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The New ISIS: How a Branch of the Terrorist Group Is Becoming a Top Threat

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The Islamic State’s Khorasan Province, also known as ISIS-K, has rapidly become the new boogeyman in the Middle East — specifically in Afghanistan, where the overall ISIS apparatus has spread its influence.

The State Department has issued warnings about the group and has previously designated its leaders as top-priority terrorists. Over the last few years, top military generals have said that the group must be eradicated. And perhaps most recent in Americans’ minds is the group’s claim to the Abbey Gate suicide bombing, an explosion that killed 13 U.S. service members and at least 160 Afghans during the chaotic military withdrawal from Afghanistan almost two years ago.

Last month, the Taliban — the reigning draconian regime in Afghanistan that the U.S. fought over the last 20 years of conflict in the country — claimed that they had killed the ISIS-K leader behind the Abbey Gate plot.

The claim marks renewed attention in a new era of conflict for the region. Our guest, Andrew Mines, spent years as a researcher with the George Washington Program on Extremism warning of ISIS-K’s rise, as did other academics. And reporters like Dan Lamothe with The Washington Post have uncovered U.S. documents that indicate Afghanistan is once again a staging ground for global terrorism — this time, with ISIS-K.

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  • Drew F. Lawrence and Rebecca Kheel interview extremism researcher Andrew Mines and Washington Post military reporter Dan Lamothe.

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Rebecca Kheel, Dan Lamothe, Drew F. Lawrence, Andrew Mines

Drew F. Lawrence

The Islamic State’s Khorasan Province, also known as ISIS-K has been rapidly becoming the new boogeyman in the Middle East — specifically in Afghanistan where the overall ISIS apparatus has spread its influence. The State Department has issued warnings about the group and has previously designated their leaders as top priority terrorists. Over the last few years, top military generals have said that the group must be eradicated. And perhaps most recent in American’s minds is the group’s claim to the Abbey Gate suicide bombing, an explion that killed 13 U.S. service members and at least 160 Afghans during the chaotic military withdrawal from Afghanistan almost two years ago. Last month, the Taliban — the reigning draconian regime in Afghanistan which the U.S. fought over the last 20 years of conflict in the country — claimed that they killed the ISIS-K leader behind the Abbey Gate plot. The claim marks renewed attention in a new era of conflict for the region. Our guest, Andrew Mines, spent years as a researcher with the George Washington Program on Extremism warning of ISIS-K’s rise, as did other academics. And reporters like Dan Lamothe with the Washington Post have uncovered U.S. documents that indicate Afghanistan is once again a staging ground for global terrorism — this time, with ISIS-K. Join us for this special episode where we talk to Andrew, Dan and my co-host Rebecca Kheel about ISIS-K and the worldwide threat the group poses — a prescient conversation held just days before the Taliban claimed responsibility for killing the leader of the Abbe Gate plot.

Hey, thanks guys for being here and Andrew before we kind of get into Dan’s reporting here, I want to talk a little bit about ISIS and ISIS-K in general. I think I’d suggest that the US population probably knows a little bit about ISIS, but maybe not recently. So can you kind of put that group into perspective and tell us a little bit about what ISIS is now?

Andrew Mines

Sure. So ISIS-K really starts back in 2015. And even in the months prior in 2014. What happens after the announcement of the caliphate in 2014 in Iraq and Syria is, all these problems start to form around the globe. And at the start of 2015, the Islamic State announces the official formation of its province in Afghanistan and Pakistan IS Khorasan, also known as the Islamic State in Afghanistan in Pakistan. What happens over the course of a few years is the group forms based on membership from a number of local organizations. We’re talking Pakistani Taliban is the central node that really kicks things off alongside some al Qaeda defectors, Afghan Taliban, other regional militant groups like the Islamic movement of Uzbekistan and others and so over time they’re able to entrench themselves in the region, eventually administer territory somewhat similar to what we saw in Iraq and Syria, and engage in a campaign of violence that by 2018 leads them to be the fourth deadliest terrorist organization on the planet, according to some estimates. At the same time this is all happening, the US and its allied partners in Afghanistan engaged on a really intensive counterterrorism and at once, counterinsurgency operations that when they take out a number of top leadership. Leadership turnover in this organization has been quite tumultuous to say the least. Thousands of rank and file losses on top of that, and eventually the recapture of territory that IS-K or ISIS-K had started administering in the region and so by 2020 This is really an organization pretty much in decline, some calling it defeated. But what happens in 2020 is the formation of a new leadership council under a new leader was announced in about mid-2020. That kicks off this new kind of urban warfare campaign that takes the group through the period of the signing of the Doha deal in early 2020 takes us through 2020 and into 2021. And by this point IS-K has does most people bombings that folks might be familiar with. In 2020, there was a bombing of [a] maternity ward in Kabul. That’ll be familiar to some folks — it was pretty awful — but really leading up to the Kabul airport attack this is an organization that’s just starting to resurge and just starting to find its feet again in urban warfare operations. And that takes us into the Kabul bomb, which of course is very familiar to everybody, I’m sure.

