With its publically claimed attack on Afghan Shia mourners in Kabul on the eve of Ashura, the Islamic State Khorasan Province (ISKP) was clearly attempting to add a toxic sectarianism to the Afghan conflict. The attack, which killed 19 people, followed two other ISKP attacks, on a political demonstration by (largely Shia) Hazaras in July in which 80 people were killed and on a security convoy of the Canadian embassy that killed 14 Nepalese guards, in June. In the wake of these attacks, AAN’s Borhan Osman assesses both ISKP’s strength and operational capacity in Kabul and its desire to ferment sectarianism.Kabul’s Kart-e Sakhi shrine where two attackers wearing police uniforms and equipped with grenades and machine guns opened fire on Ashura mourners on 11 October 2016. Photo: Tolo
On the evening of 11 October 2016, at least two attackers wearing police uniforms and equipped with grenades and machine guns opened fire on Ashura mourners in Kabul’s Karta-ye Sakhi shrine, the most popular gathering place in Kabul for mourners marking Muharram, the martyrdom of Imam Hussein. The second attacker, who apparently fled the shrine after joining the first attacker in shooting, fought the security forces in a nearby (Sunni) mosque in Karta-ye Chahar. There were no casualties to civilians here as the mosque was not being used, at the time. Witnesses said the attackers in Karta-ye Sakhi “indiscriminately shot everyone they faced. They wouldn’t even spare women and children.” The interior ministry said the second attacker was killed in the firefight early in the morning of 12 October 2016. Initial reports had suggested there were several attackers who entered the crowd in Karta-ye Sakhi, and that they were holding hostage some of the mourners, but those accounts were never confirmed with any solid detail. The ministry put the number of the dead at 16 and the wounded at 54. They included children and women. UNAMA, condemning the attack, said 19 people had been killed and dozens wounded. Also on 12 October, the actual day of Ashura, an explosion, again targeting Shia mourners in the usually relatively safe province of Balkh, killed 14 people and wounded 28. A bomb had been attached to an electricity pole close to the Ashura procession in Balkh district centre.
Nobody claimed responsibility for the Balkh explosion. The Kabul attack, however, was claimed on 12 October by the Islamic State Khorasan Province (ISKP) in two separate statements. ISKP said the first attacker was called Ali Jan and in a statement with picture, said he had been armed with an explosive belt, hand grenades and a gun. A second statement pictured the second attacker saying he had attacked Afghan forces [sic] protecting the Ashura processions in Karta-ye Sakhi. The statement said the attack on Afghan forces happened half an hour after the attack on the mourners and claimed the assailant had killed 30 members of the Afghan security forces. The Taleban condemned the attacks.
ISKP’s Kabul cell, a growing threat?
ISKP has, over the last year, claimed more than a dozen attacks in Kabul. Half of them were untraceable to any actual incident and thus remain empty claims. Some were claimed by both the Taleban and ISKP, but with the latter often providing more convincing detail. One of the initial attacks was a small bomb which exploded outside the largest and oldest place of worship for Shias in Kabul in the lead-up to Ashura in 2015. One person was killed and several wounded in the blast in Chandawol, in the centre of the capital. The bulk of ISKP’s (claimed) attacks in Kabul, however, have taken place since summer 2016. Several of these attacks are noteworthy for their deadliness, political implications or complexity. They are discussed chronologically below:
Assassination of MP Sher Wali Wardak, 5 June 2016
The MP was killed by a bomb planted inside an electricity meter box on a wall outside his home in the west of Kabul. He was former education minister Faruq Wardak’s brother. Both the Taleban and ISKP claimed the attack, and both gave equally imprecise descriptions. They both said the MP had been killed by a bomb that struck his car, implying it struck him as he was driving. None of the statements mentioned the actual placement of the bomb. The Taleban’s claim remains a puzzle as to what made Wardak a particular target for them. A normal, even a prominent, politician or member of parliament is not typically on the Taleban’s hit-list. Unless the movement has a specific reason against someone of Wardak’s type, they would not usually send someone to Kabul for killing him or her. Also, when it targets such a person, the claim of responsibility would usually describe the specific reason; this was something that was missing from the statement about Wardak.
