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US Cracking Down on Finances for Islamic State's Afghan Affiliate

FILE - Afghan security forces take part in an ongoing operation against Islamic State militants in the Achin district of Nangarhar province, Nov. 25, 2019.

The United States is taking aim at the Islamic State's affiliate in Afghanistan, sanctioning some of the group's top officials as well as a financier charged with bolstering the terror group's numbers with foreign fighters.

The State Department on Monday designated senior Islamic State Khorasan leaders Sanaullah Ghafari, Sultan Aziz Azam, and Maulawi Rajab as Specially Designated Global Terrorists (SDGTs).

The designation clears the way for Washington to block them and their associates from accessing money and assets that come into contact with the U.S. financial system.

Sanaullah Ghafari, also known as Sanaullah or Shahab al-Muhajir, has led IS-Khorasan since about May 2020, when Afghan government forces captured his predecessors.

Intelligence shared with United Nations counterterrorism officials earlier this year indicated that Ghafari had been operating out of the Kabul area, where the group had established a strong network of sleeper cells.

Additionally, the U.S. Treasury Department on Monday sanctioned Ismatullah Khalozai, describing him as a top financier and facilitator for the IS Afghan affiliate, also known as ISIS-K.

Khalozai "has carried out missions for senior ISIS leadership," according to a Treasury Department statement, which added he is also responsible for "facilitating the movement of foreign fighters who seek to escalate tensions in Afghanistan and the region."

Treasury officials said Khalozai most recently operated a money transfer scheme out of Turkey and that he previously ran an operation out of the United Arab Emirates, raising money for IS-Khorasan through the resale of luxury goods.

Despite having been pushed out from its territorial strongholds following pressure from both the U.S. and the Taliban through the first half of 2020, IS-Khorasan has mounted a comeback, growing significantly since the U.S. pulled the last of its forces from Afghanistan this past August.

The top U.N. diplomat in Afghanistan warned last week that IS-Khorasan "seems to be present in nearly all provinces and increasingly active."

Top U.S. defense and intelligence officials have likewise warned the terror group could regenerate the capacity to attack U.S. and Western interests around the world in as little as six months.

U.S. officials estimate IS-Khorasan now has at least 2,000 "hardcore" fighters, mostly organized in cells across the country.

Those numbers have already been bolstered as a result of the Taliban decision to empty out key prisons as their forces advanced across Afghanistan in August.

International counterterrorism officials and independent experts have also raised concerns that IS-Khorasan could get an additional boost from foreign fighters.

Chatter intercepted following the Taliban takeover of Afghanistan indicated IS supporters from outside the region were expressing a desire to travel to Afghanistan to join the fight there.