Decoding ISIS-K and its Resurgence

ISIS-K is rapidly pursuing violent operations to acquire regional influence, staunchly imposing its stringent interpretation of Sharia law. In March of 2024, a large shift in strategy occurred when the group attacked a Moscow concert hall, killing 143 civilians. This has raised questions about the prospective intentions of the terrorist outfit.

At YIP, nuanced policy briefs emerge from the collaboration of six diverse, nonpartisan students.

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Executive Summary

Over the past decade, ISIS-K, the Islamic State Khorasan, has aimed to establish a caliphate in South and Central Asia, i.e a strict government with Sharia Islamic influence. As part of the terrorist group's goal to attain regional superiority, ISIS-K has carried out brutal attacks across the region, including suicide bombings and assaults.  Most recently, in a shift in strategy, ISIS-K has increasingly targeted Russia, a historically key player in the purported oppression of Muslims. On March 25th, 2024, ISIS-K attacked a Moscow Concert Hall, sounding alarm bells, as suspicions that the outfit sought International prominence became a reality.


Pointed Summary

The Islamic State Khorasan (ISIS-K) is a branch of the Salafi Islamic State (IS) that surfaced in 2015 with multiple objectives. They emerged as the branch of IS that would overthrow the Pakistani government, chastise the Iranian government for their Shia-majority identity, and replace the Afghan Taliban with ISIS influence in Afghanistan. Some refer to ISIS-K as Afghanistan’s IS group, while others view ISIS-K as the broader Central Asian IS group. 


Since 2015, the ISIS-K have coordinated about 100 attacks in Afghanistan and Pakistan. On March 25th of this year, four attackers claiming to be ISIS-K opened fire on Crocus City Complex, a concert destination in Moscow, Russia. ISIS has attacked Russia in the past, but this attack is considered the deadliest one on Russian soil in 20 years as it killed over 100 people.  ISIS-K’s focus on South and Central Asia may make their attack in Moscow seem confusing. However, Russia’s ties to ISIS-K’s enemies — the Taliban— were their motivation. Much like the Taliban, ISIS-K is fighting for power in Afghanistan, and striking a friend of the Taliban would display ISIS-K’s power over the Taliban. Furthermore, Russia’s support for Iran, Syria and the Rakhmon Presidency of Tajikistan, seen as enemies of Islam in ISIS-K’s eyes, is another reason for attacking Russia. Russia’s interventions in Afghanistan, Chechnya and Syria have been long-standing sources of resentment as well. ISIS-K’s hatred of Russia is also evident in their criticism of Putin in their propaganda, accusing Russia of actively oppressing Muslims

Despite ISIS-K’s ownership and motivations for the March 25th attack, Putin believes that the attack was orchestrated, in part, by Ukraine. Alexander Bortnikov, a Russian intelligence officer, believes that in addition to Ukraine, the US was to blame for the attack. Both countries deny the accusation. The US warned Russia of a terrorist attack, citing Crocus City Hall as a possible destination, which the US Embassy in Moscow publicized. However, the US’s tense relationship with Putin made it difficult for Russian intelligence to work with the US to counter the attack. 


Current Stances

The larger organization of the Islamic State (IS) first gained global relevance in 2014, when the United States and the United Nations universally decried the coalition for its misappropriation of the name “Islamic State” in describing a terrorist group. While the United States primarily targeted its strategic actions toward the affiliate of Islamic State located in Iraq and Syria (the more commonly known “ISIS” in the West), the organization is now centered around its faction in northern Afghanistan known as the Islamic State Khorasan Province (ISKP), or ISIS-K. ISIS-K first emerged in 2017 as a regional terrorist force operating in Afghanistan and Pakistan and gained international attention following their attacks on both United States troops withdrawing from Afghanistan in 2021 and a Moscow concert hall in March 2024 which killed 144 Russian civilians. 

