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Rise in Islamic State Khorasan Deadly Attacks Could Be Sign of Group’s Growing Strength in Afghanistan

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Attacks by Islamic State Khorasan (ISIS-K) in Afghanistan have become more deadly since the withdrawal of NATO forces, with at least 346 civilians killed by the group since late August.

The insurgents carried out bombings in areas where previously they had little presence. A security expert told Sky News this could be a sign of the group’s growing strength.

Earlier this week, US Pentagon officials suggested ISIS-K intended to carry out attacks against the West and could have the ability to do so within six months.

The group is an affiliate of Islamic State based in South and Central Asia and are ideologically opposed to the Taliban’s nationalist view of Afghanistan, instead seeking to establish an Islamic State across the region.

During and after the US withdrawal, Islamic State Khorasan (ISIS-K) have carried out a suspected 21 attacks in Afghanistan.

The deadliest of these was on 26 August when a suicide bomb at Kabul’s main airport killed 170 civilians and 13 US marines.

Since then, there have been several ISIS-K attacks across Afghanistan, including seven between 18 September – 6 October that killed 18 people.

On 8 October an ISIS-K suicide bomber targeted a Hazara mosque in the northern city of Kunduz, killing at least 43 people.

The picture below shows the damage caused by the bomb inside the mosque.

Shortly after, between 8-12 October, five attacks in four days around Jalalabad, an ISIS-K stronghold, targeted both the Taliban and civil society activists.

A few days later on 15 October, CCTV captured two men attacking a Shia mosque in Kandahar, in the south of the country.

At least 47 people were killed in the suicide attack carried out when prayers were underway in the courtyard of the mosque.

At least five further attacks have occurred since the 15 October mosque attack in Kandahar, meaning around 408 people have been killed by ISIS-K in Afghanistan since August 26, including 346 civilians.

This level of ISIS-K attacks is not unprecedented. In 2018 they were responsible for more deaths globally than all but three other terrorist groups that year. Operations by the Afghan government and NATO forces helped reduce the threat throughout 2019 and 2020.

But now the number of attacks is rising again, with civilian casualties in October 2021 alone higher than in the first nine months of 2020.

Many of these attacks have taken place in the east of the country in Nangarhar province, where ISIS-K has a strong presence.

The Taliban has retaliated, with reports of people being dragged from their homes and killed in Jalalabad, the capital of Nangarhar, for allegedly being ISIS-K members or supporters.

The worsening situation is only exacerbating the existing humanitarian crisis within Afghanistan. The UN has warned that without urgent humanitarian relief the country is on a “countdown to catastrophe”.

It already has one of the largest populations internationally facing acute hunger and it is estimated that up to a million children are at risk of starvation.

Who are ISIS-K?

They were formed in 2015 by disaffected members of the Afghan Taliban, Pakistani Taliban, and Uzbek Islamists and have a “cadre of a few thousand” fighters according to the US Department of Defence.

They want to establish an Islamic caliphate across the region and have targeted ethnic minorities such as Hazara Muslims as well as civil society activists, aid agencies, and the former Afghan government.

Yet many of their actions have been against the Taliban, with 11 of 20 of their fatal attacks carried out in Afghanistan since NATO’s withdrawal being aimed at the new governing group.

What has changed since the withdrawal?

The flurry of attacks highlight the challenge facing the Taliban, who are now expected to provide security across the country despite lacking the manpower, skills, and finance of the previous Afghan government.

Dr Antionio Giustozzi, a senior research fellow at the defence think tank the Royal United Services Institute, said: “ISIS-K’s main enemy has always been the Taliban – there were relatively few incidents between them and the Americans previously.

“What’s different now is the spread of their activity across Afghanistan – Charikar, Kunduz, and Kandahar – these are places ISIS-K didn’t have overt activity before.

“The Islamic State sees the Taliban as being in a weak position right now as they are stretched very thin financially and militarily. Their manpower is taken up controlling the cities, so ISIS-K see now as the right time to strike.”

This week, a US Department of Defence official said that ISIS-K also intends to attack Western countries but that they don’t currently have the means to do so.

Analysis by Deborah Haynes, Security and Defence Editor

The big fear among western security chiefs is that Afghanistan again becomes a haven for terrorist groups to launch attacks against the United States, the UK and other allies.

Al-Qaeda was allowed to plan and direct the 2001 terror attacks on the United States from the country under the previous Taliban regime.

