ISIS-K attack in Moscow highlights growing terror threat from Afghanistan

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The terrorist attack on Moscow’s Crocus City concert hall was the worst attack in Russia in over 20 years, leaving 137 people dead and over 180 wounded, and reminds Russia and the West that the threat from ISIS and international terrorism hasn’t gone away.

Gunmen, identified by Russian media as Tajik nationals, entered the concert hall with automatic weapons and indiscriminately opened fire in the 6,200-seat venue. The Islamic State’s affiliate in Afghanistan, known as the Islamic State in Khorasan Province (ISIS-K), claimed responsibility for the brutal attack on concertgoers. 

While the ISIS caliphate that spanned across Iraq and Syria was largely defeated by the U.S. and its mostly Kurdish ally there, the Afghan chapter of ISIS has been one of the most active post-caliphate branches. It was responsible for the suicide attack on Kabul airport in August 2021 that killed 13 American service members amid the U.S. withdrawal from Afghanistan.

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The world’s attention has once again returned to Afghanistan over two years since the Taliban regained control after the U.S. withdrawal in 2021.

“It seems that ISIS-K has exploited the American withdrawal and has successfully tapped into recruits, especially from Afghanistan and Central Asia,” Max Abrahms, terrorism expert and professor of political science at Northeastern University, told Fox News Digital. The deadly attack in Moscow comes after ISIS claimed responsibility for twin suicide bombings in January that killed at least 95 people commemorating the death of Gen. Qassem Soleimani, head of the Qud’s Forces of Iran’s Revolutionary Guard, who was killed in a U.S. drone strike in 2020.

A member loyal to the Islamic State waves an ISIS flag in Raqqa June 29, 2014.

A member loyal to the Islamic State waves an ISIS flag in Raqqa June 29, 2014. (Reuters/Stringer)

It’s also no surprise that ISIS-K would target Russia, according to Ivana Stradner, a research fellow at the Foundation for Defense of Democracies who focuses on Russian information security. Stradner told Fox News Digital that Russian actions in Syria and Moscow’s ties to Iran also play an important role in ISIS’ decision to challenge the Kremlin. Russia intervened in the Syrian civil war in 2015 to prop up the Assad regime, at the time on the verge of collapse. Moscow’s treatment of Muslim minorities in Russia and the brutal wars against Chechnya are also long-standing grievances. 

ISIS-K was formed in 2015 and operates primarily in Afghanistan but has expanded across the world, including in Russia’s backyard of Central Asia. It may share a similar ideology with the Taliban, but remains a grave danger to their rule as it looks to undermine the regime and strike at foreign interests in Afghanistan.

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Abrahms says many countries are now grappling with the question of what to do with ISIS and other terrorist networks that operate in unstable nations with weak governance. “Naturally, they will begin to think more seriously about arming relative moderates in Afghanistan and other rebel forces could be empowered as well insofar as they brand themselves as anti-ISIS.” Abrahms said.

The Afghan National Resistance Front (NRF) is seen by some as the most viable Afghan resistance unit, and it has stepped up its attacks against the Taliban in recent months. Dislodging the Taliban and reinstalling the Afghan Republic remains the NRF’s main objective, but they have also fought against ISIS-K and other networks. Terrorist groups like ISIS-K also challenge the Taliban’s rule, but aren’t looking to restore a secular and democratic Afghanistan. However, their coordinated attack in Moscow demonstrated the group’s ability to strike internationally.

Putin at church service for those killed in terror attack.

In this pool photograph distributed by the Russian state agency Sputnik, President Vladimir Putin lights a candle during his visit to a church outside Moscow on March 24, 2024, during a national day of mourning following the attack in the Crocus City concert hall. (Mikhail Metzel/Pool/AFP via Getty Images)

“ISIS-K’s expansion is directly the result of the Taliban allowing terror networks and foreign fighters to flood Afghanistan,” Ali Maisam Nazary, head of foreign relations for the NRF, told Fox News Digital.

“These groups are preparing themselves inside Afghanistan for attacks on a larger scale than Moscow against the West and regional countries in the years to come,” Nazary warned.

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The NRF, which primarily operated in northeastern Afghanistan and concentrated operations in the Panjshir Valley, recently opened a new front in western Afghanistan and is increasing operations in Herat City. Nazary notes that within the last several weeks, NRF forces executed attacks in Kabul and will be intensifying their efforts starting this spring and summer. These operations, Nazary claims, underscore the increased support for the NRF across Afghanistan, and showcase their strategic capabilities in confronting the Taliban.

NRF fighters stand behind the flag representing the National Resistance Front of Afghanistan

NRF fighters stand behind the flag representing the National Resistance Front of Afghanistan. (Ali Nazary, head of Foreign Relations of National Resistance Front of Afghanistan )

The Taliban normally downplay the threat posed by the NRF and other armed groups, claiming they have restored stability to Afghanistan since the downfall of the U.S.-backed government. While the NRF is quick to highlight its success in its attacks against the Taliban, the U.S. Intelligence Community’s Annual Threat Assessment, released on March 11 by the Office of the Director of National Intelligence, only briefly mentions Afghanistan. It states that the Taliban regime has strengthened its power and suppressed anti-Taliban groups like the NRF and ISIS-K.

The threat assessment provides a short but bleak outlook for the future of Afghan resistance groups.

Russian soldier

A Russian soldier secures an area as a massive blaze is  seen over the Crocus City concert hall on the western edge of Moscow, Friday, March 22, 2024. (AP Photo)

“However, near-term prospects for regime-threatening resistance remain low because large swathes of the Afghan public are weary of war and fearful of Taliban reprisals, and armed remnants lack strong leadership and external support,” the document states.

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The resistance group has been in a two-year campaign to gain greater international recognition and support for their efforts to fight the Taliban and ISIS-K and hopes to organize a unified political opposition to govern Afghanistan without the Taliban. Unfortunately for the NRF and their supporters, they have so far failed to gain international recognition from another state, lack external financial backing and have not been endorsed by the U.S.

“The United States does not support further armed conflict in Afghanistan. The country has been at war for 46 years. We do not want to see Afghanistan at war, and Afghans tell us they don’t want conflict either,” a State Department spokesperson told Fox News Digital.

Taliban parade in Afghanistan

Taliban fighters mark the second anniversary of the withdrawal of U.S.-led forces from Afghanistan, in Kandahar, south of Kabul, on Tuesday, Aug. 15, 2023. (AP/Abdul Khaliq)

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Fatemeh Aman, a non-resident senior fellow at the Middle East Institute in Washington, D.C., told Fox News Digital that the NRF is largely respected and has sympathy from many Afghans, but it is still not sufficient.

“Just by guerrilla warfare and without active support from the population, external moral and military support, and even some diplomatic interventions, it may be difficult to achieve the goal of liberating Afghanistan,” Aman said.



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