By and large, ISIS-K operations are dedicated to the eradication of American and Western influence in the Middle East and the establishment of a new caliphate dominated by Sharia law in the region; even so, a nearly unanimous portion of major Islamic leadership across the world denies such claims of religious justification for the actions of ISIS. When ISIS-K first emerged, they also sought to undermine the influence of the Taliban as a ruling religious authority in Afghanistan, although their aims have shifted toward coexistence since the ascension of the Taliban as the ruling authority in the country after 2021. Currently led by Sanaullah Ghafari, ISIS-K primarily exerts its influence through suicide bombings centered on Afghanistan and Pakistan, including one at the Abbey Gate of Kabul Airport, which killed 13 American servicemen during the withdrawal of the United States military from Afghanistan in August 2021.

While the original faction of ISIS leadership centered in Iraq and Syria was functionally neutralized with the death of de-facto ISIS founder Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi in 2019, the influence of ISIS-K in both Central Asian and international contexts has steadily increased since. As of the time of writing, ISIS-K has displayed its capability to conduct terrorist operations in Tajikistan, Uzbekistan, Pakistan, Iran, and Russia (as displayed in the March 2024 Crocus Hall attack), although the majority of their attacks remain centered in Afghanistan. Many analysts further suggest that a portion of ISIS-K’s estimated 4,000 to 6,000 troops may have entered Europe via the ongoing central Asian diaspora, specifically in Russia and Turkey. Both American and international analysts have also suggested that ISIS-K’s ambitions to attack the West will likely increase in the coming years, with the 2024 Paris Olympics considered an especially vulnerable target - especially given ISIS’s history of attacking the French capital, as seen in 2015. 

Previous Policy

Beginning in 2014, the U.S. led a coalition of airstrikes on ISIS targets in Iraq and Syria. The airstrikes were effective in forcing ISIS to retreat from claimed territory and helped local forces recapture various cities around the ISIS Syrian capital Raqqa and Mosul in Iraq. On the logistical front, the House of Representatives voted to launch a program to train and arm Syrian Rebels. This program yielded 150 trained fighters but was shut down and later revamped and relaunched in 2016.  Eventually, in July 2017, Iraqi U.S.-supported security forces recaptured Mosul, and the Syrian Democratic Forces recaptured Raqqa in October 2017.

The American focus on attacking and controlling ISIS then shifted to a stance of external and internal support in the form of training programs, advising forces, and providing arms for military protection, rather than direct troop deployment. The U.S. vetted opposition groups and provided airpower to back military operations, as seen in the recaptures of Mosul and Raqqa in 2017

Fighting continued as internal terrorist threats began to infiltrate the U.S., leading to an increase in airstrikes. The U.S. and Russian President Vladimir Putin issued a joint statement promising cooperative efforts against Islamic State until its defeat, and a commitment to Syria’s sovereignty.  Secretary of Defense James Mattis emphasized the American intentions of preventing the return of an “ISIS 2.0” in Syrian territories. ISIS propaganda became increasingly more threatening, drawing in thousands of loyalists in Iraq, Syria, and even some in the U.S., prompting a coordinated takedown of ISIS propaganda channels by the U.S., Canada, and other European countries in 2018. Aside from external efforts, the U.S. kept 400 U.S. troops in Syria in 2019; this number gradually increased, with 900 troops deployed in Syria and 2,500 in Iraq in 2023.  

On an international scale, the U.S. led the international community in addressing ISIS with the creation of the Global Coalition to Defeat ISIS in 2014. With 87 members from countries of every continent, the Coalition created the Combined Joint Task Force - Operation Inherent Resolve (OIR) and aimed to manage and control airstrikes in ISIS territory. The focus moved from Iraq to Syria, where ISIS’ final territorial stronghold in Baghuz was reclaimed in 2019. With most large territorial sections reclaimed, the Coalition has redirected efforts toward government stabilization and social support. The constant military conflict led to the displacement of millions of Syrian and Iraqi people in camps. In 2024, the Coalition pledged $597 million towards stabilization assistance for liberated territory, aiming to repair the damage left by ISIS occupation. ISIS terrorism efforts honed in on Africa after successful American and international removal operations–in response, the Coalition created the Africa Focus Group, with American support pledging $130 million in funding civilian counterterrorism and funding partnerships with Coast West Africa.

