Sunni jihadists attacked Al Zahra mosque in Kabul as Shiite worshippers gathered for Ramadan earlier today. According to initial casualty reports, several people were killed and others wounded. Taliban spokesman Zabihullah Mujahid quickly denied that his group played any role, claiming that the Taliban’s “mujahideen” wouldn’t target a mosque.
However, the Islamic State’s Amaq News Agency did claim responsibility. Citing a purported “security source,” Amaq reported that “Islamic State fighters executed an attack on the Shiite shrine.”
The carnage at Al Zahra could have been worse. An Afghan official explained that the gunmen were repelled and forced to retreat to a kitchen, where they detonated a bomb.
There is little doubt that the Islamic State’s men planned to kill many more Shiites at Al Zahra and would have done so had they not been stopped. Security at Shiite mosques in Kabul has been stepped up because of the Islamic State loyalists’ repeated attacks.
Until May of this year, according to the United Nations Assistance Mission in Afghanistan (UNAMA), the “single deadliest conflict-related incident for civilians” in Afghanistan since 2001 came on July 23, 2016, when two suicide bombers dispatched by the Islamic State’s Wilayah Khorasan struck a peaceful demonstration in Kabul’s Deh Mazang Square. The terrorists in Deh Mazang deliberately targeted Afghanistan’s Hazaras, who are predominately Shiite. The so-called caliphate claimed the massacre was retaliation for Afghan Shiites participating in the Syrian war on the side of Bashar al-Assad’s regime and Iran. UNAMA “documented 85 civilian deaths and the injury of 413 others” from the heinous assault.
In terms of civilian casualties, the Deh Mazang massacre was surpassed only by the suicide bombing in Kabul’s “Green Zone” on May 31. The Afghan government says that more than 150 people were killed in the massive blast. However, the Islamic State has not claimed responsibility for the bombing. FDD’s Long War Journal assesses that because Abu Bakr al Baghdadi’s representatives failed to claim the attack, the likelihood that the Taliban or an affiliated group was responsible is even greater, despite the Taliban’s repeated denials.
The Islamic State’s Wilayah Khorasan (or the Khorasan “province,” also known as ISIS-K) has not been shy when it comes to claiming mass killings in Kabul or elsewhere in Afghanistan. And if its men were responsible for the May 31 vehicle bombing, then the group almost certainly would have trumpeted its involvement. Yet, the Islamic State’s prolific propaganda machine has not issued a claim of responsibility.
The Afghan government immediately blamed the Haqqani Network and its patrons in Pakistan. The Haqqanis are simply part of the overall Taliban and not a separate entity. Unlike the Islamic State’s representatives, the Taliban is concerned about how its operations are perceived, especially when it comes to violence targeting civilians. So even if the Taliban, or an affiliated faction, carried out the the May 31 bombing in Kabul, it has an interest in denying responsibility. (In this scenario, the Taliban would benefit by further destabilizing Kabul, but not want the public relations downside of having killed so many innocents.)
Meanwhile, Wilayah Khorasan has repeatedly and proudly targeted Shiite civilians, as well as others, in the Afghan capital.
UNAMA has been recording civilian casualties, including both deaths and injuries, since 2009. According to its annual report, 2016 was worse than any of the preceding seven years, in no small part due to the surge of violence in Kabul.
11,418 civilians were killed or wounded in 2016 across Afghanistan. (By comparison, 5,969 civilian casualties were recorded in 2009.) Afghanistan’s south was still the most dangerous area, but the country’s “central region,” which includes Kabul, was not far behind. UNAMA found a 34 percent increase in civilian casualties in the central region in 2016, as compared to 2015, “due to suicide and complex attacks in Kabul city.”
In addition to the assault on Deh Mazang Square, Wilayah Khorasan was responsible for several other high-profile operations. The group claimed responsibility for two additional suicide attacks at Shiite mosques in Oct. and Nov. 2016, killing at least 59 people and injuring 134 others. Wilayah Khorasan claimed that the victims deserved to die because they were “polytheists.”
Wilayah Khorasan continued to launch high-profile operations in Kabul during the first five months of 2017. And its operations haven’t solely targeted Shiites.
In February,Wilayah Khorasan claimed responsibility for a suicide bombing outside of Afghanistan’s supreme court, killing at least 20 people. In March, a suicide assault team raided the Sardar Mohammad Daud Khan Hospital in Kabul. The hospital is Afghanistan’s largest for military personnel and their families. The jihadists dressed like medical staff in order to confuse their victims. Dozens more were killed or wounded.
Then, in May, another Islamic State suicide bomber attacked a NATO convoy near the US Embassy, killing at least eight civilians in the process.
The US has been leading a counterterrorism campaign against the Islamic State’s Wilayah Khorasan in eastern Afghanistan since early 2016. The territory controlled by the group in Nangarhar province has dwindled. But the fighting has been intense; three American service members were killed in April. And even as the US and its Afghan allies have whittled away at the jihadists’ turf, they have retained the ability to launch mass casualty attacks in Kabul and elsewhere. At times, Wilayah Khorasan has also been able to advance on its Taliban rivals in Nangarhar.