The U.S. military says the Islamic State’s affiliate in Afghanistan was behind the deadly suicide bombing attacks in Kabul on Thursday that killed numerous U.S. service members, which won’t surprise Western intelligence officials or the ruling Taliban.
CENTCOM Commander, General Kenneth McKenzie said Thursday afternoon that 12 U.S. service members were killed and 15 more were injured, noting the suicide bombers are “assessed to have been ISIS fighters.” The general said he believed the suicide bomber made it through Taliban lines and was at a U.S.-controlled “interface point” when he detonated himself.
“We believe it is their desire to continue those attacks, and we expect those attacks to continue,” McKenzie warned. “If we can find out who is associated with this, we will go after them.”
He said the United States believed ISIS would like to conduct more walk-in suicide attacks, as well as suicide car bombs or rocket attacks. The terror group has claimed responsibility for the attack.
The U.S. has relied upon the Taliban to maintain security checkpoints around the Kabul airport, even amid confirmed reports Americans had been threatened and beaten by Taliban guards when trying to make it to the gates to board planes. The general said they would continue to ask the Taliban to assist with security, saying he hadn’t seen evidence the Taliban let the attack occur.
The Taliban, the Haqqani Network, and al Qaeda are deeply intertwined in Afghanistan, and the Taliban has integrated Haqqani Network leaders and fighters with al Qaeda links into its command structure. ISIS-K has long clashed with the Taliban and al Qaeda in Afghanistan, claiming Taliban rule is illegitimate.
Former Pakistani Taliban militants founded ISIS-K in an attempt to recruit Taliban defectors, and it seems to have some connections with the Haqqani Network. The web of relationships and chaos in Kabul could make assessing the full culpability for Thursday’s deadly suicide bombings difficult.
President Joe Biden said as recently as Friday there would be consequences for the Taliban if there was an attack on U.S. forces or a disruption of U.S. evacuation operations.
“We’ve made clear to the Taliban that any attack — any attack on our forces or disruption of our operations at the airport will be met with a swift and forceful response,” Biden said. “We’re also keeping a close watch on any potential terrorist threat at or around the airport, including from the ISIS affiliates in Afghanistan who were released from prison when the prisons were emptied. And because they are, by the way — to make everybody understand — that the ISIS in Afghanistan are the — have been the sworn enemy of the Taliban.”
A report from the United Nations in July said one member state estimated ISIS-K’s strength was “between 500 and 1,500 fighters,” while another assessed that “it may rise to as many as 10,000 over the medium term.” The report noted ISIS-K “was largely underground and clandestine” and is led by Shahab Muhajir.
The U.N. said one member state contended Muhajir “may also have been previously a mid-level commander in the Haqqani Network,” and he “continues to maintain cooperation with the entity” and provides “key expertise and access to [attack] networks.” The report said some member states “have reported tactical or commander-level collaboration between ISIL-K and the Haqqani Network,” but “others strongly deny such claims.”
The report said: “Authorized movement of personnel with a tacit understanding that both groups benefit from certain joint venture attacks is also likely, as such attacks project a weakening security situation that undermines public confidence in the Government and clearly benefits both ISIL-K and the Haqqani Network.”
The UN report warned one member state “has suggested that certain attacks can be denied by the Taliban and claimed by ISIL-K, with it being unclear whether these attacks were purely orchestrated by the Haqqani Network, or were joint ventures making use of ISIL-K operatives.”
ISIS-K conducted dozens of attacks in Afghanistan in 2020 and 2021. The U.N. Assistance Mission in Afghanistan “recorded 77 ISIL-K claimed and/or attributed attacks” during the first four months of 2021, an increase of just 21 such attacks in the same period in 2020.
The lead inspector general for Operation Freedom’s Sentinel released a May report warning that ISIS-K was strengthening itself in 2021.
“After a string of major defeats and setbacks last year, ISIS-K regained strength this quarter… The group has maintained a steady operational tempo and retains the ability to carry out terrorist attacks in Kabul and other major cities … ISIS-K has replenished its ranks by appealing to disaffected members of the Taliban,” the watchdog’s May report said.
ISIS expanded into the Khorasan region in 2015, which is thought to include Afghanistan, Pakistan, Iran, and parts of Central Asia. The ISIS-K affiliate was founded by commanders in Tehrik-i-Taliban Pakistan, and its affiliate founders pledged allegiance to Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi in 2014.
Mullah Abdul Ghani Baradar Akhund is believed to be the Taliban’s top commander, but Haibatullah Akhundzada is considered the “Leader of the Faithful” by the Taliban. Current al Qaeda leader Ayman Zawahiri, Osama bin Laden’s second-in-command who took over the group after a U.S. special forces raid killed bin Laden in Pakistan, reportedly swore allegiance to Akhundzada in 2016. Bin Laden pledged allegiance to Taliban founder Mullah Omar.
Sirajuddin Haqqani, the “deputy emir” of the Taliban, also “currently leads the day-to-day activities of the Haqqani Network,” according to the State Department, which explained that “the Haqqani Network is allied with the Afghan Taliban and al Qaeda.” The U.S. has designated Sirajuddin as a terrorist.
The National Counterterrorism Center said the Haqqanis “are considered the most lethal and sophisticated insurgent group targeting U.S., Coalition, and Afghan forces.” Members of the Haqqani Network had been put in charge of at least some of Kabul’s security.
Al Qaeda also maintains a strong presence in Afghanistan, and it has continued its more than two-decade alliance with the Taliban after conducting terrorist attacks that killed 3,000 Americans.
A UN report said: “The primary component of the Taliban in dealing with Al-Qaeda is the Haqqani Network. Ties between the two groups remain close, based on ideological alignment, relationships forged through common struggle and intermarriage.”
Pentagon inspector general Sean O’Donnell wrote in February that “while the Taliban opposes and actively fights ISIS members in Afghanistan, the Taliban continues to maintain relations with al Qaeda.”