It prompted the US-led invasion to destroy the group’s training camps and hunt down and kill or capture its leaders.

But 20 years on, al-Qaeda militants are regrouping and still enjoy close links with the Taliban. At the same time, a new threat in the form of the Islamic State offshoot Islamic State Khorasan (ISIS-K) has taken root.

Unlike al-Qaeda, ISIS-K is an enemy of the Taliban. Taliban leaders will also know that if the group is able to conduct attacks on the West from their soil they will face the possibility of US-led airstrikes and possibly even special forces raids inside Afghanistan once more.

It is not just the US that will be monitoring developments with ISIS-K closely.

For the threat to be controlled, the support of other external powers will likely be needed. According to Dr Guistozzi: “The Taliban can only consolidate with support of the regional powers, notably China and Russia. Both of these countries are against the Islamic State – ISIS-K fear Russia in particular and their ruthless airstrikes, like they carried out in Syria.”

Reporting: Jack Taylor and Kieran Devine

Maps and Digital Production: Ganesh Rao

Satellite imagery: Google Earth
Data: The Armed Conflict Location & Event Data Project (ACLED)

The Data and Forensics team is a multi-skilled unit dedicated to providing transparent journalism from Sky News. We gather, analyse and visualise data to tell data-driven stories. We combine traditional reporting skills with advanced analysis of satellite images, social media and other open source information. Through multimedia storytelling we aim to better explain the world while also showing how our journalism is done.

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A Historic Night for Barbados and the Role of the Royal Family

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The crowds were strictly restricted due to the COVID pandemic, and despite the efforts and enthusiasm of the bands and dancers the atmosphere seemed muted in National Heroes Square, once known as Trafalgar Square.

But as the ceremonial events got under way the significance was striking, a historic night for Barbados and the role of the Royal Family.

There was a series of symbolic moments: the Prince of Wales closing almost 400 years of royal history inspecting one last military march past; the standard lowered for the final time; and the new president, Dame Sandra Mason, stepping forward to take her new role just seconds after the clock struck midnight.

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Rihanna ‘national hero’ of Barbados

Barbados had made that final step out on its own, now a republic.

In the distance you could hear the crowds clapping as the president entered the square.

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There were a few cheers for Prince Charles as his car swept past them, but the loudest cheer was for Barbados’s biggest star Rihanna, as she tried to make a subtle appearance during the middle of the proceedings.

And with the cheering and the fireworks lighting up the sky you could be led to believe this was a moment of celebration for all Barbadians.

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Yes, independence day always brings parties, but the move to a republic isn’t without controversy.

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‘Atrocity of slavery forever stains our history’

There was no referendum about it, and in the crowds it wasn’t difficult to find those who thought they should have had their say, others who don’t understand what this new status means for them, as well as those who for decades have fought to cut the colonial ties.

While it will remain a member of the Commonwealth, now it will be up to Prime Minister Mia Mottley to more forcefully take Barbados to the world stage, hammer home the need for greater support on the matters of COVID and the climate crisis.

Image:
President Sandra Mason, singer Rihanna and Prince Charles during the transition ceremony

This is not a completely fresh slate, there are still matters around reparations and the legacy of the slave trade to deal with.

Prince Charles at least acknowledging the appalling ways hundreds of thousands of enslaved Africans were treated, going some would say further formally in his comments than any other member of his family in the past.

He too reiterated that message that this is a new chapter for Barbados. And it was encouraging to see that at the helm a female prime minister and a female president are now helping to write that future.

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Rihanna Declared a ‘national Hero’ As Barbados Celebrates Becoming a Republic

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Barbadian singer and businesswoman Rihanna has been declared a national hero by the country’s prime minister.

The 33-year-old was awarded the honour by Mia Mottley during an event to celebrate the island nation becoming a republic.

“On behalf of a grateful nation, but an even prouder people, we therefore present to you the designee for national hero for Barbados, ambassador Robyn Rihanna Fenty,” the PM said to a jubilant crowd in the capital, Bridgetown.

Image:
The singer was awarded the honour as the Caribbean island celebrated becoming a republic

“May you continue to shine like a diamond and bring honour to your nation by your works, by your actions.”

Rihanna was born in Saint Michael and raised in Bridgetown, before moving to the United States after she was discovered by New York-based music producer Evan Rogers.

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She has since gone on to become one of the biggest artists in the world, as well as starring in movies including Battleship and Ocean’s 8, and launching her own fashion brand, Fenty, in 2018.

