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Who Is ISIS-K? Anti-Taliban, Anti-U.S. Terror Group Claims Responsibility for Kabul Suicide Bombs

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We speak with Haroun Rahimi, assistant professor of law at the American University of Afghanistan, about the Islamic State affiliate that claimed responsibility for this week’s devastating suicide bombings at Kabul airport, which killed more than 110 people, including 13 U.S. troops. Islamic State Khorasan, or ISIS-K, is a puritanical group that is “critical of all other sects of Islam,” says Rahimi. “Whatever Muslim that thinks differently than them is a major target for them.” He says the group’s name refers to a region of the former Islamic empire and is an attempt to reestablish “some past lost glory” in a bid to attract disaffected Muslim youth.

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This is a rush transcript. Copy may not be in its final form.

AMY GOODMAN: This is Democracy Now!, democracynow.org. I’m Amy Goodman, as we continue to look at the crisis in Afghanistan, a day after at least 95 Afghans and 13 U.S. troops were killed after a pair of suicide bombings in Kabul just outside Hamid Karzai International Airport. The militant group ISIS-K has taken responsibility.

We’re joined in Istanbul, Turkey, by Haroun Rahimi, assistant professor of law at the American University of Afghanistan. He was en route back to Kabul two weeks ago when he heard the news of the Taliban takeover and stayed in Turkey. He tweeted Thursday, “Please don’t ask me for the foreseeable future how I am doing. I am not doing well. No Afghan is.”

Professor Rahimi, welcome back to Democracy Now!

HAROUN RAHIMI: Thank you for having me.

AMY GOODMAN: Who are the ISIS-K?

HAROUN RAHIMI: So, there are different ways to answer that question. You can look at their ideological leaning. You can look at their fighters, composition of their fighters. You can look at their objectives. And you would come up with different answers. You can look at their logistical kind of roots and their methods and come up with different answers.

Ideologically, it’s a group that is often called — it’s subscribed to a specific brand of Islamist kind of politics called Salafism. It’s a reactionary, modern phenomenon that seeks to reestablish their reimagined Muslim past. They often are very critical of everyone. They’re puritan. They are critical of all other sects of Islam. Whatever Muslim that thinks differently than them is a major target for them. They target Shias and other Muslims who disagree with them on any matter. And they’ve actually considered them called them the close enemy, compared to distant enemy, which will be the West or the Americans.

In terms of their fighters, they make up — they don’t have a lot of fighters in Afghanistan. It was a branch of the infamous ISIS which emerged in Syria and Iraq. But kind of a regional branch of it emerged in Afghanistan because of some of the connections that existed historically between eastern part of the country and the Arab world, and that — through which the Salafism, that kind of particular understanding of Islam, had spread to the eastern part of the country. Some Arab fighters — some foreign fighters, including Arab fighters, when the ISIS was disseminated in Iraq and Syria, came there, and there were also some local Afghans who joined them, because they felt more ideological alignment with them or they saw it as the opportunity to join a group that was seen by many as resource-rich at the time.

In terms of objectives, they are very anti — as I said, they are very against all other types of Muslims who disagree with them. They have fought with Taliban. They had many fights. They also fight — they target Shias, which are a sect of Muslims in Afghanistan, make up a large minority in the country. They’ve fought the government of Afghanistan, as well. Right now they seem to portray the Taliban as allies of the United States, and they wish to target both, as they did in the last attack, the horrendous attack on Kabul airport.

So, I mean, kind of there are different ways to answer that question, but it’s a complex reality on the ground. How powerful it is, many have concluded that it’s not that powerful anymore, after it was beaten down by the Taliban, the government and international allies, international forces. It still have some followers, sleeper cells in urban areas, because ISIS tends to recruit more kind of educated, middle-class, young members, compared to the rural base of Taliban. So, it has a lot of — it has a number of sleeper cells, for sure, in Kabul, and several of those obviously were responsible for the attack we saw yesterday.

AMY GOODMAN: On August 14th, when Taliban swept into the vacuum in Kabul, they executed Abu Omar Khorasani, the imprisoned former head of the Islamic State of South Asia, of ISIS-K. They were freeing people in the prison. They pulled him out. He had been there apparently for years. And they executed him. Also, explain what Khorasan, ISIS-K, for Khorasan — and his name, Khorasani — stands for.

