On the other side of the jihadist ledger is ISIS-K. The group is one of several affiliates created by the Islamic State after it invaded northern Iraq from Syria in 2014, creating a religious state or caliphate the size of Britain. An American-led campaign crushed the Caliphate, but more than 10,000 ISIS fighters remain in Iraq and Syria, and ISIS affiliates such as the Sahel or the Sinai Peninsula thrive.
But ISIS-K has never been a major force in Afghanistan, let alone globally, analysts say. The group’s ranks have fallen to about 1,500 to 2,000 fighters, about half their peak levels in 2016 before US airstrikes and Afghan commando raids took their toll.
However, as of June 2020, under an ambitious new leader, Shahab al-Muhajir, the branch remains “active and dangerous” and seeks to expand its ranks with disgruntled Taliban fighters and other militants, the UN report concluded.
“They have not been a first-rate ISIS affiliate, but with the Afghan commandos gone and the US military gone, does that give them breathing room? It could,” said Seth G. Jones, an Afghanistan specialist at the Center for Strategic and International Studies in Washington.
Although the group’s overall ranks have declined in recent years, Mr Jones said, ISIS-K has maintained cells of clandestine fighters who carried out terrorist attacks.
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United Nations counter-terrorism officials said in the June report that the Islamic State carried out 77 attacks in Afghanistan in the first four months of this year, up from 21 in the same period in 2020. Last year’s attacks included an attack on the University of Kabul in November and a month later a rocket attack on the airport in Kabul. ISIS-K is believed to have been responsible for a bomb attack on a school in the capital, which killed 80 schoolgirls in May.
Some analysts believe that ISIS-K may have ties to the Haqqani network. Indeed, Shahab al-Muhajir, the ISIS leader, is said to have been a former mid-level Haqqani commander before he defected.