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KABUL, Afghanistan (AP) — A suicide bombing at a wedding party in Kabul claimed by a local Islamic State affiliate has renewed fears about the growing threat posed by its thousands of fighters, as well as their ability to plot global attacks from a stronghold in the forbidding mountains of northeastern Afghanistan.
The attack came as the Taliban appear to be nearing a deal with the U.S. to end nearly 18 years of fighting. Now Washington hopes the Taliban can help rein in IS fighters, even as some worry that Taliban fighters, disenchanted by a peace deal, could join IS.
The U.S. envoy in negotiations with the Taliban, Zalmay Khalilzad, says the peace process must be accelerated to put Afghanistan in a "much stronger position to defeat" the Islamic State affiliate. On Monday, Afghan President Ashraf Ghani vowed to "eliminate" all IS safe havens.
Here's a look at IS in Afghanistan, a militant group some U.S. officials have said could pose a greater threat to America than the more established Taliban:
A 'PROVINCE' OF THE CALIPHATE
The Islamic State affiliate appeared in Afghanistan shortly after the group's core fighters swept across Syria and Iraq in 2014, carving out a self-styled caliphate, or Islamic empire, in around a third of both countries. The Afghan affiliate refers to itself as the Khorasan Province, a name applied to parts of Afghanistan, Iran and Central Asia during the Middle Ages.
Despite IS' defeat in its Iraqi and Syrian heartlands, the extremist group has reverted to staging frequent insurgency-type attacks in both countries against security forces and civilians.
In a report to the United Nations Security Council earlier this month, U.N. Secretary-General Antonio Guterres said IS has been left with as much as $300 million following the loss of its so-called caliphate, "with none of the financial demands of controlling territory and population." He warned that the lull in IS-directed international attacks "may be temporary" and said Afghanistan remains the best-established conflict zone among those attracting foreign extremist fighters from within the region.
The IS affiliate in Afghanistan initially numbered just a few dozen fighters, mainly Pakistani Taliban driven from their bases across the border and disgruntled Afghan Taliban attracted to IS' more extreme ideology.
While the Taliban have confined their struggle to Afghanistan, the IS militants pledged allegiance to Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi, the reclusive leader of the group in the Middle East, and embraced his call for a worldwide jihad against non-Muslims.
The Afghan affiliate suffered some early setbacks as its leaders were picked off by U.S. airstrikes. But it received a major boost when the Islamic Movement of Uzbekistan joined its ranks in 2015. Today, the U.N. says it numbers between 2,500 and 4,000 fighters, many from Central Asia but also from Arab countries, Chechnya, India and Bangladesh, as well as ethnic Uighurs from China.
Within Afghanistan, IS has launched large-scale attacks on minority Shiites, who it views as apostates deserving of death. The group said Saturday's attack on the wedding targeted a large Shiite gathering, although the celebration was in fact a mixed crowd of Shiites and Sunnis, according to the event hall's owner, Hussain Ali. The bombing killed at least 63 people and wounded nearly 200 more.
IS is seen as an even greater threat than the Taliban because of its increasingly sophisticated military capabilities and its strategy of targeting civilians, both in Afghanistan and abroad.
Bruce Hoffman, director of the Center for Security Studies at Georgetown University, sees Afghanistan as a possible new base for IS. It has invested "a disproportionate amount of attention and resources in Afghanistan," he said earlier this year, pointing to "huge arms stockpiling" in the country's east.
THREATENING THE WEST
Authorities have made at least eight arrests in the United States linked to the IS affiliate in Afghanistan. One was Martin Azizi-Yarand, the 18-year-old Texan who plotted a 2018 attack on a suburban mall and who said he was inspired by IS and was preparing to join the affiliate.
The group's brutal tactics have been on vivid display inside Afghanistan for years. Residents who fled areas captured by the group describe a reign of terror not unlike the one seen in Syria and Iraq at the height of IS's power.
The Afghan affiliate has been based in eastern Nangarhar province, a rugged region along the border with Pakistan, but it also has a strong presence in northern Afghanistan and has of late expanded into neighboring Kunar province, where it could prove even harder to dislodge. The mountainous province provided shelter for al-Qaida leader Osama bin Laden for nearly a year following the Taliban's ouster from power in late 2001, and U.S. forces struggled for years to capture and hold high-altitude outposts there.
TURNING TO THE TALIBAN
In recent months the Taliban have said they have no ambitions to monopolize power in a post-war Afghanistan, while IS is committed to overthrowing the Kabul government on its path to establishing a global caliphate.
The Taliban and IS are sharply divided over ideology and tactics, with the Taliban largely confining their attacks to government targets and Afghan and international security forces. The Taliban and IS have fought each other on a number of occasions, and the Taliban are still the larger and more imposing force. They're currently at their strongest since the U.S.-led invasion in 2001, and effectively control half the country.
Khalilzad, the U.S. envoy, has held several rounds of talks with the Taliban in recent months in a bid to end America's longest war. The two sides appear to be closing in on an agreement in which the U.S. would withdraw its forces in return for a pledge from the Taliban to keep the country from being used as a launch pad for global attacks.
