. The second, of course, is, you know, how effective is over-the-horizon counterterrorism operations going to be, given that intelligence, as well as running the operation itself, you know, will be problematic if airstrikes start from somewhere else in the Middle East?

And then overall, you know, I would say kinetic action only goes so far with these groups. And so I think we really need to think about, you know, the fact that the ideology remains intact. These groups can always collect foot soldiers who are disaffected militants from other groups. Many fighters cross over from one group to the other. So as long as there's an ecosystem of extremist groups in the region, you know, eliminating any group becomes a real problem.

KHALID: Madiha, I wanted to ask you about how much confidence the international community can have in the ability of the Taliban to essentially track and eliminate these kinds of extremist threats from within the country because to some degree, the international community is now relying on the Taliban to do this.

AFZAL: Sure. Well, this is a really tricky question and really opens up a can of worms. I don't think the international community can rely on the Taliban to do so for the international community's interests. I think there are real issues with how trustworthy the Taliban is. The Taliban, of course, because ISIS-K is a sworn enemy of the group, has its own incentives to track and target the group. But I think the U.S. will still have to do this via over-the-horizon operations - you know, airstrikes, etc. I don't think that it can necessarily partner with the Taliban in eliminating ISIS. I think sort of perhaps the operations have to be separate.

KHALID: That's Madiha Afzal with the Brookings Institution. Madiha, thank you so much for speaking with us today.

AFZAL: Thanks, Asma.

(SOUNDBITE OF GOLDMUND'S "THE BALLAD OF BARBARA ALLEN") Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.