ISIS in Khorasan, known as ISIS-K, claimed that an ISIS militant carried out the suicide attack, but provided no evidence to support the claim
President Biden confirmed this in his remarks earlier this afternoon.
At thelater in the day, the president said the bombings were the work of fighters from the ISIS affiliate in Afghanistan, known as ISIS Khorasan, or ISIS-K. The attacks marked one of the single deadliest days for U.S. forces in Afghanistan in the 20 years since the allied invasion.
President Biden also made it clear that the US will continue the Non-combatant Evacuation Operation (NEO) until it achieves the delineated objective of getting all the Americans who wish to get out of Afghanistan out of Afghanistan, as well as to get out as many of the Afghans who have assisted the US over the past twenty years and those whose work over the past twenty years might put them at risk as possible. President Biden also made it clear that the US would not forgive nor forget about today’s attack and that an appropriate response would be forthcoming.
The real outstanding concerns right now need to be the ability of spoilers, such as Islamic State in Khorasan (IS-K), which is a serious enemy of the Taliban, attacking Kabul airport to derail the NEO and cause problems for the Taliban as a result of the US responding to such an attack.
The window of opportunity for today’s attack has two roots. The first is that large numbers of Afghans are constantly approaching Hamid Karzai International Airport in Kabul attempting to get into the airport in order that the US can get them out. The second is that Islamic State Khorasan’s leadership, like that of Islamic State proper, the Taliban, al Qaeda, and all of our non-state and state adversaries actually watch our broadcast and cable news and read our newspapers. They’ve seen the slanted reporting in every major US newspaper and on every US news channel about what President Biden is or is not doing and should or should not be doing. They’ve seen every tweet and quote from every Republican elected official, think tank denizen, and pundit delineating everything the Biden administration is doing wrong and calling for more US military personnel to be sent to Afghanistan, an indefinite extension to the Non-Combatant Evacuation Operation, and in some cases a complete repudiation and abrogation of the deal the Trump administration negotiated with the Taliban. Today’s attack was directly intended to take advantage of both of these realities. The physical one – all the Afghans attempting to get to the airport in Kabul – and the informational/psychological ones resulting from the execrable and irresponsible news media reporting and the politicization of the withdrawal by both Republican officials and an entire ecosystem of people who have gained fame and fortune solely by commenting about the war.
IS-K is violently opposed to the Taliban. The reason for this is that the extreme, politicized version of Islam that the Taliban follow is rooted in Deobandi Islam with a much later added overlay of Saudi tawheed as a result of contact with the Saudi mujahideen who flocked to Afghanistan to fight the Soviets. Deobandism is an austere, anti-colonial focused version of Islam that originated in British controlled India in the late 1860s. The Saudi concept of tawheed, the radical unity of the Deity, is the central teaching and foundation of Adbul Wahhab’s theology that provided the doctrinal focus for ibn Saud’s conquest of the Arabian peninsula and formation of the Kingdom of Saudi Arabia. For all that we see the Taliban as being extreme and unyielding, the Islamic State perceives them as not being pure enough in their understanding and application of tawheed.
In December 2015, in the wake of the Islamic State attack in St. Michael, France, I completed a strategic assessment of ISIS’s doctrine, its strategic objectives, and what the US needed to do to adapt its own strategies to counter the threat from ISIS. I had already been working on the research when the attack in St. Michael happened and the first draft of the assessment, if you will, was actually a post here. The formal assessment was prepared for the then Director of Force Protection at Headquarters Department of the Army. It was also briefed directly by me to the Commanding Generals of I Corps (in full) and XVIII Airborne Corps (as part of a larger strategic assessment for the Command Group, Senior Staff, and Multinational Coalition Senior Staff) between January and May 2016 and a copy was sent to the Commanding General of III Corps who was already deployed forward as the Commander of Combined Joint Task Force Inherent Resolve. Most of what follows is directly from that assessment.
The Islamic State, whether the original movement, the Islamic State in Iraq and al Shams (ISIS), or its offshoots like Islamic State-Khorasan (IS-K), is simply the most extreme, hardcore, politicized evolution of tawheed as an organizing doctrine and driver for violent extremist Islamic movements that we have yet see emerge. They are far more extreme than al Qaeda, who they are also in competition with and violently opposed to. For ISIS, IS-K, and the other IS offshoots, their doctrine is built around the teachings of Abdul Wahhab. Wahhab asserted that not only was the Deity one, which is not in and of itself a particularly radical idea in Islam, but that any innovation that took away from this glorious reality counted as shirk or polytheism. As a result he inveighed against the building of shrines and monuments, as well as the tradition of subordinate, intercessory prayers in addition to the mandated salat or Islamic understanding of prayer. Those who engage in such innovations are, at best, engaged in kufr and ridda – unbelief in the one G-d and apostasy. Moreover, Abdul Wahhab’s conceptualization of tawheed teaches that unbelief and apostasy must be stamped out, through violence if necessary. It also teaches that one can only be a real Muslim, a muwaheedun, if one lives where tawheed has been established as the rule for the ummah/community of the faithful. As Moussalli interestingly asserts*, the Wahhabi muwaheedun have been arguing for over 200 years that they are the true defenders of Sunni Islam, while at the same time being in direct and active opposition to 90% of Sunni Islam.
