The Afghan government is arming local civilians and strengthening the police presence across the country to try to protect Shia Muslim places of worship in the run-up to Ashura. The commemoration will take place this Sunday (1 October 2017). With these last-minute measures, the government is reacting to demands from the community and criticism that it has failed to protect Shias from sectarian attacks by the local branch of Daesh. According to leading Shia politicians, these measures will not be temporary. Thomas Ruttig and the AAN team have looked at what is happening on the ground in a number of neighbourhoods in and beyond Kabul and on the possible repercussions.
The wave of violence against Afghanistan’s Shia community has continued with two attacks on Thursday and Friday (28 and 29 September 2017) in Kabul. In the first incident, in the late afternoon on 28 September, three people, including two policemen, were killed and 16 others injured in a blast near Pamir Cinema (at the western end of the main Maiwand Street), in the Chendawol area of Kabul’s old town that has a significant Shia population, according to an Afghan media report. A spokesman for the Ministry of Interior (MoI) stated that the blast was triggered by a magnetic bomb attached to a police vehicle. AAN detected Daesh online sources hinting at its involvement in this attack and claiming it was directed against a Shia takiakhana (assembly hall) in the area.
In the second incident, a group of attackers, including two suicide bombers, reportedly caused blasts among Shia worshippers who were leaving Hussainia mosque in the Qala-ye Fathullah in centre-west Kabul in the early afternoon. The casualty figure was at five dead and 25 injured, at least, a few hours after the incident (media reports here and here). There was no claim of responsibility for this attack by the late afternoon (Kabul time) on Friday.
Historically, Ashura processions were not marked by sectarian violence in Afghanistan, but that has changed over the last few years. Since 2011, almost every Ashura has seen terrorist attacks on Shia congregations. But it is not just at Ashura that Shias fear attack: over the past two years, Daesh’s a local branch, the Islamic State Khorasan Province (ISKP), has vowed – and made good on its threats – to attack Shia Muslims and it has perpetrated attacks throughout the whole year. Attacks on Shia mosques and other targets particularly proliferated countrywide after the emergence of ISKP (see here). Since summer 2016, at least seven Shia mosques have been attacked in various regions of Afghanistan; five of those attacks happened this year. (1) ISKP and ‘Daesh Central’ in Syria and Iraq have repeatedly justified its attacks on Hazaras by accusing them of helping their enemies’, ie fighting in pro-regime militias in Syria, and attacking them as ‘apostates’. (‘Daesh Central’s’ justification of the 11 October 2016 attack in Kabul is quoted here); read also our reporting of Afghans fighting in Syria here, here and here).
Not surprisingly, though, as Ashura approached, pressure mounted on the government to get serious about protecting mourners this year. (2)
Ashura is the tenth day of Muharram, the first month in the Islamic lunar calendar, when particularly Shia Muslims mourn the killing of Hussain Ibn Ali, grandson of the Prophet Muhammad in Karbala, in today’s Iraq, in 680 AD, in fighting over who would lead the Muslim umma. Shiite neighbourhoods are decorated with black, red and green banners and tents set up where free food and tea is distributed to the participants. The occasion is marked by marches and ceremonies where people grieve for the events of Karbala, sometimes with men beating or flagellating themselves. For nine days, the ceremonies grow, with the climax on Ashura day itself.
What the government has promised to do.
Less than two weeks before this year’s Ashura, on 19 September 2017, extra protection measures were announced by Second Vice President Sarwar Danesh after he had presided over a meeting of high-ranking government, security officials and a “joint people’s security commission” that includes Shia clergymen, MPs and other representatives. In a meeting with a number of Shia and Sunni ulema on 25 September 2017, President Ashraf Ghani also assured both communities that measures had been taken to commemorate Ashura “in a secure environment” and that “the enemies of Islam… cannot damage the unity of our people and prevent our religious activities.” (see here)
Police usually only guard mosques (of all sects) on certain occasions, during Friday prayers and on other religious holidays, when particular ceremonies are held or VIPs are attending, often on the initiative of the conveners of such ceremonies. This year, additional police have been deployed around places of worship of the Shiite community, coordinated by the Ministry of Interior. Danesh, himself a Shia, called “especially” on the youth to secure places of worship in their respective areas during the days of Muharram.
