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ISIS has small number of fighters, but terror attacks in Afghanistan have been increasing

Islamist militant group has made its pitch to disaffected Taliban fighters

CNN  — 

While the US-led coalition has been pounding ISIS in Iraq and Syria, forces in Afghanistan are facing an increased threat by the group and its affiliate, Wilayat Khorasan.

As are Afghan civilians.

ISIS has claimed responsibility over the past few years for several major attacks in Afghanistan, including one in March in which militants disguised as medical personnel laid siege to a military hospital and killed at least 30 people.

The atmosphere seems much different than two years ago, when ISIS was just establishing a presence in the war-weary country.

There are several concerns over ISIS’ presence and impact in Afghanistan.

Recruitment base

ISIS first emerged in 2015 in the country’s east, gaining ground and support fast, often among disaffected Taliban and Afghan youth.

After years of war, the savagery and vision of Islam offered by the group appealed to some, though the Afghan offshoot’s link to the Syria-based leadership has been questioned. Many analysts have said Afghan ISIS fighters came from Pakistan and adopted the group’s branding to get financing.

Money is an important enticement to Afghans, 40% of whom are unemployed, according to the United Nations.

There are plenty of battle-hardened militants ISIS is trying to recruit. It’s a similar strategy to one that the group used in Iraq, appealing to disaffected Iraqi soldiers. Swelling their ranks with former soldiers provides them with immediate military prowess and credibility among some local communities.

Ongoing attacks against Shia, others

ISIS, comprised of Sunni Muslims, has targeted Afghanistan’s Shia minority, as well as political sites.

ISIS often tries to sow sectarian violence in its attacks. Analysts believe this strategy allows them to take advantage of the chaos that ensues and fill a power vacuum that ultimately results.

Some of its recent major attacks include:

A suicide bombing earlier this month.

• The attack in March.

• The killings of six Red Cross workers in February.

• A bomber detonating inside a Shia mosque this past November.

• Twin suicide bombings last summer that killed more than 80 people at a protest by Shias in Kabul.

Growing brand

While the Taliban, another Sunni terrorist group, is the Afghan government’s most pervasive foe, ISIS’ establishment presence provides another major challenge for a burgeoning Afghan military.

ISIS and the Taliban have an uneasy relationship in Afghanistan, having fought each other until a reported truce in August. They don’t work together but they have common enemies.

Having an affiliate in Afghanistan also gives ISIS a presence in one more nation outside the so-called “caliphate” it established across Iraq and Syria.

ISIS has taken credit for attacks in 29 countries outside of Iraq and Syria.

With every new attack, the terrorist group’s profile grows and strengthens, as does its support among disaffected Muslim communities.

How serious is the ISIS threat in Afghanistan?

The US military says there are 600 to 800 ISIS fighters in Afghanistan. Most of them are embedded in Nangarhar Province, where the US and Afghan militaries regularly perform counterterrorism operations against Khorasan.

A US Army Special Forces soldier was killed during a mission against the ISIS affiliate earlier this month.

On Thursday, the United States dropped a massive bomb on a network of tunnels and caves used by ISIS, part of a joint offensive against the Islamist fighters.

Afghanistan’s ambassador to the United States said Thursday that Kabul and Washington are working together to eliminate ISIS.

“It’s both Afghanistan and the United States’s top priority to eliminate ISIS from Afghanistan … this year, and hence this intensified operation against all of their bases,” Hamdullah Mohib told CNN. “We are coordinating quite closely on making sure that we have a winning strategy in Afghanistan.”

CNN’s Nick Paton Walsh and Nadeem Muaddi contributed to this report.