Drew F. Lawrence

Right, Dan, I want to pivot to you too, because that I think, was probably one of the last large points that the US population had heard about ISIS-K was during the Abbey Gate bombing in the withdrawal. ISIS-K claimed responsibility for the suicide bombing. So Dan, I was wondering if you could kind of take us from that last point of recognition on ISIS-K and then bring us into your reporting and explaining what this group is doing in Afghanistan and how big their presence is?

Dan Lamothe

Sure. I mean, I think an important thing that that bombing highlighted, in addition to the immense human suffering that was caused by it in the moment is that the Taliban can’t control ISIS-K. They’re a separate entity. They don’t agree on a lot of things. They’re openly fighting with each other. You’re seeing Taliban raids on ISIS compounds. You know, they you know, while they both have overlapping views of the West and the United States and why they think, you know, kind of a western view is a problem. ISIS-K is even more extreme, and has been targeting the Taliban and the Taliban has not been fully successful in stopping that. So you expand that, you know, extremist groups like this often with the ungoverned spaces. The Taliban is able to govern a portion of Afghanistan. They are obviously imposing their will on Afghan people every day. But you know, these documents would highlight that they are unsuccessful in fully stopping you know, ISIS in Afghanistan from planning, plotting, reaching out to the outside world, trying to inspire attacks in other places, and you know, as a result you know, we saw not only us reactions to my story, but actually the Taliban, putting out statements pushing.

Rebecca Kheel

You have a quote in your story from an official I want to read the quote, because it’s pretty crazy. The official says, quote, I would never want to say that we had mortgaged our counterterrorism to a group like the Taliban, but it’s a fact that operationally they put pressure on ISIS-K in a strange world, we have mutually beneficial objectives there. But what you’re suggesting is that the Taliban hasn’t actually really been successful at that. Right?

Dan Lamothe

I would say probably partially successful. You know, there is open source reporting of Taliban raids on ISIS compounds there is, you know, I think a sense that the Taliban is trying to keep pressure on ISIS. I think that probably has had a role in what ISIS is effectively able to do. The documents on one hand point out that there is a effort to expand influence, expand operations. There’s an increasing number of plots that the United States was tracking, as when these documents were put together in February. But the flipside is there was also a lot of ambitions that were highlighted that have not been able to kind of fully for, you know, ISIS seeking out a greater level of knowledge on drone warfare, on chemical warfare, things like that. They have not been able to expand. So I thinkconsequently, the most likely sorts of things that that they’re concerned about at this point are things like driving trucks through crowded, crowded areas, gun attacks, sort of the ISIS inspired stuff that could happen anywhere. And has happened in the past.

Drew F. Lawrence

And with Dan’s reporting, we’re talking about ISIS in Afghanistan, but as both of you in you know, Andrew, you’d mentioned in beginning and then Dan, your reporting you’d mentioned… his is ISIS has a global influence in terms of their their terror, and I’m wondering if you could kind of give us that scope right outside of Afghanistan, what ISIS is doing and Andrew, I’ll toss it over to you first, and then Dan, if you could kind of tell us a little bit about how your reporting fit into that scope.

Andrew Mines

Here’s the thing I think I think the most dangerous thing is that in that resurgence period I was describing really starts back in 2020. IS started is honestly in Afghanistan and Pakistan has already started pivoting to be more of this kind of regional hub. My and I’ve reported foreign fighters from over a dozen nationalities that have at some point get involved with IS-K killed in counterterrorism operations from France all the way over the Philippines on the other side, actually, an American tried to join them back in 2018. Some people might not be fully aware. But what happens during this resurgence period is that the group really starts to through its propaganda output, and also through its attacks in terms of who is attacking and who is highlighting this propaganda showing that it’s a regional force. So we see starting in 2020 2021 2022, Uzbek, Uighur, Indian Tajik and other fighters of different ethnicities and nationalities conducting attacks across the border into their countries, or at least trying to find embassies and other diplomatic presences in the country that still remain even after the withdrawal on the on the airport, of course, 2021. And in 2022 this is an organization that is a third deadliest terrorist organization on the planet. So I think that that point that Dan made about the Taliban trying having the objective of constraining IS-K there certainly they have been at odds since is key information. But this is this is really an environment in which IS-K can thrive. And I think that that last data point that comes out and Dan’s reporting about them really seeking this external operation model, that’s a model that benefited IS in the caliphate in Iraq and Syria. That’s something actively tried to do in setting up higher structures staffed by operatives that were their sole focus was external operations in countries like the United States, United Kingdom, Europe and elsewhere. So I think this is this is a really delicate period. And I’d be interested to see Dan your perspective on on the reporting and how that came out pf the leaks, but, you know, this is, from our perspective, there are a number of data points that should be really concerning.