There is always the possibility that Wardak was the victim of local grudges and therefore his killing might have been the act of a particular local Taleban group, rather than the movement’s central command. Wardak and his brother Faruq have been active and well-known in their native district, Saidabad. They have been engaged in negotiations with the Taleban to facilitate the opening of schools in Taleban-controlled areas and were also involved in the negotiations (and possibly a deal with the Taleban) in the release of their father a few years ago from the insurgents’ captivity. Moreover, using their influence in the government, the two brothers were helping get the release of Taleban prisoners from their area held in Kabul and integrating them back into society, sometimes by providing them with jobs in the government. Unlike many members of the elite, they kept an active relationship with their constituency back home, even with the Taleban and Taleban-supporting part of the community. With such a role also came expectations and demands from the local Taleban. It might be the grudges or demands from a part of the local Taleban that made Sher Wali Wardak a target. This was also suggested by the then Afghan intelligence chief, Masud Andarabi, who said in his briefing to parliament that the agency had identified the culprits as a Saidabad-based Taleban group.
What makes ISKP’s claim equally plausible, however, is the existence of IS sympathisers in the area where Wardak lived and was killed. Chaharrahi-ye Qambar, where the attack took place, and the neighbouring Company area have long had Salafi cells. Some of them have been engaged in armed activities inside and outside Kabul in recent years. There is increasing evidence that these cells have aligned themselves with ISKP (see below). Wardak, a prominent politician living in the reach of the ISKP cell with loose personal security, would have been an easy target. Even in the case of Wardaki Taleban being behind the attack, some role for the ISKP cell can not be ruled out given that members of this cell had earlier, while part of Taleban command and control, fought in provinces neighbouring Kabul, such as Logar and Maidan Wardak, where they still probably enjoy connections.
Attack on member of Kabul provincial council, Mawlana Ataullah Faizani, 20 June 2016
Faizani was wounded in an attack either in his car or at home (details are unclear) in the Chehelsutun area of Kabul. In this case too, both the Taleban and ISKP claimed the attack. As was the case with Sher Wali Wardak, Faizani did not stand out as a particularly obvious target for the Taleban. ISKP, though, has a much looser and broader range of potential targets, which includes anyone working in the government or legislative bodies. ISKP’s claim referred to Faizani as a murtad (apostate; no specific reasons for this or other details given). The group could have been referring to his origins in a Sufi-oriented family. He seems a likelier target for the violent Salafis of ISKP than the Taleban.
Nepalese Gurkhas, 20 June 2016
On the same day as the attack on Faizani, a suicide bomber struck a minibus carrying Gurkhas employed by the Canadian Embassy for security duties in Kabul. At least 14 of the guards were killed in the attack in the Banayi area, in the east of Kabul, making this one of the deadliest attacks on foreigners in Afghanistan. The Gurkhas were travelling between their accommodation in Banayi and the embassy when came under attack. This attack, too, was claimed by both the Taleban and ISKP.
After any attack, releasing the name and photo of the attacker and other details about the attack are the most essential elements of making a claim credible. In this instance, ISKP provided the more convincing details. While the Taleban released a brief and vague statement without details, ISKP provided what appeared to be sufficient elaboration. It named the attacker as Irfanullah, a resident of Pakistan’s Bajaur tribal agency, which contributes a sizeable number of fighters to ISKP, and published his photograph. ISKP’s radio channel, De Khilafat Ghag (Voice of Caliphate), gave extra information about the bomber’s background and training. Western officials with knowledge of the technical details of the attack said the type and structure of the explosives used had not been seen before in attacks in Kabul, further pointing to a hand other than the Taleban. They described the suicide vest used in the attack as being built in ‘claymore style’, which directs shrapnel into a single direction, instead of bursting in all directions. This kind of vest has appeared mostly in Iraq, but has been extremely rare in Afghanistan. The uniqueness of the explosives also raised concerns that ISKP may be getting more regular operational links with the IS Syria than previously thought.
