This has allowed ISIS-K to build alliances in the first few years since its formation with groups in eastern Afghanistan that consider themselves rivals to the Taliban — and appeal to recruits with promises of stepped-up violence and broad-reaching jihad.
But by 2019, U.S. airstrikes and Afghan military operations, as well as the Afghan Taliban’s political and military onslaught, diminished ISIS-K. It lost leaders and rank-and-file fighters. The territory under its control shrank, and battlefield allies switched sides, as the perception of the Taliban’s impending return to power in Afghanistan gained steam.
Still, ISIS-K didn’t give up. It positioned itself as a Taliban-rejectionist movement, caricaturing the Taliban as craven for allying with Pakistan and cutting deals with the U.S. government. It targeted the Taliban’s anti-Salafist clerics, including those in Pakistan. By mid-2020, even as it lost rural territory, it possessed an urban network.
It also regained thousands of its imprisoned fighters through jail breaks, once after a complex attack and most recently when thousands of prisoners were able to flee from Afghan prisons after the Taliban took control of Kabul. Since then, ISIS-K has targeted the U.S. military and vulnerable Afghan civilians in and around Kabul, demonstrating to supporters and rivals alike that the Islamic State is still in the game of not just local but also global jihad.
The airport attack also demonstrated that ISIS-K has no qualms in exploiting divisions within the Taliban. There are murmurs inside the group that some Taliban battlefield commanders are unhappy with the softer public line of the central leadership, including the announcement of a postwar amnesty for Afghans who worked with Americans and the Afghan government, the desire for an inclusive government incorporating political rivals and religious minorities, and the decision to completely hold fire against the United States until the pullout.
ISIS is positioned to leverage this base of support.
The persistence of ISIS-K threatens other terrorist groups. Al Qaeda, in particular, will feel the pressure because ISIS-K killed Americans — something it has not managed to do this year. The Tehrik-e-Taliban Pakistan, which lost cadres to ISIS-K some years ago and could do so again, is worried as well. Central Asian jihadists in Afghanistan may also hedge their bets, by developing an alliance with the Islamic State as insurance against abandonment by the Taliban.