Since 2018, Rihanna has had the honorary title of Ambassador for Culture and Youth in Barbados.

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In 2008, former prime minister David Thompson declared 22 February “Rihanna Day” – and although it is not a bank holiday, Barbadians celebrate it every year.

Image:
Prince Charles was invited to speak at the transition ceremony

The latest honour was awarded to the star from her homeland as it celebrated becoming a republic – 55 years after gaining independence from the UK.

In a message to the people of the Caribbean island, the Queen sent her “good wishes for your happiness, peace and prosperity in the future” and emphasised the importance of the “continuation of the friendship” with the UK as she ceased to be their monarch.

Image:
Rihanna joined the ceremony in Bridgetown

Prince Charles was invited to speak at the transition ceremony formalising the move.

Speaking in front of a crowd in National Heroes Square in Bridgetown, once known as Trafalgar Square, he said: “From the darkest days of our past, and the appalling atrocity of slavery, which forever stains our histories, the people of this island forged their path with extraordinary fortitude.

Image:
There was singing and dancing during the celebrations

“Emancipation, self-government and independence were your way-points. Freedom, justice and self-determination have been your guides.”

Dame Sandra Mason was sworn in as the island’s first-ever president.

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Prince Charles Acknowledges ‘appalling’ History of Slavery As Barbados Becomes a Republic

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The Prince of Wales has formally acknowledged “the appalling atrocity of slavery” in the Caribbean, saying “it forever stains our history” at an event to mark Barbados becoming a republic.

Prince Charles was invited to speak at the transition ceremony formalising the Caribbean island’s decision to remove the Queen as its head of state.

Speaking in front of a crowd in National Heroes Square in Bridgetown, once known as Trafalgar Square, he said: “From the darkest days of our past, and the appalling atrocity of slavery, which forever stains our histories, the people of this island forged their path with extraordinary fortitude.

“Emancipation, self-government and independence were your way-points. Freedom, justice and self-determination have been your guides.”

Image:
Prince Charles celebrated the UK’s relationship with Barbados in his speech

Image:
Performers provide entertainment as part of the Presidential Inauguration Ceremony in Bridgetown

A 21-gun salute was fired just after midnight when the nation officially became a republic, marking a new chapter in the nation’s history.

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The prince, who described how “the creation of this republic offers a new beginning”, watched as the Queen’s standard was lowered for the final time.

He described how he felt “deeply touched” to be invited to the event, held on the nation’s 55th anniversary of independence from Britain, and spoke of his great personal respect for the people of Barbados.

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He added: “Tonight you write the next chapter of your nation’s story, adding to the treasury of past achievement, collective enterprise and personal courage which already fill its pages.

Image:
Members of the Barbados armed forces carry the presidential colours

A new chapter

“The creation of this republic offers a new beginning, but it also marks a point on a continuum – a milestone on the long road you have not only travelled but which you have built.”

In a message to the people of the Caribbean island, the Queen sent her “good wishes for your happiness, peace and prosperity in the future” and emphasised the importance of the “continuation of the friendship” with the UK as she ceased to be their monarch.

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Rihanna ‘national hero’ of Barbados

Barbados’ decision to remove the Queen as head of state will be watched closely by other members of the Commonwealth, especially in the Caribbean region.

Prince Charles’ speech referenced the UK’s close relationship with Barbados and a continuing partnership between the two nations.

“As your constitutional status changes, it was important to me that I should join you to reaffirm those things which do not change,” Prince Charles said.

Image:
Dame Sandra Mason is now president of Barbados

“For example, the close and trusted partnership between Barbados and the United Kingdom as vital members of the Commonwealth; our common determination to defend the values we both cherish and to pursue the goals we share; and the myriad connections between the people of our countries – through which flow admiration and affection, co-operation and opportunity – strengthening and enriching us all.”

After a dazzling display of Barbadian dance and music, Sandra Mason was sworn in as Barbados’ first ever president.

Prime Minister Mia Mottley, the leader of Barbados’ republican movement, helped lead the ceremony.

Barbadian singer Rihanna also attended the event and was declared a national hero.

“May you continue to shine like a diamond and bring honour to your nation by your works, by your actions,” Ms Mottley told Rihanna, a reference to her 2012 chart-topping single Diamonds.

The transition ceremony was watched in-person by a large crowd, and broadcast online and on screens across the island.

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