What makes ISKP’s claim of this attack and also, somehow, the two previous ones more credible was an admission, in private, by a Taleb of fabricating claims in order to prevent publicity for their rival. A Taleban source dealing with claims admitted to AAN that they had falsely claimed the two first attacks. Fearing that a more active “Daesh” would provide an excuse for the continued “occupation” of Afghanistan by foreign forces, he said the Taleban had made the claim to deter public attention from ISKP. The source talked explicitly about the movement’s claim for the attack on the Gurkhas and implicitly about the two previous attacks listed above.
Attack on Hazara demonstrators, 23 July 2016
On 23 July, ISKP conducted the most massive of its attacks in Kabul. It struck Hazara demonstrators of the Junbish-e Roshnayi (Enlightening Movement), killing 80 of them in Kabul’s Deh Mazang Square. Unlike the previous incidents, the Taleban did not dispute ISKP’s claim this time; it condemned the attack. ISKP published the names and pictures of the two suicide bombers and justified the attack as ‘revenge’ against Shias fighting in Syria for the Assad regime. In addition, the ISKP statement said the attack was aimed at “cleaning the world from the sherk [idolatry] of the rawafidh [a derogatory term ISKP and other Salafi jihadist groups use to refer to Shias, meaning ‘rejectionists’]”. The Taleban, who referred to Shias as “brothers” in their statement, were castigated in a fatwa by an ISKP mufti. It claimed that Shias were undisputed infidels, even in the view of Hanafi ulama whom the Taleban follow, and that whoever doubts this or the right to kill them are, in turn apostates. The fatwa came up with this unorthodox conclusion by cherry-picking quotes from Hanafi ulama, heavily distorting them and then using them out of context.
ISKP’s recruitment in Kabul
These attacks, especially the ones more certainly looking to be the act of ISKP, indicate that the group has an operational presence in Kabul that is beyond the ‘nascent’ stage. The group seems to have gained the capability of carrying out fatal attacks on an occasional basis in the capital, although not at a sophisticated level yet. Sending two bombers to blow themselves up in a crowd of civilian demonstrators, or two attackers dressed as police and equipped with hand grenades and guns, plus suicide belts, into a mourning crowd, or carrying out an attack on foreign security contractors in a minibus do not require a high level of complexity. However, the execution of such attacks does need some level of confidence and precision of planning, as well as adequate logistics and surveillance. These attacks are also an indicator that the group has recruited a certain number of dedicated and experienced fighters in the capital. While it is difficult to gauge how large the ISKP membership and support base in Kabul is, there are clues as to the group’s growing appeal among certain quarters of the city’s young population. (More on this in a forthcoming piece.)
Over the past eighteen months, AAN has been consistently hearing stories of young men from Kabul having adopted the IS ideology and joining its ‘battlefields’ in Nangarhar, Afghanistan, as well as in Iraq and Syria. According to information AAN has received, there are probably at least three cells based in different major neighbourhoods of the city. The oldest of these cells – the proof for current affiliation of which with ISKP is inconclusive, but highly likely – was set up by al-Qaeda and has been operating in the capital since at least 2009. It was members of this cell which were captured in 2011 and accused of plotting to assassinate President Karzai, after they had recruited one of his personal bodyguards. One of the arrested ringleaders was Dr Emal Habib Assadullah, a medical professor and director of microbiology at Kabul Medical University. He is said to have radicalised and trained many students in the university, including female students.
Despite the arrests, the cell did not disappear. Its continuing presence has long been known to the security agencies in Kabul. While Habib is still in detention, AAN was told that another key leader of this cell, Dr Abdul Hamid Mashal, was freed in spring 2015 after four years in detention (no further details available). Following his release, he left for Syria along with a few dozen of his young followers, most of them from Kabul. While he is still alive, most of the young men who joined him have been killed in fighting. It is believed this cell, or parts of it, had shifted its allegiance from al-Qaeda to IS before its freshly released leader left to Syria to fight alongside the group. While the switching of sides is not fully definitive from the information AAN has received, the behaviour and ideology of some of the members that remained in Kabul seems to point more to IS than al-Qaeda. Some of these remaining members were also arrested during raids by Afghan Special Forces in the city last winter. However, the cell appears to be far from finished. The defection of this cell to ISKP, if proved, would supply IS with veteran Salafi jihadists with extensive experience of operations inside Kabul.
