Islamic State in Afghanistan Growing Bigger, More Dangerous

The collapse of the Islamic State's selfdeclared caliphate in Syria and Iraq is doing little to slow down the terror group's branch in Afghanistan.

Newly unclassified intelligence suggests ISKhorasan, as the group is known, is growing both in numbers and ambition, now boasting as many as 5,000 fighters � nearly five times as many as estimates from last year � while turning its focus to bigger and more spectacular attacks.

Military officials say the numbers, shared by U.S. ForcesAfghanistan for the latest quarterly report by the Lead Inspector General for Operation Freedom Sentinel, issued Tuesday, are "low confidence" estimates but that ISKhorasan has fighters in Kabul, as well as in Nangarhar and Kunar provinces and in other parts of northeastern Afghanistan.

More worrisome, according to defense intelligence officials, is that the terror group has been gaining ground, both against the Afghan government and the Taliban, expanding the amount of territory under its control in Kunar province since the start of the year.

It also appears ISKhorasan has managed to gain a toehold in other areas. The assessment finds it is "highly likely" IS has smaller cells operating in parts of Afghanistan under either government or Taliban control.

"We're very concerned about their capability and trajectory," Col. Dave Butler, the spokesman for U.S. ForcesAfghanistan, told VOA. "ISK has made it clear that they aspire to attack the United States and our allies."

The current state of IS in Afghanistan would appear to represent a remarkable turnaround from the terror group's fortunes in April 2017, when the U.S. dropped the largest nonnuclear bomb in the U.S. arsenal, a GBU43 Massive Ordnance Air Blast, on an IS cave and tunnel system in Nangarhar province.

A series of subsequent U.S. strikes killed the then ISKhorasan emir and his replacement, and cut the estimated number of fighters from 3,000 to 600.

As recently as late last year, top U.S. military officials insisted ISKhorasan was being kept in check.

"ISISK is not growing," Gen. John Nicholson, the outgoing commander of U.S. ForcesAfghanistan, said in September before handing over the command to Gen. Scott Miller.

Yet despite losing key leaders and suffering constant setbacks on the battlefield, ISKhorasan found a way to maintain its numbers, successfully recruiting disgruntled Taliban fighters as well as jihadis from further afield.

Afghan officials have likewise warned that ISKhorasan has benefited from surges of thousands of foreign fighters from Pakistan and Uzbekistan, plus the inflow of hundreds of IS fighters fleeing from Syria.

But increasingly, many of ISKhorasan's recruits are local, with fewer coming from the ranks of disgruntled Taliban fighters. And the group has even taken a page out of IS core's playbook, targeting young men seeking economic opportunity.

"IS does a lot of recruiting in Afghanistan and the region attempting to enlist disaffected youth and even techsavvy young people looking for an alternative," Butler said.

But increasingly, many of ISKhorasan's recruits are local, with fewer coming from the ranks of disgruntled Taliban fighters. And the group has even taken a page out of IS core's playbook, targeting young men seeking economic opportunity.

"IS does a lot of recruiting in Afghanistan and the region attempting to enlist disaffected youth and even techsavvy young people looking for an alternative," Butler said.

Source: Voice of America

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