ISIS-K nearly doubled in size following Taliban prison releases: United Nations

The size of the Islamic State’s Afghanistan faction has nearly doubled in size, according to a new report from the United Nations.

ISIS-Khorasan, or ISIS-K, has been able to expand in Afghanistan in recent months following the U.S. military’s departure at the end of August, which coincided with the Taliban’s rise to power, thus providing the terror group with a conducive environment to reconstitute.

U.N. member states estimated that ISIS-K had approximately 2,200 fighters previously, but that number is “now approaching 4,000,” according to the U.N. secretary-general’s strategic level report written late last month. The U.N. Security Council was briefed on the report on Wednesday.

“There are no recent signs that the Taliban has taken steps to limit the activities of foreign terrorist fighters in the country,” the report added. “On the contrary, Member States are concerned that terrorist groups enjoy greater freedom in Afghanistan than at any time in recent history.”

The report cited “the release by the Taliban of several thousand individuals from prison” in Afghanistan as the primary source of the additional fighters, while member states “reported only small numbers of foreign terrorist fighters moving to Afghanistan.”

An ISIS-K operative, Abdul Rehman al Loghri, who was previously held at Parwan Detention Facility, next to Bagram Air Base, but was subsequently released by the Taliban, detonated a suicide device at the gates of Hamid Karzai International Airport on Aug. 26, where the U.S. and allies were evacuating at-risk Afghans.

ISIS-K “aims to position itself as the chief rejectionist force in Afghanistan and to expand into neighbouring Central and South Asian countries and is viewed by the Taliban as its primary armed threat. Member States are concerned that, if Afghanistan descends into further chaos, some Afghan and foreign violent extremists may shift allegiances to” ISIS-K, the report added.

The suicide bomber worked alone, and the device’s detonation resulted in the death of 13 U.S. service members, roughly 170 Afghan civilians, and it left another 45 U.S. troops injured, a military investigation into the bombing concluded. There had been previous reports that there were ISIS fighters engaging in a gun battle following the explosion, though the Pentagon corrected the record last week when it publicized the conclusions of its investigation.

“It was a single blast, and it did not have a follow attack,” Brig. Gen. Lance Curtis, the lead investigator, told reporters. “There were a series of crossing fires to the front of the service members on the ground that created the illusion that there was a complex attack, but there absolutely was not. There were no gunshot wounds. We have universal agreement between the Armed Forces Medical Examiner’s Office and also the medical providers on the ground.”

The U.S. was conducting a noncombatant evacuation operation at the time of the bombing. The State Department approved the NEO in mid-August after the Taliban overthrew the U.S.-backed Afghan government. The U.S. military evacuated more than 100,000 third-country nationals and Afghan allies who would be at risk under the Taliban regime.

U.S. military commanders claimed in interviews that Biden’s top national security and State Department advisers resisted pressure to move quickly, endangering lives.

Earlier this week, Gen. Michael Erik Kurilla, the nominee to be the next commander of U.S. Central Command, warned during his confirmation hearing in front of the Senate Judiciary Committee that al Qaeda and ISIS-K are “reconstituting” in Afghanistan.

“One of the challenges is the threat to the homeland from al Qaeda and ISIS-K. They are reconstituting. The Taliban has not renounced al Qaeda. ISIS-K, with the release of the prisoners both from the Bagram prison and Pul-e-Charkhi — are in a process of reconstituting,” he said.

Both terror groups are expected to have the capability to launch attacks internationally by as soon as this spring.