The massacre on Friday at a concert hall in Moscow is the latest in a series of attacks over the past year that demonstrate the extra-regional reach of the Afghanistan affiliate of the so-called Islamic State (ISIS) and its Central Asian militants.

The Islamic State-Khorasan (ISIS-K), as it is known, has a limited territorial foothold in Afghanistan, yet it possesses the ability to attack not just Afghanistan’s neighbors, but also across the Eurasian landmass.

Its parent group, ISIS, claimed responsibility for last week’s attack in Russia, which took the lives of over 100 concertgoers. But unnamed U.S. officials have attributed the attack to the ISIS-K affiliate.

The rise in global attacks by the Afghanistan-based ISIS-K presents a difficult choice for the international community: the key to containing the group may require deepening engagement with the Taliban — the force that rules Afghanistan — even as the latter moves to impose a more draconian form of rule and continues to give refuge to groups that endanger neighboring Pakistan.

Competitive Jihadism in Afghanistan

ISIS-K is a rival of the Afghan Taliban, the militant Islamist group that regained control over virtually all of Afghanistan after the U.S. withdrawal in 2021.


The two groups differ in religious doctrine, scale of ambition, and how they situate themselves in the global system.

The Afghan Taliban is a territorially-restricted group, focusing on Afghanistan and adjacent regions across the border in Pakistan. It has, however, maintained a longstanding relationship with al-Qaeda — the terrorist group responsible for the 9/11 attacks — and with Pakistani Taliban groups that are at war with the Pakistani state.

At the same time, Afghan Taliban leaders also engage diplomats and other officials from regional states and beyond, including China, India, Russia, and the United States.

(China, in fact, is perhaps the most eager state to recognize the Taliban government in Afghanistan. U.S. Special Envoy for Afghanistan Tom West has also spoken of Afghanistan’s “full integration of Afghanistan into the international system” — contingent upon the group fulfilling certain conditions.)

In contrast, ISIS-K, like its parent organization, is at war with the world — including with the Afghan Taliban, a group that it sees as religious heretics.

ISIS-K was formed in 2015 by Pakistani Taliban militants who fled Pakistan Army operations and were sheltered by the intelligence service of the previous Afghan regime, known as the National Directorate of Security (NDS). (Suspicions over the ISIS-K’s ties to foreign intelligence organizations have long survived its murky origins.)

In Afghanistan, ISIS-K targeted Shia religious minorities, politicians at odds with the Ashraf Ghani government, Pakistani and Russian diplomats, and the Afghan Taliban. As ISIS-inspired attacks took place across the West, a curious dynamic emerged in the latter years of the U.S. military presence in Afghanistan: tacit cooperation between the Afghan Taliban and the United States in combatting ISIS.

The Long Reach of ISIS-K

The potential for ISIS-K to metastasize after a U.S. withdrawal became clear with the August 26, 2021 suicide attack at Kabul airport that killed 170 Afghan civilians and 13 U.S. servicemembers.

ISIS-K has since continued its attack on Hazara Shias in Afghanistan. It also stormed the Pakistani embassy in Kabul and attempted to kill Islamabad’s top diplomat in the country.

The group has also conducted attacks inside Pakistan, including a suicide blast at a political rally in the Bajaur tribal area last July that killed over 50 people.

ISIS-K has not served as a significant insurgent threat to the Taliban regime. But an ISIS-K suicide blast this month in southern Afghanistan, the longtime base of the Afghan Taliban, indicates its danger as a terrorist threat.

Since 2020, ISIS-K has also been implicated in multiple other attacks and plots in Iran as well as Austria, Germany, Turkey, and Uzbekistan — all of which involved Tajik nationals.

ISIS-K claimed responsibility for suicide blasts in Kerman, Iran in January at a memorial for Qassem Soleimani, the longtime commander of the Quds Force.

The ISIS-K leader Sanaullah Ghafari is an Afghan Tajik. Each of the attacks above involved Tajik nationals. While Tajikistan itself is not a hotbed of religious extremism, Tajiks are overrepresented in ISIS-K, due to ethnic and sectarian drivers.

The Tajiks constitute a majority in Tajikistan and are an ethnic minority in neighboring Afghanistan at odds with the mainly Pashtun Taliban, who are seen by some non-Pashtuns as ethnic chauvinists. As a result, some Tajik militants seek affiliation in an alternative jihadist network not dominated by Pashtuns.

Additionally, there may be sectarian factors at play. Taliban militants in Afghanistan and Pakistan follow the Deobandi sub-sect of Sunni Islam. Salafism, a competing form of Islam, has gained followers among some Tajiks, including those who work as migrant laborers in Russia. ISIS-K is a Salafi extremist group.

Tajik militants have been valuable recruits for ISIS-K, primarily due to language and mobility. The Tajik language and Persian — the dominant language of Iran — are mutually intelligible. Many Tajiks also speak Russian as a result of long Soviet rule. Millions of Tajik nationals head to Russia each year as seasonal workers.

The Afghan Taliban: A Net Beneficiary?

The exact connection of Friday’s attack to ISIS-K is unclear. It isn’t clear whether the perpetrators of the massacre spent time in Afghanistan. But at least some of the attackers appear to have spent time recently in Turkey.

ISIS now operates in a more decentralized fashion with lines blurred between its organizational subunits, which it refers to as “provinces.” ISIS-K has reportedly provided operational support to the broader network’s operatives in Turkey and elsewhere — and that is potentially the case in the Moscow attack.

Given the ability of ISIS-K and a decentralized broader ISIS network to hit a wide geographic expanse in Eurasia, the international community is likely to see engagement with the Taliban, the group’s chief rival in Afghanistan, as more urgent. This comes as the Afghan Taliban’s leader Hibatullah Akhundzada has indicated the group will take on a more draconian turn, with more public punishments and executions.

At the same time, the Taliban regime in Afghanistan presents a security threat to neighboring Pakistan. It has offered shelter to the Tehreek-e Taliban Pakistan and the Hafiz Gul Bahadur Group, groups that have intensified their insurgency against the Pakistani state since the U.S. withdrawal using American-supplied weapons left behind by the previous Afghan government’s military.

Both regional states and Western governments may be keen on seeing the Taliban command a monopoly on violence in Afghanistan and contain the ISIS-K threat. That would give the group’s hardliners a greater ability to push its austere social agenda at home and continue to let Pakistani militants use Afghan territory to strike their country of origin.

Arif Rafiq is the editor of Globely News. Rafiq has contributed commentary and analysis on global issues for publications such as Foreign Affairs, Foreign Policy, the New Republic, the New York Times, and POLITICO Magazine.

He has appeared on numerous broadcast outlets, including Al Jazeera English, the BBC World Service, CNN International, and National Public Radio.


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