Bereft of the territory which they conquered at their height, ISIS seeks to restore their ability to instill fear in those who don’t share their fringe ideology. Recent operations conducted by the group such as their attack on the Kabul airport are congruent with this aim. With their fervent desire to be seen once again as the preeminent jihadist group, officials within the United States have sounded the alarm over potential lone-wolf attacks within Northern Virginia. These warnings from the law enforcement community come at a time where ISIS has increased its online activity.
At the height of their power in 2015, ISIS shocked the world with how swift they were able to capture large swaths of territory within the Levant by exploiting political instability. Through this success, they were able to create a global network of affiliates like ISIS-K and inspire lone-wolf attacks throughout the world. The most infamous of these attacks was the 2015 Paris attacks which were carried out by radicalized European-raised nationals. The Paris attacks ultimately took the lives of 130 people with injuries sustained by many more.
The attacks also provided the impetus for a wide coalition of nations with differing interests to combat the group and its affiliates. Air support tied to Operation Inherent Resolve proved critical in aiding regional forces in reducing the amount of territory held by ISIS. As a result of these multilateral efforts, ISIS had lost almost all of its territory by 2017. Furthermore, Operation Inherent Resolve proved effective at dismantling the leadership of ISIS.
As ISIS lost territory in the Levant, they began to direct resources toward ISIS-K to bolster their presence within Central Asia. ISIS-K has also received hardened veterans as well as foreign fighters dedicated to furthering the aims of the organization. The ultimate goal of the affiliate is the establishment of a Caliphate within the region in which they operate. They have also been known to advocate for attacks against the West.
Moreover, the withdrawal of the United States from Afghanistan has proved to be beneficial for ISIS-K. The withdrawal allowed for many of their members to be released from prison who could aid in their pursuit of a Caliphate. In addition, the lack of military pressure by the United States allows them ample space to revive an operational capacity similar to what they had in the Levant. To achieve this they will likely seek to radicalize foreigners to carry out lone-wolf attacks. Successful attacks would bring them prestige for recruitment while they direct their efforts to establish their Caliphate. Furthermore, by occupying Afghanistan they lay claim to a heritage of Islamist groups of the past who have successfully resisted great powers such as the Soviet Union and the United States. With this in mind, ISIS-K will likely attract foreign fighters using this as a tool for recruitment.
The chaos caused by the withdrawal has caused a multitude of refugees who sought asylum to avoid living under Taliban rule. With the primary focus of the United States being to safely evacuate Americans out of the country, the disarray allowed for a lack of vetting of those seeking to exit Afghanistan. According to those on the ground, there could have been the possibility of ISIS-K members entering the United States with asylum seekers. The prospect of this proves a challenge to our national security.
To meet the challenges presented by ISIS-K the United States must be cognizant of the threats which are posed by the group. One such threat is that the group may adopt new technology in the same manner in which their predecessor did. As the technology evolved, ISIS had been able to create videos that inspired waves of attacks to be conducted in their name. Secondly, the group has entrenched itself in one of the most geographically intense terrains on the globe. As a result, the group will likely be active for years to come given the advantage which their geography affords them.
Although the chance of a successful ISIS-K attack within Northern Virginia is slim, the U.S. should take concrete steps in mitigating an attack. This can be achieved by building trust in local Muslim communities with law enforcement agencies within the DMV region. Furthermore, the U.S. could also partner with tech companies to block content from ISIS-K. They can also work with regional partners to weaken the operational capabilities of the group within Afghanistan. Finally, the United States can also set up a strict vetting regime to screen for potential extremists. By thwarting a potential attack, the political capital which the group uses to recruit and fundraise is significantly reduced.
ISIS-K represents the latest iteration of a jihadist group that has learned from their predecessors. The group also seems to be poised to experience an increase in their breadth of capabilities and foreign combatants. Without proactive action by the United States and the international community, the group could very well establish a Caliphate within Central Asia. In doing so, the group would have safe haven to orchestrate plots worldwide on those it considers its targets. While their capacity to carry out an attack on the homeland is limited now, their ability to do so only increases with time.
Ahmad Mohibi is the Founder of Rise to Peace
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