An Islamic State affiliate was behind the Kabul airport bombings. What’s their beef with Taliban?

They are sworn enemies.

Faris Alfiq | August 28, 2021, 02:11 AM

Follow us on Telegram for the latest updates:

More than 100 people lost their lives in two bomb blasts as crowds were gathering at Kabul's airport to evacuate the city on Aug. 26, 2021.

More than 100 Afghans and 13 United States personnel were believed to have been killed in the attack.

The Islamic State (IS) had claimed responsibility for the bombing.

If you are thinking the Taliban and IS are the same, as both are considered by the United Nations to be terrorist organisations, they are not.

In fact, the two groups are sworn enemies.

Taliban, Al-Qaeda & IS: Same same but different

While it may seem that terror organisations have one goal in mind -- to set up an Islamic state -- Taliban and IS are actually rivals and they do not work together.

A deeper understanding of the formation of these terror organisations, and how they relate to one another, would shed some light on the rivalry between these two groups.

How Taliban rose

The Taliban has been making headlines worldwide soon after they took over control of Afghanistan.

They were first formed in 1994 after the Mujahideen guerrilla fighters managed to push the Soviet Union out of Afghanistan (with the help of the U.S. and its Central Intelligence Agency).

After the Soviet's withdrawal, civil war ensued between different warlords and tribal groups as they fought to fill up the power vacuum.

During this period of turmoil, the Taliban managed to attract a following, with a promise to prioritise Islamic values and clamp down on corruption of other warlords.

They took power in 1996 and declared Afghanistan an Islamic Emirate, which is a theocratic state that's governed based on Islamic laws and principles.

With power firmly in their control, the Taliban ruled the land under a very strict interpretation of Sharia law.

However, their influence waned when the U.S. invaded Afghanistan as they refused to extradite Osama Bin Laden, who was at that time seeking refuge in Afghanistan after committing the 9/11 terror attacks.

The group has since returned to power in a swift take over of Kabul soon after the U.S. began to withdraw from the country.

Al-Qaeda and Taliban are friendly with each other

Al-Qaeda is NOT the Taliban but they do have good relations and shared history with each other.

The group follows Wahhabism, an extreme form of Sunni Islam which adheres to a literal interpretation of the Quran.

Similar to the Taliban, the group was formed in 1988 in Pakistan by Osama Bin Laden before Soviet forces withdrew from Afghanistan.

They believe in jihad, which is their interpretation of a holy struggle, against anyone who was seen to be opposing Islam.

This was their motive behind the 9/11 attack in New York back in 2001 which took away 2,977 lives.

The terror organisation viewed the West and its culture as a threat to Islam, and their goal remains to establish an Islamic state based on Sharia law.

Al-Qaeda thinks Islamic State is too extreme

Moving on to the newer kid on the block, the Islamic State.

The group that claimed responsibility for the attack at Kabul Airport recently was the Afghan offshoot of IS, called the IS-Khorasan (IS-K).

IS WAS a part of Al-Qaeda in Iraq up until 2013, after some Taliban commanders defected from the group and swore allegiance to Abu Bakar Al-Baghdadi, who became the leader of the IS.

They were dissatisfied with Mullah Mohammed Omar, who was the chief of Taliban at that time.

Similar to Al-Qaeda, they too adhere to a strict Wahhabi-Salafi interpretation of Islam.

However, what distinguished the IS from Al-Qaeda was their modus operandi.

While the Al-Qaeda organised themselves as guerrilla insurgents, IS used more of military-style tactics and strategy.

Al-Qaeda also considers IS to be so extreme that that its leaders have distanced themselves from the group.

Between the Taliban and IS, they do not see eye to eye as well due to the defection of Taliban commanders to IS.

Tensions between Taliban and Islamic State

IS has criticised the Taliban as being a nationalist movement, rather than a movement to push for a global caliphate.

They viewed the Taliban as being too tolerant with the Shiite Muslim community in Afghanistan.

Up till now, IS and the Taliban are still competing to recruit members into their organisation.

“They are competitive organisations," counter-terrorism expert at Center for Strategic and International Studies, Seth G. Jones said.

"They are trying to appeal to the same recruits and the same funding sources. They are trying to build the same thing in different ways." 

Beyond competition for resources, the Center for International Security and Cooperation at Stanford University added that the competition between the Taliban and IS is also ideological.

"IS accused the Taliban of drawing its legitimacy from a narrow ethnic and nationalistic base, rather than a universal Islamic creed," the centre said.

Taliban and IS clashed head on

The latest bombings at the Kabul airport was not the first time that the two groups had attacked each other. In fact, there were several times the two groups clashed.

In June 2015, fighting between the two groups broke out after former Taliban leader Mullah Akhtar Mohammad Mansour wrote to IS chief Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi, telling him to stop recruiting Taliban defectors.

In November the same year, Taliban factions were fighting with one another over whether to join force with IS.

A total of 22 people were killed in a battle between the Taliban and IS-K near the Iranian border in May 2017 after IS-K captured three Taliban drug dealers, who were selling opium to raise money in northern Afghanistan.

The IS viewed the cultivation of opium as un-Islamic.

IS denounced Taliban

In 2020, the Taliban reached a peace deal with former U.S. president Donald Trump.

The peace deal saw the Taliban promising to fight extremist groups, including IS, and vowed that Afghanistan would not be a breeding ground for terrorism.

IS took offense at their announcement and denounced the Taliban for taking the "Crusaders" as their "new allies".

The group vowed to never stop attacking Americans in Afghanistan.

So why did the IS-K launch an attack?

Understanding the background of the IS-Taliban rivalry is important to make sense of the latest attack in Kabul.

Analysts believe that the IS-K bombed Kabul airport to undermine both western forces and the Taliban, and more importantly to embarrass the Taliban.

Raffaello Pantucci from S. Rajaratnam School of International Studies told NBC News that the attack was to make the Taliban look like they are not in control of the land.

“This attack will look bad to the West, but it makes the Taliban look as if they are not in control of their own environment,” he said. “It undermines the idea that they rule this place.”

Jones further said that the attack in Kabul by IS-K revealed gaps in Taliban's counter-intelligence and counter-terrorism capabilities, which in turn potentially undermines the Taliban's power and credibility in Afghanistan.

"What this does show, by the way, is that Taliban's counter-intelligence and counter-terrorism capabilities actually are somewhat limited," Jones told NPR.

"They were not able to identify or stop the attack," he added. 

While experts believe that it is still too early to tell how the U.S. withdrawal from Afghanistan will benefit ISIS-K, the attack on the Kabul airport represents the continued threat posed by the group to peace and stability in the region.

Related stories:

Follow and listen to our podcast here

Top image screenshot via Sky News/YouTube