KABUL -- The "Islamic State of Iraq and Syria" (ISIS), with its so-called "caliphate" now gone, appears to be shifting its focus to Afghanistan and other countries close by.
ISIS fighters who waged a bloody campaign in Iraq and Syria are heading to Afghanistan to continue their violent insurgency and help plot "spectacular" attacks against the United States, AFP reported, citing a US official.
The warning comes as ISIS seeks to assert a regional influence after the loss of its self-proclaimed Middle East "caliphate" and as South Asia reels from a series of devastating attacks.
"We know some have already made their way back here and are trying to transfer the knowledge, skills and experience they learned over there," a senior US intelligence official in Kabul told AFP in a recent interview.
"If we don't continue counter-terrorism pressure against [ISIS in Afghanistan], there will be an attack in our homeland -- and a spectacular attack -- probably within the year," added the official, who asked not to be named for security reasons.
The official, who arrived in Kabul with a team of analysts over the past year to help Gen. Scott Miller -- the four-star general in charge of US and NATO forces -- tackle ISIS, did not describe the nature of any plot.
However, ISIS has been linked to or inspired several large attacks in America, including a 2016 mass shooting in Florida. The gunman, who had sworn allegiance to ISIS, killed 49 people in a nightclub.
A recent United Nations report said ISIS in Afghanistan has between 2,500 and 4,000 members -- about the same number the US Defence Department was citing two years ago, even though officials say thousands of fighters have been killed.
ISIS's Khorasan branch, or ISIS-K as the local affiliate is known, has grown in both numbers and capabilities, said US Senator Jack Reed after a recent visit to Afghanistan.
The US intelligence official did not say how many former fighters are in Afghanistan, but argued, "Any number is significant."
Europeans -- including from Britain and France -- are among those who have joined ISIS-K, he added.
Their presence could complicate any peace deal with the Taliban, who have pledged to prevent terrorists from using Afghanistan as a haven to plot foreign attacks.
"Unless or until we get the Taliban to work and address this problem as well, they will never be able to keep this land free from outwardly facing organisations," the official said.
Still in the game
The United States has led an unrelenting air campaign, including dropping the so-called Mother of All Bombs, the Pentagon's largest non-nuclear bomb, to smash tunnels and bunkers used by insurgents.
The US military in regard to ISIS in Afghanistan has "probably stymied their growth and disrupted their operations at times", Thomas Joscelyn, a senior fellow at the Foundation for Defence of Democracies and editor of its Long War Journal, said.
"But it hasn't taken them out of the game," he told AFP.
The well-funded group has replenished its ranks with foreign fighters and local recruits looking for a decent wage.
ISIS-K has suffered losses in Jawzjan Province but maintains strongholds in Nangarhar and Kunar, where they have beaten back Taliban forces and displaced thousands of locals.
Disillusioned Taliban insurgents sometimes switch to ISIS-K over spats or for ideological reasons, viewing the Taliban as not austere enough in their interpretation of Islam.
ISIS-K conducted six high-profile attacks in Kabul in 2016, according to the United States. In 2017, that number grew to 18, and last year there were 24.
ISIS has claimed dozens of attacks in Afghanistan in 2019, including a triple bomb attack in Kabul on June 2nd.
Some Afghan officials question whether ISIS always oversees such assaults, or if the Taliban and Pakistani groups such as the Al-Qaeda-affiliated Haqqani Network are responsible.
"These attacks are carried out mostly by these Afghan and Pakistani groups, while the credit goes to [ISIS], who is ready to jump and claim it," an Afghan security official told AFP.
Meanwhile, tech-savvy recruiters track and groom potential insurgents through social media and in Kabul's universities, where middle-class and upwardly mobile students are sometimes targeted.
ISIS shifts focus
Afghanistan is not the only country that is seeing a shift in terms of ISIS.
Internationally, ISIS claimed responsibility for a string of recent attacks, including the Easter Sunday bombings that killed 253 people in churches and hotels in Sri Lanka in April.
On April 30 the fighters' elusive leader, Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi, apparently resurfaced in a propaganda video, his first purported appearance since 2014.
ISIS also appears to be shifting its focus toward Pakistan and India after its territorial defeat in the Middle East.
In May, ISIS announced the creation of "Pakistan Province" and claimed that its "Hind Province" branch attacked Indian forces in the Indian-ruled portion of Kashmir.