Deadly blast in northern city of Kunduz comes as Islamic State has intensified attacks since the U.S. withdrawal
8 October 2021 | By Yaroslav Trofimov, Saeed Shah, and Ehsanullah Amiri
Several dozen worshipers were killed in a bombing at a Shiite mosque in Afghanistan’s northern city of Kunduz on Friday, witnesses and officials said, the deadliest militant attack in the country since U.S. forces withdrew in August.
While nobody claimed immediate responsibility, the attack bore the hallmarks of Islamic State’s regional affiliate, Islamic State-Khorasan Province, which has repeatedly struck Shiite civilians in the past. ISKP has claimed several recent attacks, including a bombing Sunday at a Kabul mosque.
Friday’s explosion took place at around 1 p.m. local time, just as the mosque in the Khanabad area of Kunduz was packed with worshipers attending the weekly sermon. Matiullah Rohani, a spokesman for the provincial government, said at least 46 people were killed in the bombing at the mosque. The death toll was expected to rise significantly.
“It’s a massacre and a crime against humanity,” said Ali, a former policeman in Kunduz who rushed to the mosque after the explosion and didn’t want his full name used. “Dead bodies were laid over each other. Flesh and broken glass everywhere. We thought that the explosions were over once the Taliban took power, but sadly we see a repeat of the old story.”
A doctor at a Kunduz hospital run by the Doctors Without Borders aid organization said that, in his clinic alone, some 20 people were sent to the morgue and dozens of others among the 200 patients admitted after the blast were in critical condition.
“This is the bloodiest attack I have seen in my life,” said the doctor, whose hospital was hit by an errant U.S. airstrike in 2015. “The floor of each intensive-care unit is filled with blood—it is like a blood river.” Other hospitals in Kunduz also received casualties from the explosion.
Taliban spokesman Zabiullah Mujahid said in a tweet that the movement’s special forces had arrived on the scene of the Kunduz explosion to start investigating after “a number of our compatriots were martyred and injured.” Kunduz residents organized a blood drive to aid survivors.
While the Taliban and ISKP both seek to implement strict Islamic rules in Afghanistan, the two groups have profound religious and political differences. Though the Taliban persecuted Shiites when the Islamist movement ruled the country in the 1990s, their current government includes a member of the Hazara Shiite community as a deputy minister. Islamic State, by contrast, views all Shiite Muslims as heretics who should be exterminated.
Still, some residents of Kunduz blamed the Taliban for Friday’s tragedy. The new Taliban authorities have disarmed the security detail at the Shiite mosque, and, unlike in the past, nobody frisked the faithful ahead of Friday’s prayers, a local resident said.
“It’s a total disaster here,” said Kunduz resident Hafizullah, who lives near the mosque. “All the windows of houses close to the mosque have been shattered and I see pieces of flesh on the street.”
With the country’s economy in a free fall after the Aug. 15 collapse of the Afghan republic, improved security is the Taliban’s crucial source of legitimacy. “We are suffering from hunger and lack of money, but we are willing to put up with that as the Taliban promised that the war was over,” said Kunduz shopkeeper Abdul Ahmad, whose store is located some 400 yards from the explosion site. But, he said, “if this violence carries on, we will stand against the Taliban just as we stood against the last government.”
The recent spate of ISKP attacks creates a strategic challenge for the Taliban. On one hand, the country’s new rulers crave international recognition and need foreign aid as the economy shrinks—something that would require them to accommodate international demands on women’s rights and minorities. On the other hand, the Taliban fear that any such concessions could alienate their own hard-line foot soldiers, making some of them defect to Islamic State, which is also known as Daesh.
“Taliban soldiers don’t receive a salary, they are in it for ideological reasons. So if they see anything going against their beliefs, they can be pushed to join Daesh,” said a Taliban official in western Afghanistan.
“Restrictions on women is one of these issues. They feel they fought for 20 years in order to impose Islamic order, not a continuation of what they see as prostitution and fornication because men and women are mixing in offices and colleges.” Unlike the Taliban, ISKP pays its members.
Days after the Taliban takeover on Aug. 15, ISKP, also known as ISIS-K, carried out one of the deadliest attacks of the Afghan war, killing some 200 Afghans trying to leave the country and 13 U.S. service members at the entrance to the Kabul airport. Since then, the group has launched frequent bombings and ambushes against the Taliban in the eastern province of Nangarhar, and on Sunday sent a suicide bomber to strike a Taliban gathering at Kabul’s main mosque. Since Sept. 18, ISKP has carried out 34 attacks, according to a tally kept by Abdul Sayed, an expert on jihadist groups in Afghanistan.
Mr. Sayed said that, as an insurgent group for the past two decades, the Taliban lack the counterterrorism capabilities required to tackle the ISKP threat. Founded by Afghan and Pakistani Taliban members who considered the movement to be too moderate, ISKP initially held swaths of territory, especially in Nangarhar. The Taliban retook most of these areas in 2015, and ISKP has turned to urban terrorism in order to survive under current leader Shahab al-Muhajir. This new strategy requires much smaller resources and manpower.
“The most brutal attacks in Afghan history have been carried out by Islamic State against Shiite Muslims,” Mr. Sayed said. “Now the Taliban have taken on the responsibilities of a state to deal with this. It is going to be a very bloody era.”