Dan Lamothe

Yeah, I mean, I would say the documents highlight communication between ISIS operatives in places like Afghanistan, but then reaching out back to Britain, France, Turkey. And those are the things that are doing better to a degree trackable by the US government and others. But you never know what you’re missing until it’s too late. You know, and, you know, if they’re able to stop 98 attacks, the other two will still be a concern. So, you know, there you see in these documents, specific examples, some of which, you know, trying to be responsible, we were very vague with not wanting to you know, kind of cut off, you know, active US efforts to try and stay on top of this. So, we left things out deliberately trying to do that. So, you know, in the vague broad sense, you do see things like Tajikistan come up, you do see Turkey come up if you see the Britain come up, we alluded to an example where there was a discussion between you know, this ISIS facilitator and an individual in Britain, you know, and the discussion and the instructions that were passed. Those are the sorts of things that are, you know, they’re tracking it, they’re they’re you know, they have a number of narratives that they’re following and a number of plots that they’re following. But it would also raise the question, what do you not know about?

Rebecca Kheel

In my congressional hearings I’ve watched, it seems like military leaders often put the timeline for the threat of an external attack at six months. A year ago, they had you had a quote from general Kurilla a few months ago or a month ago, where he also used the six month timeline. Dan, in your reporting, what are military leaders saying about the threat of an external attack by ISIS-K?

Yeah, there seems to be broad acknowledgement and overlap speaking to senior defense officials in uniform and out that this is a concern and it is an increasing concern. I think there is probably differences of opinion on what what’s six months, what’s four months, what’s 12 months? You know, that can be kind of hard to peg. So, you know, I raised that comment from general Kurilla, which came up in open testimony in March before the House Armed Services Committee, and speaking with others you know, they they agree with him broadly, that there’s a rising concern, but you know, that they weren’t really willing to peg it or agree with the idea that six months is a thing.

Drew F. Lawrence

And Andrew before Dan’s report came out, you had done work about ISIS-K attacking humanitarian aid. And when we’re talking about Afghanistan, you know, after withdrawal that has been a huge, not just the attacks, but humanitarian aid to the country after the withdrawal has been an absolutely huge point coming out of the United States and for service members and for veterans. And ISIS-K has disrupted that. Can you talk about some of those disruptions and maybe how this fits into the broader Afghan diaspora and post withdrawal that’s happening and then that goes to you as well, since I know you’ve, you’ve covered a lot especially for servicemembers and veterans who are still kind of talking about and reckoning with that withdrawal.

Andrew Mines

So the campaign against humanitarians in Afghanistan, one of the number of campaigns that I escaped undertakes, we feature tax of course, but also propaganda and official invited senior senior ideologues. So what what’s happened the last couple of years now actually is that ISK senior officials and ideologues turn to humanitarians and said, accepting aid from any Western Affiliated Organization. Whatever, wherever that aid is coming from is not permissible and where possible, Afghans should actively target and push out humanitarian still servicing the country. So this is part of this broader campaign to destabilize the country. When you look at Islamic State doctrine. This is doctrine that IS-K ISIS K adopts but it’s really coming from Iraq and Syria where a lot of the movements core kind of strategists formulating an insurgency warfare strategy, but this is this is a campaign that’s meant to precede that period where you destabilize the current government discredit those who are attempting to serve as the population and create those gaps where is then seeks to fill down the road right that’s that’s that’s the whole model. It’s it’s an insurgency one on one. And so this is this is just one campaign that’s part of a broader effort to both discredit the Taliban broken window fallacy. You’re creating the problems that you then seek to solve at the end of the day, and then painting them as puppets of the West no better than the previous Rudy, right or previous government. And so this is this is all part of IS-K broader, broader insurgency warfare strategy. So I think that just coming back to the you know, what we mean when we talk about IS-K attacks on the west, you know, there’s a humanitarian still servicing the country. Is it on regional diplomatic residence? Is it on homeland on the homeland right to targets here in the US and using some kind of model whether it’s virtual planning, or sending operatives overseas? What have you. So we really need some clarity, I think about what it is that senior officials mean, when they see an Islamic state threat coming from Afghanistan, on Western interests that can be quite vague and it can be quite confusing to the public. I think, to some clarity there. It’s really important.