Policy Problem

A July 2023 report to the UN Security Council on the international threat posed by Islamic State said that ISIS-K numbered 4,000 to 6,000 people on the ground in Afghanistan, including fighters and family members. At least half of these fighters are believed to be ethnic Tajiks. Throughout the 20th century, the Tajik Soviet Socialist Republic was the most impoverished and underdeveloped region of the former Soviet Union, and it has retained that infelicitous status since its independence in 1991.

From 1992 to 1997, the country plunged into a devastating civil war that destroyed what infrastructure remained from the Soviet period. Since then, hardliner President Rahmon has used the threat of a renewed civil conflict to vindicate his iron-fisted rule. In the striking culmination of sustained weak governance, today’s Tajikistan makes it almost impossible for even those with a university education to earn a salary that would enable them to build a normal family life. There are estimated to be well over three million Tajiks living in Russia, about one-third of the total Tajik population. Most of them hold the precarious status of “guest workers,” holding low-paying jobs in construction, produce markets, or even cleaning public toilets. As Jo Adentunji from The Conversation, UK puts it, one can draw parallels between the attitude of the Russians toward the Tajikis to that of Radical Republican Americans towards Mexicans, expressed most brazenly by Mr. Trump, “They bring drugs, they bring crime, and they bring rape.”

Disdained, denigrated, and disempowered by the system, Tajikis are easy prey for radical Islamists who give them a supposed sense of value and purpose. This, at least, is an ordinarily embraced Western point of view. However, the prudential answer goes deeper than the veneer of a marriage between poverty and extremism. It delves into the lost legacy of a once-powerful people. Tajikistan’s once glorious days have repeatedly been used to stymie rational thought, supplanting in its place, a militant culture that is both ascetic and uncompromising when instigated. The increasing link between Tajiki manhood and a penchant for using violence to ‘avenge’ current and historical adversaries has created a vicious, murky, and noxious fume that many are unable to exhale.

Whilst acrimony for Russia is rooted primarily in the inequitable treatment suffered at the hands of the Soviet Union, the greatest anger is reserved for the current Taliban regime in Afghanistan. ISIS-K sees the Taliban as an irreconcilable enemy that needs to be militarily defeated. The enmity between the two groups has been aggravated by sustained military hostilities, but the main cause remains their sectarian difference. ISIS-K subscribes to the Jihadi-Salafism ideology — and plays up the ‘purity’ of its anti-idolatry credentials. The Taliban, on the other hand, subscribes to an alternative Sunni Islamic sectarian school, the Hanafi madhhab, which ISIS-K regards as deficient, and vice versa.

From 2016 to 2020, ISIS-K’s overall capacity for violence, political cohesion, and territorial influence was weakened by triangular targeting from three sides: the US military, the former Afghan government, and the Afghan Taliban. Yet that pressure failed to quell ISIS-K’s political goals and civilian targeting. Since May 2020, current ISIS-K leader Shahab al-Muhajir has focused on rebuilding the group’s capabilities by forgoing territorial battles and targeting key urban areas, such as Kabul. Indeed, the US administration being caught up in two intense conflicts in Russia and Gaza has whetted an appetite for extremism and emboldened outfits like the ISIS-K.

Like any other inchoate terrorist outfit vying for international attention, ISIS-K seems to be making sure that its plots have the highest plausible chance of international recognition. This was evident in the August 26 suicide bombing at the Kabul airport, which killed more than 13 US soldiers. This pestilential cocktail of issues coalesces into a difficult decision for the US government. On the one hand, ISIS-K has regional and transnational terrorism ambitions, due to which the US government has an abiding interest in tracking and containing the group. And since the Taliban also see ISIS-K as an implacable foe, this opens up a narrow road of shared interests between the United States and the Taliban. 

On the other hand, the optics of a democracy-conscious America hitching its wagon to one infamous terrorist outfit to dismantle another will be rather difficult for the Biden administration to handle. A possible preoccupation over optics could come at this time when US elections are just around the corner, and Israel’s refusal to halt the invasion of Palestine has already marred a largely supportive Biden Administration. Likewise, the appearance of joint U.S.-Taliban operations against ISIS-K could be self-sabotaging for the Taliban’s internal politics, given that much of the Taliban’s renewed ideology is rooted in a staunch anti-American rhetoric.

