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Moscow attack fuels concern over global ISIS-K threat growing under the Taliban in Afghanistan

Moscow concert hall attack: What we know
ISIS claims responsibility for Moscow attack, suspects appear in court 03:16

The devastating March 22 terrorist attack on a packed concert hall in the Moscow suburbs brought Afghanistan abruptly back into the spotlight, as suspicions quickly fell on the ISIS branch in the country. While ISIS attributed the carnage to a never-before-mentioned Russian wing, the U.S. had warned about two weeks earlier of intelligence suggesting the Afghan affiliate, ISIS-Khorasan or ISIS-K, was planning attacks in Russia.

Russian officials also said, at about the same time, that they'd thwarted another ISIS-K plot  targeting a synagogue in Moscow. 

Four men identified by Russia as suspects in the concert hall attack, dragged before a judge bearing signs of significant beatings this week, were all said to be nationals of Tajikistan. That country sits right on Afghanistan's northern border, and many of ISIS-K's fighters are believed to be Tajik nationals. 

So while Moscow hurls accusations at Ukraine that both Kyiv and Washington say are baseless, and no positive link has been established between the concert hall attack and ISIS' Afghan franchise, it has renewed concern about the promise made by Afghanistan's Taliban rulers to prevent the country from once again becoming a haven for terrorist groups to plot attacks around the world.

What are the Taliban's relations with ISIS-K?

An array of terrorist groups operated in Afghanistan before and throughout the decades-long U.S. and allied military presence in the country. Since the Taliban regained power nearly three years ago, however, many of those militant groups have ceased operations in the country.

But not ISIS-K. It has continued not only operating, but working hard, through indiscriminate bloodshed, to challenge and erode the Taliban's authority.

Both are Islamic fundamentalist groups, and both are designated terrorist organizations by the U.S. government, but the Taliban and ISIS-K have different ideologies and goals, and they are at war with each other.

ISIS-K leader behind Kabul airport attack killed by Taliban, U.S. says 04:40

The Taliban's goal had, for more than two decades, been to topple Afghanistan's U.S.-backed government and to reimpose its harsh interpretation of what a "pure Islamic" country should be. It has done that.

ISIS-K, in contrast, is considered one of the more outwardly threatening affiliates of the now-global network born out of the wars in Iraq and Syria. The Afghan branch was formed in 2015 along the Afghanistan-Pakistan border. Its aim is to establish an Islamic caliphate in the region (as it did for several years in parts of Iraq and Syria) and to expand its terror activities around the world.

Over the past couple years, ISIS-K has conducted high-profile attacks against Taliban officials in Afghanistan, killing some important figures along with civilians. Just last week the group conducted a suicide attack in Kandahar province targeting Taliban workers who had gathered outside a bank to withdraw their salaries.

United Nations data reported last year shows that, since 2022 alone, ISIS-K had claimed responsibility for more than 190 suicide bombings in major cities, resulting in some 1,300 casualties.

Can the Taliban stop ISIS-K? Would it?

The Taliban, having returned as Afghanistan's governing power, is a formidable military force, bolstered by equipment left behind by U.S. and allied forces as they withdrew hastily in 2021. Analysts say the Taliban has demonstrated some determination in combating ISIS-K, and has managed to reduce the threat from its rival within the country.

But analysts and United Nations envoys say a series of ISIS-K-attributed attacks and foiled plots in Iran, Russia and Europe cast serious doubt on the Taliban's willingness, or ability, to curb the group's operations outside of Afghanistan.

"The Taliban have been fighting ISIS-K inside Afghanistan, undoubtedly, because ISIS-K is the main armed opposition to their rule," Asfandyar Mir, a South Asia security expert with the United States Institute of Peace, told CBS News. 

But he added that the ISIS affiliate's "plotting in Europe, the attack in Kerman, Iran, and now the Moscow attack, raise serious questions over the efficacy of the Taliban's ability to degrade ISIS-K's external attack capability."

In January, the United Nations Security Council monitoring team said the Taliban's efforts to combat ISIS-K "appear to be more focused on the internal threat posed to them than the external operations of the group."

Has the Taliban's return handed ISIS a victory, too?

Just a year after the Taliban reassumed power in Afghanistan, the group's promise to the U.S. — written into the withdrawal agreement brokered by the Trump administration in 2020 — to prevent terror groups from using the country as a base, was pointedly challenged. 

Al Qaeda's top leader, Ayman Al Zawahiri, was killed by a U.S. drone strike in the diplomatic district of Kabul at the end of July 2022. 

During the chaotic U.S. withdrawal from the country the previous year, Taliban forces freed thousands of prisoners, including many ISIS-K fighters. In the mayhem, and without any military air power, those militants found ready access to weapons, and freedom of movement.  

"We have seen, in recent months, indications of a growing ISIS-K capacity to project threats far beyond its bastions in Afghanistan," Michael Kugelman, director of the South Asia Institute at the Wilson Center in Washington, told CBS News. "ISIS-K, like the parent Islamic State and other regional affiliates, is ideologically committed to global activities. It was just a matter of getting the capacity to match the will, and it looks like ISIS-K has now reached that point."

France raised its national security threat level to its highest point Monday after the country's Interior Ministry said two attempted attacks by ISIS-K, targeting an LGBTQ nightclub and Jewish or Christian religious sites, had been thwarted.

The group "clearly has the capacity to threaten countries in many parts of the world," Kugelman told CBS News. "How much more it can develop an external targeting capacity will depend on various factors: The level of assistance it gets from the parent Islamic State; its ability to secure financing; the number of foreign fighters it's able to recruit and also the extent to which the international community works to counter this growing, global ISIS-K threat."

Samantha Vinograd, a CBS News contributor and former counterterrorism official for the Department of Homeland Security in the Biden and Obama administrations, told "Face the Nation" after the Moscow attack that ISIS, "despite territorial and leadership losses, has retained its ability to conduct operations, largely through regional affiliates like ISIS-K."

Former DHS official says U.S. watching ISIS-K for threats "to American interests and homeland" 06:20

"We've seen ISIS-K attack American interests outside the Kabul airport during the evacuation, attack the Russian Embassy in Kabul in 2022 and, increasingly, increase the geographic scope of their operations," she said. "We also know that ISIS is relying on its regional affiliates to attack its interests in the West. And from my time advising the Secretary of Homeland Security, I will tell you that we were concerned about the threat that ISIS-K posed to American interests and to the homeland, and we took certain steps to mitigate that." 

Vinograd stressed the importance of intelligence-based screening of people trying to enter the United States as one of the best countermeasures against the ongoing ISIS-K threat, and said that's where she was concerned that "we're under-resourced in terms of having the information available to make really informed vetting decisions. With our withdrawals in Afghanistan and Iraq, we have lost certain intelligence capabilities."

ISIS-K's training camps and strongholds are located largely across Afghanistan's north, northeast and eastern provinces, the U.N.'s monitoring team said in 2023, "with at least five new ones built in 2022."

The Taliban claims, bluntly, to have neutralized the threat from ISIS-K, and it says forces conduct regular operations targeting the group's hideouts and leaders.

"We have eliminated the threat of ISIS-K in Afghanistan. In the past, during occupation of Afghanistan by U.S. and other allied forces, ISIS-K was holding some areas in their control in Afghanistan, and they had physical presence there, but it is not the case now," Suhail Shaheen, the head of the Taliban's political office in Qatar, told CBS News.

CBS News' Tucker Reals contributed to this report.

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