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The Taliban Are Far Closer to the Islamic State Than They Claim

The terror group behind the Kabul attacks has close ties to the Haqqani network.

By , the international security director at the Asia-Pacific Foundation.
Taliban fighters in a vehicle patrol the streets of Kabul on Aug. 23.
Taliban fighters in a vehicle patrol the streets of Kabul on Aug. 23. WAKIL KOHSAR/AFP via Getty Images

Leaving Afghanistan

In an early sign of Afghanistan’s dystopian future as well as a reminder of its dark past, a coordinated suicide attack hit several locations in Kabul, including a hotel and the airport. Dozens of people were killed and hundreds injured, including Afghan civilians attempting to leave the country and the U.S. soldiers overseeing the evacuation. Islamic State-Khorasan has taken responsibility, but the Taliban faction partially in control of security in Kabul over the past several days, the Haqqani network, must also be scrutinized. Ultimately, the attack strategically benefits the Haqqani as it will likely speed up foreign departures and prevent the prospect of further evacuations.

There have been repeated warnings of a potential airport attack over the last week. When it came, it was not spontaneous or random but a well-planned assault, using multiple bombs and targets calculated to achieve several objectives. The first and most obvious goal was to kill fleeing Afghans and discourage others from attempting to leave via the airport—or to close the airport itself. But another goal was the death of coalition troops, thus using the specter of terror to ensure the West stuck to the agreed on Aug. 31 deadline to leave the country. The timing of the attack, on the cusp of the 20th anniversary of the 9/11 attacks, sends out a powerful signal to other jihadists.

The coordinated attack has all the hallmarks of Islamic State-Khorasan, including involving multiple suicide bombers, but disturbingly also has hallmarks of the Haqqani network with its focus on mass casualty atrocities utilizing powerful improvised explosive devices. The Haqqani network is an internationally proscribed terrorist group with generational ties to al Qaeda. It’s often said there’s a clear split between Islamic State-Khorasan and the Taliban, but the harsh reality of terrorism and politics in Afghanistan is the situation is never black and white. Sworn enemies can fight each other one day and collaborate for mutual gain the next day. These groups are intertwined and interconnected. Their tribal and marriage ties ensure ideological separations do not cause permanent fault lines.

In an early sign of Afghanistan’s dystopian future as well as a reminder of its dark past, a coordinated suicide attack hit several locations in Kabul, including a hotel and the airport. Dozens of people were killed and hundreds injured, including Afghan civilians attempting to leave the country and the U.S. soldiers overseeing the evacuation. Islamic State-Khorasan has taken responsibility, but the Taliban faction partially in control of security in Kabul over the past several days, the Haqqani network, must also be scrutinized. Ultimately, the attack strategically benefits the Haqqani as it will likely speed up foreign departures and prevent the prospect of further evacuations.

There have been repeated warnings of a potential airport attack over the last week. When it came, it was not spontaneous or random but a well-planned assault, using multiple bombs and targets calculated to achieve several objectives. The first and most obvious goal was to kill fleeing Afghans and discourage others from attempting to leave via the airport—or to close the airport itself. But another goal was the death of coalition troops, thus using the specter of terror to ensure the West stuck to the agreed on Aug. 31 deadline to leave the country. The timing of the attack, on the cusp of the 20th anniversary of the 9/11 attacks, sends out a powerful signal to other jihadists.

The coordinated attack has all the hallmarks of Islamic State-Khorasan, including involving multiple suicide bombers, but disturbingly also has hallmarks of the Haqqani network with its focus on mass casualty atrocities utilizing powerful improvised explosive devices. The Haqqani network is an internationally proscribed terrorist group with generational ties to al Qaeda. It’s often said there’s a clear split between Islamic State-Khorasan and the Taliban, but the harsh reality of terrorism and politics in Afghanistan is the situation is never black and white. Sworn enemies can fight each other one day and collaborate for mutual gain the next day. These groups are intertwined and interconnected. Their tribal and marriage ties ensure ideological separations do not cause permanent fault lines.

The Islamic State’s entry in Afghanistan can be traced to a January 2015 audiotape message issued by Abu Muhammad al-Adnani, the Islamic State’s then-head of external operations, who revealed the group’s “expansion” into the “lands of Khorasan,” a term that encompasses not just Afghanistan but all of South Asia as well as parts of China. The new entity would be called Wilayat Khorasan, more commonly known as Islamic State-Khorasan in the West. It is more disordered than the original Islamic State but is still deadly and effective.

Initially, the Islamic State sought to directly undermine the Taliban. On July 12, 2015, the Islamic State released a statement and then an article in their magazine, Dabiq, revealing that the founder of the Taliban, Mohammed Omar, was not only dead but had died years earlier. This embarrassing disclosure forced the Taliban to admit that Omar had, in fact, passed away. By orchestrating the narrative, the Islamic State exposed fractures within the Taliban. Akhtar Mansour succeeded Omar, but he was unable to quell internal dissent over his appointment, resulting in defections to Islamic State-Khorasan. When Mansour was killed in a U.S. drone strike on May 21, 2016, Mawlawi Haibatullah Akhundzada took over. However, he too could not stem the flow of support to Islamic State-Khorasan, which was not principally ideological but mostly over leadership, turf wars, and other funding streams through illicit activities like narcotics and money laundering. Think of a squabble between mafia groups or medieval barons.

