On Monday, shortly after 12:30 pm, a suicide bomber killed at least 32 worshipers gathered at a Shia mosque in Kabul. While no group has officially claimed the attack, the Taliban distanced itself immediately and the target and timing point to the Islamic State’s local franchise, Islamic State Khorasan Province (ISKP).
According to accounts in the BBC, Reuters and Tolo News, the attacker entered the mosque where people were gathering for Arba’een, an important Shia religious observance. Arba’een, literally meaning “40” in Arabic, is held 40 days after Ashura — representing the mourning period for the Shia martyr Imam Hussein, a grandson of the Prophet Muhammad killed in 680 at the Battle of Karbala by Yazid I’s army (Yazid I was the second caliph of the Umayyad Caliphate).
The timing points to an increasing sectarian bent to violence in Afghanistan. ISKP has not yet claimed the recent attack but it did take responsibility for an attack on Shia gathering for Ashura in October as well as for an attack on a largely Hazara rally in July. At least 29 people were killed in the Ashura attack and more than 80 at the Hazara rally. Afghanistan’s population is predominantly Sunni, with a sizable minority of Shia, mostly Hazaras and Tajiks. (Afghanistan hasn’t had a census in 40 years so the best we have are guesses that 20 percent of Afghans are Shia).
On October 11, at least two men armed with machine guns and grenades and dressed as police attacked worshipers gathering at Kabul’s Karta-ye Sakhi shrine for Ashura. One witness to the Ashura attack said, “They indiscriminately shot everyone they faced. They wouldn’t even spare women and children.”
The same indiscriminate targeting was apparent in Monday’s blast.
The UN Assistance Mission in Afghanistan (UNAMA) condemned the Arba’een attack, which killed at least 32 and wounded more than 50. According to UNAMA, many of the victims were children.
Pernille Kardel, the secretary-general’s deputy special representative for Afghanistan, called the “appalling attack” an “atrocity” and highlighted the attack as an effort to “stoke sectarian violence in Afghanistan.”
“Religious and ethnic tolerance are values the Afghan people hold strong, and I urge the Afghan authorities to do everything possible to defend Afghans of all faiths,” Kardel said.
As Borhan Osman noted in an extensive analysis of ISKP-claimed attacks (up to the Ashura attack) for the Afghanistan Analyst Network:
What has sharpened concern among Afghans is perhaps not ISKP’s capability, but its willingness to inject sectarianism into the conflict in Afghanistan. In recent decades, compared to most conflicts in the Muslim world, Afghanistan has stood out for the absence of such fratricide. ISKP, during the short period since its emergence, has, however, showed no hesitation in stepping into this un-mined area. While the Ashura and July 2016 attacks in Kabul are the most remarkable examples of sectarian violence by ISKP, the overall sectarian trend that is emerging since the group’s advent has been much wider. Over the 18 months, there have been a number of attacks and assassinations targeting Sufi, Hanafi, and Shia entities. Salafis have also had their share of victims, in what appear to be revenge attacks.
The latest attack would seem to fit into this pattern.
Afghanistan’s leaders — President Ashraf Ghani and CEO Abdullah Abdullah — condemned the attack, stressing that targeting civilians at a holy place displayed the attackers’ enmity for the Afghan people and for Islam. Abdullah tweeted, “This attack targeted innocent civilians — including children — in a holy place. It is a war crime and an act against Islam and humanity.” In another tweet, Abdullah said “harboring states” would “pay a heavy price for these atrocities against the Afghan people.”
The Taliban also condemned the attack, with spokesman Zabihullah Mujahid telling the BBC, “We condemn this blast… This act cannot be our work and has nothing to do with us.”