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US officials warn of ISIS-K threat

MARY LOUISE KELLY, HOST:

Officials in Russia have now detained 11 people in the brutal attack on a Moscow concert hall that left some 140 dead, dozens more wounded. ISIS Khorasan - like ISIS-K - is an offshoot of the Islamic State. It has claimed responsibility. And officials warn the group could also target Western countries. For more on this, NPR Pentagon correspondent Tom Bowman is here in the studio. Hey, Tom.

TOM BOWMAN, BYLINE: Hey, Mary Louise.

KELLY: OK. So the Islamic State, I think many Americans would recognize this as the Group that created what it called a caliphate in Iraq, in Syria. The U.S. claimed it was defeated years ago. So what is this ISIS-K?

BOWMAN: Right. There was, of course, a U.S.-led campaign against the Islamic State. They were defeated in both Iraq and Syria back in 2019, though the U.S. and local forces are still going after remnants. Now, this ISIS Khorasan is based in Afghanistan, hard along the border with Pakistan. And the name, Mary Louise, comes from the region that once included parts of present-day Afghanistan, Pakistan, Iran and Central Asia. It's a vast area where they would like to set up another caliphate.

KELLY: OK.

BOWMAN: Now, ISIS emerged in 2015 and mounted their first attack in the eastern Afghan city of Jalalabad, killing several dozen. I was actually there at the time. And U.S. commanders said their presence was pretty small, maybe 800 fighters or so, and they included some who once fought for the Taliban, as well as Pakistanis and some from other countries. Now, the U.S. would at times target ISIS-K and also even point out - get this - to the Taliban where they were located. But since the U.S. left in 2021, that effort has dried up for the U.S. No drones are flying over Afghanistan. There's very little information now about ISIS-K, which continues to grow and now is expanding throughout the whole region.

KELLY: Well, and if these reports are true, able to attack well beyond the region in Moscow. How real are the fears then? We mentioned that ISIS-K could target the West, could target the U.S.

BOWMAN: Well, first of all, there is a fear that ISIS-K could threaten the West. That's what the top officer for the region, General Erik Kurilla, told Congress just one day before that attack in Moscow. Let's listen.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

ERIK KURILLA: ISIS surged their attacks in Iraq and Syria earlier this year, and the risk of attack emanating from Afghanistan is increasing. I assess ISIS Khorasan retains the capability and the will to attack U.S. and Western interests abroad in as little as six months, with little to no warning.

BOWMAN: Now, Kurilla also told lawmakers that the U.S. would have to work more closely with Pakistan, which has a better sense of what's going on next door in Afghanistan with ISIS-K. Now, it's important to note, Mary Louise, that France just yesterday increased its threat warning to the highest level because of that deadly attack in Russia. French leaders said today that ISIS-K was behind foiled attacks in the country in recent months. So the threat is real.

KELLY: This prompts a very basic question. What's in it for ISIS-K? Like, why would ISIS-K be going after targets in Russia or in Iran or the Taliban in Afghanistan?

BOWMAN: Well, all three governments share something in common - attacks on either ISIS in Iraq, Syria or Afghanistan, or attacks on some of the ethnic groups that make up ISIS-K. Russia and Iran are supporting Syrian leader Bashar al-Assad, who's going after ISIS and other militant groups. Also, Russia attacks going back years on Muslim-majority places like Afghanistan and Chechnya. With the Taliban, ISIS sees them as illegitimate, not adhering to their view of Islam, not the rightful leader of the country. And the Taliban have harshly targeted some ethnic groups in Afghanistan, like the Tajiks, who were involved in the attack in Russia.

KELLY: On that Moscow concert hall. Again, that was last Friday. NPR's Pentagon correspondent Tom Bowman - good to see you. Thank you.

BOWMAN: You're welcome. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

NPR transcripts are created on a rush deadline by an NPR contractor. This text may not be in its final form and may be updated or revised in the future. Accuracy and availability may vary. The authoritative record of NPR’s programming is the audio record.

Tom Bowman is a NPR National Desk reporter covering the Pentagon.