People in many parts of the world were alarmed when the Taliban seized power in Afghanistan. But few imagined that the new government would in turn be threatened by Islamic State of Iraq and Syria (ISIS) – a movement even more extreme than the Taliban. ISIS leader, Abu Ibrahim al-Hashimi al-Qurayshi, was killed in February 2022, the second ISIS leader to die in three years, but this does not mean the threat from ISIS has been reduced. Recent attacks in Asia are important indicators that not only is ISIS not eliminated, but the group still poses a considerable threat to the world. Its expansion in the Taliban-controlled Afghanistan is highly concerning.
Leveraging the instability in the country, ISIS-Khorasan Province (ISIS-K), the Afghanistan affiliate of ISIS, has carried out several attacks against Afghan civilians and the Taliban. Of the 400 people killed in Afghanistan since the Taliban takeover, more than 80% of them have died in attacks by ISIS-K. So far, the Taliban have kept ISIS-K at bay, but this is not proving to be easy.
The Taliban is walking a tight rope in Afghanistan. Kabul needs to attract foreign aid and investment in order to avoid worsening poverty, hunger and unemployment – the very conditions that ISIS-K would thrive on. It also needs to refrain from implementing strict social laws especially around women’s rights and freedoms. However, this is not easy either, as evidenced when the Taliban backtracked on their announcement to girls to go to school on the day schools were reopening.
But a failure to implement a strict interpretation of Islam, will likely encourage radical Afghans to switch allegiance to ISIS-K. Reports suggest that many low- and mid-level Taliban soldiers are already defecting to ISIS-K. Many of these were attracted to the Taliban by the promise of a pure Islamist government and now find the movement’s search for legitimacy internationally, and its hesitancy to impose more strict social laws, a betrayal of the promise.
It is too early to say whether ISIS will ever get back to its high point or establish a Caliphate in Afghanistan by defeating the Taliban. There is a roughly even chance that it could become a variant of Al-Qaeda i.e., operating in the background, causing trouble every now and then, but unsuccessful in conducting large-scale attacks in the West. However, western countries could see a rise in knife attacks which are much harder to detect and prevent as they do not need sophisticated planning and can often be conducted on a whim by individuals. ISIS will very likely encourage its followers to conduct such attacks as it requires very little resource commitment on their behalf. Thus, despite the death of its leader, ISIS will likely continue to expand to other regions, and the Taliban-controlled Afghanistan seems a perfect model for the movement to follow.
Sachin Khunte is a recent Bachelor of Arts graduate majoring in Politics and International Relations and International Business at the University of Sydney. He is currently working as a Team Lead and an editor in an American intelligence and counterterrorism firm. He was formerly a Policy Researcher intern with the University of Sydney where he researched how Australian governments can effectively implement Artificial Intelligence in the public sector. His regions of interest are South Asia, Middle East, and North Africa and his topics of interests are counterterrorism, security, foreign policy, cybersecurity, and Australia’s relationship with South Asia.
Sachin is an intern with the Australian Institute of International Affairs.