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Afghanistan Evacuations Face IS Terrorist Threats

Potential terrorist threats have further complicated evacuation efforts in Afghanistan. U.S. defense officials are searching for alternative ways to get Americans, Afghans, and others safely to the Kabul airport.

According to Jake Sullivan, U.S. national security adviser, in an interview on CNN: “The threat is real. It is acute. It is persistent. And it is something that we are focused on with every tool in our arsenal.”

The New York Times reported that current and former officials say that Islamic State (IS) threats currently range from a missile attack against a transport plane or a bomb-laden truck or suicide bombers infiltrating the vast crowd of people waiting outside the airport.

The Islamic State’s Khorasan affiliate in Afghanistan has likely seen a boost in its numbers recently, as Taliban forces released many prisoners from custody during their takeover—likely including IS fighters.

While the Taliban has worked closely with al Qaeda and jihadist terrorist groups in the past, there is tension there, says Scott Stewart, vice president of intelligence for TorchStone Global in an interview for the SM Highlights podcast. The lessons the Taliban learned in 2001 and the war on terror are likely to influence their attitude toward jihadist terrorist groups in the near future.

According to the Times, the Taliban and IS have clashed recently, and leaders of the Islamic State in Afghanistan denounced the Taliban takeover—the Taliban version of Islamic rule is considered not hardline enough for IS.

Remarks from U.S. President Joe Biden on Sunday noted that IS is a “sworn enemy of the Taliban” and that the continued presence of U.S. troops at the airport increases the chance that IS will attempt to strike—potentially harming innocent civilians and American personnel near the Hamid Karzai International Airport in an effort to damage the United States and the Taliban’s newly established rule. IS has been active in Afghanistan for years, carrying out attacks mainly on the Shiite minority, the Associated Press reported.

The threat of terrorism led the U.S. Embassy in Kabul to warn Americans on 21 August to avoid traveling to the airport until they receive individual instructions from a U.S. government representative to do so. Early Monday morning, a firefight between Western forces and unidentified gunmen broke out at the Kabul airport—three Afghan guards were wounded, Reuters reported.

Beyond IS, there are many other forces at work in Afghanistan, Stewart says, including militia groups and local powerbrokers.

The U.S. forces’ planned withdrawal from Afghanistan enabled the Taliban to employ a “silver or lead” approach to retaking the country, he says. Taliban forces leveraged the timeline for troop withdrawals to put pressure on local warlords or potential allies in the region, either offering bribes or making threats to gain a sturdier foothold before their speedy takeover this month. However, those relationships are rife with tensions—ethnic, religious, and traditional—that could lead to later tension in the region.

In addition, an Afghan resistance group has formed in the Panjshir valley in the north of Afghanistan, and its leader, Ali Nazary, says it has an army of thousands ready to fight if peaceful negotiations fail. The Taliban announced on Twitter Sunday that they were sending hundreds of fighters to take control of the area, Newsweek reported.

Want to learn more about the state of jihadist terrorism today and what it means for the situation in Afghanistan? Listen to the full bonus SM Highlights podcast with Scott Stewart and host Chuck Harold here.