Islamic State-Khorasan has been primarily based in Afghanistan’s Nangarhar, a transit route of the lucrative drug trade, near Pakistan’s border. It has often collaborated with the Haqqani network in this clandestine enterprise. The head of the Haqqani network is Sirajuddin Haqqani, who is a proscribed terrorist. He also happens to be the Taliban’s second-in-command and has maintained very close ties to al Qaeda. Before Islamic State-Khorasan came on the scene, the Haqqani network pioneered the use of suicide bombings in Afghanistan and was responsible for killing and maiming thousands of U.S., coalition, and Afghan soldiers.

Before Islamic State-Khorasan came on the scene, the Haqqani network pioneered the use of suicide bombings in Afghanistan.

The Haqqani network also established close ties with Pakistan’s powerful yet notorious Inter-Services Intelligence (ISI) agency, which provided weapons, training, and financial support. The ISI also provided shelter to much of the Taliban leadership that has now returned to Afghanistan, including the Quetta Shura faction. The primary reason the Haqqanis were able to endure for the last 20 years was because they benefited from safe havens within Pakistan that gave their fighters the ability to launch cross-border attacks and fall back when required.

All this has created the idea that the Taliban and the Islamic State-Khorasan are at odds. The Biden administration in part depended on that, as it looked to the Taliban to provide security against possible Islamic State-Khorasan attacks on the evacuation. This was in practice, though there has, in fact, been a tactical and strategic convergence between the Islamic State-Khorasan and the Haqqanis, if not the entirety of the Taliban. The Taliban are comprised of several factions, each with their own leadership, structure, and control of Afghan territory. Principally, they share common enemies: the former Afghan government of Ashraf Ghani and the West, which once stood in their way but are now opting for a speedy exit from Afghanistan.

On March 25, 2020, a Sikh gurdwara was attacked by suicide bombers and gunmen in Kabul; 25 people were killed in the coordinated assault. Islamic State-Khorasan Province claimed responsibility. Soon after, in a significant counterterrorism operation, Aslam Farooqi (aka Abdullah Orakzai), the Pakistani leader of the Islamic State-Khorasan Province, was arrested in Kandahar province by Afghanistan’s National Directorate of Security. Farooqi revealed that Islamic State-Khorasan had not only cooperated with the Haqqani network but also with the proscribed Pakistani terrorist outfits Jaish-e-Mohammed (JeM) and the Lashkar-e-Taiba (LeT), the latter of which Farooqi was once part of. The LeT executed the synchronized 2008 Mumbai siege attacks that killed 166 people; and the JeM’s most infamous recruit was British Pakistani Ahmed Omar Saeed Sheikh, one of the murderers of American journalist Daniel Pearl.

There was a clear division in terrorist labor. Islamic State-Khorasan recruits would receive training at JeM camps in Pakistan. The LeT would take part in the reconnaissance of targets in Afghanistan to create social, economic, and political consequences. The Haqqani network, through their criminal resources, provided coordination and logistical planning. Islamic State-Khorasan Province would provide the cannon fodder while also taking overall responsibility for the attacks.

On May 12, 2020, Islamic State-Khorasan gunmen strode into the Dasht-e-Barchi hospital in Kabul and attacked the maternity ward, which was supported by Doctors Without Borders, shooting hospital staff, women in labor, and newborn babies. The U.S. Special Representative for Afghanistan Reconciliation, Zalmay Khalilzad, stated the Islamic State-Khorasan Province was responsible for the hospital attack. He did not blame the Taliban, which drew criticism across Afghanistan and speculation that Khalilzad was more concerned about preserving the Taliban’s image to maintain peace talks.

Another major attack was the bombing of the Sayed ul-Shuhada High School in Kabul on May 8, killing 90 people, mostly schoolgirls. Islamic State-Khorasan, like the Haqqani network and the entire Taliban, is deeply and violently misogynistic.

The Haqqani network is a family-clan enterprise and consists of siblings, cousins, and other members through marriages. Another key member of the Haqqani network is Khalil Haqqani, regarded as the Taliban emissary to al Qaeda. Recently, Khalil Haqqani triumphantly strolled into Kabul as the Taliban’s head of security for the capital. In act of symbolic defiance, he carried with him a U.S.-made M4 rifle, with a protection detail wearing U.S. combat gear, all of which the Taliban had seized in recent weeks. Whichever faction was in charge of evacuation security should be asked why the perimeter was not properly controlled and why Taliban checkpoints that had stopped many Afghans from reaching the airport nevertheless failed to stop the attackers.

The murky nature of Islamic State-Khorasan’s relationship with the Haqqani network as well as Pakistani terrorist groups presents a complex arrangement of tacit cooperation between several terrorist organizations. So do its intricate ties to the Pakistani military and intelligence community. That has dire implications for Afghan and global security, especially as Pakistan is so keen for the international community to recognize and legitimize the Taliban.

Right now, Afghanistan is before the eyes of the world, but what happens after the West leaves? The airport and hotel attacks are only the beginning of Afghanistan’s nightmare. The Taliban will use the incident to further crack down on Afghan civilian freedoms under the guise of security. Although the Taliban will face criticism for not preventing the attack, to them the bigger prize is the West’s departure. For them, the death of innocent Afghans at the hands of the Islamic State-Khorasan is merely a strategic means to an end. Islamic State-Khorasan and the Taliban may resume their squabbles, but they also have more in common with each other than they have differences. The perennial losers in this remain the Afghan people.

Sajjan M. Gohel is the international security director at the Asia-Pacific Foundation and a visiting teacher at the London School of Economics. He is the editor of NATO’s Counter-Terrorism Reference Curriculum.

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