A survey of the Islamic State group's attacks around the world in 2021 indicates the group killed and injured more people in Afghanistan last year than it did anywhere else, and experts warn the terror group is on the rise following the U.S. military withdrawal from the country.
Widely known as ISIS, the group conducted its most deadly attack in 2021 last August at the Kabul International Airport when a suicide bomber killed 170 Afghan civilians and 13 U.S. military personnel.
During 2021, Islamic State carried out 365 terrorist attacks in Afghanistan that caused 2,210 casualties, a significant increase compared with 2020 when 82 IS attacks that caused 835 casualties were reported, according to an Israeli think tank, the Meir Amit Intelligence and Terrorism Information Center.
Globally, IS operatives carried out 2,705 attacks resulting in 8,147 casualties. Iraq stood second to Afghanistan in casualties with 2,083. The Meir Amit group uses Islamic State's claims of responsibility, as published in public sources, to attribute responsibility for attacks.
Syrians flee their homes in the Ghwayran neighborhood in the northern city of Hasakeh, Jan. 22, 2022, on the third day of fighting between the Islamic State (IS) group and Kurdish forces in Syria after IS attacked a prison housing jihadists in the area.
"The increase in ISIS activity in Afghanistan (especially in the second half of the year) came in the wake of the pullout of U.S. forces from the country, the disintegration of the old regime and the takeover of the country by the Taliban movement," the center, which has tracked Islamic State attacks around the world for more than a decade, said in a report published this week.
The United Nations, which tracks civilian casualties in Afghanistan, has not yet released its final report for 2021. During the first half of 2021, the United Nations reported at least 1,659 Afghan civilians were killed and 3,524 were injured. Of those, the U.N. blamed 39 percent on Taliban insurgents and less than 10 percent on Islamic State fighters.
The rise in the number of civilians killed in IS attacks came as Afghanistan was expecting an end to war-related casualties after almost two decades of fighting between the U.S. and Taliban forces.
Thousands of Afghans were killed and wounded during the Taliban's brutal insurgency, which started immediately after the U.S. military invaded Afghanistan in late 2001 and lasted until the last U.S. soldier left the country in August 2021.
Syrians flee their homes in the Ghwayran neighborhood in the northern city of Hasakeh on Jan. 23, 2022, on the fourth day of fighting between the Kurdish forces and Islamic State (IS) group fighters.
Even before the U.S. military withdrawal, the United Nations reported rising civilian casualties caused by Islamic State's offshoot in Afghanistan, the Khorasan Province, which is also known as IS-K.
In the first half of 2021, more than 124 Afghan civilians were killed and 315 were wounded in Islamic State attacks - a 45 percent increase compared with the same period in 2020, the U.N. Assistance Mission in Afghanistan (UNAMA) reported.
Analysts warn the terror group is on the rise again
Even while the Taliban claim they have ended the war and restored peace in Afghanistan, IS fighters have continued attacking civilians in different parts of the troubled country.
Last week, the group claimed responsibility for an attack in Herat city, west of Afghanistan, which killed at least six and wounded several other civilians.
Since its emergence in 2015 in eastern Afghanistan, bordering Pakistan, the IS Afghan affiliate has caused more than 7,000 civilian casualties (including over 2,200 deaths) in the country, according to a tally of U.N. totals and other reports.
Fighters with IS-Khorasan, the affiliate in Afghanistan, vow allegiance to new Islamic State leader Abu Ibrahim al-Hashimi al-Qurashi, in this photo issued Nov. 5, 2019, by SITE Intelligence Group.
IS-Khorasan primarily targets Shia communities - mosques, schools and residential areas - in Afghanistan. Shias account for about 12 percent of the country's estimated 35 million population.
The group has also attacked journalists, civil society activists and health workers.
IS-Khorasan attacks, human rights groups say, amount to crimes against humanity.
There are growing concerns now that in the absence of strong counterterrorism operations in Afghanistan, IS has found a conducive environment in the country to regenerate force and launch even more deadly attacks.
"It's not difficult to carry out operations targeting civilian targets," Matthew Levitt, a counterterror expert at the Washington Institute for Near East Policy, told VOA, adding that while Islamic State can cause a lot of disruptions in Afghanistan, it appears unable to topple the Taliban regime, at least in the near future.