A second and far more controversial measure is the arming of civilians to guard Shia mosques and takiakhanas. Acting Interior Minister Wais Barmak who participated in the meeting presided over by vice president Danesh said on 20 September that “hundreds of people” had been recruited for training by his ministry. He also confirmed that “measures… to distribute weapons, salaries and other necessary means to the newly recruited people” have been taken. AFP, without a concrete source, gave a figure of “over 400” recruits. The selection of guards was reported to have been made by local elders and communities and in cooperation with mosque committees. (The model here of ‘community defence forces’ would be the Afghan Local Police (ALP) and planned Afghan Territorial Army – see recent AAN analysis here).
Deputy Chief Executive Muhammad Mohaqqeq told ulema in a meeting on 22 September 2017 that, based on a plan approved by the National Security Council, 600 mosques were supposed to get guards. If this figure is correct, the numbers of recruits given are far too low to cover the amount of sites to be protected. Similar doubts were raised by participants of the meeting.
In Kabul, a smaller number of Sunni mosques are also reportedly included in this programme. This might be a step to alleviate concerns among the Sunni majority vis-à-vis the arming of Shia civilians, in a general atmosphere where inter-and intra-communal mistrust and between communities and the government and its security forces has been on the rise.
Danesh has emphasised that these measures would not be limited to this year’s Muharram. He spoke of a “medium-term policy… for across the country… [and for] one to two years,” depending on how security conditions develop.
The second vice president also appealed to those participating in the Ashura commemorations to behave in a way that prevents provoking “unwarranted emotions.” He did not explain further. However, the mourning rituals of Muharram have become very public and far more visible each year since 2001 and not everyone is happy with this assertive display. (For a detailed look Ashura before 2001, during the Taleban era, see here, and for a longer view of sectarian relations, see here.)
The rituals of Muharram have become an identity marker for Afghanistan’s Hazara and other Shia communities who were long and systematically oppressed, but who have become more self-assured in recent years, after their successful resistance to the Soviet occupation (the Hazarajat was the first largest liberated area in the 1980s). There has been immense progress in education and political representation during these years, albeit with many caveats (see a good, detailed examination of this, here.) In previous years, some groups of Sunni Muslims have objected to what they perceive ‘too assertive’ displays of Muharram rituals, leading, for example, to clashes between fringe groups at Kabul University (see here). In 2016, the Shiite community was asked by the authorities to keep commemorations low-key, “to ensure better security in Kabul city and the safety of mourners.”
What is happening on the ground
The security measures began to materialise in the very last days before Ashura and seem to be concentrated in those big cities – Kabul, Herat and possibly Mazar-e Sharif – which have been targets of sectarian attacks in previous years. This has been confirmed for Herat where the measures were reportedly discussed between Vice President Danesh and the province’s governor, Muhammad Asef Rahim. A locally based observer confirmed to AAN that the government has armed some local people who are visible in and around mostly Shia mosques in Herat city and outside of it. The weapons have been given to them via local structures such as Community Development Councils. Additionally, he reported, some local people, “mostly Shias outside Herat city,” have armed themselves, with “simple shotguns” already in their possession or bought for the occasion and are patrolling their areas in shifts, mostly throughout the night. He adds that “day-to-day life is going on amid the increasing securitisation.”
However, the same measures seem not to apply in the cities of Ghazni and Kandahar, both of which have a sizeable Shia population. According to local sources contacted by AAN, including local residents and journalists, security is “very tight” around mosques in the Shia parts of Ghazni, but with all the security personnel in ANP uniform. No additional plain-clothed personnel are visible there so far, according to neighbours of such mosques. The same goes for the Shia neighbourhood of Top Khana in Kandahar.
In Kabul, AAN observed police contacting elders in different police districts of the city to identify volunteers who could carry out body searches on Ashura. The police also appealed to the elders for their neighbourhoods to corporate with the force. People have been asked to keep their eyes open and identify strangers not belonging to the communities. Access roads to mosques and takiakhanas will be blocked and body searches implemented by a mixture of police and civilian guards, both for and by men and women, on the day of Ashura, itself.
