ISIS-K: What We Know About The Group Behind The Kabul Airport Attack A regional Islamic State affiliate is a major rival to the Taliban in Afghanistan. The U.S. says ISIS-K has long planned attacks on its personnel in the country.

What We Know About ISIS-K, The Group Behind The Kabul Attack

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MARY LOUISE KELLY, HOST:

OK. The terrorist group Islamic State Khorasan or ISIS-K has claimed responsibility for these attacks at the airport. President Biden spoke earlier this month about the threat this group poses.

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PRESIDENT JOE BIDEN: 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.

KELLY: So who and what is ISIS-K? Seth Jones is an Afghanistan specialist at the Center for Strategic and International Studies. He's with us now.

Hi there.

SETH JONES: Hi. Good to be on.

KELLY: I suspect a lot of Americans may not have heard of ISIS-K up to now. Give us just briefly the description - where did they come from? What do they believe?

JONES: Well, ISIS-K was formed around the fall of 2014. ISIS had sent representatives to both Pakistan and Afghanistan. They were essentially able to co-opt some disaffected Pakistan Taliban and a few Afghan Taliban to join their cause. Remember; this was around the time of the expansion of the Islamic State in Iraq and Syria. So they have continued to operate. They grew in numbers for a while. They've come down. But their goal, really, is an Islamic emirate. And they are a competitor of both al-Qaida and the Taliban.

KELLY: And how do they fit into the complex picture that is Afghanistan? I mean, elaborate on what you just said, that they're enemies of the Taliban.

JONES: They're enemies of the Taliban. The Islamic State use Afghanistan as an important part of its global jihad. But as we've seen in Iraq and Syria and other locations across the globe, they view al-Qaida as a major competitor. And in Afghanistan, al-Qaida has made a decision to embed within Taliban forces on the ground. So the Islamic State has taken a very different tack. Instead of embedding forces, they've decided that they're going to conduct high-profile attacks, something al-Qaida has not done. So they've taken on a much more public dimension and conducted a range of attacks, obviously now targeting U.S. military service members as well as Afghan civilians.

KELLY: And what, I guess, up to today, did we know about their capabilities? Would you have thought they were capable of pulling off an attack like this?

JONES: Absolutely. What the Islamic State has shown is a willingness to conduct high-profile attacks in Afghanistan. Their numbers have dwindled to about 2,000 from probably 6- or 7,000 a couple of years ago, but they've had active cells across the country, including in Kabul itself, and willing to conduct high-profile attacks. What this does show, by the way, is that Taliban's counterintelligence and counterterrorism capabilities actually are somewhat limited. They were not able to identify or stop the attack. They made their way through Taliban checkpoints to get to the airport.

KELLY: And tell me a little bit more about the relationship between ISIS-K in Afghanistan and core ISIS, let's call it, the group we know so much about from Iraq and Syria.

JONES: Well, core ISIS started ISIS-K by deploying a number of individuals into the Afghan-Pakistan area again in late 2014. But I would say, generally, since the collapse of ISIS in Iraq and Syria, the organization has largely operated independently. They're run right now around the Afghan province of Kunar, but they have cell structures that they operate largely autonomously from ISIS in Iraq and Syria. So they're connected in some ways as a branch of broad ISIS, but they operate largely independently on a day-to-day basis.

KELLY: And just briefly, big picture, I'm struck - part of the White House rationale for getting out of Afghanistan was it was, allegedly, no longer a safe haven for terrorists who could attack the U.S. And here we see today, in the very last hours of U.S. boots on the ground, terrorists in Afghanistan attacking U.S. troops.

JONES: Well, the great irony of the U.S. withdrawal from Afghanistan is that while President Biden said last Monday that it was terrorism that was really the only remaining interest and the terrorism threat had declined, it is - day by day, it is now getting worse. And I think the other aspect we saw is the release of prisoners of al-Qaida and the Islamic State that's also part of the problem.

KELLY: Who are now joining the ranks. Absolutely. We will leave it there. Seth Jones of the Center for Strategic and International Studies.

Thank you.

JONES: Thank you.

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