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Who is ISIS-K, the group officials blame for the Kabul airport bombings?

August 26, 2021 GMT

(RNS) — A horrific terrorist attack at a Kabul airport on Thursday (Aug. 26) has killed at least 12 U.S. service members as well as more than 60 Afghans attempting to flee the country, a death toll U.S. officials are attributing to an ISIS affiliate.

The details of the attack at Hamid Karzai International Airport and a nearby hotel are still unfolding. But Gen. Kenneth McKenzie Jr. told reporters on Thursday that those responsible for the twin suicide bombings and subsequent barrage of gun fire were “assessed to have been ISIS fighters” and “ISIS gunmen.” Shortly thereafter, ISIS formally claimed responsibility for the attacks.

Earlier in the day, the Associated Press and other news agencies cited unnamed U.S. government officials who said the attacks are believed to have been carried out by a violent group known as the Islamic State Khorasan, an Islamic State affiliate also known as “ISIS-K.”

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ISIS-K was reportedly created around six years ago by disaffected members of the Taliban’s Pakistani wing and is thought to be more radical than the Taliban that currently controls most of Afghanistan. The group’s violent attacks — which include dozens this year alone — have often targeted Afghanistan’s Shiite Muslim minority, and its actions have triggered airstrikes and counterattacks from both U.S. forces and the Taliban.

But according to The New York Times, thousands of fighters aligned with the Taliban, ISIS-K and al-Qaida have poured into Afghanistan in recent months, creating a complicated dynamic between the rival groups. For example: ISIS-K reportedly criticized the Taliban for taking control of the country, suggesting their rule was insufficiently strict.

ISIS-K’s ranks are small — it reportedly boasts around 1,500 to 2,000 fighters — but it is under new leadership: Shahab al-Muhajir, an “ambitious” new leader who is seeking to “recruit disaffected Taliban and other militants,” took over the group in June 2020, according to a United Nations report from June 2021.

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Officials have repeatedly expressed pointed concerns about the group for days, outlining fears of a potential attack on the Kabul airport or, more specifically, those fleeing there in hopes of escaping the country. President Joe Biden mentioned the group by name on Tuesday, saying in a speech: “Every day we’re on the ground is another day that we know ISIS-K is seeking to target the airport and attack both U.S. and allied forces and innocent civilians.”

He was echoed by Secretary of State Antony Blinken the next day, when the U.S. Embassy also warned Americans to stay away from the airport and urged those near the perimeter to “leave immediately.”

“It’s hard to overstate the complexity and the danger of this effort,” Blinken said. “We’re operating in a hostile environment in a city and country now controlled by the Taliban with the very real possibility of an ISIS attack.”