What makes this extreme understanding of tawheed, as the core doctrine, theology, and ideology of the Islamic State so dangerous is its unwillingness to tolerate non-muwaheedun Muslims and its ability to travel. Unlike bin Laden’s underlying doctrine for al Qaeda, which was partially rooted in bin Laden’s personal adherence to and understanding of tawheed as practiced in Saudi Arabia, the Islamic State’s application of tawheed and its theological component calls for targeting non- muwaheedun Muslims. While bin Laden did call for the removal, by violence if necessary, of the leaders of Muslims states and societies who were themselves unbelievers and/or apostates, he also made it clear that non-muwaheedun populations were off limits for targeting. The Islamic State makes no such distinction.
The second danger within the concept of extreme tawheed at the heart of the Islamic State doctrine is that it is capable of traveling throughout the Muslim world in a way that other forms of Islamic extremism are not. The popular conception of Wahhabiya or tawheed is that it is an offshoot of the Hanbali school of Islamic jurisprudence. However, as Commins describes, tawheed is not a concept of Islamic jurisprudence. Rather it is a doctrinal and theological system. As such it can travel throughout the Sunni Muslim world and subvert any of the four Sunni schools of Islamic Jurisprudence. Tawheed, precisely because it is doctrine and theology, but not jurisprudence and legal application, has the ability to take root throughout the Sunni Muslim world.
ISIS has two strategic objectives. The Islamic State, organized around the doctrine of tawheed, seeks to destroy the civil space, often referred to as the grey zone, in which Muslims live their day to day lives as the citizens and residents of Muslim and non-Muslim states and societies alike. This civic space, especially in Western liberal states and societies that allows people from different religious and ethnic background to have membership in the state and society despite not necessarily belonging to the majority ethnic or religious group. The concept of extreme tawheed obliterates this space. It tells Muslims, specifically Sunni Muslims, that they cannot separate their religious lives from their civic ones and promotes this idea to non-Muslims. Moreover, its focus on being unable to be a good Muslim, a muwaheedun, unless one lives where tawheed has been established as the governing concept reinforces the argument that proper Muslims must relocate to the Islamic State and its self declared caliphate. It is also the Islamic State’s argument for expanding the caliphate. Additionally, it supports the assertion that Muslim communities in the West cannot assimilate, are susceptible to ISIS’s information operations, and are a threat to the domestic security of the states in which they reside.
The application of extreme tawheed to destroy the grey zone also seeks to set Muslims against Muslims. One of the hallmarks of Sunni Islam is ijma. Ijma, or consensus, is the belief that each community of Muslims determines how to organize themselves as Muslims. It is very similar to the five point Calvinist inheritance of the Evangelical denominations that developed within the US that each congregation determines how to organize its religious life for worship and adherence to the Gospels. Applying tawheed to Sunni Muslim life destroys the localism that is its hallmark. Additionally, it seems to pit the adopters of extreme tawheed against their friends and families. Any Sunni Muslim who does not accept and practice this form of tawheed is engaged in kufr and ridda and their apostasy and unbelief/incorrect belief must be corrected or they must be eradicated. Concepts of inclusion, tolerance, and multi-culturalism are anathema as a result of this extreme understanding of tawheed and to the Islamic State.
The Islamic State’s internal, or near geographic goals, are to consolidate their control over the territory they currently control and establish their version of tawheed within it. They then seek to expand their geographic holdings – the self declared Islamic State and caliphate – and enforce tawheed wherever they expand. They also seek to expand their version of tawheed throughout the Sunni Muslim world by destroying the grey zone for Muslims that live in Western states, as well as for those living throughout the Islamic world outside of ISIS’s control.
ISIS’s external, or far geographic, goals are to engage the far enemy and destroy it. The far enemy, as was the case with bin Laden, is the US and its allies. The Islamic State, however, has introduced an apocalyptic twist. Graeme Wood, reporting in The Atlantic, indicates that a central portion of the Islamic State’s theology is a belief in the Dabiq Prophecy. The Dabiq Prophecy is an apocalyptic prophecy found in Kitab Al-Fitan wa Ashrat As- Sa`ah/The Book Pertaining to the Turmoil and Portents of the Last Hour. The Dabiq Prophecy is specifically found in Chapter 9: Pertaining to the Conquest of Constantinople and the Appearance of the Dajjal and Descent of Jesus Son of Mary (Jesus Christ). These sections follow on from earlier hadith that retell more familiar end times prophecy, such as of Gog and Magog. The Islamic State’s leaders seem to equate the US with the antagonist described in the prophecy and place the location of the final battle in Dabiq, Syria.