The other two cells appear to be relatively new and information about their joining ISKP suggests a more conclusive picture. One is based in the west of Kabul and is made of Salafi fighters who previously fought under the Taleban (in the post-2001 insurgency). Members of this group used to alternate between their base in Kabul and the ‘battlefield’ in Logar, Wardak and Kapisa. Before joining ISKP, the group did not run its own independent operations, but used the Taleban’s resources to carry out attacks, mostly outside Kabul. However, it recently developed its own command and control structure and has started focusing on operations in Kabul. It was members of this group that distributed IS propaganda materials openly in a mosque in Company area after the Eid ul-Fitr prayers in July 2014. As reported earlier by AAN, young half-masked men distributed CDs containing speeches of IS leaders, videos of its battles and bomb-making instructions following the crowded prayers of Eid. Around the same locality, when gunmen entered a Sufi mosque and opened fire on worshippers in March 2015, suspicions primarily fell on this group. The gunmen killed 11 worshippers before escaping to safety in the dark of the evening. Sufi leaders, who share some of the same neighbourhoods with the Salafis had previously held bitter debates with the latter. The debates had sometimes evolved into violent encounters.
The third cell is the newest and has no previous experience of armed activity. Spread across the northern neighbourhoods of Kabul, which are mainly home to residents of provinces north of the capital, this cell is also made of young Salafi radicals. Members of this cell are connected to wider Salafi currents in the capital and were initially inspired by the non-violent Salafi leaders. AAN has been informed about young men from this cell having left for Syria and others having spent months in Nangarhar fighting for ISKP. Family elders, in some cases, reportedly tried to de-radicalise their youngsters through facilitating discussions with ulama, but have failed.
In total, these three cells seem to have a strength of active members perhaps in the dozens, rather than hundreds, but they do appear to enjoy a wider support base from which they can recruit from.
ISKP unleashing sectarian havoc
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 eighteen 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.
Last year, in the lead up to Ashura, three bomb attacks targeting mourners in Kabul took place, including the already mentioned Chandawol attack, which was the only one that ISKP publicly claimed and the only one that caused casualties. Two other small explosions went off near a takiakhana (a Shia place of mourning) in Qala-ye Fathullah, and another in front of a takiakhana in Dasht-e Barchi. None were reported by the mainstream media, national or international. The March 2015 attack on the Sufi mosque in Company went unclaimed, but was appeared also motivated by sectarianism.
In two other instances claimed by ISKP, two Afghan Hanafi ulama engaged in disputation with Salafis were shot dead in Pakistan’s Khyber Pakhtunkhwa province. One of them, Mawlawi Ghulam Hazrat, was hugely popular among anti-Salafi Hanafis for his bold sermons and public debates against ‘Wahhabism’. The other, Mawlawi Nasim Hanafi, was relatively less known. As is the case with most of the Afghan ulama living in Pakistan, both were strong supporters of the Afghan Taleban, and thus the motive of their assassination could also be intertwined with politics. They had been openly calling ISKP members khawarij (a sect that rebelled against the fourth caliph and was takfiri, ie naming fellow Muslims apostates for committing major sins). IS in Iraq and Syria in its Arabic magazine An-Nab’a, justified the killing of the two ulama because they were “apostate Taleban leaders.” However, they had no formal links to the movement. The Taleban, in a statement, blamed the assassinations on elements “who want to stir sectarian hatred” among Afghans. The statement referred to them as independent ulama. On social media, the overall sense among many religious readers was that these ulama were shot dead either by people directly linked to ISKP or by Salafi supporters from the various Salafi networks active in Khyber Pakhtunkhwa, but originally from Afghanistan.
