After the defeat of the Islamic State of Iraq and Syria (ISIS), what remains of ISIS has gone underground in the Middle East. Still, it has a strong presence in other regions with different denominations. Islamic State Khorasan Province (ISKP) is the regional branch of ISIS, identified after the ancient Khorasan province that existed during different Muslim empires. It covers parts of modern-day Afghanistan, Iran, and Pakistan.

Despite the Taliban’s repeated crackdowns, ISKP currently poses one of the pressing transnational security threats for the world.

ISKP initially derived its hireling from defectors of already existing militant groups, including Al-Qaeda, Tehrike-e-Taliban (TTP), Central Asians and Arab fighters. The official announcement of ISKP’s formation was made in 2015. The former commander of TTP, Hafiz Saeed Khan, became the first emir of ISKP. Since the U.S. withdrawal, ISKP’s numerical strength is estimated to have grown from 4000 to 6000, including fighters from Pakistan, Central Asia, Iran, Russia, Turkey, Azerbaijan and  a handful of Arab fighters

The conflict between the Taliban and ISKP is mainly focused on the implementation of Sharia law, as ISKP wants an even stricter version of Sharia law. Contrary to its name implying that ISKP is only active in the Khorasan region, they adhere to the general principle of ISIS to establish a transnational Caliphate. To undermine the authenticity of the Taliban, ISKP’s Al-Azaim calls it an ethnic Pashtun nationalist group rather than a legitimate religious authority and accuses the Taliban of colluding with the enemies of Islam, such as Russia, China and America.

ISKP also started conducting domestic and foreign operations, claiming responsibility for the deadly attacks in Pakistan, Russia, Iran, Uzbekistan and Tajikistan. ISKP perpetrated the deadly suicide attack outside Kabul airport. In 2022, it also attacked Pakistan and Russian embassies and hotels of Chinese nationals in Afghanistan. In early 2024, ISKP also attacked the Qasim Solemani memorial anniversary in Iran, killing more than 100 people. On 22 March 2024, multiple armed men claimed by ISKP stormed Moscow’s Crocus Hall, leaving 115 dead.

Political analysts indicate that the Taliban’s ability to fight ISKP without international support appears inadequate and questionable. While operating from a region far from access to modern technology, the group seems to project itself in a way never seen before.

Effective counterterrorism efforts often require intelligence sharing among different security agencies, both domestically and internationally.

The Ambassador Nathan Sales statement is particularly important in this regard. As a result, “our ability to monitor terrorist threat in Afghanistan has been significantly degraded by the withdrawal, and we are no longer able to conduct a sustainable kinetic campaign against groups active there”.

President Biden also said that the U.S. developed counterterrorism “over the horizon capability” that will allow strikes against terrorist organizations from bases outside Afghanistan. Despite this claim, questions are being asked about this strategy, although it does not have intelligence-gathering capabilities.

ISKP is reported to have no territorial control in Afghanistan; however, the operational capacity of the group is rapidly increasing.  In Afghanistan, ISKP has exploited many weaknesses of the Taliban, including its inability to control the large territory of Afghanistan, its limited presence on roads and insufficient funds to pay soldiers.

Youngsters are turning to terrorism because, for some money, that is the only option to support their families. The Taliban are facing a dire humanitarian crisis and deep economic woes. Knowing the challenges faced by the Taliban government, ISKP has threatened to attack humanitarian organizations and foreign commercial interests in Afghanistan. That is designed to deter the outside help that may strengthen the Taliban’s position.

The Turkish authorities vigorously launched a crackdown on extremist organizations, including ISKP. Before the crackdown started, Turkey was a major financial hub for all branches of ISIS. Even here, the Taliban’s check on the informal banking sector remains hollow and superficial.

The Taliban seemingly don’t want to disrupt the sector, which is vital for the Afghan economy and the Taliban themselves.

It was reported that tension is simmering between the Afghan and Tajik sections of the Taliban due to their close connection with ISKP. The Yuldash faction of the Islamic Movement of Uzbekistan (IMU) and the Uyghurs are also unhappy with the Taliban, and a few of them are now left under the Taliban’s protection. ISKP and TTP are cooperating in Pakistan. The Haqqani network has had links with ISKP in the past, and in the opinion of former Afghan officials, those ties have continued.

ISKP follows a hardline Salfi ideology. While the majority of Afghanistan follows the Hanafi school of jurisprudence. ISKP propagates these competing ideologies as impure, superstitious, and idolatry, which leads to variance in their geographical scope, ethnic composition, and nature of attacks. The higher profile at the international level attracts idealistic young recruits, thus starving the Taliban of the potential for a new generation of recruits. The Salafi community, which has been a major source of support for ISKP, is still far away from the integration into the Emirates structure.

Despite the rigorous counterterrorism campaigns, the Taliban still appear far away from containing ISKP. Certain economic, political, and religious issues majorly contribute to the sustainability of ISKP as a security architect in Afghanistan.

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