The Islamic State does not have the ways and means to fully achieve their ends unless they can get the US and its allies and partners to provide the ways and means for them. ISIS cannot make Muslim citizens or residents of the US, France, or other EU states feel unwelcome. Only the citizens of the US, France, other EU states, and other states can do so. Moreover, the Islamic State cannot make the US, its allies, and its partners commit to a significant enough application of Landpower to allow them to claim that the Dabiq Prophecy is actually coming to pass.
The ways and means that the Islamic State does have at its disposal are to entice the US, its partners, and its allies into providing the ways and means to ISIS’s ends of destroying the grey zone, convincing Muslim citizens and residents of the US and other states that they are unwanted so that they relocate or undertake terrorist acts where they live, and to draw the US into a significant ground war in locations of ISIS’s choosing. Originally this was Syria because of the Dabiq Prophecy, but in the case of IS-K, it is Afghanistan. Engaging in terrorism as Psychological Operations is the Islamic State’s principal way of achieving the end of getting the US to provide it with the ways and means it does not have.
Psychological Operations are defined as: planned operations to convey selected information and indicators to foreign audiences to influence their emotions, motives, objective reasoning, and ultimately the behavior of foreign governments, organizations, groups, and individuals. The purpose of Psychological Operations is to induce or reinforce foreign attitudes and behavior favorable to the originator’s objectives.
The Islamic State has developed an extensive and highly professional Information Operations and Psychological Operations capability. Part of this was no doubt learned from the former Ba’athist Iraqi Sunni military and intelligence personnel who aligned themselves with the Islamic State as part of the ongoing Iraqi sectarian conflict. This could be clearly seen in the immediate aftermath of the Paris attacks in suburban St. Michael, France in 2015. Within ten days the History Channel cable network was airing a documentary dealing with the Islamic State and the Paris attacks that included footage from embedded personnel reporting from within the portions of Syria and Iraq controlled by the Islamic State. The documentary included footage of fully stocked markets, police in uniform with clearly identified Islamic State markings, and people going about their daily lives. Exposing anyone in the US to these images would have been impossible without the attacks in Paris.
Today’s attacks seek to advance Islamic State Khorasan’s goals against both their near (the Taliban) and far enemies (the US). By successfully attacking Afghans attempting to reach and get into Hamid Karzai International airport (HKIA) and the US Marines conducting the security operation on site, IS-K makes the Taliban look weak and ineffectual. It both challenges the Taliban’s legitimacy in regard to governing Afghanistan and attacks their honor by making them look ineffectual in providing security. IS-K also seeks to draw the US back in to Afghanistan to prolong the conflict as part of engaging the far enemy/the US. The purpose here is to increase political pressure on President Biden to surge more US military personnel into Kabul in order to reinforce and extend the US’s security footprint. This would both abrogate the Biden administration’s adherence to the Trump administration negotiated withdrawal, putting the US and the Taliban back into conflict, while increasing the number of American targets for IS-K to attack.
Part of the reason IS-K undertook this attack is because like ISIS, like al Qaeda, the Taliban, and other extremist Islamic movements, they read and watch the American news. They’ve seen the reporting bias about what the Biden administration is doing. They’ve seen the calls by reporters, pundits, the think tank denizens, former Trump administration officials, and Republican members of Congress for the Biden administration to send more military personnel back in, to retake Bagram and move operations there (this would be strategically irresponsible and tactically stupid!), and to create an open ended commitment to stay until every single US citizen and Afghan who wants to leave is out.
The leaders of Islamic State-Khorasan saw an opportunity to undertake a low risk to themselves – two suicide bombers – high reward operation to leverage the current information environment in the US to increase the pressure on the Biden administration. I expect there will be further attacks to both further capitalize on the news media and political feeding frenzy in the US right now in order to try to force the Biden administration to giving IS-K what it wants: more American military boots on the ground to both attack and to also become targets for the Taliban. I do not think this is going to work. I think that IS-K, like the American news media and Republican members of Congress, as well as other Republicans with presidential ambitions, have seriously misjudged President Biden. He is not going to budge. He will order and authorize exactly what he feels is necessary to complete the Non-combatant Evacuation Operation and when he has decided that this strategic objective has been met, he will end it. That may be on schedule for 31 August. It may be a week later. But it is not going to entail a surge of American military personnel to expand the operation. Finally, I do expect that US Special Operations Command has already been tasked with undertaking a focused, targeted mission against IS-K as an appropriate response to their attacks today.
* Ahmad Moussalli, Wahhabism, Salafism, and Islamism: Who is the Enemy, A Conflicts Forum Monograph, Spring 2015