Dan Lamothe

I would add on on the other side, you know, the Taliban has accepted a large amount of money at this point from the western United States in particular, they are allowing NGOs to continue their work. And there is a great deal of suffering and starvation and drought and other things that the Taliban does not seem to have been able to get their arms around and take care of their own citizens at this point if they’re going to be the governing party. So you look at that and you end up with in these weird, awkward situations where a story like this highlights that ISIS still just in Afghanistan, still concerned that politically is a problem for a lot of people in Washington. But it’s also a problem for the Taliban. Because you know, they’re having to kind of sit on the fence to a degree. They’re accepting the money from the West, but trying to make it clear to Afghan people that they are not of the West. You know, and they are trying to kind of push back this ISIS threat, but at the same time, make the case in the United theater to the United States and others that they’ve got it there’s no problem here. Consequently, one of the things we saw from my story is kind of a weird situation we see unfold, and we had some uncomfortable conversations prior to the story being published, about you know, you know, what can be reported what should be reported? Obviously, these are leaks that makes it extra sensitive as well. But then on the flip side, after publication, you see the Taliban come out, pushing back against the reporting saying, “Hey, this is Western propaganda. You know, these are military documents that were released to the Washington Post.” I can assure you, these are not handed to us under any circumstances that the Pentagon was thrilled with. So you know, like, even in Taliban, the characterization of this is, you know, it kind of flips it on a ear again, in a weird way.

Rebecca Kheel

Now,you just alluded to this, but we should probably take a step back and talk about where this information came from, because that in of itself is a big story. What are the discord leaks?

Dan Lamothe

Yeah. So there’s there’s this ongoing case in which the allegation at least, is that a relatively junior member of 21 years old of the Massachusetts Air National Guard, was basically pulling in documents through you know, illicit means and sharing them within a discord chat app with his online friends, some of which were teenagers. You know, some of these documents lead to other chat rooms, and, you know, that’s kind of how it ended up in employment, public realm. But but it’s to, to this point, still unclear exactly how many documents are kind of out in the wild? How broadly they are out there, you know, and who has access to them? You know, some of these I think they’d be access has been limited now that this case is out in public, you know, you’ve seen servers that are deleted and things of that sort. We, as the Washington Post had sorted through several 100 pages. This this is an example of a story in a doc a set of documents that hadn’t really service widely, hadn’t been reported on elsewhere. But I’m not sure what the full universe of those documents is, at this point. I just know we’re combing through them. You know, we’re doing what we can to report on them to verify them, you know, and it puts the government in an awkward position of, you know, having to address some of this stuff. And generally, it seems like at this point, they’ve reached a place where they’re not going to verify or, you know, confirm that a given slide is accurate, but they are starting to talk more broadly about the issue. You know, if you’re going to be writing on, you know, of the rise of ISIS in Afghanistan, what the threat is of ISIS at this moment, you know, they wouldn’t confirm the documents exist, but they were willing to engage more broadly on the subject.

Drew F. Lawrence

And Dan is the Washington Post military reporter, you’re obviously in tune with service members and veterans. And I’d be remiss if I didn’t ask about how this fits into the broader conversation about Afghanistan. The reason why I want to ask that is because we are 20 months out of the withdrawal at this point. And now, you know, we’re learning that Afghanistan, despite, you know, efforts over the last 20 years, is still very much a hotbed for terrorism, the very thing that United States and servicemembers and veterans were they’re fighting to combat or where they’re combating. So I’m wondering if you could kind of give us a lay of the land or give us some scope about, you know, maybe how veterans or service members might be perceiving the news that you know, even after all this time, there’s still a lot of terrorism and, frankly, new terrorism going on in Afghanistan.

