The Pentagon has launched a drone strike in the Islamic State’s stronghold in eastern Afghanistan, killing a man believed to be involved in planning Thursday’s Kabul airport bombing.

The drone hit an ISIS-K member in Nangahar province, U.S. Central Command said. 

U.S. official told Reuters the strike was approved by President Joe Biden

The retaliation came less than 48 hours after a devastating suicide bombing claimed by the group killed as many as 170 Afghans and 13 American service members at the Kabul airport. 

The strike killed one individual, and spokesman Navy Capt. William Urban said they knew of no civilian casualties.

US military “conducted an over-the-horizon counterterrorism operation today against an ISIS-K planner,” Urban said. 

“The unmanned airstrike occurred in the Nangahar Province of Afghanistan. Initial indications are that we killed the target. We know of no civilian casualties.”

It wasn’t clear if the targeted individual was involved directly in the Thursday suicide blast outside the gates of the Kabul airport

The vow to hunt down

On Thursday Joe Biden said the perpetrators of the attack would not be able to hide. 

“We will hunt you down and make you pay,” he said. 

Pentagon leaders told reporters on Friday that they were prepared for whatever retaliatory action the president ordered.

‘We have options there right now,’ said Maj. Gen. Hank Taylor of the Pentagon’s Joint Staff.

The president was warned Friday to expect another lethal attack in the closing days of a frantic U.S.-led evacuation. White House press secretary Jen Psaki said Biden’s national security team offered a grim outlook.

“They advised the president and vice president that another terror attack in Kabul is likely, but that they are taking maximum force protection measures at the Kabul airport,” Psaki said, echoing what the Pentagon has been saying since the bombing Thursday at Kabul airport.

Analysts warned about the threat from the Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant – Khorasan Province, known as ISIS-K

ISIS announced its expansion to the Khorasan region in 2015, which historically encompasses parts of modern day Iran, Central Asia, Afghanistan, and Pakistan. 

“Every day we’re on the ground is another day that we know ISIS-K seeking to target the airport and attack both U.S. and allied forces and innocent civilians,” said Biden on Tuesday, speaking from the White House.

“We are currently on pace to finish by August the 31st. The sooner we finish, the better. Each day of operations brings added risk to our troops.”

In the early hours of Thursday, before the mid afternoon blast, the American, British and Australian intelligence agencies all issued urgent warnings for their citizens to get away from the airport. 

The role of ISIS-K

ISIS-K is not allied with the Taliban, and, not bound by its agreements with Washington, poses a fresh and deeply worrying threat.  

The group first emerged in 2014 as a splinter from another terror group, Tehrik-e Taliban Pakistan (TTP) – often known simply as the Pakistani Taliban.

The Center for Strategic and International Studies say that many of ISIS-K’s top leadership came from the TTP – among them spokesman Sheikh Maqbool, and their first emir, Hafiz Saeed Khan. 

Khan, a Pakistani citizen, established an early stronghold in Afghanistan’s Nangarhar province – on the border with Pakistan.

In 2015 ISIS-K’s formation was officially announced by ISIS’s leadership in Iraq and Syria, and the terror network’s headquarters have funneled money into their Afghan outpost.

The State Department designated ISIS-K as a Foreign Terrorist Organization on January 14, 2016.

Khan was killed by a U.S. airstrike in July 2016, and his three successors all suffered the same fate.

ISIS-K’s current leader is believed to be Shahab al-Muhajir, also known as Sanaullah.

A United Nations report, published in February this year, said that he took over in June 2020.

“The communiqué announcing the appointment, written in Arabic and translated into Pashto, referred to al-Muhajir as an experienced military leader and one of the ‘urban lions’ of ISIL-K in Kabul who had been involved in guerrilla operations and the planning of suicide and complex attacks,” the U.N. said.

Al-Muhajir reports to ISIS’s leader, an Iraqi by the name of Amir Mohammed Abdul Rahman al-Mawli al-Salbi – who took over when Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi died in October 2019.