Salafis, seen in some local contexts by anti-Wahhabi mullahs as a support base for ISKP, have had their own share of casualties. In February 2016, a renowned Salafi preacher in Jalalabad, Sheikh Rahmat Shah, was assassinated by two gunmen riding a motorbike while on his way from mosque to home. Rahmat Shah was teaching at the famous Salafi madrasa of Naranj Bagh and was the younger brother of Jalalabad’s best known Salafi leader, Sheikh Ahmad Shah. He was also delivering sermons on a private FM radio that airs teachings of Salafi ulama. (For more on this Salafi network, see the author’s paper, Beyond Jihad and Traditionalism. Afghanistan’s new generation of Islamic activists). The madrasa and family did not accuse anyone directly for the killing, but Salafis from across the spectrum (including those in ISKP) pointed to what they called the enemies of tawhid (their short hand for Salafim, meaning monotheism, or the belief in the oneness of God). In a speech, the brother of the deceased, Ahmad Shah, called the murder an act of those “who want to pit some ulama against other ulama,” understood to be referring to Salafis versus Hanafis. Overall, in the Naranj Bagh madrasa, the feeling that Rahmat Shah was a victim of a sectarian attack was unchanging following his death. The madrasa itself was also attacked on 11 October 2016, the same day as the Ashura attacks in Kabul. Unidentified men threw grenades into the madrasa’s premises after dawn in an incident that went unreported by the media. In another instance, a young Salafi imam from Hesa-ye Awal Kohistan district of Kapisa was shot dead while praying in his mosque in August 2016. He was also a member of Hezb-e Islami, but was more known as a Salafi preacher and activist. His followers on social media also blamed those who were “against the tawhid school of thought,” again framing the murder as a sectarian killing.
While assessing the rise of sectarian violence combined with the surfacing of ISKP as a group passionate about injecting sectarianism into the Afghan conflict and against the backdrop of what appears to be its growing ability to carry out attacks in Kabul, several implications stand out:.
- Fermenting sectarian hatred would complicate the Afghan conflict with new motifs and grievances, and put it onto a more unpredictable trajectory. If a sectarian tone did become ingrained in the violence, it would be hard to easily reverse it. Any ‘sectarianisation’ of the Afghan conflict would carry long-term consequences for the stability of Afghanistan. It is relatively easier to recover from political violence once there is a political settlement and reconciliation. However, it is harder to recover from sectarian strife, as it shatters the community’s social cohesion.
- By standing prominently for a sectarian cause, ISKP is trying to cater to all those fanatics who have long missed a militant organisation with this explicit aim. This is, potentially, an untapped ‘market’. If ISKP manages to attract such extremists, it could considerably boost its membership and support base, especially among the educated urban youth.
- ISKP as an organisation has struggled to expand beyond the four districts in Nangarhar where it has some foothold, remaining, so far, a limited threat. A possibly larger threat is the broader radicalisation that provides a permissive environment and recruitment pool for groups such as ISKP. (The last two points will be discussed in a future piece.)
- ISKP’s emergence as the first militant group to openly challenge the Taleban’s virtual monopoly over the insurgency has opened the ground for various regional actors (groups and states) with an interest in shaping the conflict in ways different from what the Taleban have permitted. That challenge to the Taleban’s monopoly has, itself, lowered the bar for tactics in the conflict since ISKP has a much wider set of targets in its sights.
ISKP’s sectarianism is worrying. Yet it is unlikely that it can single-handedly drive the conflict in a sectarian direction. There are many other, reassuring factors which would hopefully prevent the war morphing into the sort of violent religious schism seen in Iraq, Syria, Yemen and Pakistan. The two most important ones are the following: First, main parties of the conflict, the Afghan security forces and the Taleban have convincingly spoken out against sectarianism. The record of the Taleban, during their rule in the late 1990s, was mixed but certainly better than might have been expected from a government comprised of Sunni mullahs (see three AAN pieces written after the 2011 Ashura bombing in Kabul, here, here and here). The movement, post-2001, has partnered with foreign groups with sectarian ideologies, but have, themselves, invariably stayed away from violence that could stir sectarian hatred, effectively making it one of their red lines. AAN knows of generous funding offers to the movement from the Arabian Gulf to embark on anti-Iran and anti-Shia projects in Afghanistan. However, the movement has consistently turned such offers down.
Secondly, the Afghan population generally and religious leaders, big and small, from both major sects have traditionally emphasised the value of co-existence, making it more difficult for fringe actors to tear apart the social cohesion. Sectarian violence has remained a taboo during the Afghan conflict through modern history. The instances of sectarian violence have represented more the very occasional exception than the rule. For any group with a solid vision to rule this country, promoting sectarianism is to play with fire.
Edited by Kate Clark
This article was last updated on 9 Mar 2020