HAROUN RAHIMI: So, Khorasan is kind of a region. You have to realize that the ISIS does not believe in nation-states. So, they believe in a caliphate that has a universal claim. So, all — everywhere in the world falls within the realm or the jurisdiction of the caliphate, but they had regional kind of representation, often with the name of a region as a qualifier. The name Khorasan refers to the eastern part of the Muslim empire, when Islam was an empire, and covers regions like Iran and Afghanistan. And they’re using kind of the older name that referred to that part of the world in relationship with the past Muslim empire.

Obviously, it has symbolic significance. Again, as I said, they are reimagining the Muslim past in modern times as a way to mobilize often disenfranchised and alienated Muslim youth who are angry for different reasons, for the — kind of with the claims and hopes of reestablishing some past lost glory, which is obviously a reconstructed and reimagined past. That’s why the terminology and kind of the names often have those kind of symbolic past kind of pedigree.

AMY GOODMAN: With President Biden vowing revenge for the suicide attacks, do you see the U.S. and Taliban working together — ISIS-K is also the enemy of Taliban, as we know — to target them?

HAROUN RAHIMI: Absolutely. I mean, supposedly, they have already. The United States military said they had been exchanging information, sanitized information, meaning informations that were often — sometimes may not be full information. But some information was passed on to the Taliban to help them prevent such attacks. And the U.S. military claims that some attacks were prevented through those information sharing.

And there is a — moving forward, Taliban are the de facto government on the ground. And counterterrorism is going to be the main issue remaining, from the U.S. perspective, and the only partner they have on the ground, really, given that they have withdrawn — they are going to be withdrawing all troops, would be the Taliban. And it seems like the U.S. is counting on Taliban’s self-interest, to use Biden’s words, to kind of see them as a possible partner — an odd partner, but still a partner — in the counterterrorism attack, at least especially with regard to ISIS-K, because you have to realize there are other terrorist groups active in the region or who have better relationship with the Taliban and there is no enmity between them. For example, al-Qaeda still has strong ties with the Taliban. There’s alignments there. There are many groups that Pakistan, for example, considers a terrorist group. There are many groups that Central Asian countries consider terrorist groups. There are groups that China considers terrorist groups that are active in the region and have good relationship with the Taliban. So, Taliban would not be seen as a strong, robust kind of partner in counterterrorism, in general, but it, with regard to ISIS-K, seems like there have been some cooperation. And moving forward, they will be seen — Taliban will be seen as a partner that can be relied upon in Afghanistan.

AMY GOODMAN: Also, very quickly, the Taliban have not announced their government in Afghanistan. Are they having trouble pulling together this coalition of theirs?

HAROUN RAHIMI: I mean, the Taliban are very good at not having public dissent. So, if there are disagreements inside the movement, they tend to remain inside the movement.

There could be other reasons why they haven’t announced their government. One is that there are still U.S. troops present on Afghan soil. So, the symbolism of announcing a government while the airport is under control of the United States would not be something that they think they wish for. So, if the U.S. troops leaves by the August 31st and they still have a problem announcing government — for example, September 1st, 2nd, 3rd — then I think it would be cause for more serious internal kind of fractions.

Right now I’m sure there are internal kind of fractions. It is not a monolith, and there are different groups. For example, Haqqani network and the Sadr Taliban from Kandahar and Helmand have been in tensions with each other. Kabul is dominated by the Haqqani network, which is kind of a subgroup within the Taliban that controls Kabul at the moment.

So, there are disagreements, but they’ve been good at resolving them and keeping cohesion. And the fact that they haven’t announced a government yet, I don’t think is a strong evidence of severe internal divide, just because of the fact that the U.S. is still in Afghanistan, and Taliban would not have announced a government with the U.S. — with the Kabul airport being under control of Taliban. It would just not happen.

AMY GOODMAN: And finally, Haroun, are you planning at any point soon to go back to Afghanistan? I know the president of American University of Afghanistan, your university, Ian Bickford, apparently has fled the country, according to The Wall Street Journal and others. Will you be coming back?

HAROUN RAHIMI: Absolutely, I mean, obviously, just for to continue my mission of educating Afghan youth, and also just to go back home. That is where my home is. That’s where everyone I love is. I don’t have a large family outside Afghanistan in any meaningful way. All my family is inside Afghanistan. As long as it’s safe and I can be reasonably assured that I will not be harmed and targeted personally, I would definitely go back.

AMY GOODMAN: Haroun Rahimi, I want to thank you so much for being with us, assistant professor of law at American University in Afghanistan. He was en route to Kabul when he heard the news of the Taliban takeover and at this point has stayed in Istanbul, Turkey.

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