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Regional Governments Seen Struggling to Control IS-Khorasan

A Russian national flag flutters at half-staff in front of the Crocus City Hall in Krasnogorsk, suburban Moscow, on March 29, 2024, a week after a deadly attack by gunmen on the concert hall. U.S. officials say that the Islamic State-Khorasan was behind the rampage.
A Russian national flag flutters at half-staff in front of the Crocus City Hall in Krasnogorsk, suburban Moscow, on March 29, 2024, a week after a deadly attack by gunmen on the concert hall. U.S. officials say that the Islamic State-Khorasan was behind the rampage.

Last week’s concert hall massacre in Russia demonstrates not only the capacity of Islamic State-Khorasan to stage complex attacks beyond its base in South-Central Asia, but also the inability of the Taliban and regional countries to counter its threats, experts say.

The Islamic State group claimed the attack on a music venue near Moscow Friday that killed 143 people and wounded more than 180. Although it was the Islamic State, not its offshoot IS-Khorasan, that took the responsibility, U.S. officials said that IS-Khorasan was behind the murderous rampage.

The Taliban’s foreign ministry spokesperson, Abdul Qahar Balkhi, condemned the attack “in the strongest terms,” describing it as “a blatant violation of all human standards.”

“The regional countries must take a coordinated, clear & resolute position against such incidents directed at regional destabilization,” Balkhi said Friday on X, previously known as Twitter.

The Islamic State, in a 30-page statement published on social media platforms and sent to journalists Monday, praised the attack and mocked the Taliban for seeking relations with the United States, Russia, China and other countries.

Homayoun Mohtaat, former Afghan deputy ambassador to Russia, told VOA that the attack made it clear that IS has the ability “to launch complex attacks that could inflict heavy casualties.”

Using an Arabic acronym for Islamic State, he said the “Daesh attack shows the group’s maneuverability and ability to move from one place to another.”

Mohtaat said that IS-Khorasan, also known as ISKP, has been able to expand its activities within the region and beyond.

“But we can see that Afghanistan, because of its geopolitical location, has become an operational platform for Daesh,” he said. “It allowed the group to expand its operation to the Central Asian states and beyond, in Russia.”

He said that the Taliban “neither has the will nor resources” to fight IS-Khorasan.

The Taliban, however, have claimed success against the IS affiliate in Afghanistan.

The Taliban’s defense minister, Mohammad Yaqoob Mujahid, claimed at a press conference in Kabul in December that because of their operations against IS-Khorasan, the number of the group’s attacks decreased by 90%.

But a U.N. report released in January said IS-Khorasan "continued to pose a major threat in Afghanistan and the region.”

In another report released in June 2023, the U.N. estimated that IS-Khorasan's fighters and their families number between 4,000 and 6,000, including citizens of Afghanistan, Azerbaijan, Iran, Russia, Turkey, and Central Asian countries and a small number of Arabs who traveled from Syria to Afghanistan.

Kamran Bokhari, senior director of the Eurasian Security and Prosperity Portfolio at the New Lines Institute for Strategy and Policy, told VOA that IS-Khorasan is taking advantage of “weak security, weak governance and strategic vacuums” in the region.

“Afghanistan is the strategic vacuum,” Bokhari said. “Yes, the Taliban are there, but it's not a robust state. The Taliban regime is still trying to consolidate power. Pakistan is in meltdown mode on all levels — political, social, economic and security wise. And Iran has its challenges internally.”

IS-Khorasan is a major rival to the Taliban and has claimed responsibility for several high-profile attacks in Afghanistan since the Taliban took power.

In January, the group said it was behind twin blasts in the Iranian city of Kerman that killed at least 95 people. Iranian Intelligence traced back the attacks to the Tajik fighters of IS-Khorasan.

Russia has said that its security forces arrested four Tajik nationals for allegedly carrying out the Moscow massacre.

Attacks will help recruitment

Bill Roggio, a senior fellow at the Foundation for Defense of Democracies, told VOA that the attacks in Russia and Iran would “certainly” help IS-Khorasan to recruit more militants.

“Those spectacular attacks have a great effect on recruiting. ... So, they might be able to poach some fighters from [other extremist] groups, the disaffected or those who want to see the result now,” Roggio said.

The United Nations says that there are around 20 militant groups active in Afghanistan.

Most of these, including al-Qaida and Tehrik-e-Taliban Pakistan, or TTP, have close ties to the Taliban. But even before seizing power in Afghanistan in August 2021, the Taliban considered IS-Khorasan as an adversary and conducted military operations against the group.

Riccardo Valle, Islamabad-based analyst and director of research for The Khorasan Diary, told VOA that the Taliban have been “successful” in their fight against IS-Khorasan.

The Taliban “were able to decapitate the Islamic State leadership in several instances. They have been able to infiltrate Islamic State in Afghanistan and thus it has been able to prevent several attacks,” said Valle.

But he said the group has been able to move across Turkey, Central Asia and Afghanistan. “This is coupled with the fact that [the relationship] between Afghanistan and Pakistan is extremely tense,” which makes it easy for the militants to move across that border.

Pakistan accuses the Taliban of harboring and supporting TTP fighters involved in attacks in Pakistan, a charge the Taliban deny.

Valle said that the Taliban alone would not be capable of “tackling the issue” of containing IS-Khorisan.

“The real threat posed by the ISKP in Afghanistan and the whole region is fueling instability within the region, fueling mutual distrust between the countries and posing a major threat to the civilians,” Valle said.

Ali Jalali, a former Afghan interior minister, told VOA he believes the threats will continue until the Taliban cut ties with all foreign extremist groups in Afghanistan.

“During their war against the republic, they allied with many extremist groups. These groups supported them. Now they are in [Afghanistan], and they cannot cut their ties with them,” he said.

Jalali said that the Taliban takeover of Afghanistan has not brought stability and the formation of a ‘lawful’ government. “And unless there is [political] stability, this will continue.”

This story originated in VOA's Afghan Service.