KABUL -- Afghan special operations forces have busted a major terrorist network led by the "Islamic State of Iraq and Syria" (ISIS) and the Haqqani Network, the National Directorate of Security (NDS) said Wednesday (May 6).
Security forces killed five militants and arrested eight others when they stormed two hideouts of the joint network -- one in Kabul and the other outside the capital -- Tuesday (May 5) night).
Afghanistan's intelligence agency accused the cell of carrying out several attacks in recent months.
"This joint cell of Daesh and Haqqani Network had carried out major attacks in the capital, including an attack on a Sikh temple in March," the NDS said in a statement, using the Arabic name for ISIS.
At least 25 people, including women and children, were killed when gunmen stormed the gurdwara in Kabul on March 25 while worshippers were offering morning prayers.
ISIS's Khorasan branch (ISIS-K) claimed responsibility.
The network was behind the ISIS-claimed attack on an outdoor ceremony in Kabul to mark the 25th anniversary of the death of Shia leader Abdul Ali Mazari on March 6.
That massacre killed at least 27 people, including women and children, and wounded another 29, according to the Interior Ministry.
The ISIS-Haqqani cell was behind a rocket attack that targeted the swearing-in ceremony of President Ashraf Ghani at the Presidential Palace (ARG) in March, the NDS said.
The network was led by Sanaullah, a senior ISIS leader who was additionally in charge of co-ordinating the Haqqani Network's activities in urban areas, added the statement, which said nothing about Sanaullah's whereabouts or fate.
Members of the cell have assassinated several Afghan officials and fired rockets at Bagram Air Base, the US military's largest base in Afghanistan, the NDS said.
No one was seriously injured in the assaults targeting the ARG or Bagram.
'Strong link' between ISIS and Haqqani Network
Afghan officials have long accused the Haqqani Network, a US-designated terror group with ties to the Taliban, of carrying out major attacks claimed by or blamed on ISIS-K.
"There is undeniable evidence showing a strong link and co-operation between the Haqqani Network and ISIS," a senior security official told AFP on condition of anonymity.
"They jointly plan and carry out terrorist attacks, especially in Kabul."
Late last year, Afghan officials said ISIS-K had been defeated in Nangarhar, a key province where it had first sought to establish a stronghold in 2015.
Afghanistan's intelligence agents have long suspected that the Haqqanis were either aiding ISIS-K in carrying out attacks or actually perpetrating attacks in their name, said a senior security analyst.
"If they are now caught side by side in the same trench as the NDS says... this could be an alarming development," Atiqullah Amarkhil, a former Afghan National Army general turned security analyst, told AFP.
"It may indicate that even if the Taliban one day agrees to reduce or end violence, the actual violence perpetrated by more radical groups like Daesh and Haqqanis may continue."
The Taliban dismissed the NDS statement that the Taliban-affiliated Haqqanis were working with ISIS-K.
Meanwhile, Zalmay Khalilzad, US special representative for Afghanistan Reconciliation, began a three-nation tour, including Qatar, India and Pakistan, on May 5.
A Taliban delegation based in Doha conferred with Khalilzad and discussed the full implementation of the recently concluded Taliban-US agreement including the release of prisoners, Taliban spokesperson Suhail Shaheen said in a Twitter post on Thursday (May 7).
The United States and Taliban signed a landmark deal on February 29 that lays the groundwork to start intra-Afghan talks to end Afghanistan's war.
A key tenet of the US-Taliban accord is that the Taliban will not allow groups like al-Qaeda and ISIS-K to use Afghan soil to plan attacks against the US and its allies.
However, the killing of al-Qaeda leader Asim Umar alongside Taliban fighters in Helmand Province last September indicates the two groups still have strategic ties.
Violence also surged in Afghanistan in the weeks after the accord, the United Nations Assistance Mission in Afghanistan (UNAMA) reported April 27.
Afghans had enjoyed a period of relative calm ahead of the deal, but the conflict resumed almost as soon as it was signed. The Taliban has since rejected multiple calls for a ceasefire during Ramadan.
More than 500 civilians were killed and over 700 were injured during the first three months of the year, UNAMA said.
The US military on May 2 warned the Taliban of "responses" if the attacks do not ebb.