But a deal could prompt an exodus of more radical Taliban fighters to join IS. That process is already underway in parts of northern and eastern Afghanistan, where the Taliban have attacked IS only to lose territory and fighters to the rival extremist group.
On becoming president Donald Trump boasted that he only hired the best people.
It was a claim that played into his preferred self-image of a business titan, delegating the running of his many big-money projects to shrewdly chosen managers who could be relied on to make the right calls.
But the subsequent two and a half years have called that boast into question, and very often from an unlikely source - Mr Trump himself.
Not only has there been a frantic turnover of senior staff, but some of the most withering condemnation of their talents has come from the very person who put them in post.
Here’s what Donald Trump has said about some of his top appointments:
Anthony Scaramucci (communications director)
“Anthony Scaramucci is a highly unstable “nut job” who was with other candidates in the primary who got shellacked, then unfortunately wheedled his way into my campaign. I barely knew him until his 11 days of gross incompetence-made a fool of himself, bad on TV. Abused staff,…
....got fired. Wrote a very nice book about me just recently. Now the book is a lie? Said his wife was driving him crazy, “something big” was happening with her. Getting divorced. He was a mental wreck. We didn’t want him around. Now Fake News puts him on like he was my buddy!”
Fired July 2017
Rex Tillerson (secretary of state)
“Rex Tillerson, a man who is ‘dumb as a rock’ and totally ill prepared and ill equipped to be Secretary of State, made up a story (he got fired) that I was out-prepared by Vladimir Putin at a meeting in Hamburg, Germany. I don’t think Putin would agree. Look how the U.S. is doing!”
Fired March 2018
Jerome Powell (chairman of the Federal Reserve)
“This guy made a big mistake. The head of the Fed -- another beauty I chose!”
Still in post
Steve Bannon (chief strategist)
“Michael Wolff is a total loser who made up stories in order to sell this really boring and untruthful book. He used Sloppy Steve Bannon, who cried when he got fired and begged for his job. Now Sloppy Steve has been dumped like a dog by almost everyone. Too bad!”
Fired August 2017
Omarosa Manigault Newman (assistant to the president)
“When you give a crazed, crying lowlife a break, and give her a job at the White House, I guess it just didn't work out. Good work by General Kelly for quickly firing that dog!”
Fired January 2018
Jeff Sessions (attorney general)
“I’m so sad over Jeff Sessions because he came to me. He was the first senator that endorsed me. And he wanted to be attorney general, and I didn’t see it.
“And then he went through the nominating process and he did very poorly. I mean, he was mixed up and confused, and people that worked with him for, you know, a long time in the Senate were not nice to him, but he was giving very confusing answers. Answers that should have been easily answered. And that was a rough time for him.”
Resigned at president's request November 2018
Donald McGahn (White House counsel)
I was NOT going to fire Bob Mueller, and did not fire Bob Mueller. In fact, he was allowed to finish his Report with unprecedented help from the Trump Administration. Actually, lawyer Don McGahn had a much better chance of being fired than Mueller. Never a big fan! - never a big fan.
Fired October 2018
Gary Cohn (chief economic adviser)
“Gary Cohn, I could tell stories about him like you wouldn’t believe.”
Resigned March 2018
A 24-year-old woman and her 8-month-old baby were in their driveway on the Fourth of July when a man driving a utility vehicle kidnapped them, according to police and media reports.
For more than a month, the woman was reportedly terrorized by her abductor, who police say sexually assaulted her, used a Taser to shock her and threatened her with a gun.
James Bryan Peterson, 54, is accused of holding the woman and infant near his home in in the Eastern North Carolina community of Willard, nearly 100 miles southeast of Raleigh.
Peterson initially held the victims in his driveway before moving them to another location about 75 yards from his house on Aug. 1, the Wilmington Star News reported, citing warrants from the case.
Peterson used a stun gun on the woman multiple times and held her in “sexual servitude,” according to the newspaper.
The woman escaped Aug. 9 and called 911, the Pender County Sheriff’s Office said in a statement posted to its Facebook page.
Peterson was arrested and initially charged with sexual battery, assault by pointing a gun and two counts of assault on a female, the sheriff’s office said. .
But after searching his house, police brought additional charges: human trafficking an adult and child victim, first-degree kidnapping, involuntary servitude, sexual servitude, felonious restraint and second-degree kidnapping, the sheriff’s office said.
Ashley Gurganus, a neighbor, told WWAY she was shocked by Peterson’s arrest.
“I think he kind of, maybe kept to himself,” Gurganus said, according to the station. “I never really saw him in and out much. You just usually hear it happening far away or across seas. Something like that. But when it happens in your hometown, you just can’t believe it.”
Other neighbors told WWAY that a solar panel company is behind Peterson’s house, so it was “normal to see people going in and out.”
Police are still investigating, and Peterson is currently being held at the Pender County Jail under a $2 million bond, according to the sheriff’s office.