ISIS-K: Winning or Losing?
Islamic State Affiliated Group Increases Attacks in Afghanistan
While Afghan forces are struggling to combat the Taliban, militants linked to the regional branch of Islamic State, known as Khorasan Province (ISIS-K or ISKP), have also increased attacks, particularly against the country’s minority Hazara Shi’ite community, adding to the problems of the Kabul government. IS-plotted suicide bombings, many of them hitting the capital, Kabul, have killed scores of Afghan civilians in recent weeks.
Kabul Blast Kills 60+
In the most recent attacks, Afghan officials say twin bomb blasts at a wrestling club in the capital Kabul have killed at least 20 people and wounded more than 60 others, September 5.
Police said a suicide bomber blew himself up inside the club located in a mainly Shi’ite neighborhood. A second blast occurred nearby while authorities were helping victims of the first explosion.
There was no immediate claim of responsibility for the attack but it bore the hallmarks of Islamic State. The Sunni Muslim terror organization views Shi’ite Muslims as heretics, and has carried out bombings against the minority before.
The Dascht-e-Barchi neighborhood, mainly populated by Shi’ites, has frequently been a target of IS. Last December, a series of bombings left more than 40 residents dead. In August, another suicide bombing killed 34.
US Forces Kill ISIS-K Leader
U.S. forces in Afghanistan say they targeted and killed the leader of Islamic State Khorasan Province last month in eastern Afghanistan, according to reports on September 2.
Abu Sayeed Bajaur, also known as Abu Saad Orakzai, is the third ISKP leader killed by coalition forces in the past two years.
The announcement came Sunday, when a new U.S. commander took charge of the NATO and U.S. forces in Afghanistan. General Scott Miller said a vital part of his mission in Afghanistan is to keep the country from becoming a safe haven for terrorist groups.
“America and her allies are in Afghanistan to maintain pressure on the networked, trans-regional terrorists attempting to plot, resource and direct attacks from here,” he said.
While ISKP has been facing pressure in Afghanistan and the area under its direct control has been reduced by increased U.S. air strikes, including dropping the biggest non-nuclear bomb called a Massive Ordinance Air Blast last year, it has managed to carry out more brazen attacks in various parts of the country.
Last month, a deadly attack in a Shi’ite neighborhood killed dozens of students taking university entrance exam. Shiites have been frequent targets of ISKP in Afghanistan.
In 2017, Nangarhar, parts of which have been an ISKP stronghold since 2015, proved to be the deadliest place on earth for the U.S. forces. This was where they lost one third of the 21 U.S. service members killed in battle that year.
Despite the violence, General John Nicholson, who handed over command to General Miller, insisted the group is not growing.
US Military Claims ISIS-K Losing War in Afghanistan
The Islamic State terror group is losing its grip on parts of Afghanistan, slowly succumbing to pressure from U.S. and Afghan forces, the outgoing commander of U.S. Forces-Afghanistan said September 1, according to VOA.
General John Nicholson rejected the notion that IS-Khorsasan, also known as ISIS-K or ISKP, has been able to meaningfully expand its presence following a concerted effort to wipe it out, which began last year. That effort included use of the largest non-nuclear bomb in the U.S. arsenal.
“ISIS-K is not growing,” said Nicholson, who hands over command of U.S. Forces-Afghanistan on Sunday to Lieutenant General Austin Miller.
“They have been able to replenish a portion of their losses by recruiting from other violent extremist organizations,” he added in an email statement to VOA. “Despite this recruiting, they are losing fighters and losing ground.”
Recent estimates from U.S. counter-terrorism officials put the number of IS-Khorasan fighters at more than 1,000, even after the defeat last month of IS-K in northern Jowzjan province, where 250 fighters surrendered along with their commander.
More recently, on August 26, the Afghan government announced the death of the IS-Khorasan emir, Abdu Saad Erhabi, along with his nine commanders in a U.S. airstrike, calling it a “major blow” to the terror group.
US Drone Strike Kills ISIS-K Leader Abdu Saad Erhabi
A drone strike has killed the leader of Islamic State in Afghanistan, Abdu Saad Erhabi, and his nine commanders.
The overnight missile attack occurred in the Khogyani district of the troubled eastern Nangarhar province where the terrorist group, locally known as ISKP, is headquartered.
Provincial government spokesman Attaullah Khogyani told VOA the strike also destroyed two of the group’s bases.
A U.S. military spokesman, Lieutenant Colonel Martin O’Donnell, confirmed that U.S. forces had conducted a counter-terrorism strike Saturday that “targeted a senior leader of a designated terrorist organization.”
Erhabi is the fourth leader of ISIS-K to have been killed since the group launched its extremist activities in Afghanistan in early 2015 from bases in Nangarhar on the border with Pakistan.
U.S. military commanders maintain ISIS-K operates several southern districts in Nangahrar and in parts of the adjoining Kunar province. The militants had also established a strong base in the northern Afghan province of Jowzjan near the border with the Central Asian state of Turkmenistan.
But Taliban insurgents early this month eliminated ISIS-K from the province after a month-long offensive against the rival group, killing and capturing a large number of its fighters.
Afghan authorities confirmed at the time about 250 militants surrendered to government forces after fleeing the Taliban onslaught in Jowzjan.
Kabul estimates the number of ISIS-K fighters in the country is not more than 2,000 and downplays Russia’s assertions the terrorist group is increasing its influence in Afghanistan and the number of its fighters is more than 10,000.
ISIS-K Remains Resilient
U.S. defense and intelligence officials have been cautious of predicting the group’s demise, noting that IS-Khorasan, like IS in Iraq and Syria, has been resilient.
Erhabi was the third IS-Khorasan emir killed by U.S. or Afghan forces since April 2017, when the estimated number of fighters dropped to about 600.
For now, senior U.S. counterterrorism officials believe the bulk of the remaining Islamic State fighters, mostly local Afghans, as well as fighters from Pakistan and Uzbekistan, are in Afghanistan’s southern Nangarhar province, with a small number also operating in the country’s eastern Kunar province.
Some Afghan officials worry more may be lurking, warning that the terror group has been bolstered by an influx of foreign fighters — first a surge of about 3,000 from Pakistan and Uzbekistan, and later from hundreds of jihadists fleeing Iraq and Syria.
Nicholson said that there will be no let up in the effort against ISIS-Khorasan.
“United States counter-terrorism forces and Afghan Special Security Forces will keep up the pressure until they are defeated,” he said. “This reinforces the importance of the United States and NATO mission in Afghanistan, to prevent the resurgence of international terrorist groups from the region.”
Image: Commandos training to become Afghanistan’s newest Special Operations unit, the 6th Cobra Strike Kandak, take part in a live fire exercise near Kabul, Afghanistan, Apr. 30, 2018. The 6th CSK is the first of 7 CSKs and provides a new level of mobility and firepower for the Commandos. (DVIDS, released)