How Dangerous Is the Islamic State-Khorasan?
As a top U.S. military official warns of a growing transnational threat, the group is already wreaking havoc in Taliban-led Afghanistan.
Welcome to Foreign Policy’s South Asia Brief.
Welcome to Foreign Policy’s South Asia Brief.
The highlights this week: The head of U.S. Central Command issues a warning about the Afghanistan-based Islamic State-Khorasan, the International Monetary Fund approves a bailout package for Sri Lanka, and an Indian court finds opposition leader Rahul Gandhi guilty of defamation and gives him a two-year prison sentence.
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Centcom Issues Warning About IS-K
Speaking before the Senate Armed Services Committee last week, Gen. Michael Kurilla, the head of U.S. Central Command, gave a troubling assessment about the capacities of the Islamic State-Khorasan (IS-K), an Islamic State affiliate based in Afghanistan: He said that within six months, the group could target U.S. or Western interests abroad.
Since launching in 2015, IS-K has staged many attacks in Afghanistan but relatively few beyond its borders. The group has claimed a few dozen attacks in Pakistan, including a suicide bombing at a Shiite mosque in Peshawar last year. Last April and May, IS-K claimed rocket attacks in Uzbekistan and Tajikistan, although governments in both countries denied such attacks took place. The group has long shown an ability to adapt—and Kurilla’s warning shouldn’t be taken lightly.
When IS-K was established eight years ago, Afghanistan was home to multiple militant groups and controlled by a government that struggled to extend its writ beyond Kabul. Although these conditions might have advantaged IS-K, the group faced challenges: Most violent actors in Afghanistan, including the Taliban, were aligned with al Qaeda, which is a bitter Islamic State rival. The Afghan military, NATO forces, and the Taliban were all prepared to fight IS-K.
Nonetheless, IS-K managed to become arguably the most brutal terrorist group in Afghanistan. According to a detailed assessment by Amira Jadoon, one of the foremost scholars on the group, IS-K staged 211 attacks between August 2015 and July 2018 and developed strongholds in Kunar and Nangarhar provinces. (The group wasn’t even dislodged after the Trump administration dropped the largest nonnuclear bomb in the U.S. arsenal on an IS-K hideout in Nangarhar in 2017.)
IS-K became even more active after the Taliban takeover in 2021, claiming 224 attacks in the year that followed. These included an attack on a crowd outside the Kabul airport that killed 170 people, including 13 U.S. soldiers, during the final days of the U.S. drawdown as thousands of people desperately tried to evacuate.
In its early years, IS-K targeted civilians, with particularly egregious assaults against religious minorities, especially Hazaras. Since the Taliban takeover, the group has intensified attacks on Taliban targets, seeking to undermine their hold on power. It has also continued assaults against civilians to weaken Taliban legitimacy and shatter the regime narrative that their takeover restored peace and stability to Afghanistan.
The Taliban takeover and U.S. withdrawal from Afghanistan seem to have strengthened IS-K. Thousands of IS-K fighters—including more than 400 foreign operatives—escaped from prison in the chaos as the Taliban prepared to seize power. The collapse of the Afghan military and the exit of NATO troops mean that IS-K is no larger targeted by airstrikes; the Taliban have little air power capacity. Instead, the regime has relied on ground offensives, which have not deterred the group while angering local communities.
Afghanistan’s dire humanitarian crisis has also advantaged IS-K; those suffering from economic hardship or keen to fight back against the Taliban could be targets for recruitment. Some Afghans may react to the ongoing crisis by joining anti-Taliban forces based in Panjshir province, but those forces are weak. There are already some reports of former Afghan security forces joining IS-K. Former Taliban foot soldiers, struggling to adjust to life after war, could also be tempted to jump ship.
IS-K’s damage has still largely been inflicted within Afghanistan. For the group to develop greater transnational capacities would require substantive support from the parent Islamic State and deepened ties with individuals and entities that have capacities for transnational strikes. Those enabling connections could include new inflows of foreign fighters from the Islamic State or even other groups that have carried out attacks beyond the region.
Regardless of how accurate Kurilla’s assessment proves to be, it is a reminder that the world should not be complacent about the threats posed by the Islamic State and its affiliates. Former U.S. President Barack Obama once infamously described the group as a “JV team,” and former U.S. President Donald Trump declared that the Islamic State had been eliminated multiple times. Both were mistaken.
Although U.S. President Joe Biden has said little about IS-K since the U.S. withdrawal from Afghanistan, history shows the group shouldn’t be taken lightly.
What We’re Following
IMF finalizes loan package for Sri Lanka. Six months after inking a staff-level agreement, the International Monetary Fund’s executive board approved a $3 billion bailout loan for Sri Lanka, which has suffered one of the world’s worst economic crises in the last year. An initial $330 million will be deposited in Sri Lanka’s central bank, with more payments to follow.
Sri Lanka’s economy has stabilized in recent months, but inflation remained at more than 50 percent last month, and the country still struggles to import critical goods. Before finalizing the loan, Colombo had to phase out subsidies and make debt-restructuring arrangements with its top creditors. The final deal is a political victory for Sri Lankan President Ranil Wickremesinghe, who declared on Tuesday that Sri Lanka “will no longer be treated as a bankrupt country.”
