More than six months after the U.S. pulled its last troops from Afghanistan, the threat from the Islamic State’s Afghan affiliate is growing, though new intelligence assessments suggest that earlier warnings the group might be able to strike at America and its allies as early as next month appear to have been overblown.
Various intelligence estimates from the U.S. and other countries warn that the group, known as IS-Khorasan and ISIS-K, nearly doubled in size to more than 4,000 fighters during the Taliban takeover of Afghanistan last year. The commander of U.S. forces in the Middle East and South Asia said Tuesday that without sustained pressure from the U.S. and U.S.-backed Afghan forces, the IS affiliate is solidifying its foothold.
"We are concerned about the developmental trajectory of ISIS-K,” U.S. Central Command’s General Kenneth “Frank” McKenzie told U.S. lawmakers.
“We continue to watch carefully as ISIS grows,” he said. “ISIS has been able to execute some high-profile attacks even in Kabul over the last several months. … It is my expectation that ISIS attacks will ramp up as we go into the summer."
But while IS-Khorasan remains dangerous, the group has not advanced its capabilities as quickly as some U.S. officials initially feared.
The Pentagon’s third-highest ranking official warned lawmakers in October that it appeared the group would be able to regenerate the capabilities needed to launch terror attacks on the West in as little as six months.
Since then, however, it appears IS-Khorasan under the leadership of Shahab al-Muhajir, also known as Sanaullah Ghafari, has focused more on its fortunes in Afghanistan.
Intelligence shared by United Nations member states indicates the group prioritized retaking territory and now controls some limited areas in eastern Afghanistan. Western intelligence officials and humanitarian groups have seen signs IS-Khorasan is laying the groundwork for expanding its networks among Afghanistan’s neighbors.
Perhaps as a result, the threat of an attack by IS-Khorasan in the West has somewhat diminished, at least for the moment.
The best U.S. intelligence estimates now indicate the soonest IS-Khorasan could launch terror attacks in the West is 12 to 18 months, McKenzie told lawmakers, cautioning the timeline could change depending on developments on the ground, where clashes with the ruling Taliban persist.
“[IS-Khorasan] still aspire to attack the United States and our partners abroad," McKenzie said. "The Taliban are attempting to maintain pressure. … They're finding it difficult to do."
The U.S. is having its own problems tracking IS-Khorasan, as well as rival terror group, al-Qaida, limited largely to flying reconnaissance flights from neighboring Pakistan now that it no longer has troops on the ground in Afghanistan.
“It is much harder to do it now than it was before,” McKenzie told lawmakers, though he added, “It is not impossible.”
“We will be able to do this only so long as CENTCOM has the requisite resources to find, fix and finish threats to the homeland before those threats develop the capability to conduct external operations,” he said. “CENTCOM has the tools it needs to perform this mission, but the margins are thin, and the risk will increase should resources diminish.”
The CENTCOM commander also told lawmakers that the U.S. has not carried out any counterterrorism strikes in Afghanistan since the U.S. withdrawal from the country was completed.
Syria and Iraq
In contrast to Afghanistan, U.S. efforts to contain IS in Syria and Iraq are faring better, McKenzie said.
“In the Euphrates River Valley in Iraq and Syria, ISIS is unable to think beyond surviving that night or the next night," he told lawmakers, crediting sustained pressure from Iraqi forces and the U.S.-backed Syrian Democratic Forces.
But in Syria, concerns persist about the large, displaced persons camps, including al-Hol, which hold thousands of people, including the families of IS fighters.
The camps, McKenzie said, present IS with "fertile soil for indoctrination and spreading terror.”