From one Shia area in west Kabul, AAN heard that five people had been chosen for each mosque by the Shia Ulema Council and the MoI. The recruits have to be from the mosque’s precinct and the mosque’s board of trustees (hay’at-e umana) have to agree to them; the MoI will issue them with a special ID card with their photos of the guard and, as an additional back-up, a photo of a relative on it. According to local residents, they will be paid 6,000 Afghani monthly. In one neighbourhood mosque in the Telegraph area of Police District Six, for example, the MoI gave five AK 47 assault rifles and 75 bullets to each of its five recruits on 26 September.
In some mosques, the board of trustees or those in charge have also taken extra measures on their own initiative. At Rasul Akram Mosque in Shahrak-e Omid Sabz (better known as the Haji Nabi township) where President Ghani has attended Ashura commemorations over the last few years, they have put up a barrier of cement blocks in a radius of approximately a hundred metres around the mosque, with only small entrances left towards the mosque. This was not the case in previous years. In some areas of Kabul, armed people in plain clothes protecting Shia mosques and takiakhanas have already been already observed. It was not clear, though, whether they were part of the government plan or locally mobilised guards. (More voices from Kabul, including from those involved in the programme, here on al-Jazeera.)
In one mosque in Khairkhana, women were asked by elders after a previous terrorist attack in the area not to attend the commemoration. Security guards also told participants in already on-going commemorations to stay in one venue and not, as is normal practice, go from one mosque to another, in an effort to prevent strangers from infiltrating the crowd.
Members of the AAN team have also observed cases where plain-clothed armed personnel were standing guarding stands distributing tea, milk and other foodstuff specific installed for Muharram.
Perhaps not unexpectedly, the first criticisms of the mosque guard programme has also emerged. The website of Salam Watandar, a popular radio programme developed and formally sponsored by the BBC, in a report from Kabul’s 13th police district, in the southwest of city, quotes local neighbourhood representatives (wakilan-e guzar) and residents that some wakils are keeping their neighbours in the dark about the programme. There are allegations that some wakils are mainly putting forward their relatives and sympathisers as guards. Shia member of the Kabul provincial council Abdul Ahmad Ali Yazdanparast, however, denied reports of wrongdoing and the head of the police district claimed the lists had been compiled in cooperation with the mosques’ religious affairs commissions and in cooperation with the Ministry of Hajj.
This account, however, does not rule out manipulation. As understandable as the anger of various communities about the wave of ISKP terrorist attacks and the inability of the government to protect them is, the mosque protection programme does open the door to abuse. The pattern of ‘village guards’, also armed civilians, being co-opted by interest groups, commanders and powerful politicians is familiar, as is skimming off resources. This becomes particularly problematic if local civilian guard forces become longer-term and adequate oversight measures are lacking. In such circumstances the new guard forces can just look like new militias.
Conclusion: Last-minute, long impact?
The government seems to have reacted only at the last minute to the legitimate security concerns of the Shia community, despite having months to plan for this year’s Ashura. There are also doubts about the effectiveness of arming civilians. It is doubtful, for example, that they would be able stop a complex attack in a crowded place when masses of worshippers are marching or trying to enter a certain mosque or congregation site. In 2016, even regular ANSF units, trained to search and monitor, failed to detect the ISKP bombers in Kabul’s Sakhi shrine. Moreover, even if the searchers succeed in their task, an atrocity could then simply occur at their check-post, which could be as crowded as the site it is supposed to protect, and likely with little downward impact on casualty figures.
All in all, the plan looks much more like a symbolic act of reassuring the Shia communities that the government is ‘doing something’, rather than achieving a real improvement security. Crowds of civilians are among the most vulnerable of targets and the most difficult to protect, so what is being implemented may be the best that could be expected. However, the warning signs are also there, from previous experiences of arming civilians and giving them little training and indifferent oversight. The longer groups of armed civilians exist, the more opportunities of misuse will arise, as the different stages of militia programmes have sufficiently shown (AAN analysis here). There are particular risks when, as currently, inter-and intra-communal mistrust (see AAN analysis here and here) and mistrust between communities and the government and its security forces are on the rise from all sides.