For the past two decades, the United States has largely embraced a monolithic counterterrorism strategy firmly grounded in military might. Exquisite intelligence, surveillance, and reconnaissance (ISR) capabilities, augmented by armed drones and special operations forces (SOF) raids, have produced endless tactical victories against terrorist networks, but a strategic breakthrough has thus far proven elusive.

The US Government must understand that terrorism is a complex challenge that spans political, military, diplomatic, and economic spheres. Brute force is just a part of the solution. The need for a counterterrorism strategy that transcends military might is self-evident. 

Developing and implementing a fully revamped counterterrorism strategy that blends “soft power” components with hard power tools, putting on full throttle the full spectrum of national power, is a critical first step. This can take the form of infiltrating ISIS-K’s networks of information dissemination to destroy polarising propaganda.

Policy Options

Continuing to implement an “over-the-horizon” approach is the best path forward for the United States. “Over-the-horizon” refers to surveilling and striking hostile forces without American boots on the ground. As it stands, the US has sufficient intelligence capabilities to efficiently track ISIS-K and its activities to minimize potential threats to American security. Weeks before ISIS-K attacked Moscow, U.S. officials were able to tap into internal ISIS-K communications and inform Moscow of the terrorist organization’s intentions to attack. In early January 2024, ISIS-K sent a suicide bomber into Kerman, which killed 95 people. The U.S. was able to give Iran similar warnings. This is evidence of the strong capabilities of U.S. intelligence and America’s ability to detect potential risks associated with ISIS-K, providing the government with enough time to defend itself appropriately. 

With America’s current heavy involvement in wars and other counterterrorism responsibilities in Ukraine, Gaza, and the Western Pacific, it would be unwise to dedicate more boots on the ground to combat ISIS-K when current intelligence capabilities have been proven to be more than sufficient in predicting the terrorist organization’s actions. As stated by Jennifer Kavanagh, senior fellow at the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace, “Increasing overseas military operations is not the most efficient way to protect the U.S. homeland in this instance—and in fact, it may do more harm than good… This is a case where the best response may be no response.”

Another path that the U.S. can take is to partner with the Taliban for joint targeting of ISIS-K, though this option seems far less viable. Should the Taliban and the American government take advantage of each other’s intelligence capabilities through this partnership, the protections each party has under the Doha agreement, a peace agreement signed between the U.S. and the Taliban in 2020, would be void, resulting in major repercussions for America’s national security. 


The recent attack on Moscow has imbued unsurprising trepidation and angst among the international community about the future of ISIS-K’s strategy, motives and their concomitant implications. To gauge the diameter and depth of this precarious terrorist influence and protect key allies in the region, the U.S.’ best bet would be to expand existing espionage operations on hostile outfits. The age-old axiom that ‘prevention is better than cure’ is a truism and should be heeded.


The Institute for Youth in Policy wishes to acknowledge Eli Solomon, Nolan Ezzet and other contributors for developing and maintaining the Policy Department within the Institute.


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Iniya Karimanal

Foreign Policy Analyst

Iniya is a student at Princeton High School and Stanford Online High School. She spends most of her weekends at debate tournaments arguing various policy-related topics.

Sanjay Karthikeyan

Lead Analyst, Foreign Policy

Sanjay Karthikeyan is a high school senior based in Singapore and the Co-Founder and CEO of GovMetrix, a youth-led, solution-oriented organization that strives to solve the world’s most pressing problems through collaboration, incisive analysis, and candid discourse.

Irene Kang

Foreign Policy Analyst

Rusmiya Aqid

Policy Analyst

Rusmiya is a freshman at the University of Rochester. She is interested in international development and policy, and draws inspiration from social entrepreneurs like Runa Khan.

Shelby Tang

Foreign Policy Analyst

Trevor Darr

Foreign Policy Analyst

Trevor Darr is a senior in the International Baccalaureate program in Virginia Beach. Trevor is interested in the intersection of comparative politics, philosophy, and astrophysics, and typically focuses his research on the prevalence of imperialist power structures in present and future global diplomacy; he has a penchant for the avant-garde.