Listen Now

Unveiling the IS-K Threat: From Kabul to Moscow, a Wake-Up Call for Canada

An attack in Moscow underscores the continuing reach of terrorist organizations

By: /
29 April, 2024
The aftermath of the recent terrorist attack on the Moscow Crocus City Hall music venue. Image: Wikimedia Commons
Mustafa Aryan
By: Mustafa Aryan
Research Fellow at the Munk School of Global Affairs and Public Policy at the University of Toronto

The Islamic State-Khorasan (IS-K), a regional affiliate of the Islamic State (IS) terrorist group primarily based in Afghanistan, Iran, Pakistan, and Central Asia, has recently garnered attention due to its escalating activities and global ambitions. The group’s attack on the Moscow Crocus City concert hall, as one example, has further elevated its status as a global terrorist group, sparking concern among nations worldwide.

The term ‘Khorasan’ refers to a historical region encompassing parts of modern-day Afghanistan, Iran, Pakistan, and Central Asia. As for IS-K it was established in 2015 when disaffected Taliban members pledged allegiance to the IS, marking the expansion of IS influence beyond its primary territories at the time in Iraq and Syria. Hafiz Saeed Khan, a Pakistani national and former Tehrik-e Taliban Pakistan (TTP) commander, was appointed as the inaugural emir of the IS-K province. Khan, along with key TTP figures such as spokesman Sheikh Maqbool and numerous district chiefs, initially pledged allegiance to Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi, the first caliph of the IS, in October 2014. These individuals, including Khan, were among the founding members of the Khorasan Shura, the group’s original leadership council.

IS-K shares the overarching IS goal of establishing a global caliphate but focuses its operations within the Khorasan region. The group’s activities, characterized by violent attacks against both military and civilian targets, exploit Afghanistan’s ongoing political instability and security challenges. 

Since forming in 2015, IS-K has been involved in numerous terrorist activities, including attacks on schools and hospitals in Afghanistan. After the return of the Taliban to power in 2021, IS-K also conducted several high-profile attacks in Afghanistan, including the suicide bombing in August 2021 that killed 13 American military personnel and at least 169 Afghans in Kabul during the hasty U.S. withdrawal from the country. From the end of 2022, to the beginning of 2023, embassies in Kabul belonging to Pakistan and Russia were struck by IS-K extremists. Additionally, they targeted a hotel housing Chinese business delegates and carried out an assault at a military air base. In March 2024, IS-K also organised a suicide bombing in Kandahar that resulted in at least 21 deaths and left more than 50 people injured. This incident underscored IS-K’s influence and its ability to target even the Taliban heartland. 

IS-K activities have not been limited to Afghanistan. The group has carried out mass-casualty assaults in Iran, Pakistan, Tajikistan, Türkiye and Uzbekistan. Additionally, it has pursued operations targeting the U.S. and Europe. The IS-K attack on the Moscow concert hall resulted in 145 dead and some 500 wounded, making it as one of the deadliest terrorist attacks in recent history and the deadliest attack in Russia in two decades. Indeed, the attack in Moscow signified a significant shift in the group’s operations, demonstrating an expanding capacity to inflict terror beyond its home base of Afghanistan. By reaching Moscow, IS-K also signaled its geographic reach to strike anywhere in the world.

The UN Security Council reported in June 2023 that the number of IS-K militants in Afghanistan ranged from 4,000 to 6,000, including family members. Other regional and international terrorist groups actively operating in Afghanistan include the Tehreek-e-Taliban Pakistan, the Eastern Turkistan Islamic Movement, the Islamic Jihad Group, Khatiba Imam al-Bukhari and the Islamic Movement of Uzbekistan. 

Most of the terrorist groups that fought alongside the Taliban now find themselves isolated as their Taliban allies have transitioned into government roles and positions of power. The fighters from these groups, now without a clear purpose, could potentially be recruited by IS-K which  has demonstrated the capacity to absorb fighters from other groups. And a potential influx of new members could pose an increased threat to regional stability.