Edited by Borhan Osman and Kate Clark
(1) On the eve of last year’s Ashura, on 11 October 2016, at least 14 people were killed (including the local police chief) and 26 more injured by a gunman, dressed in a police uniform, who had sneaked into the Sakhi Shrine, near Kabul university. The shrine is one of the most important Shia places of gathering in the country. (See AAN reporting here.) In a simultaneous attack next to a Shia mosque in Balkh district, 15 people were killed and more than 30 wounded by an IED (see here).
On 21 November 2016, a suicide bomber killed 32 and injured more than 50 people (UNAMA figures) in Baqir al-Olumi mosque in Kabul during a service to commemorate the death of Imam Hussein, the Prophet Muhammad’s grandson and a Shia martyr (see here).
In February 2017, policemen (possibly members of the Afghan Local Police) and relatives were reportedly attacked when leaving a mosque after prayer in Jawzjan province. Eleven people, including one woman, were killed.
On late 15 June 2017, during the last days of Ramadan, suicide bombers attacked the al-Zahra mosque in west Kabul (see here and here), killing, according to different sources, between four and seven people and injuring as many as 18 others.
On 1 August 2017, armed men stormed the fully occupied Jawadia mosque in Herat’s Bakrabad neighbourhood during evening prayer, shooting at the worshippers and subsequently blowing themselves up. With 29 dead and 65 injured, this became the worst attack of its kind in Herat so far. Afterwards, local protests broke out, with immediately after, angry people pelting a nearby police station with stones and accusing the policemen of not adequately protecting them. A later protest demonstration was attended by thousands – notably, it was a mixed crowd of Shias and Sunnis.
On 25 August 2017 a suicide bomber and gunmen stormed the Shia Imam Zaman mosque in Kabul’s Khairkhana neighbourhood during Friday prayers, killing about 40 people and wounding nearly 100 (see here), making this the worst attack on a Shia mosque in the country. Calls to allow people to arm themselves and protect their own mosques increased markedly after this attack.
In two other incidents in Herat, a Shia imam was killed in a drive-by shooting in December 2016 and a bomb exploded in May 2017 outside a bakery, killing seven people and injuring 17 more. In the case of bakery bombing it seems likely that the device exploded prematurely; the actual target is believed to have been a religious gathering of Shiites in a mosque nearby.
ISKP did not claim all but most of those attacks, the 11 October bombing in Kabul and the 12 October bombing in Balkh, the attacks in Kabul on 21 November 2016 and 15 June and 25 August 2017, and the February 2017 attack in Jawzjan. In Herat, it claimed the bakery and the Jawadia mosque bombings, but not the other incidents.)
ISKP had already claimed its first massive anti-Shia attack, a suicide attack on a public demonstration on social issues, organised by Hazara activists, in Kabul on 23 July 2016 (see here). At least 80 people were killed and more than 200 wounded. (Footnote this: Even before the emergence of ISKP, in 2011, Shia congregations were attacked in Kabul and Mazar-e Sharif. More than fifty people were killed in an attack on an Ashura procession in Kabul’s Muradkhani, while four more people died in Mazar (see AAN analysis here and here).
The ISKP attacks on Shia targets echo the approach of ‘Daesh Central’, and that of violent sectarian groups in Pakistan, some of which now associated with Daesh. In those countries, they have been part of a widespread, violent, sectarian, Sunni-versus-Shia conflict (see AAN analysis here) and it appeared that ISKP, as well as being consumed by sectarian hatred, also sought to provoke the same tit-for-tat violence in Afghanistan. This has not succeeded so far. Indeed, attacks have been followed by calls on all sides for national unity and Muslim brotherhood. That includes the Taleban, who have condemned attacks against Shia worshippers and mosques (see for example here, after the August 2017 attack in Herat). Many Afghan Shias and Hazaras, however, have complained about the government’s failure to protect them, some alleging indifference or collusion.
(2) The various communities of Shia Afghans are not alone in feeling under threat. Other communities and political forces in Afghanistan have alleged, too, that the government is either incapable or unwilling of protecting them, particularly after the ‘Black Week’ in Kabul in June this year (see AAN reporting here and here). There were even allegations that the security forces, or other parts of the government, had colluded with the terrorists. (See also AAN’s analysis of the latest government security plan for Kabul, the “Green Belt”, here.)
This article was last updated on 9 Mar 2020