Dan Lamothe

Yeah, I’m wrestling with that myself just haveing spent so much time there. You know, I think as we look at this, you know, kind of looking at the possible counterfactuals if you know, what the other big fork in the road might have what might have led us to obviously the recommendation from General Miller, General McKenzie, Defense Secretary Esper and on up I mean, including that, you know, the current leadership at the Pentagon, they recommended leaving a 2500 or 1000, depending on you know, what the recommendation was on a given month, a reasonably small force there. That would have been very much focused on this issue that was not palatable to the Taliban. That does not appear to have been palatable to President Trump. It does not appear to have been palatable to President Biden. So you are left where you are now with zero US troops on the ground. Them trying to keep a track of this as in as many ways as they can, which I assume includes signals intercepts, you know, satellite monitoring, trying to make sure you’re not seeing training camps pop up from the air, all of those sorts of things. You know, and at the end of the day, I think that discussion will probably end up landing on you know, if you see one of these attacks, it’s seven people get killed in an ISIS inspired ISIS enabled you know, ISIS facilitated sort of attack you know, that like They run the gamut. Some of these are very much like, ISIS did this. Some of these are more like well, ISIS talk somebody into doing different, different different discussion there. But let’s say one of those happens next year, not on unforeseeable, something like that could pop up. You’re gonna end up seeing probably a pretty hot political conversation of whether we are doing enough as a nation at that point. And I think the discussion will end up being you know, does it make sense to put people back on the ground with all of the other things that come with it? deployments, larger budgets, at least focused on this issue? American casualties on the ground would not be unforeseeable? Or do you kind of just take it on the chin with these occasional tacks to to slip through, and you catch 95-98% of them? And occasionally one of them’s going to happen and, you know, that, that, you know, that sort of a worse bad option and I don’t know what the ultimate right answer is. on that. I just know we need to talk about it.

Andrew Mines

I think it’s really important to highlight that the Taliban have been battling ISIS-K since 2015. And they’ve had the benefit of a US led coalition that’s been hammering this group the entire time too. And even then, it took several years to really do great and push this group into some kind of position where people felt comfortable saying they were defeated. Obviously, that was premature. But to I think, to say that, again, I did this too earlier, but to say that the current Taliban regime is an effective counterterrorism force I think is quite a bit of a stretch it’s easy to take their propaganda and they’re quite good at pushing it out to Western audiences, and we’ve got this under control. Everything that you’re seeing is over employed. And what you’re seeing in the news is is Western directed us by propaganda efforts against us, but, you know, historically, they’ve been clashing since 2015. IS-K poses an existential threat to the Taliban as a movement if it’s able to move from a position where it’s a few 1000 or so fighters to a larger insurgency that’s capable of undermining the regime. period we’re seeing now to, you know, something that more resembles the caliphate from Iraq and Syria in 2014. That’s the goal. That’s the vision. And I think what we ended the book with is this quote, I’ll paraphrase it we say when, when IS it over when the Islamic State took over Iraq and Syria in 2014, they’re they’re kind of these two things that kept coming up in America, that we as public and American public’s repeat over and over again, that it was unprecedented. And then it happened rapidly. Right? That is the way that the as long as they swept across Iraq and Iraq and Syria was just just unimaginably fast. And that looks like it, right, that’s what it appears to be. But that is a several years long campaign that really starts since the US withdrawal in 2011 that the Islamic State core group is really seeking to push through and then slowly rebuild. And then build this insurgency and take on all these campaigns, the same ones that we’re seeing IS-K take on today, itt was taking on Iraq and Syria. And so I I would just echo Dan, you know, the question we should be asking is, worst case scenario. Are we comfortable with a caliphate in Afghanistan run by ISIS-K? Is an unacceptable outcome and what are the real things that we should be doing to counteract that? Because I’m not sure that over the horizon is an effective way to do that, to conduct that that campaign.

Dan Lamothe

I would add, I mean, the other the other side of the coin, here is al Qaeda. You know, and we haven’t talked about that yesterday, but that often comes up in the discussion and it is quick discussion when you talk to current US officials, because they point to drone strike that killed SWAT hearing the al Qaeda leader in Afghanistan, a stone’s throw from a former US military headquarter, just by the way, I mean, like right next to downtown Chicago as an example of how this current model can work in you know, there’s I think there’s there’s there’s a couple threads worth discussing. One is that, you know, these documents don’t have much about al Qaeda in there. The sense is from a number of experts that al Qaeda at least, has been diminished to a degree that they you know, are not a major concern at the moment. You know ISIS is, but these individuals often jump one group to another based on which one seems more effective, which one, you know, you know, they protrude from one another. And we’ve seen that with, you know, ISIS in Afghanistan as well. I mean, they have members that were former Taliban you know, they had members that were former tapping involved in Pakistani groups. So where this goes and how this evolves, I think is unpredictable. But you know, the discussion at least of what is the best model probably needs to evolve with it. In an I think everybody is weary of doing anything that includes another 20 year commitment on the ground in Afghanistan. But I think people need to keep their eyes open and you know this will continue to ebb and flow and evolve based on how good the Taliban is at going after ISIS. Based on how well the United States is able to kind of monitor this remotely, you know, through signals intelligence to satellite intelligence, whatever else, whatever other means they can without actually having troops on the ground. And, you know, ISIS will evolve with it, they’ll probably get smarter over time as well. So you know, it’s going to be a complex issue for a long time.

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