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The Group ISIS-K Claims Responsibility For The Deadly Kabul Attack

STEVE INSKEEP, HOST:

Days before an attack on the Kabul airport, Biden administration officials were telling anybody who would listen that they expected it. President Biden even named the group that the United States was watching. strike.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

PRESIDENT JOE BIDEN: Every day we're on the ground is another day we know that ISIS-K is seeking to target the airport and attack both U.S. and allied forces and innocent civilians.

INSKEEP: So what is ISIS-K? Many people have heard of ISIS, the self-proclaimed Islamic State that controlled parts of Iraq and Syria a few years ago. U.S. troops and local allies drove them out. Now, this offshoot group seems present in Afghanistan. So we'll discuss them with Douglas London, who was the CIA's chief of counterterrorism for South and Southwest Asia. Mr. London, welcome.

DOUGLAS LONDON: Good morning. Nice to be on the program.

INSKEEP: What does the K stand for in ISIS-K?

LONDON: The K stands for Khorasan. It's actually the Islamic State of the Khorasan Province, Khorasan being that region that straddles both Iran and Afghanistan. It's rather holy to Islam in that community.

INSKEEP: So they are essentially saying, this is our turf, this is our territory. And they have - I don't want to say an imaginary, but a kind of Islamic map on the globe, which has different borders than the borders of the countries we see there.

LONDON: That's exactly right. It speaks specifically to their region of the world.

INSKEEP: What do they want in that region?

LONDON: So ISKP began as an affiliate of the Islamic State of Iraq and Syria in 2015. And they originally began as a number of those who left other existing organizations, predominantly the Tehrik-i-Taliban Pakistan, which is a version of the Afghan - of Afghans Taliban that began in Pakistan. And their drive is to overthrow the Pakistani regime. They've - known for a number of horrific attacks in Pakistan, including against a school. And they were also responsible for the attack against Forward Operating Base Chapman that killed several of my colleagues and others.

So they essentially have the same fundamental philosophy that we know the Taliban to have possessed over the years, a very reactionary brand of Islam, a Deobandi brand is what they call it. They're very influenced by Saudi Wahhabism. And they were dissatisfied with the direction of their group, so essentially, more political and rivalry issues. In fact, over the six years of its existence, of the six previous emirs, or the leaders, of the group, five actually came from that Tehrik-i-Taliban Pakistan group. They were mostly tribesmen from that border area that straddles eastern Afghanistan and Pakistan - Mehsudis and Waziris and Pashtuns.

The most recent emir prior to the one who's leading right now was actually captured by Afghan and U.S. forces, but was executed, from what I've seen in the press, by the Taliban, when they freed the prisoners from Bagram, where he was being kept. The current emir, from what I've seen in press and such, is named Shahab al-Muhajir.

Now, muhajir means immigrant, and it's used as a name by the community of Indians that left India for Pakistan during the migration, during Partition. But it's used by those who are visiting from other countries. So I've variously seen him speculated to either be an Arab who came there from elsewhere, and some in the press have suggested he was a former member of the Haqqanis, which I would find a little bit surprising, but it's still possible.

INSKEEP: So I just want to underline what you're telling me here. There is a group known as the Pakistani Taliban who attacked the government of Pakistan - brutal group, controlled part of the country, did terrible things. And you're telling me that a lot of these ISIS-K guys are people who thought they just weren't extreme enough, and now they're in Afghanistan and seem not to think that the Afghan Taliban are extreme enough. Is that right?

LONDON: Well, ironic but a fair assessment. I think it goes a bit beyond that. I think there's a lot of rivalry and competition for power as well that goes to it. So there's certainly the philosophical element that they are very hardcore and they're, you know, very extreme. But I think that goes beyond that.

INSKEEP: Can I just ask...

LONDON: Please.

INSKEEP: Can I just ask? In a democratic society, political parties sometimes get more extreme or more populist. They're trying to one-up one another. Are you saying this is also happening with these extremist groups? They will get wilder and wilder in their philosophy to gain allegiance from people?

LONDON: You capture it very well, Steve. And in fact, that's what concerns the Taliban because the Taliban fears ISKP for its ability to challenge them for fighters, for resources and popularity. As small as ISKP is, it's been a very resilient organization and has been able to maintain a presence, particularly in the northeast of Afghanistan. And as we've seen, it's maintained a capability within the cities, such as Kabul and Jalalabad. ISKP terrorist attacks actually increased over the last year, despite the fact that their number of fighters on the ground have been reduced by attrition over the years.

INSKEEP: When you say it's been reduced, what do you think they are - dozens, hundreds, thousands?

LONDON: You know, there is speculation I see reflected in the press of thousands, maybe 1,000 to 2,000. It's possible. But again, from a counterterrorism perspective, they're fighting an asymmetrical battle right now, which means they really don't need large numbers. They really don't need a lot of money. ISKP's attacks, as we've seen, are referred to as low-tech but complex - complex in the sense that they use a strategy of diversion, distraction, often to try to lull in first responders after an initial attack or to distract attention from where their primary target is. It doesn't cost a great deal of money, and it does not require a great many people to conduct the kinds of operations that are done and the ones we saw at the airport. A suicide belt - there's also many people who know how to make that - and the use of small arms including rockets, even, or RPGs, isn't very expensive. Those weapons are easy to find, easy to train on. And it makes them such a concerning threat because it's hard to stop that kind of activity when you have a small group of folks who are rather decentralized. So you can't go against a real central command hub. You have to identify cell-by-cell. Because despite all these emirs that have been removed, they've only gotten more persistent in terms of this asymmetrical terrorism.

INSKEEP: I suppose once the U.S. gets out of Afghanistan, this is all the Taliban's problem. They have to deal with this enemy. But is it also a problem for the United States over time?

LONDON: It's very much a problem for the United States. They're active throughout the region. They've been active in India. They've been active in Bangladesh. They're responsible for attacks against some of our local employees in our embassy in Bangladesh. So they maintain a persistent threat across the region. And of course, they aspire to become global. It will be challenging for them, but it's a concern that we have to address. And better to address it before it metastasizes and becomes worse.

INSKEEP: And the CIA - can they still operate against ISIS-K, even after the U.S. presence is gone formally?

LONDON: So the CIA has been in the business of collecting from places where we don't have a presence - not even an embassy, at times - over the years. It's more challenging. The quality of the intelligence, the timeliness of the intelligence, is more difficult, particularly when you're running these operations often remotely, sometimes through proxies, through locals on the ground of that nationality who act, if you would, as our case officers, recruiting and handling agents. So it's more difficult, but not impossible. And we've learned how to do it.

INSKEEP: Douglas London, it was a pleasure talking with you. Thank you so much.

LONDON: Thank you, Steve.

INSKEEP: He is the CIA's former chief of Counterterrorism for South and Southwest Asia.

(SOUNDBITE OF PORTICO QUARTET'S "BEYOND DIALOGUE") Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.