Taliban and Islamic State target religious opponents in Afghanistan

The State Department’s “International Religious Freedom Report for 2017,” which was published online earlier this week, offers a striking description of the Taliban’s totalitarian tactics. At a time when the US is seeking to negotiate a peace deal with some Taliban leaders, Foggy Bottom reports that the group “continued to assassinate and threaten religious leaders with death for preaching messages contrary to the Taliban’s interpretation of Islam or its political agenda.” As part of its widespread assassination campaign, “Taliban gunmen killed imams and other religious officials throughout the country.”

The situation has become so problematic that the Afghan President’s Office and the Ministry of Hajj and Religious Affairs (MOHRA) “estimated the pace of killings by the Taliban had increased and would likely exceed the 150 religious officials killed in 2016.” Not all clerics stand in the Taliban’s or the Islamic State’s way, of course, as “some mullahs in unregistered mosques continued to preach in support of the Taliban or [Islamic State – Khorasan Province] in their sermons.”

But the killings are undoubtedly intended to tip the scales of religious authority in the jihadists’ direction, weakening any ideological challenge to their own authoritarian rule. Both the Taliban and the Islamic State’s Afghan branch seek to impose their own brands of medieval sharia law on the Afghan populace, and well-respected clerics could stand in their way.

The Taliban’s campaign of ideological terror includes intimidation, as the jihadists “continued to warn mullahs not to perform funeral prayers for government security officials.” According to “the director of madrassahs at MOHRA,” this resulted in Afghan imams being afraid of performing funeral rites “for Afghan National Security Forces and other government employees” – that is, the very same government forces opposed to the Taliban. MOHRA “also reported difficulty in staffing registered mosques in insecure areas because of Taliban threats.”

The Taliban’s threats are hardly empty. The State Department provides some examples.

On Mar. 22, 2017, for instance, “suspected Taliban gunmen assassinated an imam and former provincial council member in Laghman Province.”

Then, on May 7, a “cleric and media adviser to the Kandahar government” who had called the Taliban’s jihad “illegitimate” was gunned down.

The Taliban “claimed responsibility” for a May 9 improvised explosive device (IED) bombing that killed the “Parwan Provincial Ulema chief, who had been publicly critical of the Taliban.” Six children who were attending the chief’s school were also killed in the blast.

The wave of targeted killings continued on May 22, 2017, when “suspected Taliban gunmen shot and killed the deputy head of the Logar Ulema council while he was walking to his mosque.”

Days later, on May 28, “suspected Taliban gunmen shot and killed a provincial Ulema council member in Paktika Province.”

Another attack on worshippers was carried out on June 10, when “Taliban gunmen entered a Sunni mosque in the Gardez district of Paktiya Province and killed three worshippers.”

The Taliban also “claimed responsibility for the assassinations of the deputy director of Islamic education in Kapisa Province on July 1 and of a progovernment cleric in Nangarhar Province on July 15.”

On Nov. 27, “the Taliban shot and killed the imam of a mosque in Nangarhar Province, accusing him of supporting the government.”

Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi’s loyalists employ similar tactics. For example, they killed “an imam in Sar-e Pul for committing sorcery by offering traditional Afghan talismans to worshippers.”

Meanwhile, still other attacks on religious officials have gone unclaimed.

The State Department cites “reports” indicating that both the Taliban and the Islamic State’s Wilayah Khorasan (or Khorasan “province”) are “monitoring the social habits of local populations in areas under their control and imposing punishments on residents according to their respective interpretations of Islamic law.”

Women accused of adultery are beaten or stoned to death, while others are punished for additional alleged “moral crimes.” In addition, there “were continued reports of the Taliban and the [Islamic State – Khorasan Province] taking over schools in areas under their control and imposing their own curricula.”

The Sunni jihadists are not just targeting their Sunni rivals, of course. The Islamic State’s men especially relish the opportunity to kill Shiites, as the so-called caliphate has made this sectarian bloodsport a key part of its overall program.

Citing statistics compiled by the United Nations Assistance Mission in Afghanistan (UNAMA), State notes that “499 civilian casualties (202 deaths and 297 injured) from 37 attacks” on religious targets were documented in 2017 – triple the number recorded for 2016. These operations hit “places of worship, religious leaders, and worshippers,” and the methods of terror employed included “killings, abductions, and intimidation.” The majority of the victims (83 percent) were Shiites, with the prime driver of this casualty figure being the 18 attacks claimed by the Islamic State. However, the Taliban also “claimed 20 attacks, up from seven attacks in 2016.” (State’s figures indicate that there were 38 total claimed attacks, not 37. It is not clear why there is a discrepancy.)

State also references an Aug. 6, 2017 attack in a Shiite village in the northern Sar-e Pul Province that it says was carried out by gunmen linked to the Taliban and the [Islamic State’s Khorasran Province].” At “least 50 civilians, including women and children,” were killed during the raid.

The State Department’s report helps to illuminate a facet of the Afghan War that is often ignored. The Taliban’s violence is often targeted at the group’s Afghan rivals – especially religious figures opposed to its agenda.

Thomas Joscelyn is a Senior Fellow at the Foundation for Defense of Democracies and the Senior Editor for FDD's Long War Journal.

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