Moscow massacre showed Isis-K is at war with the world: Could US be the next?

In the wake of a deadly attack in Moscow on March 22, 2024, the vulnerability of the Russian capital to the threat posed by the Islamic State group and its affiliate, Isis-K, has been starkly exposed. However, this incident not only highlighted Moscow’s susceptibility but also raised a critical question: Could a US city be the next target?
The big picture
After the fall of its parent organization in Syria, Islamic State Khorasan Province (Isis-K) has emerged as a formidable force, proving that the demise of the Islamic State’s territorial hold did not signify the end of its global ambitions.The simultaneous attack in Kandahar on the same day as the Moscow incident illustrates a coordinated effort to project power and instill fear well beyond the group’s regional stronghold.
Zoom in

  • Isis-K’s strategy is multifaceted, aiming not only to assert dominance over other jihadist factions through high-profile attacks but also to attract resources and recruits.
  • By carving out a distinct identity in the crowded extremist arena, Isis-K seeks to diminish the influence of other groups and establish its supremacy within the jihadist domain of the Khorasan region, which encompasses Afghanistan, Pakistan, Iran, and other Central Asian nations.
  • The group’s recent operations in Iran and thwarted plots across Europe highlight a strategic approach to expanding its influence and challenging international security measures.

The resurges of Isis-K

  • Sanaullah Ghafari, at the age of 29, has guided the Afghan division of Islamic State through a significant evolution, turning it into a formidable faction of the global Islamist network, with the capability to conduct operations well beyond its Afghan borderland bases, a Reuters report said.
  • Despite reports of his death in Afghanistan in June of last year, Ghafari survived with injuries and fled to Pakistan, finding refuge in the turbulent Balochistan border province, as disclosed by two informants from the Afghan and Pakistani Taliban to Reuters. The Foreign Ministry of Pakistan has yet to comment on Ghafari’s current location.
  • Appointed as the leader of Isis-K in 2020, Ghafari has bolstered the group’s notoriety for its stringent ideology and the execution of prominent attacks. The world took notice of Isis-K following a suicide bombing at Kabul’s international airport in 2021 amidst the US military exit, which resulted in the deaths of 13 US soldiers and numerous civilians. Additionally, in September 2022, the group claimed responsibility for a lethal suicide assault on the Russian embassy in Kabul.
  • The US state department, in announcing a reward for information, referred to Ghafari by his battlefield name Shahab al-Muhajir, highlighting his role as a seasoned military commander responsible for orchestrating Isis-K suicide bombings in Kabul.
  • Several foreign militants left Iraq and headed to the Afghanistan-Pakistan region to join Isis-K, introducing expertise in guerilla tactics which enhanced the group’s capacity for staging attacks in Iran, Turkey, and Afghanistan. This insight comes from a high-ranking Iraqi security official who preferred anonymity.

Between the lines: US in crosshairs

  • The US’s withdrawal from Afghanistan has provided Isis-K with both a narrative and an operational advantage.
  • By framing the US as its principal adversary, Isis-K taps into a broader anti-Western sentiment, exploiting historical grievances and current geopolitical tensions.
  • The mass shooting that occurred in San Bernardino, California, in 2015, resulting in 14 fatalities, and the 2016 incident at a nightclub in Orlando, Florida, where a minimum of 49 people lost their lives, were both incidents influenced by the Islamic State group.

What next

  • The attack near Moscow serves as a stark reminder of Isis-K’s ambitions and capabilities. For the US and its allies, this necessitates a vigilant and multifaceted approach to counterterrorism, one that combines military precision, intelligence gathering, and community engagement to preempt and dismantle Isis-K’s networks. The task is daunting, given the group’s adaptability and the ideological allure it maintains among certain populations.
  • As Isis-K continues to target major powers, it’s essential to recognize the underlying motivations and strategies driving its actions. The group’s ability to exploit geopolitical rifts and social grievances suggests that a purely militaristic response may be insufficient. Instead, a comprehensive strategy that addresses the root causes of radicalization and fosters regional cooperation will be crucial in curtailing Isis-K’s influence and preventing future attacks.
  • According to Sara Harmouch, a PhD Candidate in American University, to counter the escalating menace of Islamic State group affiliates, the United States has implemented a holistic approach that integrates military actions, intelligence operations, and law enforcement measures.
  • But US still remains vulnerable to terror attacks from ISIS affiliates. “The Moscow attack emphasizes Isis-K’s resolve to expand its influence, raising concerns about the potential threat to Western nations, including the United States. Considering Isis-K’s track record and clear aspirations, it would be naive to dismiss the possibility of an attack on American soil,” said Sara Harmouch, American University.

(With inputs from agencies)


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