Retired General Frank McKenzie, who commanded U.S. forces in Afghanistan during the 2021 withdrawal, issued a stark warning recently regarding the ongoing threat of terrorism. Despite the absence of recent terrorist attacks on U.S. soil, General McKenzie cautioned that the threat has not dissipated and may, in fact, be on the rise. He highlighted that the withdrawal of U.S. forces from Afghanistan has emboldened IS-K and increased the likelihood of further attacks not only against the U.S. but also its allies and other nations worldwide.

IS-K has been using various means to spread its propaganda, one of which is through online publications. A significant contributor to these publications, especially in 2023, was a mysterious writer who identified himself as ‘the Canadian’. This individual, who goes by the name ‘Sulaiman Dawood al-Kanadie’, has been actively writing for the ‘Voice of Khurasan’, an online publication produced by IS-K and his contributions cover a wide range of topics including a demand for “a jihadist invasion of Israel.”

The presence of such a person in Canada is a cause of concern for authorities, as it indicates the potential for IS-K’s influence to spread beyond its primary region of operation. Additionally, there have been instances where Canadian citizens have traveled abroad to join the IS or engage in related activities. In 2015, the Canadian government estimated that 180 Canadians had travelled overseas to fight in various conflicts, including with IS and other jihadist groups, with approximately 60 having already returned. 

Retired U.S. General David Petraeus, who led NATO and U.S. Forces in Afghanistan between July 2010 and July 2011, and served as the Director of the CIA from September 2011 until November 2012, highlighted recently on The West Block hosted by Mercedes Stephenson that the risk of a terror attack in Canada was “elevated” following the Moscow attack. The presence of IS-K propaganda in Canada, particularly the contributions of ‘the Canadian’ to the ‘Voice of Khurasan’ underscores this threat. The Canadian Security Intelligence Service (CSIS) also stated this year “that it is keeping tabs on ISIS-K [IS-K] and forecasts the group will continue to be active for at least the remainder of the year.” This acknowledgment by CSIS suggests that there might be other individuals or networks connected to ‘the Canadian’ and although he is just one person his influence, especially domestically, could be substantial.

The potential implications of IS-K threats for Canada’s national security are significant and in Canada the RCMP is tasked to track and prevent terrorist threats. However, the presence of IS-K propaganda and the activities of ‘the Canadian’ highlight the risk of radicalization within Canada’s borders, which could potentially lead to homegrown terror attacks, posing a direct threat to the safety of Canadian citizens. 

Canada’s approach to countering terrorism and radicalization, such as our National Strategy on Countering Radicalization to Violence, the Integrated National Security Enforcement Teams (INSETs), and the Canada Centre for Community Engagement and Prevention of Violence, collectively mitigate risks associated with terrorism and radicalization. However, rapidly changing terrorist threats require continuous and robust efforts and should include enhanced surveillance by strengthening internet monitoring to prevent the spread of extremist propaganda within Canada, implementing additional counter-radicalization programs, and raising public awareness about the threats posed by extremist groups. 

Furthermore, Canada also finds itself in a bit of an intelligence vortex when it comes to many of the locations IS-K operates in overseas.  For example, Canada severed diplomatic relations with Iran and Syria in 2012 and does not recognize the Taliban government. Therefore, international collaboration amongst agencies in Canada and our allies plays a crucial role in mitigating threats by sharing what intelligence is available, coordinating counter-terrorism efforts, and supporting activities that counter IS-K activities. 

Indeed, collaboration will continue to be crucial in addressing the multifaceted nature of the IS-K global threat while also bolstering Canada’s defence against terrorism.

Before you click away, we’d like to ask you for a favour … 

 

Journalism in Canada has suffered a devastating decline over the last two decades. Dozens of newspapers and outlets have shuttered. Remaining newsrooms are smaller. Nowhere is this erosion more acute than in the coverage of foreign policy and international news. It’s expensive, and Canadians, oceans away from most international upheavals, pay the outside world comparatively little attention.

At Open Canada, we believe this must change. If anything, the pandemic has taught us we can’t afford to ignore the changing world. What’s more, we believe, most Canadians don’t want to. Many of us, after all, come from somewhere else and have connections that reach around the world.

Our mission is to build a conversation that involves everyone — not just politicians, academics and policy makers. We need your help to do so. Your support helps us find stories and pay writers to tell them. It helps us grow that conversation. It helps us encourage more Canadians to play an active role in shaping our country’s place in the world.

Become a Supporter