Although anti-government protests have declined significantly since the resignation of unpopular former President Gotabaya Rajapaksa last year, Wickremesinghe’s political challenges haven’t just gone away. The deal will require austerity measures, which won’t go over well with a public already burdened by economic hardship. His decision to postpone local elections last month because of insufficient funds sparked brief but violent protests in Colombo. (National elections are currently scheduled for next year.)
Sikh separatists attack Indian diplomatic facilities. Last Sunday, supporters of a Sikh separatist movement in India besieged the Indian High Commission in London and New Delhi’s consulate in San Francisco. Protesters broke windows and hung flags representing Khalistan, the name for the homeland they seek in the state of Punjab. The incidents happened as India has cracked down in Punjab, seeking to locate a separatist leader on the run, Amritpal Singh.
Sikh separatism was once a bigger threat in India; in the 1980s, extremists took over a revered Sikh temple, prompting then-Indian Prime Minister Indira Gandhi to order a military operation that killed hundreds of civilians. Later that year, Gandhi was assassinated by two of her Sikh bodyguards, and Indian Hindus retaliated with massacres that resulted in India’s worst religious violence since the Partition. A separatist insurgency was active in Punjab until the mid-1990s.
The issue remains sensitive: When farmers in Punjab led protests against new agricultural laws in 2020, ruling party leaders accused them—with no evidence—of being part of the Khalistan movement. After the recent attacks, New Delhi will certainly worry about the threats the movement could pose to Indian interests elsewhere overseas, including in Canada and Australia, where Sikh communities harbor some sympathy for separatist causes.
Pakistani political turbulence. After police clashed with former Pakistani Prime Minister Imran Khan’s supporters outside his home in Lahore earlier last week, more unrest broke out last Saturday outside a judicial complex in Islamabad when Khan showed up for a court appearance related to corruption charges. While Khan was in Islamabad, police raided his home in Lahore, and government officials claimed they found weapons inside—an allegation Khan denies.
This week, Pakistan’s government ramped up its rhetoric against Khan. Prime Minister Shehbaz Sharif accused him of instigating a “smear campaign” against Pakistan’s army chief. On Tuesday, local media reported that civilian and military leaders now see Khan’s party as a “gang of miscreants trained by banned organizations.” This suggests the state may be trying to build a case to disqualify Khan from public office. Pakistan’s Election Commission disqualified him last year, but he is contesting the decision in the courts.
Then, on Wednesday, the Election Commission announced that it was postponing provincial elections in Punjab—Pakistan’s most populous province—until October, citing economic stress and security threats. Elections were supposed to be held in April, and the move suggests national elections could be postponed on the same pretext—which would further inflame Khan and his growing support base.
Under the Radar
According to a U.S. News report, U.S. intelligence enabled India to avert a clash with China last December along the disputed border between Arunachal Pradesh, India’s easternmost state, and Tibet. At the time, Washington rapidly provided detailed satellite imagery about an impending Chinese incursion, including the location and strength of Chinese troops.
U.S. News reports that because of the advance intelligence, Indian troops were ready when Chinese soldiers staged their provocation, resulting in limited injuries and a rapid Chinese retreat—a very different outcome from the deadly clash in the Galwan Valley in 2020, the worst between the two countries since 1962.
In recent years, Washington and New Delhi have concluded defense accords that enable the two militaries to work closer together, including through stepped-up intelligence cooperation. India’s principle of strategic autonomy means it would reject support from U.S. troops, and New Delhi seems to prefer that U.S. officials not publicly express solidarity amid crisis to avoid further provoking China.
The outcome of last December’s short-lived clash shows that quiet, covert, and technical forms of support can pay off. At the time, Sushant Singh argued in Foreign Policy that the skirmish in Arunachal Pradesh was not an anomaly—and reflects India’s diminished deterrence along its border with China.
FP’s Most Read This Week
• If China Arms Russia, the U.S. Should Kill China’s Aircraft Industry by Richard Aboulafia
• A Coup Would Put Pakistan Squarely in China’s Bloc by Azeem Ibrahim
• The U.S. Has a Troublesome Asian Ally Against China by Nick Aspinwall
In the Wire, retired Indian Army officer M.G. Devasahayam defends Indian opposition leader Rahul Gandhi for saying that India’s democracy is under threat. “When it is in danger and on the verge of collapse, every citizen has the right and duty to raise the voice in the international community,” Devasahayam writes. “He has committed no crime and there is no need for him to apologise.”
On Thursday, an Indian court found Gandhi guilty of defamation for a 2019 remark implying Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi was a thief. He was sentenced to two years in prison. Gandhi was granted bail, and his lawyers intend to appeal the verdict; he faces at least two other defamation cases elsewhere in India.
Scholar Muhammad Hamid Zaman laments the lack of focus on the emotional toll of Pakistan’s severe economic crisis in the Express Tribune. “Few seem to care that a society that is on the edge is … neither going to be productive nor empathetic,” he writes. “One day, when this all will end, we do not want to wake up and recognise that there is no energy or will left to pick up the pieces and rebuild.”
A Kathmandu Post editorial argues that Nepal’s cricket team has performed well despite not receiving proper facilities and other support from the country’s cricket board. “The prodigies that they are, the cricketers stand to turn Nepal into a formidable cricketing country at par with our neighbours if they are better groomed,” it argues.
Michael Kugelman is the writer of Foreign Policy’s weekly South Asia Brief. He is the director of the South Asia Institute at the Wilson Center in Washington. Twitter: @michaelkugelman
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