A suicide bomber struck the Tabayan cultural center in Kabul, Afghanistan earlier today. The center is located in Kabul’s Qalai Nazir neighborhood, which is predominantly populated by Shiite Muslims. Initial reports indicate that more than 40 people, including women and children, were killed during the attack.
The Islamic State quickly claimed responsibility via its Amaq News Agency, which said that the assault relied on a “martyrdom” seeker, as well as improvised explosive devices. The group attempted to justify the violence by arguing that the facility is a prominent Shiite center and sponsored by Iran. (Amaq’s claim can be seen on the right.)
In a subsequent statement, the Islamic State’s Wilayah Khorasan (or Khorasan “province,” ISIS-K) claimed that the center was an important recruiting station for the Fatemiyoun Division, which is comprised of Afghan Shiites and fights in Syria.
Both statements may have exaggerated the death toll, as the so-called caliphate’s propagandists claimed that 220 people were either killed (100) or wounded (120). Press reports indicate that while the attack was deadly, the number of casualties was lower than the Islamic State claims. Still, there is often uncertainty concerning the number of dead and wounded after a terrorist bombing.
ISIS-K has repeatedly carried out sectarian attacks inside Afghanistan, following the same sectarian strategy employed by the mother organization elsewhere. In July, for instance, ISIS-K claimed responsibility for an assault on the Iraqi embassy in Kabul, saying the operation was part of an “open war” between the Sunni “mujahideen” and the Shiite “polytheists.”
American and Afghan forces have waged an intense counterterrorism campaign against ISIS-K since last year, primarily in the group’s strongholds in Nangarhar province. However, ISIS-K continues to carry out significant operations in Kabul and elsewhere. The self-declared caliphate has poached from existing jihadist to buttress its ranks in Afghanistan and Pakistan. Such defections likely allowed the organization to gain an operational foothold in Kabul in the first place.
The Pentagon reported earlier this month that while “ISIS-K forces were isolated in a small number of districts,” some “small ISIS-K factions fled from their stronghold in Nangarhar to other areas of Afghanistan.”
Indeed, ISIS-K has recently advertised its presence in Kunar province. On Dec. 26, the jihadists released a photo set (seen at the bottom of this article) from Kunar. The camp is named after Abu Omar al-Shishani, an infamous commander who was killed in Iraq in 2016. ISIS-K’s presence in Kunar has long been known, as the US has launched targeted airstrikes against senior leaders stationed in the province.
Despite losing much of their territory in Afghanistan, Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi’s loyalists continue to pose a threat. “Although weakened,” the Defense Department noted in its report this month, “ISIS-K will most likely continue to plan and execute high profile attacks in populated areas.” The bombing in Kabul earlier today illustrates this point.
ISIS-K regularly targets Shiite civilians and places of worship
The United Nations Assistance Mission in Afghanistan (UNAMA) has documented a sharp uptick in the number of attacks on Shiite civilians and places of worship since early 2016. Such operations are a deliberate part of ISIS-K’s strategy, as the group seeks to stoke sectarian conflict.
In November, UNAMA issued a special report documenting jihadist operations targeting “places of worship, religious leaders and worshippers.” Prior to Jan. 2016, UNAMA reported, insurgents “rarely” carried out “deliberate attacks” against Shiite Muslims. There were just five such documented “incidents” between Jan. 1, 2009 and Dec. 31, 2015, and the “perpetrators and motives behind” those attacks was often unclear. Before 2016, the “only” mass casualty assault on a Shiite mosque occurred on Dec. 6, 2011, when a suicide bomber struck worshippers in the city of Kabul, killing 56 civilians and injuring 195 others. According to UNAMA, responsibility for that bombing was claimed by Lashkar-e-Jhangvi — an anti-Shiite, Sunni jihadist group — but “this claim was never confirmed independently by UNAMA.”
With the emergence of ISIS-K, however, Shiite places of worship became a more frequent target.
UNAMA has “documented” 12 such attacks between Jan. 1, 2016 and the end of Oct. 2017. These were “mainly claimed” by ISIS-K, which took responsibility for eight of the incidents. These 12 terrorist attacks resulted in “689 civilian casualties (230 deaths and 459 injuries).”
Four of the 12 operations were carried out in 2016, and the remaining eight during “the first 10 months of 2017,” according to UNAMA. One such heinous plot was executed on Oct. 11, 2016, when a suicide terrorist “armed with an AK-47 and hand grenades entered the Karte Sakhi Shi’a shrine and mosque in Kabul city during Ashura commemorations.” The ISIS-K jihadist “threw a grenade and opened fire against women, children and men inside the mosque, killing 19 civilians and injuring a further 60 before being killed by police.”
Taliban targets religious leaders opposed to its governance and violence
The Taliban, which is more concerned with how its violence is perceived by the public, generally abstains from targeting mosques or other gatherings of Shiite Muslims. Indeed, the group denied any connection to the Tabayan cultural center bombing. But UNAMA has accumulated data on the Taliban’s targeted “killings, abductions, and intimidation of religious leaders” and scholars as well.
The UN body reports that insurgents carried out 27 “targeted killings of religious figures” between Jan. 1, 2016 and Oct. 31, 2017, “causing 51 civilian casualties (28 killed and 23 injured).” Most of these “occurred in 2017” and are “mainly attributed to Taliban.”
“The targeting of religious leaders stemmed from…their ability to change public attitude through their messages, or their perceived support of” the Afghan government, according to UNAMA. The Taliban has “issued announcements directing religious leaders to abstain from performing funeral ceremonies for Pro-Government Forces.”
On “several” occasions since early 2016, the insurgents killed “religious scholars who had publicly challenged the legality of their quasi-government functions and raised concern about military operations and violence.” For instance, the Taliban killed two “religious figures in Kandahar province” earlier this year, claiming that one of them was a “spy” for the Afghan government. “In one case,” UNAMA continued, “the Taliban accused a religious scholar – who also held a civilian government position – of trying to revise Islamic rules for the benefit of the” government.
The Taliban has also abducted and tortured religious leaders and scholars who are opposed to its mission, sometimes earning ransoms for their release. One “religious scholar in Nangarhar province” was “abducted and tortured” because his “sons were members of Afghan National Security Forces.”
And although the Taliban does not regularly target mosques, UNAMA “recorded” a Taliban attack “on worshippers in a mosque in an
[ISIS-K] controlled area” in Nangarhar, “killing three civilians” who were accused of being “Wahhabi.”
Between Jan. 1, 2016 and Oct. 2017, there were also “25 attacks targeting individuals deemed to be military targets while they were inside places of worship,” killing 28 civilians and injuring 15 more. The “vast majority” of these were attributed to the insurgents. Two of these “targeted killings inside mosques” were claimed by the Taliban.
Islamic State’s photos from the Abu Omar al-Shishani training camp in Afghanistan’s Kunar province: